Nebraska-based Americana-folk singer-songwriter Hope Dunbar has just released a magical collection of soul-deep songs that goes by the name of “Sweetheartland.” Sure, the Nebraska prairie she calls home influences her wide-open sound, but the strength, perseverance, and determination inherent in the Midwest colors the lyrics of every song on the album. And the lyrics are a rich treasure trove of word-smithing of the highest order; the vulnerability and resolve of the characters in her songs are relatable and raw. Fleshed out with a rootsy, full-band sound, her songs soar, tiptoe, swing, and sway down a sometimes lonely, sometimes joyous, dusty trail through the big sky plains. It’s heady and heartwarming, melancholy and sad, engaging and inspiring, all at once.
“My mission in this project was to fully realize my own strength and identity as a songwriter,” says Dunbar. “I gave myself permission to have fun, to be humorous, to be frustrated and intense, to be sexual, powerful, hopeful, and sad. My intention with ‘Sweetheartland’ was to walk in and say, ‘I’m not asking your permission. I’m doing what I want to do. I am fully empowered, and I’m choosing to make this record.’”
Vents Magazine sat down with Dunbar to talk about “Sweetheartland,” the stories behind a few of our favorite songs on the album, the importance of connecting in-person with fans, and wanting to take her Americana sound into more rock ‘n’ roll territory.
Vents: Hi Hope, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Hope: Hi! Thanks for having me! I have been really well and presently looking forward to more springtime and warmer temps!
Vents: Can you talk to us more about your brand new album, “Sweetheartland”?
Hope: Sure! I went into this project knowing I wanted a bigger sound, and knowing I wanted a little more rock ‘n’ roll added to my singer-songwriter songs. I recruited Zack Smith and Jesse Thompson to co-produce and, when we first sat down in pre-production to start working on material, it was clear they understood what I wanted and knew how to really make my vision come true thanks to their monster musicianship and awesomeness. I love this record, and I love the work we put into it to really give these songs the place in the world they deserve. It’s fun, it’s big, it’s powerful, and it’s just right.
Vents: The title track is amazing and caught my attention immediately. Did any event, person, or place in particular inspire you to write this song?
Hope: Oh, thank you. Well, the word “Sweetheartland” had been in my imagination by that point for years but without a purpose or song attached to it. My sister in law, Emily Dunbar, and I co-hosted a songwriting podcast called, “Prompt Queens,” and one week the prompt was to write a song that your audience could easily sing along to from the first time hearing it. And “Sweetheartland” popped into my head as the perfect choice for a song like that!
Vents: Any plans to release any sort of video for the track?
Hope: No plans, as of yet, to release a video for the track. I confess that kind of project feels a little daunting even though I know user-friendly tech is available to simplify the work.
Vents: I was also taken with the song “John Prine.” Is he a favorite of yours? What about his music spoke to you?
Hope: He is! He is a favorite of mine. I tell people I was late to songwriting, late to so many things, including the discovery of John Prine and his amazing body of work, but goodness, better late than never! I am always astounded by the effortlessness I hear in his work, by his conversational tone, by his ability to put humor and heartache into the same song. Those kinds of things really have me returning to his music again and again. I love it.
Vents: How was the recording and writing process for that song? How about for the album overall?
Hope: The writing was lots of fun. The recording of the song was even better! My producers, Jesse Thompson and Zack Smith, put together an incredible roster of players for this record, and we were off and running on day one tracking as a band. I will never forget the high energy, the easy vibe, the super creative environment of that musical collaboration. It is unforgettable.
Vents: You are originally from California and have lived in Indiana, Iowa, and now call Nebraska home. What role have these states played in your music? Do you have a favorite among them?
Hope: Growing up in California, I was a musician, I sang, I loved music, but I was never a songwriter. As a younger person, my love for music was really strong and I did a lot of it, but I never had a real understanding of how music could stay with me throughout my life other than singing in choir or continuing to play piano. I didn’t write my first song until living in Iowa, and, in those Iowa years, I was working hard to improve my craft. By the time we moved to Nebraska, I was getting up on stage and feeling like I knew what my writer’s voice was about, so, mostly, I consider myself a Midwestern/heartland-type songwriter. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve written anything from a “California” point of view.
Vents: You are known for being a really strong lyricist and have been praised for your amazing lyrics in the past. Drop a few of your favorite lyric lines from this album on us and tell us what inspired them.
Hope: Why, thank you very much. I do love writing words to songs. From this album, there’s much I’m proud of as far as word-smithing is concerned, but I’d probably put a couple lines at the top of the list. From “Woman Like Me,” I am really proud of the line, “I’m a woman pinned to a clothesline. I might dance in the wind, but I’ll never fly.” I think it says just what I wanted to say using an image that, for me, always sticks out in my mind when I imagine a dress hanging out to dry on a laundry line, waving in the wind but never going anywhere. The other is from “What Were You Thinking,” and the line is, “A gift card to a gas station is not a Valentine’s present,” to show that even in heartfelt songs about love gone wrong, it’s possible to glean real life advice to help the listener improve their own relationship. Friends. Gas station gift cards are great. I love getting them. But I prefer to get them on nondescript, uneventful Tuesdays of zero import instead of romantic high-holy days like February 14th.
Vents: Your press materials call your music “New American Prairie” style. How would you describe or explain what that is to our readers? What other artists do you feel are releasing music in this sphere too?
Hope: I describe the “New American Prairie” style embodying a pioneer spirit. The songs I write are not tied as strongly to land as they are tied strongly to perseverance and hanging on. The American prairie is a treasure trove of quiet courage, muted beauty, and bountiful landscape threatened by whatever destructive weather might be rolling in from the west. I think those are the elements you hear in my music created under this big sky. Other New American Prairie artists might be Jack Hotel, Kill County, and Mike Semrad.
Vents: When you are able to head back out on the road, what song are you most looking forward to playing live from this album and why?
Hope: I love singing “Woman Like Me.” It always feels true, it always feels current, and since it’s been around for a while, it holds shared history between me and my fans. It will feel like the thing I’ve been missing and anticipating for all these months when I finally get to stand in a room and sing it again for people.
Vents: Who are your biggest musical influences? Favorite album of all time?
Hope: My biggest musical influences are probably Patty Griffin, Joni Mitchell, Darrell Scott, Kris Kristofferson, and Dolly Parton. My favorite album of all time is probably “Kris Kristofferson Live at Austin City Limits 1981.” I love that album so so much. I put it on, sing it all the way through, and it feels like a heart and soul reset every time.
Vents: What else is happening next in Hope Dunbar’s world?
Hope: I’m going to celebrate the release of this record; I’m going to honor it the way I’ve always wanted to. My son is graduating from high school in May, and my youngest son is getting confirmed within weeks of that event, so our family has a busy spring coming up. I’ve also got another full-length record in the can that needs launching, and I’m in talks with the musical universe and friends about getting back into the studio to record a new album. I’ve been writing pretty steadily throughout this past year, and songs have been piling up. There’s lots going on in the Sweetheartland, my friends!
Artist website: http://www.hopedunbarmusic.com/