If the members of Sweet Claudette look and sound familiar, it’s because they are cornerstones of popular local acts Now You See Them, The Honeycutters, and The Moon and You.
Amanda Platt, Melissa Hyman, Amber Lyle Sims and Dulci Ellenberger first merged their songwriting skills and quirky range of acoustic instrumentation — banjo, cello, melodica, guitar, percussion, and sometimes kazoo — at a women’s songwriting showcase hosted by Hyman at the Westville Pub in Asheville in 2009.
“It went from being just like, ‘Oh this is fun,’ you know, ‘girl time,’ to the moment where it was like ‘Oh wow, this actually sounds really good and people are digging it, people are really excited about it,” recalls Platt.
The band celebrates its diversity — the songwriting chores are split, so they end up with the silly sweetness of Now You See Them alongside the Honeycutters’ downhome humanism. They’ve come to describe their distillation of styles as “Country Motown.”
All four ladies have written for the band, and they also re-arrange the occasional R&B classic such as “Heatwave.” “Melissa and Dulci are bringing in new songs all the time,” Platt says. “I really consider myself a songwriter before a singer. You know, I’m definitely not classically trained and haven’t had a lot of training for my voice, so sometimes that can be hit or miss. But songwriting is something that I really feel called to do. There’s other things that I’ve enjoyed and wanted to do, but like I said, songwriting — I just do it and I don’t even know why sometimes.
“The girls laugh about it — two of the songs that Coop (Honeycutters’ bassist Rick Cooper) heard us do, he was like, ‘We should do that with the Honeycutters.’ So now both of them are going to be on the third Honeycutters record. The girls got a little pissed about that,” Platt smiles. “They were like, ‘Stop stealing our songs.'”
Ellenberger’s breezy “Love Lets It Go” features serenading harmonies and a topping of orchestra bells, and she even gives feeling out of sorts a good spin on the upbeat “My Home” (“I’ve misplaced…). Hyman grins through playfully provocative lyrics on “Let Me Keep You,” and shares layers of loss on “Carolina Waltz.”
Platt enjoys trying to compose from a slightly different vantage point. “When you learn to play a lot of these Motown songs, you realize that there’s a chord pattern that most of them follow,” she says. “It’s funny because it’s a chord pattern that I feel like a lot of country songs follow as well, and hence, is one that I have found myself using in songs prior to this project. There are little vocal flairs, and certain progressions, that lend themselves to Motown, that just keep popping up all over the genre.
“Also I feel like there’s a space that you can leave,” she continues. “You know, I had never written before with a backup vocal part in mind, so that’s kind of a different thing. There’s space between lyrics, or certain phrases that might not sound like much on their own, but if you give it like a layered harmony or like an echo, then it comes forward a little bit more. Stuff like that occurs to me when I think about writing for Sweet Claudette. It’s good fun.”
Platt’s Sweet Claudette tunes, such as “All You Ever” and “Like I Used To Do,” retain her trademark sense of mystery and universality. “I figure people are going to get more out of it if they attach their own experiences,” she says. “I’ve had some really amazing feedback. A friend of ours tapped into one of my songs and got all of this meaning out of it that wasn’t really intended. To be honest I wasn’t even really sure what the song meant, but it was almost like it became his song. It became what he needed it to be, which was really cool. I’m kind of in awe of the process when something like that happens. Because really sometimes I don’t know why I write a song or how I write a song any more than anybody else does.”
Platt is also enjoying the more collaborative nature of Sweet Claudette, being more used to bringing in a completed song and instructing the other members, “Okay, you play this, you play this.” Sweet Claudette, Platt reports, is more of an organic process, with everyone finding their parts, even beautiful four-part vocal harmonies, very naturally.
Platt was behind the name Sweet Claudette. “We were called For The Birds, because that’s what Melissa was calling her songwriters thing, where it started. At some point I had just told myself if I started another project aside from The Honeycutters, I would call it ‘Sweet Claudette.’ So then when we were talking about changing the name, I was like, ‘Oh how about Sweet Claudette?’
“We kind of all agreed, and that’s that. I think it’s a good Country Motown name.”
Because of the ladies’ other musical commitments, it has sometimes been a challenge to fit Sweet Claudette onto the schedule, but that seems to be changing. “I just need to talk to The Honeycutters’ booking agent ahead of time and be like, ‘We want to do these dates with Sweet Claudette,’ and plan ahead for the whole next year,” Platt says. “The Moon and You is on the road all the time, and Dulci is filling up her calendar — she sings with a few other groups in town and also does solo stuff. It definitely takes some thought, but I think we’ve all reached the point of being like, ‘Well, but you know, it’s worth it. Let’s do this. Let’s try to make it work.'”