Songwriters Dabbs, Stroup shed somber skins for Sugar & The Hi Lows project
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was a “Twilight Zone” kind of moment for singer-songwriter Amy Stroup, the sort of serendipity where the theme song for that iconic TV series starts playing in one’s head.
She and fellow artist Trent Dabbs, both Nashville residents who had fallen in together as songwriters and duet partners, were trying to come up with a name for their new duo. Dabbs came up with one he thought was a winner — Sugar & The Hi Lows — and took it to Stroup.
“I love coming up with creative names, but I also believe that there’s a chemistry that comes together even with creating names,” Dabbs told The Daily Times this week. “I thought of the name, and when I brought it to Amy, she kind of made a face. She said, ‘Are you serious?’ I didn’t know that her father had called her ‘Amy Sugar’ her whole life.”
“Really!” Stroup chimed in. “My dad, I just got a letter from him recently, and instead of Amy Stroup, it was addressed to ‘Amy Sugar.’ It really was kind of one of those ‘do-do-do-do’ moments.”
With that kind of kismet, the name was settled upon. And besides that, it seemed to fit what the pair was doing together, they said.
“The name looks like we sound,” Stroup said.
“We wanted a name that people wouldn’t associate with the music, because we’re not an acoustic duet — we’re a band,” Dabbs added.
Together, they’re finding new ways to build upon their individual identities and branch out in new directions at the same time. Dabbs grew up in Mississippi and was influenced in his personal style by the pre-emo hush-and-lush sounds of bands like Red House Painters; his childhood, however, was replete with Motown, soul and R&B.
In Nashville, he struck up a friendship with Stroup, a fellow outside-the-beltway Music City songwriter whom he recruited for the “Ten Out of Tenn” songwriters tour. Their friendship deepened during that experience, and they found themselves drawn to one another’s particular styles and engaging in regular songwriting sessions.
“We were introduced by a mutual friend that worked at BMI here in town who suggested we write together, because we had similar musical interests, and she thought we’d hit it off,” Dabbs said. “She was right — I saw Amy play live, and I felt she had this magnetism that musically and performance-wise would draw people in. Every time Amy and I write a song together, it feels like the song writes itself — it’s just quick and comfortable. And because we write heavy, mellow, introspective music, we thought it would be a challenge to write a certain type of song, because we’re both fans of old-school soul music.”
The pair started talking about the music of their parents, and a song soon followed — “This Can’t Be the Last Time,” a grooving, swinging slab of jitterbug-worthy swing and languid torch-ballad jazz that seems scraped off the top of a scarred piano in some forgotten Detroit juke joint. It came naturally, as did the seven songs that followed.
“I remember thinking, ‘I really want to cut this song,’” Stroup said. “It didn’t feel like an Amy song or a Trent song. It felt like something else, so we kept writing in that style.”
The end result is a liberating sense of creativity that allows Stroup and Dabbs to inhabit another musical persona, as long as each is in the company of the other. They draw a sort of playfulness out of one another that translates into something slinky, sexy and playful in the music, and that’s a sound Dabbs couldn’t imagine trying to create by himself.
“For me, it’s like driving with no blinders on,” he said. “There are no restrictions based on fears. I think that because I’ve always wanted to have music that weighed so much and be extremely serious that I didn’t allow this to be an option. As soon as these songs were writing themselves with Amy, it was extremely freeing.”
“It seems like there’s so much seriousness in our world with the political and the economic stuff, just so much going on, that this was kind of us releasing ourselves to make music that sounds good, because people need it right now,” Stroup added.