It took going through a long, dark Tunnel for Amy Stroup to find herself.
The Nashville-based singer-songwriter is many things to many people these days. Perhaps most identified in music circles since 2012 as Sugar, the fun-loving, hip-swinging R&B and retro rock star of Trent Dabbs' Sugar + the Hi-lows collaboration, Stroup left her alter-ego at the door while working on Tunnel, to be released February 4.
The Boston native learned a lot about Amy/Sugar while making her first solo full-length record since 2011's The Other Side of Love Sessions. Stroup now knows she can confidently perform her own material, in the studio and in front of a live audience, without hiding behind the audacious persona of Sugar. And sound just as sweet.
Though making sure she wasn't comparing Sugar to Beyonce's Sasha Fierce, Stroup used the analogy as a means to better understand how a performer can take on other's characteristics, use that to their advantage, then, in her case, struggle to get back to her true self.
"Sugar has given me a confidence that I've never had before," Stroup admitted last week over the phone from Nashville. "And it's kind of teaching me how to step into, just be Amy Stroup. And that it's OK. You don't have to have this ultra-personality to confidently perform, to confidently write a song. You can just be Amy and that's great. Stand on your own two feet kind of thing. I think Sugar has kind of allowed me in some ways the braces on my legs to just stand up and go, 'All right, I'm going to confidently say this as Amy.' "
That's what she does on Tunnel, a 12-song collection that serves as a peaks-and-valleys journey over the past three or four years. As a solo artist, that also involves turning back for an inside look and not always liking what you see.
"I'm just thinking about, 'Hey, how do I communicate something honest and true that may be a little more introspective?' " Stroup said. "And Tunnel is more of an expression of things that I've personally been through."
Songs such as "Falling," "Sabotage" and "Back Burner" focus on personal breakups, "a couple of disappointing relationships (that) just never worked out over the last couple years," she said, cheerfully declining to reveal more about her current status other than she's single and happy.
"And I guess that traces to things in me. Like how I was raised (moving with her religious parents to Abilene, Texas, then Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama) and just being ready for a relationship that would be kind of ... I think we're drawn to each other sometimes through brokenness. And that can lead to a lot of different unhealthy things in a relationship."
Then there's "Far From Yesterday," which she wrote after connecting with the lead character's dilemma in the independent film Martha Marcy May Marlene.
"The girl leans over and goes, 'Did that really happen? How far am I from what happened yesterday?' " Stroup said. "And I was so struck by her question of when you kind of go through something and you wake up the next morning and you want to know literally, 'How far am I from yesterday?' And when can that point of hope ... is hope gonna start today? Or am I far enough removed from the situation for it to be at a place of being OK?"
Her involvement with the "ever-evolving experiment" of Sugar + the Hi-lows has been a blast, especially since their mantra is "It's not good music if you can't dance to it." Yet it also has served a dual purpose, leading to a lot of soul-searching and dealing with emotional highs and lows since the group launched two years ago.
"Being on the road (supporting acts such as Marc Broussard, Allen Stone and Ingrid Michaelson), it's kind of like almost a false world of hype and excitement," Stroup said. "Then coming home, I would really feel that crash that you feel of ... some call it boredom. But I was trying to figure out a balance of the two between.
"So for the first time I went to a therapist and just talked about that thing so many tour musicians feel. And really discovered so many unexpected things about myself from childhood, my past and why I'm a performer anyway, and just kind of dug up all kinds of emotions. And I think it actually helped me grow and balance. And so it was so uncomfortable."
Also emerging from those feelings was the album title.
"Any time you're driving on a road and you're going through a tunnel, if you look up, you kind of get dizzy and you kind of have to focus and stay in that ... just keep your eyes straight ahead," she said. "And that's kind of how the healing felt for me over the last couple years. Just going through stuff but trying to stay focused on the future and working through that. Then being OK with it being uncomfortable till the actual, I guess, root healing came."
Stroup, whose dreamy, ethereal singing voice on Tunnel recalls Julia Stone, even surprised Thomas Doeve, who produced the initial tracks recorded at Brown Owl Studio. "He looked at me one day and was like, 'You're one of the happiest, most joyful people I know, but these songs are so dark,' " she said, laughing at the notion. "And I was like, 'I think I'd be an insane person if I didn't ... write.' I think we all have our outlet."
While it's certainly more reflective than Sugar + the Hi-lows' blond beauty-and-the-beat transformation on their 2012 self-titled debut, Tunnel has some mood-swinging moments. Examples include the opening "Finally Found Our Way," the beautiful "Curious Heart" and the '80s' synth-laden "Back Burner," on which an iPad was a first-time instrument for the versatile Stroup, who contributes guitar and piano elsewhere.
