Anna Azarov

“I’m a songwriter that somehow has both fumbled into it and spent my whole life trying to get here.” This is the first thing singer-songwriter Wendy Sweetlove says when we asked her about herself. An artist that has used writing as music as therapy as much as art, Sweetlove channels her deepest emotions into her songs. Now, with the stripped version of her Goodnight, Lover EP out now, we can see this even more with some of her most heartfelt songs reimagined in their rawest form.

We spoke with Sweetlove to get an inside look at the inspirations behind her Americana sound and what it was like to bring Goodnight, Lover to life all over again for its stripped release.

Showstopper Magazine Online: Tell us a bit about yourself. What is music to you?

Sweetlove: For much of my life, I felt like my outsides didn’t match who I felt I was inside, and I spent a lot of dark years getting to the place where I can speak to you today and tell you with my whole heart that I’m a songwriter. For so many years I struggled with depression and anxiety (depression’s jerk of a cousin), and I felt like I was completely stuck and going nowhere. I kept working, writing, doing my best, going to therapy, but it felt like I was pushing through mud.

Now, I look back and feel like I actually was getting somewhere; it just wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. Sometimes, I think I got here late, and then I remember that my friend Jen Pastiloff says, “No, you’re right on time.” I think when you’re an artist you have to hold a certain kind of space to be able to put yourself out in the world, and because I grew up in a very demonstrative church, I think in a sense I’m a preacher—not of a specific theology but of my own vision and experience, hoping that it will help others feel less alone. So I guess now I would say that I’m a sister and an auntie and a friend and a reverend and writer and a singer and a songwriter. And for the first time in maybe my whole life, it feels like not just enough, but so much more than I ever hoped for.  

SMO: How would you describe your sound? 

Sweetlove: I like to think my music is a little bit of everything with my own voice wrapped around it. I’m the child of two teachers, so I’ve always loved learning, and I grew up listening to folk singers on vinyl and going to church and singing hymns, so I have a deep appreciation for a good story, the written word, and the healing and worshipful power of music. I love blues and rock and roll because you can feel them in your body. 

For a long time, I struggled with saying I was one “genre” because I didn’t want to feel like I HAD to sing a certain way for a certain song just because it was expected. The first song I wrote for Goodnight, Lover was “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and it really re-defined my style and the feel of the record. I wrote it in Brooklyn with my friend (and wonderful writer) Zach Berkman after I lost my oldest friend to mental illness, and I knew that was the kind of feel it needed to have. That was the beginning of this new sound for me, and I really love it.

Did I even answer the question? Haha. I consider myself Americana which I love because it really encompasses almost every style of music, as long as it has roots and heart.  

SMO: What inspires your music? 

Sweetlove: Music has always been a way for me to make sense of the world, to feel less alone, and to express and process what I’m going through at the time. Before I wrote songs, I wrote poems, and before I wrote poems, I read voraciously—I’ve always loved a beautiful story. So I’ve historically written about whatever I was wrestling through or delighted by at the time. The songs on Goodnight, Lover were written after I went through some really hard losses, and writing songs really saved me, and I’ve come to believe, more than ever, in the healing powers of art.

I’ve started diving into writing for film and television now, so if you’re telling someone else’s story it’s really fun to figure out what the heart of the story is, how I can relate to it somehow in my own experience, and write about that—our universally shared humanity. 

Anna Azarov Photography

SMO: Your Goodnight, Lover (Stripped) EP is out now! The songs were inspired by some pretty significant losses you have experienced. Can you speak on that a bit?

Sweetlove: When I started writing Goodnight, Lover I didn’t know I was writing a record. I was becoming more serious about being a songwriter and I was writing with everyone that was kind enough to take the time to write with me. And then in 2018, I lost three people that I adored to various forms of mental illness: my oldest friend, my beloved cousin, and a long-time love of mine. I was really devastated, and as you often are with losses that involve the self-destruction of people that you love and can’t help, I was wracked with remorse.  And I was angry that in this day and age, mental illness is still something that people don’t want to talk about or ask for help for…

It happens too much, and I think it’s shameful. So I spent so many hours in writing rooms just pouring out my heart about it, trying to wrestle through all of the complicated feelings around it, and also trying to make something beautiful in their memories. This record is so deeply personal to me and I think the way we approached these songs makes the stories and the emotions really come through. I’m honored to share it.

