With a year as a lead character in the smash, Tony Award-winning, Broadway musical Rent, original songs recently recorded by superstars Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, a long list of famous names for whom she has sung background vocals; and now her debut, center-stage, as a solo artist in her own right, Sunny Hawkins has accomplished quite a bit indeed for a young woman still in her twenties.
Clearly fluent in a wide range of genres, Sunny delivers a rivetingly original amalgam of jazzy R&B and pop, with flashes of everything from edgy hip-hop to power-chording rock guitars finding a perfect place in the final mix. Delightfully defying easy categorization, Sunny Hawkins paints on a canvass that can truly be called her own, from a palette of musical colors as wide and arresting as her seemingly boundless imagination. Co-written and produced by Sunny and her hit-making husband, Jamie Hawkins—the vanguard of the next generation of gospel’s legendary, decade-spanning Hawkins Family—More of You is the result not just of two young lifetimes immersed in great music, but deep bloodlines as well, running to and from that music’s very heart.
Sunny calls her sound “urban inspirational,” and that comes as close as any label would, if you need a label. Better still to just call it Sunny Hawkins, and More of You, then slip it in the player and let the music explain itself.
The album’s infectiously hooky title song is an irresistible slice of high-energy, funk/rock, that finds both Sunny and her stunning vocal ensemble hitting the ground already in overdrive. Just as readily, with seemingly effortless ease and finesse, Sunny flows with the smooth, jazzy pop of “It’s Like Air,” adding a contrast that only heightens the album’s intrigue.
“What A Man” begins gently, with only acoustic guitars and piano accompanying Sunny’s poignant vocal. As a lone cello and sparse percussion drop into place, the song builds in power and intensity, finally crescendoing into a full-blown power ballad, driven by with a wall of electric guitars, explosive drums and orchestra, and Sunny’s dramatic voice, rising from a whisper to a roar, and back.
“Alright” is steady rolling R&B/pop that exudes warmth and goodness as Sunny expresses her wonderment at God’s unfailing love; while a bed of acoustic rhythm guitars and percussion carry Sunny’s soaring, angelic vocal on “Crazy,” a musical love letter written to her husband.
Sunny was born in a strong, church-going family where music both ran in the genes and rang throughout the house. With musically gifted parents and a God-given gift for song all her own, Sunny made her public vocal debut in church when she was only two. At age five, she moved from her birthplace, Berkeley, California, to Washington D.C., where she spent the most formative years of her young life, and stills relates to as home. Before that move however, Sunny’s mother had attended college in the Bay Area of California, where she also was a regular at weekly Bible Studies given by a young, charismatic pastor—himself both a great singer and bearer of one of the great names in gospel music—Walter Hawkins. She struck a close friendship with Walter and his wife Tramaine, both of whom were well on their way to becoming major figures in gospel music, and asked the Hawkins, upon Sunny’s birth, to be the baby’s god-parents.
Though she grew up a continent apart from them, she remained close and in regular contact with the entire Hawkins family, including Walter’s brother Edwin, of “Oh Happy Day” fame, but lost touch with Walter and Tramaine’s son, Jamie, had been a frequent childhood playmate. Never having a thought in her entire life of a career in anything other than music, Sunny, at age 16, graduated a D.C.-area high school that focused on music and the arts, and four years later received a degree in music and voice from Arizona State University.
With the ink on her diploma scarcely dry, and her sights firmly set on the Broadway stage, Sunny made a fearless beeline for New York City, where she answered every weekly casting call she could make, landing parts here and there both off-Broadway and in various theaters in the area. Approaching the end of her first year in the fierce competition of New York theater, she auditioned for and landed a chorus part in the long-running, smash-hit musical, Rent, which also gave her a featured song in the show. When the role of “Joanne,” a principal lead in the play, opened up some months later, Sunny was a natural fit. For the next year—as 2001 rolled into ’02—Sunny, just barely into her 20s, performed the part eight times a week.
Having landed a role that thousands of struggling artists would kill for, Sunny departed the show, after a hugely successful run, with equal determination to expand and share both her artistic and spiritual horizons in a musical context that reflected her own solo, signature style as well as the singular life journey that was already well underway by that time. During her tenure with “Rent,” Sunny had begun to take a teenage flirtation with songwriting seriously, and the results were impressive. At the urging of a “friend of a friend of a friend,” she was told of a young producer based in northern New Jersey whom she simply “had to meet.”
The outcome of the two young artists’ meeting was nothing short of providential, as the hot producer/ songwriter/ instrumentalist turned out to be none other than Jamie Hawkins, Sunny’s childhood playmate, both of whom had long ago fallen out of touch with the other. Having already built a reputation for himself as musical director for several multi-platinum acts, including Boyz II Men, Lauryn Hill, and Mary J. Blige, and producer of two tracks on his mother Tramaine’s No. 1 gospel album, Still Tramaine in 2001, as well as 2 tracks on Donnell Jones’ No. 3 album Life Goes On in 2002, Jamie and Sunny’s paths could not have crossed at a more perfect time.
Both young, gifted and ambitious, and with résumés shaping into big league credentials—not to mention their childhood history together—the couple effortlessly renewed their friendship which, over the next two years, grew into a serious romance and marriage in 2004.
Through the introduction of the same friend who had almost inadvertently steered Sunny back into Jamie’s life, she made the acquaintance of hit producer Troy Taylor, who was impressed with her songwriting. They began a short collaboration that would turn out to be fruitful. One of their first originals, “The Only Thing Missin,” wound up the lead single on Aretha Franklin’s 2003 hit, So Damn Happy, soaring to No. 7 on the Billboard magazine Dance Music/Club Play chart, with Sunny also a featured background vocalist.
Six months later, in May of 2004, another R&B/pop legend, Patti LaBelle, rocketed onto the R&B/Hip-Hop album chart at No. 5 with Timeless Journey, featuring Sunny’s “Good Lovin,” and establishing her as a songwriter to be reckoned with.
By the time of their marriage, Sunny and Jamie were collaborating on a frequent and focused basis, co-writing and recording what was essentially the first draft of More of You. The newlyweds moved back to their childhood home of Oakland, as Sunny began performing in clubs as well as churches, finding equally warm, enthused receptions in both. The couple released an early version of the CD independently and marketed it themselves at Sunny’s engagements. Steady and solid sales, even confined to a largely local and regional market, confirmed that Sunny’s self-coined, genre-leaping musical hybrid of “urban inspirational,” was a finely honed combination of influences that cut an unusually wide swath across a diverse demographic. Advised that her catchy-but-cool, sophisticated sound would find a warm reception at Santa Monica-based Hidden Beach Records, she approached the company, with both soon agreeing that the fit was indeed perfect.
With still another major chapter in her already amazing life story about to unfold, Sunny speaks with the depth and assuredness of one who long ago latched onto one of life’s simplest, yet most profound truths.
“I see God as having always been like a camera for me,” she says. “There are things all around you as far as you can see, but when you look through the view-finder of a camera, it focuses you very clearly and definitely on whatever you chose to point it at. He’s always given me focus and shown me where to direct myself to capture whatever it was He wanted me to. I’ve always known that through Him, everything in my life was always alright, and even if it didn’t seem alright at any given time, He would make it right. Life is good, and should be celebrated. That’s what I hope this album brings. I hope people will hear it and feel that same happiness and joy we felt creating it.”