POSTED ON OCTOBER 6, 2010:
Songwriting comes first for OK SWEETHEART
California isn't home, but it's all I've got right now
And all of my friends are back in Oklahoma
Well, Oklahoma isn't home and everyone's left upstate New York
Because it's sad and lonely and people live to die there
I don't ever want to live back in Utica
Not another holiday in Utica
But I call it home, I call it home
You know how sometimes a great song just hits you? You're not quite sure what it is, but something just resonates and rings true? Usually, it's a matter of the songwriter expressing something directly from his or her heart, unfiltered and innocent.
When I first heard OK SWEETHEART's debut CD, that's just what I felt -- that something just rang true. Sure, it's a great pop record full of all the things I'm unabashedly a sucker for: big hooks, great melodies and Erin Austin's candy-sweet vocals, but there's something beyond that -- a purity that shines through and makes it all ring true.
When I finally got to sit down with Erin Austin and her husband and producer Rob Gungor, I found that my notions were accurate: yes, that certain something that makes these songs so special is the (relatively) unfiltered honesty and emotion that comes through.
After finishing school here in Tulsa, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Austin wrote the vast majority of the material. Once the songs were ready to be recorded, Gungor asked his friend McKenzie Smith of the band Midlake to play on the record. After a pair of recording sessions in Denton, Texas, McKenzie was officially asked to help produce the record and the pair subletted their apartment in San Francisco to move back to Denton to record in earnest. Over the course of time, the pair eventually moved back to Tulsa, as it made sense with Austin's sister here in town and Gungor often on the road for work.
The divulgence of that information alone illuminated the opening lines of the title cut from the duo's debut CD, Home, and shed light on how to read the rest of the personal and reflective disc.
Over the course of a year, the new album took shape and transformed from an Erin Austin solo album into what is now known as OK SWEETHEART. Overall, the pair shared that it was a hard decision as Austin does all of the songwriting and Gungor doesn't really feel like it's a band project. On the other hand, his production ideas are what shape the sound of the record and in Austin's words "Without all of the people involved, I'd just be writing songs -- just me and my piano. It wouldn't be nearly as cool and vibey without these guys."
As such, OK SWEETHEART was born perhaps more out of a collaborative spirit than a collaboration on the songwriting, but it's definitely a product of Austin and Gungor's combined efforts.
As an example, Austin cites the song "All We Have", a straightforward piano ballad, sharing "That's how I think of music, that bare bones..."
Gungor, on the other hand has a different vision, seeing things in a more expanded version. Austin describes it as "...very endgame and very particular. He's actually a composer and thinks in a composer mindset."
When mixing Austin's simple songwriter instincts and Gungor's composer vision, OK SWEETHEART becomes a pop project of depth and multiple layers. While very much contemporary and in the now, a steady diet of The Beatles while in writing mode (at Gungor's insistence, as influenced by Smith) and Gungor's newfound love of The Zombies infuses the album with a classic warmth that recalls the orchestral pop tendencies of both of those bands. Even so, the final product still fits incredibly well within both indie and commercial pop windows.
While Austin's sweet vocals and the classic pop feel of the record immediately bring to mind Zooey Deschanel and M Ward's She & Him, OK SWEETHEART has a much more contemporary feel that could land it more easily on college radio or CHR (contemporary hit radio) format, yet still fit in an adult contemporary format. Hints of Regina Spector come through as well as the obvious Beatles influences, with Gungor playing the George Martin to Austin's Lennon and McCartney.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the disc is just how solid all of the songs are -- something that came from a combination of Austin's prolific writing nature and Gungor's direct criticism to drive her to her best. When discussing it, Austin now laughs, but admits that it was a bit hurtful at first as she took the criticism personally.
"I would be like 'Well, what wrong with it -- what does it need?'" she shared. "And he's say 'You need to write better choruses!'"
Now able to laugh about it, Austin says that the experience made her develop a thick skin, but also helps her to disassociate from her songs. "If someone doesn't like a song, I don't take it personally as an opinion of med, it's just reflective of the song," she explained of her understanding and relationship with her work.
Even so, whether autobiographical or strictly fictional, Austin is able to put a personal stamp on each tune, both lyrically and vocally with a lilting inflection that lets you know she feels and understands every word.