Stroup enlisted Mary Hooper, her partner in Nashville's Milkglass Creative, a company that specializes in artist branding, art direction, book cover and album design, as her primary cowriter on the record. Also utilized were a number of talented artists Stroup has met or worked with since moving to the Music City around 2003, where she attended Christian-oriented Lipscomb University before making records and getting involved in side projects such as Dabbs' cool collective known as Ten Out of Tenn.
K.S. Rhoads, a Ten Out of Tenn alum, producer Cason Cooley, current Kacey Musgraves guitarist Kyle Ryan and the Silver Seas' Daniel Tashian are among Tunnel's contributing writers. Along with Ryan, other valuable musicians include multi-instrumentalist Ian Fitchuk ("His thumbprint is all over the album"), drummer Jared Kneale, guitarist Nathan Spicer (touring with Katy Perry) and violinist Eleonore Denig, who's been arranging strings for Stroup since that 2011 solo album. Konrad Snyder, who mixed Sugar + the Hi-lows, produced the tracks that were added almost a year after the first sessions.
Notably absent is Dabbs, but Stroup had an explanation for her missing Sugar daddy, who also has a busy music career. The Way We Look at Horses, his eighth solo album, was released in November and he's written for numerous performers including Hayden Panettiere ("Undermine" cowritten with Musgraves) and Sam Palladio ("Shine" cowritten with Ashley Monroe) of ABC's TV series Nashville, the Civil Wars' Joy Williams and Katie Herzig. He sang on a couple of the songs he wrote for Michaelson's next record.
"I just wanted to collaborate with someone different because so much of Sugar is just Trent and I, and I didn't want that to kind of get lost in the identity of it," Stroup said. "He probably had a similar need like me to express something totally different."
Watching Ryan, Kneale and bassist Adam Keifer (another Sugar alumnus) perform with Musgraves on the Grammy Awards the night before this interview was a thrill for Stroup, who never has attended the event.
When her brother Zack became the latest in a long line of people wondering if that's a dream Stroup still hopes to fulfill, she had an answer.
"I said, 'Sure, but I'd really, really like to win an Oscar someday for writing something that's in a movie.' That's kind of my personal goal, to win an Oscar."
That objective isn't too far-fetched, considering Stroup has landed songs in independent films and hit TV shows such as Parenthood, Grey's Anatomy and Pretty Little Liars.
Among other endeavors, she recently sang on four songs for Michaelson's upcoming album that was partly recorded at Nashville's Blackbird Studio and plans to hit the road again, both as a Sugar-free solo artist and under the guise of that oh-so-appropriate nickname her father forever attached to Amy when she was still a little girl.
Stroup's CD release show for Tunnel at the High Watt on February 26 will follow three intriguing dates (February 14-16) at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Polk Theater, where the Nashville Ballet will bring a new Attitude by dancing to Johnny Cash songs performed live by none other than Sugar + the Hi-lows.
Never staying too far apart as professional partners, Stroup and Dabbs went into the studio with Ryan, Kneale and Keifer to record signature Cash-June Carter songs such as "Jackson" and "Ring of Fire," and plan to add a couple of their originals for a Sugar album they hope to release in May or June.
"I don't know what I would do if I didn't have a lot on my plate," said Stroup, who credited Dabbs and Hooper for being there during her time of need. "I would probably try to create things to put on my plate."
She meant that literally, too, having started a side project with Hooper and designer/stylist Lauren Ledbetter called An Unlikely Bunch, a dinner series that "celebrates people who are being bravely human."
"It's really getting some great people around the table and enjoying a meal that's kind of on a gourmet chef level and just relaxing with friends," Stroup said, mentioning a recent collaboration in Chicago with Nashville singer-songwriter (and Ten Out of Tenn member) Andrew Belle and his wife Jill, who's a chef. "It's grown a little bit, more than I ever thought."
Hungry to create a tasteful career, Stroup is pleased to add an occasional spoonful of Sugar while taking pride in making a living as a full-time musician, a profession that isn't always so easy to swallow.
"Even though I may not be as big as Katy Perry, I definitely have been able to sustain myself and a couple of other people," she surmised. "That to me is success."
Such a self-discovery is invaluable, whether it's made by Amy Stroup or Amy Sugar. From both sides now, she can see more highlights at the end of this Tunnel.
Concert photo by Steph Burdorff. Publicity photo by Deborah Lopez.
See behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Tunnel: