You have to know the rules in order to rewrite them. New York singer and songwriter Sunny Ozell learned music’s time-honored traditions inside and out by not only receiving classical voice training as a young child, but also simultaneously pawing through her dad’s extensive vinyl collection—which included everything from Janis Joplin and The Moody Blues to Fleetwood Mac and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Now, she’s showcasing a big bold voice and singular style through her full-length debut album, Take It With Me.
“I feel like I’m honing in on what moves me,” she exclaims. “It’s this mix of soul, blues, country, Americana, and pop. It goes back to my roots, but it’s very in the moment.”
Growing up in Reno, NV, Sunny’s parents will tell you, “She was singing before she could talk.” By four-years-old, she had begun studying the rigorous Suzuki method of classical violin, which focuses on ear training. A 12-year-old Sunny joined the Reno Opera Company as its sole child member. All the while, the likes of Tusk and Sticky Fingers soundtracked family camping tracks. College saw her trade Reno for Boulder as she fronted a blues band popular in numerous seedy local dives.
“Eventually some college kids started showing up,” she laughs. “It could get pretty rowdy though.”
Making records and touring with the “Afro-Cuban-Latin-Jazz ten-piece” Chupacabra, she continued to sharpen a striking stage presence. Following college, she spent nearly a decade in New York, performing at some of the city’s notable live haunts like Rockwood Music Hall and The Living Room, while writing lyrics and melodies.
During that time, she began collaborating with a cadre of remarkable talent who would eventually form her band. This includes drummer Ethan Eubanks [Teddy Thompson, Juliana Hatfield], bassist Andy Hess [The Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, John Scofield], keyboardist Andrew Sherman [George Duke, Mariah Carey], pedal steel player Jon Graboff [The Cardinals], and backup vocalist Nicki Richards [Madonna] as well as guitarist and studio collaborator Aaron Lee Tasjan [Semi-Precious, Drivn n Cryin].
“When I first started singing in New York, it was just me and a pianist doing pretty straightforward jazz gigs,” she recalls. “I wanted to do more styles of music than a jazz gig would allow, so I started expanding the repertoire with less genre-specific material and a bigger band. I added players until we had this incredible group. Ethan urged me to lay it all down and make a record of what was happening at that time. We did that on Take It With Me, and it’s a great reflection of what we do live.”
Sunny first released Take It With Me in the UK to critical applause during 2015. Produced by Ethan Banks, who is also the drummer in Sunny's band, the LP was recorded live in just four days. On the album, Ozell puts a stunning, soulful spin on tunes from Randy Newman (“Louisiana 1927”), Pops Staples (“Move Along Train”), T Bone Burnett & Roy Orbison (“Kill Zone”), Tom Waits (“Take It With Me”), and more. Originals include the single “Git Gone,” penned by Tasjan. With its simmering countrified blues, the song spotlights her effusive charisma and impassioned delivery.
“I dug the sass of it,” she smiles. “We all can relate to the idea of shaking off something bad and moving on. I got to assume the role of this powerful character.”
The 2016 U.S. release of the album boasts two previously unreleased tracks. Sunny imbues Ray Charles’s “Come Back Baby” with a siren’s spark, while wholeheartedly embracing the feverish Southern stomp of Hank Williams’s “I Saw The Light.”
“In the live setting, we always do a couple of rowdy blues tunes,” she goes on. “People love those moments, so we cut our version of ‘Come Back Baby.’ As for ‘I Saw The Light,’ it’s got this hand-clapping thing. If I was religious, I’d go that hootin’ and hollerin’ route. It’s a fun one.”
Take It With Me also lays the foundation for Sunny’s next musical statement, which will further uncover her identity as a songwriter as well.
“I’ve always written songs…and bits of songs,” she exclaims. “This first project represents me pulling together a band. It’s a very collaborative effort, and we really found our footing as a unit. It gave me a platform for my voice. I’m putting together the scraps and the ideas for the next album. The ideas I’m writing come in snapshots. I’ll have a phrase or rhyme scheme and build around that.”
Outside of music, Sunny splits her time between passions such as fashion and food and, of course, hanging with her husband Sir Patrick Stewart.
Creatively, everything has been building up to this moment for her.
“When people hear me, I want them to know I love what I do,” she leaves off. “I believe it’s a privilege for me to get up on a stage and sing. Music matters and good songwriting can be really powerful and relevant. I hope through my work that I remind people of that.”