Interview: Sunny Ozell

Sunny Ozell is an Americana vocalist who splits her time between Brooklyn and LA with her husband Sir Patrick Stewart. Her latest album Overnight Lows was released in March and tells personal stories through the heartfelt lyrics that can take the listener on their own reflective journey. Her music is one of my new finds during this time at home.

Sunny has also been doing a YouTube series exploring Medieval churches across the English countryside. She loves to do research and then visit these locations across Europe in person to experience the rich culture and ancient artwork at the sites. Her videos take the viewer on an adventure to places that they may not be able to visit in person with descriptions that tell the details of past generations with wonderful live performances inside.

I was very happy to catch up with Sunny at home in LA to discuss the new record, favorite travel destinations and her love of medieval history.

Where are you actually quarantined?

We are in Los Angeles.

At least it is clear blue skies there for the first time in a long while.

Indeed yes. We have seen some birds in our yard, and mind you we just moved into this house so we are not that familiar with the neighborhood. I have seen some birds I have never seen before which is really fun.

Has the virus disrupted any of your touring or performance plans?

My whole summer, yes.

Have you postponed yet?

That decision is more on the festivals but I know it is not going to happen. It is such an interesting time. Other touring acts that I know say they had a gig at the 100 Club in London that has already been re-booked for the Fall or early winter of 2021. I don’t know when I am going to preform again.

I am now questioning if any festivals are going to happen in 2020 at all.

In the absence of any kind of leadership in the UK and the US, there is not a clear dictate for how this is going to work and this is how we are going to do this. Germany and France have had such a better response to all this.

I have been listening to your new music. I saw some of your videos highlighting English Medieval churches. What drew you to these churches? You describe them in detail at the start of some of the videos. Are you spiritual or religious? 

I am not religious. I definitely lean atheist. That said, I believe in the power of people coming together in a common spiritual pursuit. For me, it is not the religious aspect that draws me to these buildings but the human aspect that these buildings in the UK are these wonderful receptacles of centuries of life in that country. 

I was also drawn to them because I am from Reno, Nevada and the oldest thing we have is maybe 100 years old but in England this church was built before the Norman Conquest. This is a Saxon church from 900 AD and that blows my mind. The amount of human lives that have passed through in 1000 years is incredible. You can mark out these different periods of religious life in the UK. You can see where the Reformation happened. You can see where there was maybe counter-protests like Catholicism and Calvinism and all the -isms of Christianity. There are several time capsules in a single building where you can see various stages of development. 

Definitely Europe and Asia have so much more history than the US in general. Are there any churches you would recommend, your highlights, your favorites, ones you would say if you are in England you should go visit?

For me there are two schools of thought. There are the really big glorious churches, the cathedrals and the minsters. While those are all astonishing, they were more exposed to The Reformation, for example the Canterbury Cathedral. There is a lot that survived the Reformation and there is a lot that didn’t. 

Whereas smaller kind of parish churches may have escaped some of those destructive forces. We lived in a region called West Oxfordshire in that central belt of England. Oxford is where the wool trade was really thriving in the 14th century. 700 years ago, there was a significant amount of wealth in that area. It shows in all the ecclesiastical buildings of that time period. A lot of them are so tucked away in these towns decimated by the Plague or 100 Years War. All of these forces were going on in that time in 13th, 14th, 15th centuries so maybe people moved away from that village and the church just sat there housing all these wonderful relics form the past. 

There are a couple churches where I love the wall paintings, like a Fresco. In the UK, instead of calling them a Fresco, you call them a Wall Paintings because they are little. They are not a true Italian Fresco where there is a Gesso layer applied. They are more fragile unfortunately. During the Reformation, they would often throw whitewash up over the paintings. During the 17thand 18th centuries, they started picking away at the whitewash and find these unbelievable, vibrant, vivacious Medieval paintings still in place. To me it is almost like treasure hunting. It is so wonderful. It is a legitimate hobby in the UK called Church Crawling where you go look for things. Everyone has their favorites, some people like to go see Memorials, as in tombs. Some people are really into the woodwork. Some people are into the Baptismal Fonts. I love looking for graffiti. I miss it so much.

You have an album called Overnight Lows. Where did the title come from?

Interestingly, the title came to me even before I wrote the song. I have been a bit of an insomniac all my life. I liked that it is a double entendre. I loved overnight lows could refer to weather or the dark places we sometimes go to in the night when we can’t sleep. I like the Ray Charles lyric “The night time is the right time.” There is something sexy about it. I was pretty thrilled to land on it.

Is there a favorite song on the album to perform live?

