Finding That Sweet Spirit

Sweet_Hangout-26Throughout Marvin Gaye’s young life, even into his adulthood, he endured constant physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father. The encouragement of his mother kept him going and pushed him to find his voice, but there was no escape from his father’s wrath. In 1984, when Marvin was 44 and his father was 69 years old, his father shot and killed Marvin as he sat talking with his mother, with whom his father had been arguing. Painful though it may be, I can’t help but feel that Gaye’s transcendent and soulful music sprung from his terrible difficulties in life—beauty forged in the crucible of trauma. Although I don’t have any indication that the members of Sweet Spirit hold such ordeals in their pasts, I see a commonality. In some ways, Marvin Gaye is Sweet Spirit’s—well, spirit animal.

Sweet Spirit is a mission of self-discovery. Aptly named, the project fronted by songwriter and musician Sabrina Ellis not only utilizes the sounds of soul music as points of reference but also came to exist as a way for Ellis to look deeper into her own spirit. Ever changing and growing, Sweet Spirit’s restlessness underscores the group’s pursuit of outstanding music and deeper connections with themselves and others. Recently, Ellis invited me to spend some time with Sweet Spirit in the days leading up to a series of important gigs—a warm up show playing the opening slot at Hotel Vegas for Liz Burrito’s birthday, an EP release show at Radio Coffee, and a set performing as Britt Daniel’s backing band at C Boy’s Heart and Soul for Mike McCarthy’s birthday. When Daniel saw the band, he quickly became a fan. He asked Ellis’s other band A Giant Dog to open for Spoon at Stubb’s during ACL weekend last year.

Sweet_Hangout-1I meet up with Ellis at her East Austin home on a cold February afternoon. She begins our conversation by catching me up on the origin of Sweet Spirit. Last year, Ellis experienced massive, turbulent changes in both her musical career and personal life. In the first month of 2014, Ellis separated from her husband and musical collaborator Seth Gibbs. Everything stable in her life shattered. This time of utter brokenness allowed her to reassemble, and shortly after, in seeking an outlet for musical expression and processing this emotional turmoil, she formed a new band—Sweet Spirit. Ellis speaks with the utmost reverence for her relationship with Gibbs—tells me that he taught her so much and the two were deeply in love, so in love that the intensity of the relationship frequently boiled over from affection into frustration and anger.

Through this constant, tense enmeshment with another person, Ellis came to the conclusion that she needed to be able to stand on her own more fully. In a conversation with a friend on a trip to New York, Ellis remembers confessing that her vision of herself in the future included being able to perform alone onstage. “I could see this metaphor of myself as being solitary,” she says. At the moment she conceived this visual representation of being solitary, she says she didn’t know she’d be “trying to get there so fast.”

Sweet_Hangout-30Sweet Spirit is the result of that desire to stand-alone. At the onset, Ellis says, “It was supposed to be focused on me writing solo, and performing with the guitar, and leading the band.” However, as Ellis began working in this role, she found that long time friend and collaborator Andrew Cashen buoyed her work, helping with composing and arranging. Cashen and Ellis also work together in another band, garage rock outfit A Giant Dog, but Sweet Spirit offered both musicians an opportunity to work with a different set of sounds and develop a new aesthetic. Cashen and Ellis still have a rock ‘n’ roll edge undeniably present in Sweet Spirit, but the band claims soul and pop as its primary points of reference. Member Andrew Cashen has said that Sam Cooke is one of his favorite artists of all time. “I’m borderline obsessed,” he admits. In Sweet Spirit, Cashen is creating music unlike any he’s worked on before, but says he feels he’s finding his groove. Of one song, he says it “came out exactly the way I thought it would.” He’s discovering new parts of himself. He says, “I’m very comfortable doing loud and fast,” and calls Sweet Spirit “uncharted territory.”

After existing for about a year, Sweet Spirit was asked to perform a set for Free Week as a Marvin Gaye cover band. To bolster the six-person lineup and to help recreate Gaye’s songs, Sweet Spirit added a trumpet and saxophone to the mix, played by Sam Rives and Leslie Matthews respectively, as well as a backup singer, Cara Tillman. As the band rehearsed for the show, Ellis liked what she heard, finding inspiration in Gaye’s music, perhaps connecting to the passion and pain delivered through his soul. She decided to teach the new members Sweet Spirit songs for upcoming gigs. Soon, the band had become a full-time nine-piece group. “It’s a nine person family,” Ellis says. “It’s very cooperative.” She’s aware of the irony that the project began with the intent of providing a solo outlet and grew into a huge band. But she says that the solitary figure “is what was calling me and leading me to start this idea.” In learning how to stand on her own, Ellis has also discovered how to function as an individual within a group—the power of balancing autonomy with cooperation.

