Avery*Sunshine on ‘Retha, Risk, and Resistance
By L. Michael Gipson
Hearing pianist and singer-songwriter Avery*Sunshine tell you the story of Aretha Franklin’s “posh” birthday party tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the woman also known as Denise White.
First, when you ask her, she’s delighted and humbled to even have an Aretha Franklin story. She’s giddy and giggling when telling you how lil ol’ Denise White from Chester, Pennsylvania had been personally invited by the Queen of Soul herself to play at Ms. Franklin’s exclusive birthday party back when Sunshine’s first #1 R&B hit, “Call My Name,” was playing on the radio. Despite having sung for President Barack Obama and earning three Top 20 R&B hits by this time with “Ugly Part of Me,” “Come Do Nothing,” and “Sweet Afternoon,” Sunshine is an independent artist accustomed to having to introduce herself anew every time she hits the stage. Accordingly, Sunshine played a few of her originals just five feet behind Aretha Franklin and legendary record mogul Clive Davis, but soon went into a series of more familiar covers as indie artists often have to do to keep the interest of attention-deficit audiences unfamiliar with their catalog. Thinking she was just about done, Sunshine began to wrap up when the Queen Mother walked over to her, leaned in, and whispered in her ear just as calm as can be.
“Listen, you not gone get your check, if you don’t sing your hit,” said a voice cool, but clear. And with that the Queen walked back to her throne.
“Dude, I went into it so hard. ‘Can I bring something up? Don’t mean to be confrontational…,’ “ Sunshine says starting to sing the song that she now understood got her the elite gig. “And, I mean I was laughing on the inside like ‘wow’… Mannnnn, what’s so amazing is that Aretha Franklin acknowledged I had a hit song. I cannot tell you how amazing that was for me. ‘You here to sing your hit. I don’t care if they paying attention to you or not, I am.’ Now, she didn’t say that, but that’s what I heard her say in my head when she said I wouldn’t get my check.”
Avery*Sunshine belly laughs and shares how Ms. Franklin later apologized for being so curt.
“When Dana and I were bringing our birthday gift to her she said, ’Listen, I hope you don’t think I was being rude. I didn’t mean to be rude to you when I said that,’” Sunshine shares. “I said ‘Not at all! It was actually a compliment. I’m flattered that you would even acknowledge one of my tunes as a hit.’ My God, you’re talking about the hitmaker? For me, for what I do as a singer, writer, and pianist, for her to acknowledge me in that way was unbelievable. It still is. And, then she invited us back the same year for her Christmas party. She’s just been so kind and gracious to us. I’m really grateful.”
Warm. Humorous. Gracious. Self-Aware. Humble (and humble bragging!). Avery*Sunshine. These are the qualities pouring out of the woman and persona. As an entertainer solidly in the Black music tradition, Avery*Sunshine evokes the legends of old. She’s the spiritually grounded, world-weary confidant who’s been through some things, like Aunty Gladys. She’s also the singer-songwriter soul bearer expertly playing church chords on the piano for secular audiences like Aunty Aretha. Usually, she’s just the no-holds barred church comedienne like Aunty Vickie (with the barest whiffs of a naughty Aunty Millie Jackson). As I stated in my 2013 cover story about her, Avery*Sunshine feels like family. Nothing much has changed.
With her ongoing partnership with indie label Shanachie Records and their success with Sunshine’s sophomore album, 2014’s The SunRoom, which yielded the Aretha anointed “hit,” Sunshine has plenty to be grateful for in her professional life. The secret to her career success has been something she hasn’t pondered a lot about, but, when questioned, her answers reveal a woman who took advantage of every promising opportunity presented and maximized it to her career’s benefit.
“Someone would call and ask me to be on a soundtrack for The Fighting Temptations and I’d go ‘oh, okay’ and end up being in a couple of scenes in the movie. Jennifer Holliday left me a voicemail asking me to be her choral director for Dreamgirls at the Fox in Atlanta and after I played her message for everyone I was like sure! My Spelman sister hits me up and was like ‘Do you have a keyboard? I need you to do an audition for David Mann over the phone for a play’ and I was like ‘okay.’ Then get the part and ended up being the lead keyboardist for Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns for four months. I don’t know if it was my soul seeking this out, but I was just doing stuff and would end up on the right side of it,” shared Sunshine.
After thinking more about the idea of the risk-taking that paid off early in her career at a time when she was still unknown and a dream-hustling divorcé with children, she concludes: “It had to be God guiding me. A lot of time I didn’t even realize it was faith, a lot of the times I would just go. Not knowing and just ending up in the right place. I would say my naiveté lent a lot to that. It’s a testament to me of God’s grace and presence, when you’re just doing stuff and it happens to turn out right.”
As is often the case when people of faith achieve certain benchmarks, continuing to walk in faith and purpose grows more challenging, not less.
“I really have to activate my faith now. I’m more acutely aware of the risks today than I was then. My kids are older and the stakes are higher. Now I have to think about paying for college tuition, when I’m still paying off my own student loans, and making sure the kids eat. It’s harder when something comes across your table to say ‘yes’ to something that right now may not yield a whole lot of money, but may two or three years down the line. It’s hard not to say ‘God, look, they gotta eat right now though. You really want me to take this? Are you sure?’ Now there’s more of a conversation, more of a back and forth with God. Even with this new album, I want to do more. What do you want me to do Lord? But, what I hear God telling me in different places is to ‘Relax. You’re here because I’ve carried you all this way. Just relax, you’re going to be fine.’”
Sunshine admits she can become preoccupied with anxious questions about the future and perfectionism in her work. When she finds herself spinning, the person who keeps her most grounded and also reminds her to “relax” is Grammy Award-winning producer, musician, and the other half of Avery*Sunshine, Dana “Big Dane” Johnson. She also happens to have married him since our last interview, one where she first publicly came out about her discreet relationship with Johnson. It’s a relationship she admits to having been singing about since “Ugly Part of Me” off of her 2010 self-titled debut. Working together, living together, and raising three children together in a blended family can be a lot of face time with a partner, no matter how much they anchor you.
“Hell yeah, we get on each other’s nerves,” she says laughing. “Right now! I’ll be all over the place and he’ll be like ‘Denise, I need you to calm down.’ And, I’m like, I don’t want to calm down, I need to be in it and passionate and mmmmmm! [Laughing] I don’t want to hear that right now, but there’s no one in the world I’d rather be that way with. No one.”
Finding work/life balance was initially tough for the creative couple. Learning to set boundaries about work conversations, an end to accepting late business calls, and not reading after hour emails was critical to ensuring time for just Dana and Denise.
“At first it was me going ‘it’s 6 o’clock, nobody else exists right now but me and you. Nobody else,’” shares Sunshine. “But, lately the roles have shifted a little bit with me all stressed out and going ‘no, wake up, we gotta do this record!’”
Carving out that one-on-one time is more than a notion for Avery*Sunshine. With parents who voluntarily sold their house and moved to Atlanta to help take care of their grandchildren in support of their daughter’s touring schedule, an ex-husband who is an active part of the family, and in-laws who too are regulars on the scene and chipping in, Avery*Sunshine the marriage and the act enjoys unusually high levels of family presence and support.
“I don’t know what it’s like not to have that kind of support…my whole life. Dana’s parents too moved here from Oakland 10 years ago. Together, we now have this huge team and we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without them. I am so grateful,” shares Avery*Sunshine getting emotional. “When I tell you I have experienced God in a new way. My ex-husband, when Dana and I are out of town, stays in our home and helps us to take care of all three children [including Dana’s son from a previous marriage], all three of them. And, so does his girlfriend. And we’re all a blended family to each other.”
That huge team will come in handy with the Spring 2017 Shanachie release of Avery*Sunshine’s third album, 2064. With a new album and promo tour before her in support of 2064, Sunshine has again been forced to tackle the internal dialogues and industry pressures for women artists about image. As a voluptuous pixie of a woman, the curvaceous Sunshine admits to having considered plastic surgery, but promised both herself and her husband that she “wouldn’t risk her life by going under the knife.” When asked why contemporary artists are under so much pressure when so many respected soul icons were less than idealized pretty pictures, Sunshine’s quick with a response.
“Likes. Today, it’s likes. We look at what gets the most likes. If I look like that, it’ll get me the most likes and the most followers. It is misleading and unfortunate. We get confused. We think all that airbrushing is real and that’s what we’re supposed to look like. It’s not. We think a size 4 is real. Well, it’s real for some people, but the average woman is a size 16. And, here I am crying about being a 16, but my husband doesn’t have any problem with a size 16. Hello, somebody,” shouts Sunshine. “So, it is my responsibility to keep pushing my beauty. It’s my daughter’s responsibility to push her beauty. Don’t put all those damn filters on your pictures. Stop doing that, and that goes for me too. But, I get it.”
Pausing a second and considering the most obvious rebuttal to her impassioned sermon, she adds, “Now if I’m on the cover of SWERV you don’t need to see that I didn’t give a damn and didn’t put nothing together for the eye. Got my lips looking like Krispy Kreme donuts. Now, that’s a problem. It’s different. You’re selling something else. But, on your personal page, when posting the thing that makes you, you, don’t do that. To paraphrase Keke Palmer: ‘This is what I look like. I’m a human being. This is what a human being looks like.’”
Treating human beings better is also at the heart of Sunshine’s advocacy of and allyship to the LGBTQ community. Having long supported her gay brother and his longtime partner in life and through the song “See You When I Get There,” Sunshine has been making more of an effort to ensure the song and its origins are included in her live show, especially after being invited by a progressive church to perform it, but being asked not to discuss the gay affirming story of the song about her brother. The stinging moment caused Sunshine to question whether she was being divisive through the song and she subsequently avoided telling the song’s story for a year before admonishing herself for giving the power of her personal story over to hate.
“That’s my truth. I gotta tell my truth. I love my brother just like I love my husband and love my children. So, if you feel that way, then you don’t really want me here either. He’s a part of who I am,” said Sunshine. “I’m still hurt someone would tell me that in a place that was built to honor God. God is love, right? You ain’t going to tell me there’s only one way to love somebody. I don’t believe it. I never have.”
In the current politically charged atmosphere, Sunshine admits to feeling called to engage in more advocacy for causes she believes in and sing more socially conscious material. She agrees that the times are calling on artists to take more of a stand on the issues, especially after witnessing the debate regarding Jennifer Holliday initially accepting and then rejecting the Trump inauguration invitation.
“Jennifer is a friend of mine so it really hit home. I was proud of her for two reasons. One, for being honest about what she wanted: ‘I just figure whoever the president is, if the White House calls I’m going to go and share the gift that God has given me.’ On the other hand, I’m proud of her for acknowledging: ‘the reason I am who I am is because there is a group of people who have supported me from the beginning up until now and I have to pay attention to that, because this is a part of the gig. I can’t exist without the people who support me, not in that way. If doing it means I’m aligning myself with someone who is so negative and so divisive, if that is what that means, I’m not going to do it. It hurts too many people.’ I absolutely respect her for that. I feel that same thing. We have a responsibility to be honest to ourselves first and we have a responsibility to those who buy our creations, sew into our creations, and support our creativity. So, there is this tightrope we’re walking, but that’s a part of the gig. For folks who don’t want to do that, they should probably do something else.”
Still, don’t expect to see Avery*Sunshine sharing it all for the ‘gram (Instagram) anytime soon.
“I choose to reserve some of my feelings for my home. I don’t want us to lose focus on what the real issue is by bickering with each other, and that’s what has happened,” says Sunshine. “Folks are going for blood, going ‘you’re canceled.’ You’re canceling human beings? How do you cancel a person? If we start doing that and fighting amongst ourselves, the bigger issues aren’t being dealt with.”
Expect Avery*Sunshine to share more of her personal feelings on her forthcoming project, 2064. One with live strings, horns by Atlanta’s famed Good Times Brass Band, three songs co-written by Eric Roberson, and more nourishing classic soul, Avery*Sunshine is planning to bring more golden rays back into our gray lives.
“Everywhere you turn there is so much darkness and confusion. I’m not looking to recreate Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” But, that’s what got us through, that music. Let’s get into that agape love again and peel back these layers. Man, we gotta do something. I’m not sure what that is, but I definitely feel the call to speak on it.”
I for one look forward to hearing what Aunty Avery has to say. Don’t you?