Tom Power’s, of CBC Radio 2, says of Sweet Alibi, “If Mumford and Sons and the Supremes had a love child it would be named Sweet Alibi.” It’s an apt description of their sound, which is an exciting merging of the power of soul with the warmth of folk and energy of roots.
The three gorgeous ladies–Amber Nielsen (lead vocals, back-up vocals, acoustic guitar, ukulele), Michelle Anderson (electric guitar, banjo, back-up vocals) and Jessica Rae Ayre (lead vocals, back-up vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica)—formed in 2009 and released their self-titled debut in 2011. They quickly grabbed listeners with luscious harmonies, heartfelt lyrics and that intangible quality that often catapults a band into stardom. In 2012 they were nominated for best vocalist at the Canadian Folk Music Awards–future nominations (and wins) seem destined–and recently they were a featured band at the Junos.
Now they’re back with their newest release We’ve Got To (produced by Rusty Matyas of Imaginary Cities), and the trio hold nothing back. As with the best of soul and folk, raw emotional struggles and joys are shared with an honesty that resonates. Their moving record “I’ll Wait” deals with the pain of watching a loved one face illness, while “Get It Right” addresses one member’s path to sobriety.
The ladies, who are now on tour, took a moment to chat with the Winehouse about the challenges that almost stopped them from making We’ve Got To, and why they did it anyway. Chaka V.
Q: For those not familiar with Sweet Alibi, tell us a little bit about each of you–Amber, Jess Rae, and Michelle–and how you all came together?
Michelle Anderson: I’ve been playing guitar since I was 8 years old. And I picked up the banjo in high school, it was my grandpa’s banjo but he never really played it. Jess and I met in junior high, and we would always sing together. I asked Jess if she wanted to start a band a few years after high school when I saw her singing with another band. She suggested that Amber be involved in it because she was a really good singer ([Amber] was dating the drummer of the band [Jess was in]). I met Amber at our first rehearsal and we’ve been playing together ever since.
Jessica Rae Ayre: When I was in highschool I sang in choir and as a young child I liked to listen to my parents kind of music–Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, the Beatles. I always loved music but didn’t realize that I wanted to do it, live, until I went to the Winnipeg folk festival. Shortly thereafter, I started going out to live music venues around town, [and I] realized that there’s so much talent in the city that I could look up to.
Amber Nielsen: I moved to Winnipeg 17 years ago from Ontario. I had been living in a small town so Winnipeg was very intimidating but I quickly made some amazing friends and eventually found myself emerged in the local music scene!
Q: I love the album title “We’ve Got To.” Sweet Alibi’s bio alludes to a tumultuous few years leading up to the making of WGT, and the fact that the band doubted–for a moment–that there would even be a follow up to its successful debut. Can you share some of the challenges the band faced and why you decided to continue making music anyway?
Amber: I had been dealing with some big issues with my mother’s health. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer right before we were heading out on a big tour. It was hard being away during a big surgery and just dealing with everyday life knowing that her life was hanging by a thread. While I was visiting her in the hospital I wrote down the words “I’ll Wait,” from there my sister and I cried those words down the halls until I came up with some more lyrics. At our next rehearsal with Sweet Alibi I showed the girls my song and they loved it so much, we collaborated on the rest of the song and now it is our hit single! [ “I’ll Wait” has landed #4 on CBC Radio 2 charts ] Unfortunately things have not gone as well for my mother. Her health is deteriorating and I am afraid for her life. Here we are again heading out on the road and I am torn between staying and leaving. But my mother insists that I follow the path we have made. Dealing with real issues on the road can be tough but it is where I want to be and it makes me happy knowing my mother is proud.
Jess: Just being away on the road when you’re with family going through difficult times can be hard. Amber’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, [there was] a lot of support that she wanted to give her [mother], and she had to do it from a distance. I had recently gotten sober, and being on the road, in a fast-paced environment, not feeling grounded, so to speak, was challenging. I had to work to keep my head in the right space, and stay focused on the music as well as grow as an individual [during] this new part of my life.
Michelle: We were really busy last year, before and during the making of our new CD. We were touring constantly and adjusting to a new lifestyle, and work ethic. We didn’t have a manager so we were doing all the work. It can get tough but we all decided that we’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing, and decided to give it our all.
Q: What is the most exciting or rewarding part of music for the trio? Writing, recording, and/or performing? Do each of you have a favourite aspect?
Michelle: I think we all enjoy different aspects about playing music. My favorite part is recording. Working with a producer that will bring a different perspective to your songs, and working on getting better is rewarding for me. I always learn new things in the studio.
Jess: I really like them all for different things. Writing is great because you get to work as a team and get each other’s input, [which] you might not otherwise see just writing solo. Recording is great because you have the time and the resources to try out different things and hear how they sound as a whole. As well working with the new producer, it’s almost like you get a fourth members input. It’s really neat to open the boundaries of what your music is capable of.
Amber: I prefer the writing aspect of music. It has become a therapy for me in dealing with issues in my life. Whether it be good or bad writing always helps me release the energy I need to move on. Touring is a blast though, and I get to see friends and family across the country and meet other touring artists! The whole experience is inspiring. Recording is amazing and having someone like Rusty Matyas in the studio just makes it magical!
Q: When you’re touring, what is the best and worst parts of being on the road?
Jess: I love playing to new audiences each night, as well as meeting new faces and building relationships with musicians and fans. I truly feel like we have family [all] over Canada. [Touring] takes you away from loved ones but then there’s also the part of knowing that you’re doing what you love to do that makes you happy, and what we do can make other people happy, [and] that is a very gratifying place to be.
Michelle: The worst part of being on the road is being away from my family and friends (and dog). My boyfriend, Alasdair, plays bass with us but isn’t always available to come on the road. But when he does come it’s awesome. The best part of being on the road is that I get to play music everyday. And I get to see family that don’t live in Winnipeg, [as well as] meet awesome people across Canada.
Amber: [The worst part of touring] it’s not being able to be at home to give the support that’s needed in the family. I also miss my bed and my husband [laughs]. The best part for me is getting to know my band. Michelle and Jess have become like sisters to me and I love being on the road with such amazing people who encourage me and inspire our music!
Q: Sweet Alibi makes gorgeous soulful folk but if, as a band, you all could dabble in another genre of music, what would it be?
Amber: I really enjoy folk music, but we do like to make rap videos [laughs].
Jess: I’ve always wanted to play drums. I feel like blues/rock would be really fun!
Michelle: I would love to be in a pop band. I think that would be really fun.
Q: If Sweet Alibi could put together its own contemporary Woodstock or Lilith Fair, which past and/or present artists/bands would be headlining along with Sweet Alibi?
Michelle: I would love to put together a festival of people we’ve played with across Canada, lots of them from Winnipeg. Red Moon Road, the Crooked Brothers, Oh My Darling, Steve Brockley, JP Hoe, Del Barber, just to name a few.
Amber: I would pick: JD Edwards Band, JP Hoe, Red Moon Road, The Duhks, Eagle Lake Owl, Sebastian Owl, Crooked Brothers, the Perpetrators, Romi Mayes…the list goes on, basically a huge Winnipeg festival.
Jess: Jonathan Byrd, Sam Baker, Ariana Gillis, Jadea Kelly, Corin Raymond, High Society, Ben Wytinck, Run With The Kittens, the Perpetrators, Red Mood Road, JD Edwards, Steve Brockley, Samantha Martin, Scott Cook, Andrew Neville, Ladies in Waiting, Valerie June, Deep Dark Woods…I could keep going, but I won’t [laughs].
Q: What can we expect from your live show?
Michelle: At our live shows we play a combination of songs from our first and second cds. We also throw in some covers of songwriters we really respect like Andrew Neville and Neil Young.
Amber: You can expect real stories and heartfelt melodies. You can expect to laugh and maybe cry and also dance! You can expect beautiful harmonies! You can also expect to be surprised, we have been touring extensively and found a real comfort zone on stage that allows us to show our true colours!
Jess: Lots of harmonies, some laughs, some sing-alongs, our awesome backup band…and us!