Christine Sweeney On ‘Heart In A Hurry’ And The Transformative Power Of Songwriting And Performing

[Cover photo credit to Shannyn KT]

Christine Sweeney recently released the album Heart in a Hurry, a collection that was long in coming to fruition for fans, but also faced a wealth of difficulties due to Covid. However, she and her band, undaunted, made the firm decision to record and release, and relentlessly chased down the album they envisioned. The result is a body of work that reflects openly on internal experiences in a refreshingly inviting way, leaving any harsh judgements at the door. The audience, like the speaker, explores the path that difficult experiences can take in becoming something more beautiful.

I spoke with Christine Sweeney about her love for festivals, the inspiration behind the album’s title, and about some of its individual songs like “Down to the River”, “Denial”, and “Anywhere Anyhow”, but she also shared the emotional and practical stages of songwriting and performance that she usually goes through when translating a difficult experience into something that brings her to a place of healing. Rather than songwriting or performance acting therapeutically on their own for Sweeney, they form one meaningful continuum.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I get the sense from your work that you’ve been gathering a lot of momentum and then had to navigate the pandemic period while trying not to lose that thread.

Christine Sweeney: Yes, for sure. It’s frustrating because it’s like the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. There are bigger things in the world than my music career, but if I look at it under a microscope to see how this affected me, I feel like I was scrambling to find a new way to do music. We even recorded this album during the pandemic, and we couldn’t have multiple band members in the same room. It was a unique experience that I would not like to repeat again, but I’m so happy to get it out there and I couldn’t wait any longer.

HMS: I also saw that you tend to play festivals, so having that taken off the table must have been frustrating.

CS: I definitely want to play festivals and get out there. I want to be able to enjoy the beauty that is a music festival where everybody who is there is open-hearted and ready to appreciate. They are ready to listen and suspend regular life for a minute. There’s something magical about that. The first musical festival I went to was Bonnaroo in my 20s, and it was like another world. I so want to be performing festivals again. They feel so good.

HMS: My theory is that people are more open and receptive to new music at festivals because they are going in with the mindset of hearing multiple acts.

CS: I absolutely agree. On a personal level, I think that’s true for myself as well. It’s like you’re signing up for a whole day. You’re saying, “I’m going to go and get a dose of magic for my soul, and it’s going to come in some forms I expect, and some forms I do not expect”.

Photo credit to Shannyn KT

HMS: Did the songs on the new album have a live-play life before recording?

CS: Absolutely. I tried to keep “Anywhere Anyway” kind of a secret, but all of the songs have been played live with my bands, and that was our saving grace. That’s how we were able to do this album. If we weren’t able to be together and practice and we were doing completely new material, that would have been so much harder. I’m so grateful that these songs have had some airtime.

It’s been a long time coming, with people asking when this record was coming. It’s okay to plan ahead, but when you’re sitting on material and fans want it, and you want to give it to them so badly, but you can’t yet, that’s the heartbreaking part. We finally said, “Enough is enough.” And we made it work. I feel ecstatic that this is finally coming out.

HMS: Did the recordings end up sounding pretty close to the way you had been playing these songs live?

CS: I feel like the only one that found a new way about it was “Anywhere Anyway” since this was a song I went in and worked on from scratch. I had written and performed it acoustically and gotten the band arrangement with the drummer beforehand. That song settled into itself in the studio and in “Coyote”, there’s a guitar solo that we decided to add in the studio, played by David Farrow, my guitar player who also tracked bass for the record.

HMS: What went into naming this album? I think it really works to evoke the themes of the songs. But by the way, I think “Anywhere Anyway” also brings some of these themes together.

CS: My album title came up later on, after I had my tracklisting. I don’t know if this is common for other musicians, but I have a hard time titling things. It’s a lot of pressure. I wrote down my emotions and visuals for this album, dreaming around it. The idea of the title kept coming up, and it is a pull from the lyrics in “Down to the River”. The lyric is, “How do you expect to drive, when your heart’s in such a hurry?”

In that song, it’s telling you to slow down and see the curves in the road of life. You can’t be panicked and rushing towards a destination because you won’t enjoy the drive. “Down to the River” is really about realizing that you took things for granted, but from the end point, you have to accept that since it’s over. The actual song came as an inspiration from the idea of wondering, “If my car was to go careening off a cliff right now, what would I be thinking as I was going down?”

That may sound morbid, but I realized that I would be thinking, “Why was I feeling so bad about myself? I had it great. Why did I take that for granted?” So that lyric meant a lot to me and thinking of it in terms of the other songs, I felt like it also made sense. This ended up being one of the easiest albums to title for that reason.

HMS: It’s a great phrase. I think titling a collection is particularly difficult, trying to connect to all the different songs. Do you find lyrics that difficult to write?

