Legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips allegedly said pre-Elvis that, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Ever since, the genre has carried a chip on its shoulder under the guise of Caucasian authenticity. There’s an unpalatable emotionality in soul music that can not be faked. Nashville songwriters Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup grew up with soul music and certainly understand the cultural touchstones at play.
On their latest side project, Sugar + the Hi-Lows, the duo utilizes boom-chigga-boom rhythms and intricate harmonies. At the core of the Sugar + the Hi-Lows’ production team is a group of Nashville session musicians invested in capturing the late-50s soul aesthetic.
“During the songwriting process, we were constantly thinking of names that we wanted to work with,” Stroup said.
The self-titled debut release comes across as a time capsule for doo-wop graduates. It’s a labor of love for both artists. During a break in their tour schedule, Dabbs and Stroup talked about their influences in the recording process.
They play Austin’s SXSW festival in March.
Soul Train: In terms of writing songs, how has this kind of project reinvigorated your songwriting?
Trent Dabbs: The whole thing started in taking liberties in doing something different. For me, it’s just expanded my confidence as a writer. But the approach is different because this time we were bringing different loops and tempos to make sure that we didn’t write certain songs too slow.
Amy Stroup: A lot of times when I’m writing for my solo stuff, I’m thinking about my thoughts and feelings. On this round of songs, I was a little bit more imaginative about spelling things out with the chorus. We tried to use different creative techniques. It was about approaching the songs from a rhythmic stance. We would have conversations such as “let’s listen to ‘Oh Girl’ or ‘Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.’” What about those songs are timeless? What’s the common thread that evokes a certain emotion? It was about writing toward the emotions of the songs we grew up listening to. We tried to pull that out of ourselves.
ST: This goes back to what Trent was talking about earlier. How did you ensure that the tempos didn’t become too languid?
Amy Stroup: When I write solo stuff, I start with the guitar. With this set of songs, we would make a drum loop or a throwback beat that we both just loved. We wrote to a rhythm as opposed to a guitar melody.
ST: This project almost possesses a performance art approach. Did you have any kindred spirits during the character building stage such as Doyle and Debbie or Kiki and Herb?
Amy Stroup: I looked toward the classic beauty of Hollywood. I was thinking of how to translate the timelessness starting with the name of the band and what we look like when we perform. It was more about the songs to me. I went home when we shot the music video for the single “See It for Yourself.” I went to my grandmother’s house. We were flipping through her scrapbook. It had pictures of Greta Garbo and all these old Hollywood stars. I was inspired more by the look than a certain performer.
Trent Dabbs: I would say that for me Otis Redding was definitely something that I was paying attention to. As far as the aesthetic of what we are doing, I was a fan of the White Stripes and how those two people could pull off a big sound.
ST: Many listeners have gravitated toward the harmonic aspects of Sugar + the Hi-Lows. What were some of the techniques you used? Did it just come naturally?
Trent Dabbs: It definitely came naturally. When we would write a song, certain lines made sense with Amy singing them. I wasn’t fighting over who would sing lead or anything like that. There was a certain key that would only make sense for one of us. The songs kind of wrote themselves. “Stubborn Lover” was the only song we mapped out because of the spelling in the chorus. From the beginning, it felt like the harmonies for “Show and Tell” should be at the top of the song. Hopefully, we can continue this process and not overthink anything on the next record.
ST: You talked a little bit about the childhood influences. Were you aware of the differences between soul records and rock records growing up?
Trent Dabbs: It was like the soundtrack to my upbringing. I remember the Big Chill soundtrack. My dad was so crazy about it. He would listen to Marvin Gaye or Stax Records. There was never a defining thing of “okay, this is rock music.” It was really this certain feeling or emotion that it would invoke. My father would dance around and listen to classic soul music. I don’t think I realized how much I loved that style of music until I walked away from it for several years.
Amy Stroup: I had the same experience. Music was always in the house. I was born in Boston and grew up in Florence, Alabama before moving to Texas. In Alabama, we always had the W.C. Handy Music Festival every year. I still have a festival t-shirt from when I was a kid. I really got into Miles Davis and W.C. Handy. In Texas, I did the songwriter Texas thing. I listened to a lot of Mavis Staples and Lucinda Williams. For me, I love songs and what makes people feel a certain way. Sugar + the Hi-Lows has been an experiment and song study.
Trent Dabbs: I would echo that as well. I’m from Jackson, MS. In the south, I saw James Brown and B.B. King. Those performers are like staples in my mind as something to aspire to. As a younger musician, there is nothing like that kind of inspiration.
ST: On the other hand, a lot of indie musicians are re-visiting the soul paradigm from that era. Did that encourage you at all?
Trent Dabbs: I heard Fitz and the Tantrums after we were done with this record. I was hoping the record didn’t look like we were contriving something to mimic things that are happening now. But with the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthrone, I think it’s been encouraging across the board.
Amy Stroup: I didn’t try to think about it too much. I was just trying to write a good song.
ST: I was wondering if you could talk about balancing Sugar + the Hi-Lows with your solo careers. How do you intend on balancing the two moving forward?
Trent Dabbs: We were hoping to cross-pollinate our fans. At the same time, we wanted to re-brand what we are doing as artists. So far, we’ve seen nothing but positive feedback.
Amy Stroup: It seems like a hyper-consumption kind of audience right now. Of course, everything has been changing in the music business. Everything is always changing. But like I said, my goal has always been to write good songs. I love this project and see it as kind of a creative experiment. It’s still Amy and Trent, but another expression of what we do. We’re both finding a lot of joy in it. When we overthink or strategize, things get a little off.
Trent Dabbs: You have to re-invent yourself. That’s risky. Like Amy said, if we just concentrate on the songs, only good will come out of it.
Joey Hood has been writing about musicians since 2003. His byline has appeared in “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene,” Nerve.com, NPR and “Ya’ll.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State University, with a focus in the recording industry. Read more: Joey Hood | eHow.com.