SMO: What made you want to put out a stripped version of this EP?

Sweetlove: You know, one of the hardest things about trying to make a living with your art is finding the balance between being authentic to yourself and still making smart decisions within the system you have to navigate to get your music out into ears and hearts and pay your rent at the same time. I spent literal blood, sweat, and tears on the original Goodnight, Lover, and it was scheduled to come out in April of 2020. We were going to launch a small fundraiser to get it released, and then the pandemic hit and everything just dissolved. I also somewhat accidentally ended up working at a pretty intense level in a front-line capacity for the first two years, and so I was very limited in what I could do outside of that, and I was pretty wrung out…So my manager at the time suggested a stripped-down record so I could re-engage the conversations and give the songs another chance to come to light in a world that was waking up again. And I asked my friend, co-writer, and wonderful producer Wes Hutchinson to help me with the project, and I got really excited about the opportunity to reimagine the songs, to strip them down to the way they were originally written: just me and a guitar and a story. So it ended up being a real gift.  

SMO: The original Goodnight, Lover EP came out last year. What has it been like to return to those songs?

Sweetlove: It’s been really beautiful, kind of like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in a year or two. They’re still your friend, but they’re a bit older and a bit more lived-in and you relate to each other a bit differently. When we recorded the original album, the songs were all really new to me, and sometimes I can hear the newness in the way I sing them. 

So now, a few years after I wrote them and put them out, I’ve had a chance to live with them and sing them more and so I’m able to deliver them in a new way. I think Wes really did a great job with the feel of the tracks, he really paid attention to the intimacy of the songs and how to give them a different life. And we even got to record a couple of them live! “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and “The House” were recorded live just the two of us in Matt McKenna’s beautiful studio in Silverlake. So, it’s all been a surprising gift.  

SMO: Do you have a favorite song on the project? Is it different from your favorite on the original EP?

Sweetlove: I love each song for different reasons, but my favorite song on this project is “Did You Even Know,” because I think it’s the most creative reinterpretation from the original (and I LOVE the original!). I had been wanting to do that song as a piano tune, and I was really excited to have the chance to play with that very different feel of the song. I think it showcases the sadness and aching of that song and captures how I was feeling when I wrote it which I love.

My dear friend and producer Wes Hutchinson and I spent a lot of time re-imaging that song, slowing it down, and taking it back to the bones of the story. I think on the original EP my favorite song is “Devil On Your Shoulder”—it’s a song I spent my life getting ready to write, and I’ve heard from so many people that they really love it. That makes me happy.  

SMO: What are you hoping people take from Goodnight, Lover (Stripped)

Sweetlove: When the original record came out last year, I was really moved that so many people told me that a certain song really spoke to them—a friend of mine told me that they lost their mom in the pandemic and that “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” was the only one that really captured how they were feeling and that they felt understood in that moment and they felt comforted. For me, there’s nothing better than that as an artist: making art with your unique voice that somehow makes people feel less alone, more connected, more understood. 

In the last two years I think we’ve learned more than ever how connected we all are, and how much we need connection, and so I hope this stripped record continues that conversation. Maybe it lifts a burden for someone long enough to ask for help or makes them feel less alone. I also hope that this record can amplify the conversation around mental health and mental illness. It’s something I will be passionate about for the rest of my days, so however I can contribute to the lessening of others’ burdens, bring it on.  

SMO: Is there anything else you want people to know about you or Goodnight, Lover (Stripped)

Sweetlove: Just that you’re not alone. In this world where everyone’s lives are increasingly curated, it’s so so SO easy to start comparing your insides to everyone else’s outsides. That’s a recipe for misery. If you’re struggling, ask for help. If you don’t get it, keep asking.  Remember that you are worth saving, that you are worth joy and happiness, and that you are loved. And take care of each other!

Goodnight, Lover (Stripped) is out now with six unplugged and reimagined tracks straight from Sweetlove’s heart. It is available on all major music platforms.