Sweet_Hangout-2Our interview concludes, and Ellis invites me to round up a few other band members to grab food and beer before the group holds practice for their upcoming gig with Britt Daniel—a group jokingly billed as Sweet Daniel. After practice, the band will play a show at Hotel Vegas. Our first stop is Andrew Cashen’s house just a few blocks away from Sabrina’s. Cashen is Ellis’s songwriting partner, and the two concoct the material for both Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog. Sabrina explains to me how completely focused they are as a pair. It makes sense, as their songs are not only catchy and powerful but also complex and nuanced. These facts combined with Sabrina’s unhinged performances shows makes Sweet Spirit a true wonder: one of rock ‘n’ roll’s last great bands. Austin’s own Debbie Harry.

Sweet_Hangout-3Andrew has just woken up from a nap when we arrive, but in true musician fashion, after rolling out of bed and hitting the bathroom, he’s ready to go in just a few minutes. Cashen and Ellis immediately fall into the easy banter of close friends; there’s a sort of comfortable electricity between the two, the unmistakable feeling of an inseparable alliance. For the first time in the day, I feel a bit like Nick Carraway—within and without. Cashen tells me a little about his first project, a punk rock band back in Houston. Eventually, he moved to Austin to work with Sabrina. He tells me he arrived with “this recorder full of a hundred songs.” He and Sabrina “picked five and wrote them. It happened really fucking quick, and it’s always been that way.” Despite being totally committed to music, Andrew says they started A Giant Dog with “no career ambitions. It was fun.” Even though Sweet Spirit has gotten love from a wide range of press outlets in their first year, it’s clear that for Andrew, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll remains the driving force for his creativity.

Sweet_Hangout-4From Cashen’s house we head further into central Austin to pick up Josh Merry, who tosses an amp and a guitar in the back of the car and we’re gone. Cherrywood is quickly selected as the dinner spot, and the four of us make a quick jaunt north to the café. The guys get burgers, I get a decked-out grilled cheese, and Sabrina starts her meal with a huge slice of pie. Everyone gets a beer. After her pie, Sabrina eyes my fries from across the table and asks for one. I enthusiastically oblige. As she reaches across for a handful, she intones in a deep, husky voice, “I like pie and fries!” Andrew gets the idea to turn the camera on me as I’m stuffing grilled cheese in my face and quips, “Can’t wait until you update your profile pic,” when he hands my camera back to me. As we finish eating, Sabrina says she needs to grab a smoothie for Sweet Spirit band member Jonathan Fichter and suggests: Mango, banana, apple juice, almond milk, and yogurt. “That sounds awesome!” Josh says. “Get two,” Sabrina says. “Get three!” Andrew chimes in. “You want one?” Sabrina asks. “No,” Andrew says, “a beer!”

Sweet_Hangout-7Josh gets up to grab beer and smoothies and Sabrina confesses that she needed a smoothie of her own so she wouldn’t drink all of Jon’s on the way to practice. “A back up smoothie,” says Andrew. Josh returns with the smoothies in hand, excited because Ween’s “Don’t get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)” has just come on the sound system. He and Sabrina burst into singing the lyrics together. We get up from the table with just enough time to make the scheduled Sweet Spirit practice, but as we leave the restaurant, Sabrina gets a text from band member Cara Tillman, whose car has broken down. Cara’s on the verge of breakdown, but Sabrina quells her fears and assures her we’re on the way. Everyone piles into Sabrina’s huge blue truck and we speed off for a rescue mission.

Cara used to play in a band called Burgess Meredith and got to know Sabrina through booking shows with her band Bobby Jealousy. We’re on strict orders to be nice to Cara after picking her up. We pull over on the corner of 12th and Airport, I fling the door open, and Cara jumps in. Now running a few minutes late, Sabrina worries about keeping Britt waiting. I ask if they’re excited for the practice and the show with the Spoon frontman, and everyone says they’re stoked.

Sweet_Hangout-13The five of us arrive at the practice space and meet up with drummer Danny Blanchard, keyboardist Jake Knight, bassist Jon Fichter, saxophonist Leslie Matthews, trumpet player Sam Rives, and Britt Daniel. In the practice room, Sabrina springs into her role as the band’s leader, directing people where to place amps and set up gear. Everyone’s obviously excited to be practicing with Britt, and there’s no awkward shyness among Sweet Spirit’s members. They’re at home in their own practice space and they’re here to do their thing. Everyone’s on equal footing. Britt might be the most uncertain person in the room—after all, he’s the outsider in the group. But once the band starts playing, he relaxes into his role as Sweet Daniel’s co-leader.

