Talking CMJ, dirty nuns and “Cokomo” with Sweet Spirit’s Sabrina Ellis

Sweet Spirit plays ABGB on Saturday and Hotel Vegas on Monday and Thursday. Erika Rich/For American-Statesman Austin band Sweet Spirit performs at Cheer Up Charlie's on Thursday February 12, 2015. Contributed by Erika Rich
Sweet Spirit plays ABGB on Saturday and Hotel Vegas on Monday and Thursday. Erika Rich/For American-Statesman

Earlier this year I pegged Sabrina Ellis’ pop powerhouse Sweet Spirit as Austin’s next big thing. Playing live, the band brings an ecstatic barrage of sound, an irresistible mix of upbeat pop and doo wop with just the right amount of soul. The deliriously entertaining vibe of these shows is perfectly captured on the band’s debut full length “Cokomo” now available to purchase or stream on Bandcamp. The band’s been out on tour and they were in NYC for the CMJ Music Marathon when the album dropped last week, but they’ll be back for three celebratory homecoming gigs starting with a free show at ABGB on Saturday night followed by two shows at Hotel Vegas on Monday and Thursday next week.

We hit up Ellis on the road to ask about the tour, the album and the best way to rock a Sweet Spirit appropriate pre-Halloween costume.

So many of the songs on the new album are instantly catchy. How have folks been responding as you take this music across the country?

I think they like it more than they expect to. We don’t look like much when we roll out of the van and into the club. Maybe people find themselves wanting to dance when they hear the songs. Maybe they find themselves wanting to leave so they can be alone and make love. We’ve had a smooth tour. People have liked the show enough to let us crash on their floor.

Any cities with particularly good crowds?

We expected good crowds in New York because we have history there, but they were actually awesome crowds. New York and Chicago are our sweet spots. Besides Austin.

What’s the most interesting interaction with a fan you’ve had?

In Chicago, a youth on rollerblades and MDMA skated around us
insisting that our music, “has all the excitement of an anime theme song without the weird backstory.”

Someone in Houston said we made him miss his girlfriend. He was a fellow touring musician, from the band Cave. He knew the exact line that made his heart hurt, and he recited it to me as he clutched his chest, “tomorrow afternoon is like a painting, just stay in bed with me til it quits raining…” from All Mine. He only could’ve heard it once.

How was the CMJ Music Marathon? Is the experience similar to South by Southwest?

We were lucky to have two great shows at Cakeshop. CMJ reminds me of SXSW in that there are tons of current bands playing every corner of club space and music fans and industry people come from all over the world to see it. I just kind of missed all the great corporate sponsors we get in Austin during SXSW, like McDonald’s and Dorito’s and Pepsi!

The song “Take Me To A Party” is one of my favorites. That feeling of “got a broken heart so take me to a party” just seems so universally relatable. What’s the story behind that song?

The story behind that song is that sometimes I have to catch up to the band with lyrics. Sometimes they get so excited about a song that everything is hashed out and it’s wordless. The words came to me at a party. There’s always an acoustic guitar at a party, and I made Andrew sit down and play his riff, and we wrote, with input from our drunk friends.

The more familiar I become with this song the more it reminds me of “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree, from the 90’s. Which must have been in the back of my psyche the night we wrote this. In the verses I am giving advice, like Des’ree, “take your chances and break some hearts, you can’t protect them even if you’re smart…” But then something goes terribly wrong and we start shouting “I got a broken heart so take me to a party!” in layers, like Barabara-Anne!

I always thought Barabara-Anne was the most awkward name to fit into a song. But it’s a pattern we all recognize now. I’m learning that stacking something in harmonies and yelling it late at night is the key to relating.

Congrats on your other band A Giant Dog signing to Merge. How will this affect Sweet Spirit? Will you take a break next year to push AGD?

I am confident there will be no break for either band. We’ll have to harvest the clones Andrew and I commissioned for ourselves at birth. We expect this to be a controversial move, but now that we have Merge on board, we won’t be stopped.

You recently had a very moving Facebook response to a Pitchfork article about Amy Winehouse’s eating disorders in which you talked about embracing your average build. What compelled you to write that and were you surprised at how it resonated with so many people?

The article about Amy Winehouse was upsetting. It was easy for media to explain Winehouse’s death as her own doing, and Pitchfork outed the source of her misery, an eating disorder. It’s a sad, cold reminder to look out for the vulnerable, because the world is harsh and often judgmental.

When I was a little kid I made this pact with myself that if I became in any way influential, I would help others who felt rejected. I got made fun of as a kid because I didn’t look right and didn’t act right, imagine a female Bobby Hill. I always wished I could change people’s pattern of thinking we all have to be this certain way to have a proper place in the world.

The way is this: Behaved. Reserved. Cool. Emotionally stable. Not too loud, not too quiet. Our bodies should all look as similar as possible. A woman would not only have to be talented, but dieting and eternally young to be chosen by society as valuable.

I always wanted to be an entertainer. I never expected to be chosen.

I got upset and I made a rant on Facebook about how I wanted to be congratulated when my thighs jiggle and when a roll is visible through my leotard, alluding to my performance style in A Giant Dog. I admitted to feeling scrutinized when I went through a health struggle and my weight fluctuated. I said what I had always wanted to say, that a woman should be proud of what she’s made of and shouldn’t have to spend so much time and energy trying to manipulate that. And should definitely not be driven to illness trying to be everything society expects of her.

I was met with so much encouragement from my peers online. If people are listening to what I have to say, that’s a lesson to me, that I can be influential even if I am not playing Letterman. So I know this, for next time I go ranting on Facebook.

You have a string of Austin shows coming up the week before Halloween. Any cool costumes in the works? And if your fans are caught up in the pre-Halloween spirit what’s a good costume theme for a Sweet Spirit show?

I hate to disappoint, but we won’t have time to assemble costumes. Maybe people can bring costumes to our shows, and we can wear them.

I predict the popular costumes this October at our shows will be “dirty nuns,” and “feral Peanuts.”

Author: Deborah Sengupta Stith

Deborah Sengupta Stith has been hanging out in dimly lit corners of the city soaking in the music scene for almost 20 years. Twitter: @deborific

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