With her deep understanding and appreciation of music, it’s no surprise that classically trained singer Sunny Ozell’s debut album “Take It With Me” is an education in roots-based music that has informed the canon of American music. However, it may be a surprise to know that Ozell started her musical journey in the desert haze of Reno’s casinos.
Ozell has been a musician as long as she can remember. She revealed to Tahoe Onstage before a show in the small seaside town of Bolinas, California, that growing up in Reno’s Old Southwest and later Colin Ranch, music was a near constant in her life. When she was just 4 years old, her parents enrolled her classes to be trained in the demanding method of classical violin called Suzuki, which focuses on ear training. This was later supplemented by classical voice lessons and a stint in the Reno Opera Company in which she performed as the only child in the group, quite a feat but not surprising.
While her training gave her the skills to hit those soft angelic notes that float over songs like “Number One” on her new record, it was her parent’s vinyl collection that gave her direction. When Ozell was 13, she saw the Moody Blues power its way through Reno and when she was 15 she was graced by the soaring harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash standing in the front row.
“I wrote down the set list and we got backstage because we were sitting next to an acquaintance who worked at Bobo’s — Actually, he still works at Bobo’s, he fitted our skis and boots! He fitted the liners in my boots this season. Pat, I can’t remember his last name, but Pat got us backstage and (CSN) signed my set list and I still have it framed somewhere,” Ozell said.
Ozell admitted there wasn’t much of a music scene in Reno when she was young, though she was a big fan of local ska band the Mudsharks and its charismatic leader Jammal Tarkington. Spreading her wings she moved to Boulder, Colorado, and later New York City and did all the things any serious musician does: she played and played and played.
She joined a blues band when she was 19, which she described as “a hell of an education,” then later joined an Afro-Cuban band called Chupacabra. While living in New York she began performing in little jazz ensembles and writing her own melodies and lyrics. All those different experiences in music eventually led her to find the voice that most resonated with her.
“Being in New York for over a decade and seeing a ton of music in New York of course I love all types of music, but you have to come to terms with what you do well and what you as an individual that you can bring that is specifically you and therefore unique. I think this record is a distilled version of everything I love and focusing on what my voice does best, which is this blend of soul and Americana,” Ozell said.
Despite being a career musician for most of her life, “Take It With Me” is Ozell’s first recorded offering, but with the command she has over her voice and how they fit within the songs it was certainly worth the wait. Recorded with a “beastly band” of veterans consisting of drummer Ethan Eubanks (Teddy Thompson, Juliana Hatfield), bassist Andy Hess (The Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, John Scofield), keyboardist Andrew Sherman (George Duke, Mariah Carey), pedal steel player Jon Graboff (The Cardinals), backup vocalist Nicki Richards (Madonna) and guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan (Semi-Precious, Drivn n Cryin) “Take It With Me” pulls from the catalogs of artists that have influenced Ozell over the years. She does faithful interpretations of Randy Newman (“Louisiana 1927”), Pops Staples (“Move Along Train”), Roy Orbison (“Kill Zone”), Leon Russell (“Manhattan Island Serenade”) and Tom Waits (“Take It With Me”) that are flush with passion, so much so that the songs become her own.
“It’s a funny thing that whole ‘what is an original and what is a cover.’ There are songs that have never been recorded, which technically makes them original for the record. Or maybe there is a tune they haven’t heard in 30 years and it feels new. So that was kind of the idea was to make a record where we’re sharing tunes with people — like the Leon Russell tune is from an incredible record of the same name from 1972, ‘Carney.’ I think a lot of people would know the more better-known tracks on the record, but maybe ‘Staten Island Serenade’ didn’t resonate with them for whatever reason and I think we set out to honor some gems that deserve a little more time in the sun,” Ozell said.
One song that especially affected Ozell was Roy Orbison’s “Kill Zone.” It was one of the last songs the singer ever wrote and it was never released beyond a cover of it on a T-Bone Burnett album. Ozell’s version is devastatingly beautiful as her voice crystallizes over piano and pedal steel. “I am just really, really moved by that song. … It actually strikes a chord because of the chords. They do this thing that only Roy Orbison seemed to know how to do, these big, emotional swells. And I love how the sonic content meets up with the lyrical content that was so artful,” Ozell said.
While her first album is a collection of other people’s compositions, Ozell plans on including more of her own melodic and lyrical ideas into her next project. With a solid platform to start from in “Take It With Me,” she is poised to launch further into her own artistic vision and into the souls of many more.