Sweet_Hangout-23I’ve staked out a spot standing on top of an amp, attempting to blend into the wall as much as possible and not cramp the band’s practice. Danny lays down a familiar beat and the ten-piece kicks off their set with “Metal Detektor.” I’m admittedly a little star struck for the first time of the evening. I moved to Austin in 2001 and seeing some of Spoon’s early shows are among my first Austin live music experiences. Britt grins as he starts to sing, clearly impressed by the accuracy of Sweet Spirit’s treatment of the song. After that, the band smiles knowingly and promises they have something surprising in store with “Paper Tiger.” “Let’s see what you’ve done with it,” Britt says.

Danny falls into an incredibly fast paced beat with the hi-hat open, completely rethinking the sparse, mellow arrangement of the original Spoon rendition. Jake adds the familiar notes of the keyboard, and Britt nods along but can’t help but look a bit bewildered. Andrew infuses the song with distorted guitar. Someone gives Britt a cue and he starts in, “I’ll never hold you back…” When the song ends, everyone in the room feels the triumph of knocking it out of the park—the song rocks.

Sweet_Hangout-21I try to excuse myself after three or four songs, saying I don’t want to intrude on the band’s vibe, but everyone graciously encourages me to stay. I don’t argue one bit. Sweet Daniel go on to practice a number of Sweet Spirit songs including rocker “Let Me Be On Top” as well as two covers: “Run Run Run” by Velvet Underground and “Light of Love” by Marc Bolan. The energy increases as the practice goes on. Even in practice, Sabrina exudes that raw edge so alluring at shows. She tears at her hair and raises her arms above her head. A few songs in, she fires up a pipe and takes a long drag before exhaling slowly into the air. The haze of smoke dissipates as she continues to belt out lyrics.

Sweet_Hangout-33Near the end of the evening Britt remarks that the practice is going incredibly well compared to some of the other practices he’s done for this upcoming show. “You wanna get onstage tonight and do a couple with us?” Sabrina asks. “You have a gig tonight?” he asks, surprised. “Yeah, at Vegas,” a chorus of voices responds. He looks uncertain, but says, “Yeah, sure.” Everyone cheers. There’s one more song, Sabrina announces telling Britt they have a surprise for him. She shows him an additional song on the setlist—“I Summon You.” Britt smiles and starts the song. Danny comes in at just the right moment on drums. Most of the band members provide background vocals in a delicate and tender arrangement of the song. It’s beautiful.

Practice ends around nine and as the band packs away their gear, Sabrina asks me how it sounded. “Great!” I say without hesitation. When I pitched the idea of following the band around for a day before a show, I had no idea a practice for this show would be part of it. Sabrina knows that I’ll actually have to miss the C Boy’s show with Britt because I’m leaving for New York the day before. I have a hunch this is why she asked me to stay for the whole practice. “Feel a little less bad about missing Sunday?” she asks. I smile, and say, “Definitely,” with as much sincerity as I’ve got.

Sweet_Spirit_at_Hotel_Vegas_022615-11I walk down the narrow hallway of the facility of practice rooms. Out front I say farewell to some of the band, and tell them I’ll see them at Vegas soon. I make my way down the venue a little over an hour later and arrive just as Sweet Spirit is setting up. The group is magnificent as always, and I can’t help but feel a sense of pride after spending a day in close proximity with such talented artists. The band plays a short set of their own material before they ask Britt to join them onstage. He does, and they play “Paper Tiger” and “Light of Love” to end the set. With a five-band bill for this special event, the performance is short and gives Sweet Spirit the exact warm-up they wanted headed into two important weekend shows, even though it doesn’t reach the fervor of which their shows are capable. Sabrina later told me that having Brit up onstage was a dream and that it felt like a triumph for everything the band has been working toward.

I wander out to the back patio of Hotel Vegas, and a few minutes later Britt emerges from the venues back door. We briefly exchange some general remarks about Sweet Spirit’s greatness. Britt tells me he’s so impressed with how productive the band has been. They’ve written a five-song EP and a full-length album both within their first year of existence. “I keep telling them not to stop what they’re doing,” Britt says.

