The struggle to create music and engage with fans are problems nearly all musical acts face in the age of COVID-19, and The Sugar Thieves are no exception. It’s been a singular challenge in their 14-plus years playing in metro Phoenix.
"With the outbreak, our world changed overnight," says lead singer Meridith Moore. "It used to be a situation where we would go out to perform for gigs or do session work at a studio that gave us a lot of time away from home to focus on being creative. It's still a struggle to be creative."
Moore says the group’s tried a few different measures to help keep the lights on.
"We were selling lyric sheets," Moore says. "So you could pick your favorite song and we would hand-write those lyrics. It was just a way to keep our name relevant and to let people know we're still here for you."
But it wasn’t until Moore and husband/guitarist Mikel Lander started hosting livestreams that they recognized just how much fans wanted to interact.
"I'm seeing that everybody's doing their own little streams from their living rooms," Moore says. "We did a live concert from [a professional studio] in Scottsdale just as an experiment. We had a huge response, and the donations were just huge."
All that attention inspired Sugar Thieves to hatch a most auspicious plan: release two new albums simultaneously. Both Dreamin’ and Anytown, USA will be available Saturday, July 11.
"We had contemplated waiting till fall or winter and then have the physical CD release party," Moore says. "This is the best time ever to release these albums. People need that kind of therapy and something that they can communicate with on a mental and emotional level."
But that was perhaps easier said than done, especially given the artistic challenges they faced.
"It's hard because new things are born when we're together, and we haven't got together as a band for months now," Lander says. "That's really difficult for me in particular, and I've been writing on my own. It's been really difficult for me not to be able to bounce ideas off." Moore says they even had to "find a sitter to just sit and write."
Complicating that process is that Sugar Thieves recorded live to achieve a very specific sound.
"We're not in an isolation booth — the band is live playing together in one room," Moore says. "There's some overdubs here and there vocally and with some of our guest instrumentalists, but hopefully when you listen to either album, you can hear and feel the band live, looking at each other and making eye contact and communicating with each other. We don't do a song 100 times — it's two or three takes."
In the end, the band overcame the chaos and scheduling hiccups to create two distinct but wholly connected records.
A sense of change and adaptation is reflected in the songs. Moore agrees when Dreamin’ is described as a "sampler platter," showcasing everything from gospel to roots rock. Meanwhile, Moore says that Anytown, USA shows off "more of an acoustic, softer singer-songwriter feel." The two albums are mostly a reflection of the couple’s very different writing styles.
"Mikel writes a song and takes you to a place, be it the streets of New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis," Moore says. "Then you hear songs that I've written, and those are about feelings, songs that take you to a place within yourself. Our boys help us to develop some of these songs, too, in a big way. So we have a lot of diversity."
If the albums share anything, though, it’s the larger subject matter. Be it environmental causes, the economy and the working class, or our modern political climate, the couple say the records address the feelings permeating people’s lives. Rather than take specific stances, these songs are meant to unite folks around ideas.
"We have so many friends of every walk of life and race and background, and we 100 percent support them," Moore says. "So we want to reach our fans in a really emotional way, too, and address the times. But if you sit down to write about just one issue or hot button topic, you pigeonhole yourself a little bit."
Lander adds, "It's a little more emotional, especially Meridith’s writing. I'm not taking a specific stand on certain issues. It's like when Bob Dylan was more of a folk singer and everybody wanted him to be the mouthpiece of that generation, and he found himself in a strange situation where he wanted to get away from that."
This entire process also has influenced the band in a deeper sense. Moore says that the band are rethinking how they play shows as well as interact with fans.
"The focus was always to say, 'Let's look at the calendar and let's fill up all of these dates'," she says. "But [now] we also have this online network of fans that we're reaching out to on a consistent basis. It's really as important."
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Moore says, at the very least, she and Lander will perform these new songs in some capacity in the coming days. However, she's hopeful they might assemble the full band "under an old oak tree in the backyard and we can totally socially distance and play some of this stuff for fans."
Because at the end of the day, Moore says Sugar Thieves want to be out there, providing much-needed solace amid a flood of bad news.
"We want to let our fans know that despite the circumstances, we will still be there for them," she says. "If they want to email the band, we will come to their house and play in their front or backyard. We will get online and do concerts so that they can hear our new material. We're not going anywhere."