Avery Sunshine is the epitome of unfiltered Soul music. When you close your eyes and listen to her voice resonate throughout her songs, it transports you to a time where music was unapologetically ‘Black’—music created from the roots of our African ancestors, beating from the bottom of their soul. The collaboration with her writing, producing partner and now-husband, Dana Johnson, not only seals their matrimonial commitment to each other but doesn’t lose its chemistry.
Growing up a few miles outside of Philadelphia, Denise Nicole White began her musical journey as a young pianist—playing in the church and studying classical music by the time she was 11. Word of her extensive repertoire of music and vocal range spread throughout the church community, often being hired by various churches across several denominations.
She left home to attend Spelman College in Atlanta where she started as a music major, but graduated with a BA in philosophy. Throughout the years, her transformation from Denise Nicole White steadily built into the familiar R&B powerhouse of Avery Sunshine; a stage name she adopted and debuted with her first self-titled album in 2010.
Since then, the mother of two has been on a roll releasing the following albums—The Sun Room (2014), and recently, Twenty Sixty Four, in late April of this year.
What was the inspiration behind producing Twenty Sixty Four?
The albums kind of make themselves, which is why we write from our hearts—Dana and me. We looked at all of the songs that we had and said, ‘Wow, this is our relationship.’ One of the last songs we wrote was “Twenty Sixty Four”, the name of the album. It really is about our relationship. Dana proposed to me last year. After I called everybody I could, I asked God, ‘If you could give me until 2064 with this incredible person, this man—I promised I would say my prayers every night, I’ll stop eating carbs, I will stop cussing—I would be perfect—that sums up our story. The songs on the album, between the “Ice Cream” song, which is our wedding song, to “Used Car”, which is a song about divorcees, is our relationship.
My mother says, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with a used car, just make sure it’s certified pre-owned.’ (she laughs) Everything has to do with me and Dana and our experiences. That’s how this came about. We didn’t go into the album thinking it was about our desire to never be married again, then we get married—no, it really evolved on its own. It’s divine.
Does it frighten you to work so closely to someone, yet at the same time you both creatively sync? You’ve known each other for long while; are you fearful that magic will be lost?
It’s a fleeting thought. This is so different than what I expected it to be, as far as our relationship. I’ve been married before—you know in your heart when it’s not right. You know in your heart when it is right.
I think that’s how we knew we needed to be together. It was not a fight to try to do it. None of this was hard—challenging? Yes. That’s what life is, but not hard.
What’s the creative difference you’ve noticed from your first album, Avery Sunshine to your second release, Twenty Sixty Four?
Less fearful, which would translate to much more confidence. I’m much more comfortable allowing the process to dictate my moods. I know this is so strange, but there’s a delicate balance while you allow the process to guide. You still have to create it in such a way that we have to decide on where we want to be; being clear about what I want to do and where I wanted to be, but allowing the process to get me there.
Not getting in the way of the process, learning to not compare what I do with what someone else is doing or how I look compared to someone else. I never wanted to be an artist, I never thought I would be that. Not that I didn’t think I was amazing—of course I think I’m amazing, but an artist? That’s Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston—that’s different—that’s a different sort of thing. Starting out, it was Dana who said ‘Hey, you outta try this. You should really do it.’ I said, ‘Man, okay…whatever.’
By the time, this third album came through I said, ‘Okay, shoot, absolutely that’s what I am. I’m owning it.’ As a matter of fact, I’m feeling good about it. Let’s put some strings on this, some horns and attract other writers. This is what I do.
Chicago has such a rich tradition of Soul, Jazz, Blues and Gospel music that has influenced music worldwide. Who are some of the key artists that stand out for you from Chicago?
There are many. He’s not from Chicago, but his roots are Chicago—God rest his soul, Maurice White [Earth Wind and Fire]. He wrote a book called, Keep Your Head to the Sky. It actually helped me through this album. His Chicago roots are a huge part of who he is, his music and his creativity. It was ironic when I was reading his book and Chicago popped up; I should’ve known. It’s something about Chicago and he’s from Memphis.
I don’t think I knew until four or five years ago that I have relatives in Chicago. Of course, there’s many others, but in particular, Maurice has been my muse throughout the time we’ve been working on this project.
You are a working mom with a daughter and son, how do your kids inspire you?
That look in their eyes when I come home. That’s it. What they are saying, what they’re not saying—that look. We had to leave before my daughter got her first car. She’s seventeen and we had left on April 19. My mother took her to pick her car on April 20. She helps my mother with everything along with her brother. We have an amazing family unit and support system. She picked me up from the airport. That was my first time seeing my baby drive by herself. It was definitely a rite of passage for me and I saw the look in her eyes and her brother’s eyes. He grabbed my suitcases and threw it in the back and she was in the driver’s seat. It was surreal—just surreal.
Check out The Chicago Defender’s Black Music Month special edition on newsstands June 21.