* * * *

Sweet_Spirit_at_Radio_Coffee_022715-3Less than 24 hours later, I’m speeding through the freezing February night toward Radio Coffee in far South Austin for Sweet Spirit’s EP release show. Busy packing for my trip to New York, I ask Sabrina to text me with their set time. She couldn’t tell me the day before because she decided to just let the bands all draw straws for the order in which they’d play. Ghost Wolves and an out-of-town band, Rupert Angeleyes, are also on the bill. After straw-drawing, Sweet Spirit landed in the middle slot. Radio couldn’t be more packed when I arrive. I get up to the front to find Sweet Spirit setting up, stumbling around fans who are practically standing on the monitors, less than a foot from the band. The atmosphere is riveting. A few instruments won’t cooperate during the sound check, but in keeping with their punk rock attitudes, the band eventually adopts a “fuck it—let’s rock” mood and they plow forward into their set.

Sweet_Spirit_at_Radio_Coffee_022715-13Only a few members of the nine-piece fit on Radio’s tiny stage, and most of the members stand on the floor. It feels like a juiced-up house show. Sabrina feeds off the chaotic environment from the onset; as they play their first song, she reaches up, grabs a low hanging lamp, and sends it swinging with a shove. The group rocks through “Babydoll” and delivers the soulful pop of “If You Wanna.” The crowd pours on the affection in applause and cheers. One hardcore fan, a die-hard rocker who looks to be in her 50s or so charges through the crowd with a full bottle of wine and a stack of glasses. The band pours and drinks as they sing and thrash. Everything’s unhinged and unruly and utterly beautiful.

Sweet_Spirit_at_Radio_Coffee_022715-18Band members interact with each other onstage, leaning back-to-back, locking eyes, grinning and laughing. I watch in amazement as little alliances form between a few members and then dissolve. The members do their own thing impeccably and somehow that independence creates a loose yet cohesive effort. It’s perfect—or at least a perfect mess. With so many different instruments, the group diversifies sonic texture and creates depth. Britt comes onstage to finish out the night with “Paper Tiger” and he and Sabrina close down the set by singing a few inches away from one another, their eyes locked. She’s brimming with excitement.

Sweet_Spirit_at_Radio_Coffee_022715-15After the set I talk with Danny Blanchard about the free-form tightness the band achieves, and he jokingly tells me, “I generally hit at the right spot and it’s just by chance.” Danny has a theatrical performance style, almost like watching someone wielding swords. He tells me, “It’s to distract people from the fact that I’m not sure what I’m doing,” and admits, “I just ride the wave.” Keyboardist Jake Knight tells me he feels comfortable riding that wave because he says he can trust everyone in the band. They don’t have to worry about anyone else. Having such a talented cast of musicians allows the band to create arrangements and structure but leave room for improvisation. Trumpet player Sam Rives tells me that’s true especially when the band “is trying to go wide and loud.” He and Leslie Matthews on sax frequently get an opportunity to deliver some blistering solos as the guitars and drums build to a cacophonous roar.

Sweet_Spirit_at_Radio_Coffee_022715It’s freezing cold outside the venue, but everyone stands around outside cooling down after the set. Fans wander by various members and compliment the performance; everyone’s in high spirits. Sabrina and Cara round up everybody in the band, along with Britt, and I snap a picture behind the venue.

In two days, they’ll all play as Sweet Daniel at C Boy’s but I won’t be there. Afterward, I emailed Sabrina from New York to ask how it went. “It was wet and awful outside so everyone packed in,” she writes. “I was nervous.  It was awesome, “she admits.”  She recounts that at the end of the set, they “played ‘I Summon You’ and people went crazy. I saw a few people with their hands over their hearts.” She tells me the sound guy informed them the cops were outside near the end of the set, but they went ahead closed with “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” at the request of birthday celebrant Mike McCarthy. “I couldn’t remember the words because I was so fired up about the cops,” Sabrina writes. “I couldn’t understand what business they had shutting down a party at a music club before 2:00 am, and I was wearing my hotpants, which reveals my aggressive nature. So I chanted “party’s over, the cops are here” until my mic got shut off. We all went home happy.”

I’m sad I missed the show, but I know that long after the Sweet Daniel performance, there will be much more Sweet Spirit. Britt is helping to shine a light one of independent music’s most exciting bands, but their show together isn’t the end. Sabrina knows that marking art, finding that sweet spirit within us all takes consistent work and determination. Longevity is about finding your voice and learning how to harmonize with those around you. Nine members strong, Sweet Spirit is in perfect synchronicity.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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