That has been a moving target a bit. Surprisingly I really like singing “The Garden,” the kind of power ballad. Usually in a live setting you tend to sing the more upbeat things because people are drinking and out to have a good time. That one is more contemplative but I have found people really listen and that has been fun to be able to hold people’s attention even though it is a more somber experience.

My two favorites are “Driving Highways” and “Not Afraid”. Are there any stories behind either of those you would like to talk about?

“Driving Highways,” as I said I am from Reno, Nevada and it is one of the most unpopulated states. It is just big empty roads, you know? I moved to New York City in 2004 and drove the whole way there in a U-Haul and it was a very evocative experience. That kind of experience of taking a step forward not knowing where you are going to go but feeling everything you are leaving behind in the process. That is “Driving Highways.”

You have traveled all over the world. Are there any special places that you would recommend for people or any special places you would like to go back to?

Small Italian towns, not the big ones. Florence is absolutely amazing and Venice is amazing but I prefer the small towns. We went to Perugia recently and it was unbelievable, totally unbelievable. Perugia has a museum that has a collection that rivals anything else in Italy. Assisi is absolutely amazing. Verona is amazing outside of Venice. Oh my God, we went to Ravenna recently.

Italy blows my goddamn mind how rich in history it is. It is just fascinating. It has to be that it is this big peninsula. As a region it has so much coastline so people would be coming and going from a maritime perspective. That has to be why, and Rome of course. Ravenna used to be this coastal town but the coastline has moved with the river that floats through the city deposited all this silt so the city no longer had access to the coastline and declined. At one point it was the capital of the Roman Empire after Rome had fallen. Before the idea of the Roman Empire was over and before the Byzantine Empire became centered in Constantinople, for a small time Ravenna was the imperial seat and there are these buildings still standing from that time period, like 380 or 410 ADS, and they are filled with mosaics and beautiful marble paneling. I am getting emotional thinking how astonishing the historic fabric in Ravenna is. I cannot recommend it enough. Go to Ravenna and have your mind blown.

I love hearing about places that are not always well-known travel destinations.

I think you have to be interested in that time period, coming out of the Classical time period into the early Medieval period, but it is just nuts and it is really beautiful.

After this quarantine, do you have any dream vacation spots?

Yes, I want to go to Sicily. I am really obsessed with Medieval history if you can’t tell. It is a funny thing. It is almost like collecting. I don’t walk away with any object but it feels like I am collecting knowledge and experience every time I go. We went to Ravenna right before Christmas and it was somewhere I had wanted to go for years. It was so satisfying to finally get there and see it and it will be the same when I get to Sicily.

What is your one must have quarantine item?

Booze. Isn’t it insane. We had to actually get another recycling bin. It is not good. I saw this meme on Instagram of a photograph of a massively packed stadium titled Alcoholics Anonymous 2021.

I have been talking to a lot of chefs and secretly getting their cocktail recipes through questions so I don’t think you are alone. Are there any charities or groups you guys are supporting through the pandemic?

I lived in New York City for 15 years and a huge part of my time in New York was defined by working in restaurants and that industry has been absolutely decimated. I don’t know what I would have done if my restaurant had to close and I didn’t know when it was going to open again and if it was going to open again. I really like what the New York Hospitality Coalition is doing.

I know you lived in New York City many years. Are there any favorite New York City activities you love to do?

You are going to make me all nostalgic. Before I got a car in New York, I would get a Zip Car with a girlfriend and we would drive out to Jacob Riis Beach, which feels like it is at the end of the world, take a cooler and smoke a joint on the beach and swim in a dirty ocean. 

I loved walking the high line when it first opened; it felt like magic. I basically loved walking around New York. Say you get off the F Train at 4th Street and you walk to Union Square and instead of taking the train again you decide to keep walking to Madison Square and it is so nice out and you keep walking. You get a coffee, maybe you get an ice cream, run into somebody you know. It is such a beautiful city and it is so strange not to be there right now. It feels like I am betraying my chosen city, we might have been in Brooklyn but I had a gig here in LA. 

This is crazy, I had my record release in LA on March 10th and literally the next day it became clear holy shit we shouldn’t be going to restaurants or anything anymore. My gig was a Tuesday night, and not to toot my own horn, but it was packed. I spent the next solid two weeks taking my temperature everyday and wondering if it was allergies or Coronavirus.

This is such an unprecedented experience. Everyday is different. I don’t see how it can be over anytime soon with anything short of a magic bullet vaccine with enough for the population of the planet. 

I am hopeful. I feel like good things might come out of this. People will hopefully more respect for the planet and for the environment. I am hoping there are lessons to be learned out of it.

We need better social safety nets. We need to take care of each other better.

Do you have any messages for your fans?

Just lean into love and read a good book.

Photo provided by the artist

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