CS: Not really, since songwriting just comes out of me. There are some times when I will be a prolific songwriter for a period of time, like a burst, then there will sometimes be a break where I don’t write anything, and I’m in absorbing mode. It’s very interesting. Some people have a daily writing practice, and I commend them, but my songwriting is a little more about energy flow. Sometimes I’m driving and mulling something over, and it just comes out. I will edit things, since the first time a song comes out, it may not be the most brilliant version yet. But I think the songs have my back.

Photo credit to Shannyn KT

HMS: There’s a definite territory to this album, using an internal voice to speak about relationships. Did you know that’s what you were doing?

CS: It was something that happened over time and wasn’t so intentional. This is a collection of some songs that are a little older and some that are newer. “Denial” is the oldest song on this record, and I actually have an acoustic version of this that I released in 2012. For me, this recording of this particular song is really powerful because it represents growth and time. The feeling of the song, though, has remained the same. The themes on the song are denial, procrastination, and fear, and reassuring yourself.

In my opinion, sometimes it’s okay to avoid something. I think a healthy level of avoidance is a protection mechanism. Maybe future Christine will disagree with me. I think it’s a universal thing that everyone has something that makes them uncomfortable, and they want to avoid. Now, with this song, there’s growth because my career is different, my voice is different, my style is different, but I’m the same as I was, also. It did change, though, since this version is a lot more Americana. It used to be more acoustic Pop. It only appeared on a live acoustic EP before, so there’s no real record of how it’s changed over time. It’s almost like this is the only official version, and that’s cool to me.

HMS: I really like that this song is so open-minded about how we approach our anxieties and when. We can really rush headlong at things we aren’t ready for and do some damage to ourselves, or we can wait until the right time, when we might find it wasn’t as scary as we expected it to be.

CS: I find that for myself a lot. I think a person who struggles with a cycle of procrastination, perfectionism, and fear can find that they feed into each other. I find that if you can break that cycle, you usually feel much better when it’s complete. I’m more aware of those behaviors as I get older, and it helps me break the cycle.

HMS: I feel like most of these songs have a moment of illumination in them, whether it’s a turn, or even just a moment in time that’s viewed differently than it might have been before. That’s a great positive element even among harder themes, even though just sharing experiences can also be therapeutic.

CS: Absolutely. I do feel like writing songs does help me process things. My overarching idea of songwriting is that you can experience something terrible, but if you take the time to process it through songwriting, you get rewarded at the end with this piece of art that represents your pain. Your pain is still valid, and you’re stronger because you worked through it, but now you also have this beautiful thing.

It’s like that sarcastic comment on NFTs on the internet right now, “It’s like an NFT that you can hold!” Once the song is created, your pain is not purely negative. Now you can have positive associations as well and channel it towards an appreciation of beauty rather than just focusing on the terrible thing that happened to you.

HMS: How does it affect you to play and perform these songs when they often grapple with difficult experiences? Is it possible for that to be positive?

CS: I think the answer depends on how long it’s been since the incident or experience. I write songs really fast but then I sit on them for a really long time. Sometimes I write a song, and three hours later I’m performing it on stage. Other times I’ll write a song and keep it secret. The process for me on “Anywhere Anyway” was something like this:

A terrible thing happens, then you process that for a while and feel crappy. Then you feel slightly less bad over time. You realize that you’re healing. Then you’re at a point where you can even put pen to paper, though it’s still raw. It’s at the level where you could still cry about it. But once the song is written, you can remove it. Now it’s a physical thing and you’ve alleviated the pain. Then, you start to perform the song.

For me, if it hasn’t been a long time yet when I perform, it absolutely might dredge up emotions and I might get upset on stage, but I’ll try my best to hide it. I don’t want to be standing there weeping. You do have to protect your vulnerability a little bit. But the cool thing that happens with the passing of time is a metamorphosis where you start to heal more. You get to the point where can sing the song beautifully but still be sad. Then you get to the point where you can sing the song beautifully, but you’re neutral.

When you realize that you’re neutral, it feels really good. It’s like someone is whispering in your ear, “Keep going, you’re going to be okay. Remember how sad you used to be when you played this song? Now you’re just playing it because it’s a great song and you love it.” The more time that passes, the more I appreciate the song as a piece of art, as a piece of me, or as a testament to how I’ve grown and healed.

HMS: It’s very interesting that it’s not just writing the song that’s a therapeutic process, but also the performance of it. That makes a lot of sense. Do you think that this album is, overall, about relationships?

CS: The album is a lot about relationships, but not only that. “Feeling So Low” is a song about trying to fight depression or not giving into feeling sorry for yourself. Sometimes that song is a message to someone else, and sometimes it’s a message to me. Sometimes I need a message to get out of bed in the morning and stop doom scrolling!

Christine Sweeney will be performing at Mary O’s in New York City on May 3rd. You can find more info about the event here.

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