Nebraska-based Americana/folk singer-songwriter Hope Dunbar has just released a brand new album, "Sweetheartland," which brings a taste of the prairies via some seriously fantastic sonic goodness. A clever mash-up of the words "sweetheart" and "heartland," the album title sets the stage for a compelling dose of truth-telling from one of the best songwriters and lyricists out there. Dunbar tells it like it is, loads her story-songs with plenty of emotional heft, and shares her soul in this collection of stellar songs. It's a keeper of the highest order, and Roughstock sat down with Dunbar recently to chat about the album, the song "What Were You Thinking" (a woe-is-me lament that becomes a kiss-off tale of epic proportions - “a gift card to a gasoline station is not a Valentine's present,” she admonishes an ex-lover), her New American Prairie sound, and the themes she visits and revisits in her songs.
Roughstock: Hi Hope! Thanks for joining us today. We love your new song, "What Were You Thinking." What is the story behind this song? Why did you write it?
Hope Dunbar: Hi! I'm glad to be here, thanks for having me. Well, first, thanks for loving this song. I'm really proud of it. I wrote it a long time ago, actually, and it has had a life up on stage, then a life in semi-retirement, but, when I started gathering material for this record, "Sweetheartland," I knew I had to have it on the album. Its first incarnation sounded more like a novelty song, to be truthful, but it has been through an evolution since I first wrote it. It is from the point of view of a woman having lost her man, having seen his infidelity with her own eyes, and, in doing so, she kind of opens her eyes to all the ways this guy was no good for her. What starts as a lament of lost love ends up being a song about getting rid of dead weight.
Roughstock: What kind of a vibe were you going for on this song when you recorded it? Do you think you ended up with a song that sounds like you expected it to sound? If so, how so, and if not, what's different about it?
Hope Dunbar: So I brought one version of the song to my producers, Zack Smith and Jesse Thompson, and they envisioned a completely different sound in their heads. One of the things I was really committed to in entering into this production was the idea that I wanted Zack and Jesse's artistry to help shape these songs. When they pitched their idea for how the song could sound, I was like, "Yes. One hundred percent. How was it ever anything other than this version?" I'm a songwriter first and foremost. I love words and crafting something new over and over again. I admit there's some things my brain does really well, but there are other things I need from other brains to make this work the best it can be. This whole album is a testimony to everyone bringing their best to the table and creating something amazing together. I love how this song turned out.
Roughstock: How does "What Were You Thinking" fit into the overall vibe and themes of your music in general?
Hope Dunbar: Vibe-wise, this song lines up really well with my other work. I've described my style as "New American Prairie" which, to my best knowledge, embodies quiet resilience, staying in the midst of a storm, watching the ground freeze, then thaw, then rolling up your sleeves and getting to the real work of sowing seeds you hope will grow into sustenance. I think the cry of, "Can anybody hear me?" is revisited again and again in my songs (or, at least, that's what I think about sometimes when I write). This song is about a woman unseen, still standing, a little banged up but putting one foot in front of the other. I have lots of characters in my songs doing that very thing over and over again.
Roughstock: Was this a music-first or a lyrics-first song for you? Which way do you tend to write in general, music or lyrics first?
Hope Dunbar: I almost always write with a guitar in my hand. I do believe the first lines, "I saw the kiss, I saw the bar, I saw the woman you were with from afar..." were the first words I wrote with a guitar in my hands. I keep the guitar with me as I build a verse/chorus/verse pattern along with initial words for both. Then, I usually put the guitar down after letting that song sketch sink in so that I can finish writing the rest of it in my head as I walk around and do stuff. My recollection of this song is how awesome I felt having finished it. I loved it from the get-go, and I loved playing it.
Roughstock: Tell us about your new album, "Sweetheartland." How did it come together? What are two "must listen" songs for listeners to check out and why do you think they are stand-out tracks?
Hope Dunbar: I love this record. Going into production, I knew I wanted to make a record with a little more sound, more personnel, more heart and emotion, and maybe sing kinda loud... and I love this final product. It's everything I wanted it to be, to tell you the truth. It started with a desire to explore a bigger sound. Ya know, as a solo singer-songwriter, I don't tour with an ensemble most of the time, and I specifically wanted to make a record with a bigger sound. I knew I wanted to work with Zack Smith of Smoothhound Smith. He's a friend of mine - I think he's really cool and fun to hang out with - and he brought on Jesse Thompson. The three of us got to work. They put an amazing group of players together, and I love the result. Besides "What Were you Thinking," I would love for listeners to check out "Evacuate"- it might be considered a companion piece.
Roughstock: You have a cohesion to your sound that is so organic and natural. How did you settle upon the Hope Dunbar "sound"? For the Roughstock readers who are just meeting you for the first time now, how do you describe your music to people who haven't heard it before?
Hope Dunbar: Why, thank you very much. Um, I have always described myself as a singer first and a guitar player second. I'm a singer, a songwriter, and then a guitar player, in that order. I do credit my vocal literacy with helping me fashion lyric lines and helping me know exactly where my voice can deliver the message of the song in the best way possible. That cooperation between lyric and line comes naturally and hopefully conveys a sense of truth, urgency, and vulnerability no matter the subject. The Hope Dunbar "sound" is what I call "New American Prairie," like I mentioned before, but with a shot of Patty Griffin, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Darrell Scott, Kris Kristofferson, and John Prine on the side. Somewhere along the way Hope Dunbar showed up, and I hope, no matter what she's singing, a listener can hear her plain as day.
Roughstock: How have you been connecting with fans during the pandemic?
Hope Dunbar: Ya know, I must confess the fear and trepidation I feel concerning the technological side of connecting with fans via livestreams and online shows has kept me rather hidden as a performer during pandemic. There was a steep learning curve for me, and I did do some shows that were good and others not so good, and it was enough to keep me fearful of whether I had it in me to do it. My Midwestern Lutheran mom lady identity feels a lot of guilt about that...
Roughstock: What's up next for you?
Hope Dunbar: Next up is mostly celebrating the release of "Sweetheartland" and hoping people get a chance to hear it! I haven't been playing shows online during the pandemic, but I have been writing a lot of new material, and it makes me want to start making plans for the next record. That's the great thing about songwriting - the songs just keep coming.