With a CD release party scheduled for this Friday night, Oct. 8, at The Church, OK Sweetheart gets ready to open yet another chapter in its memoirs. After celebrating the release of the new disc here in Tulsa, the duo takes its band to the west coast in November to showcase in Seattle and play the esteemed Hotel Café in Los Angeles in November. With dates soon to be announce, the group will work its way toward New York for the CMJ showcase than back across the US in a full on North American tour that will include a mix of showcases, club shows and house concerts, in order to spread the group's music as far and wide as possible, truly making it more than just an Oklahoma sweetheart.
When Austin and Gungor admit to enjoying the nomadic life of touring it makes the bridge in "Home" tie the song together in perfect sense:
We'll spend a couple years on the road
Might not see a single face we know
But if you're there, I'll feel a little bit more comfortable
As long as I wake up next to you
Don't care where we go or what we do
Even if you're the only thing familiar
'cause wherever you go, I will go
I'm sure that one day, I'll be calling it home...
For now, Tulsa is home and we're blessed with the opportunity to help celebrate the release of Home as friends and fans at one of two shows at The Church this Friday night. Sherree Chamberlain and Ben Kilgore will open each show, one of which begins at 7pm, followed by a 10pm show. Both will be limited in capacity due to fire codes at the studio, making them both intimate, personal affairs, much like the songs themselves. Performing as a four-piece band that include Gungor on keys, Nathan Price on drums, Rob's brother Dave Gungor on guitar and bassist Clay Welch, Austin will bring the songs to life with her voice and an additional string section.
Rumor has it that Austin and Kilgore have even been working on a duet collaboration to cover a well known Leonard Cohen song that will likely be the show-stopper of the evening.
Tickets are $12 in advance or $14 at the door, but with limited seating you'll want to get yours early, either online at oksweetheart.com/tickets or by stopping at Ida Red, Shoe Gypsy or Boomtown Tees. This may be one of your last opportunities to see OK SWEETHEART before the duo becomes everyone's sweetheart.
Although there's probably not anyplace in Tulsa more magical to take in a concert then The Church, there are a handful of venues to catch very personalized performances. Right now, perhaps the only way to get more intimate than one of the shows at The Church or All Souls is to take in one of the shows in the House Concerts Unlimited series.
We'll be discussing this series more in the coming weeks, but the series kicks off this weekend with a show that's big enough to move the series out of the living room and into the coffeehouse -- Café Cabana, to be exact. This Friday night, Oct. 8, Truckstop Honeymoon brings its eclectic blend of bluegrass, psychobilly and soul to Tulsa with an 8pm show that has a suggested $15 cover and very limited seating. Surely this one will be worth checking out.
As October heats up, Cain's Ballroom has so many shows it warrants a listing all its own. The week kicks off with legendary songwriter Richard Thompson on Thursday, Oct. 7, followed by Martin Sexton on Oct. 8. The month's most buzzed about show is undoubtedly the sold out Black Keys gig on Sunday, Oct. 10, followed closely by Band of Horses on Tuesday night. The week then wraps up with rising country singer Chris Knight, accompanied by local opener South 40 on Wednesday evening, Oct. 13. What a month!
Even with those big shows, Tulsa has a ton more going on this week -- so much so, that it may be hard to pick. If you're looking for highlights and best bets, we've got them right here.
On Thursday night, Oct. 7, those who aren't taken in by a night with Richard Thompson will want to look East to the Hard Rock Casino as the original Bad Company lineup plays what has been reported as its last North American concert, according to Paul Rodgers. Surely this is a can't miss for classic rock fans and great opportunity to see the newly opened Joint at the Hard Rock.
Friday night is already busy with OK Sweetheart and Truckstop Honeymooon, but add in a stop by Johnny Polygon at Candy Bar with him debuting new material and it's a night for everyone.
If that's not enough, you can road trip to OKC for arguably the best live band in the world, MUSE, at the Ford Center or double dip for even more Grace Potter and the Nocturnals as the headline Neumeier's Rib Room in Fort Smith.
Saturday's big event is Luchapalooza -- a wacky combination of wrestling and music that moves out of Elote and into the street for an evening and features Paul Benjaman Band, Hiphopotamus, Sam and the Stylees and DJ Dilation.
Finally, the weekend wraps up with not only the sold out Black Keys star, but another Oklahoma Sweetheart in her own right, Carrie Underwood at BOK Center. How's that to keep your head spinning all weekend?
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