Story by SCOTT MIMS
Photos by BRANDON SUMRALL
When coming up with a name for their band, Walon Smith and Sarah Looney drew from two sources of inspiration — Dr. Seuss and the band’s home state of Alabama.
Smith of Clanton and Looney of Montgomery are the core singer-songwriter duo of Cotton Bird, whose genre-defying music is as hard to define as its name. And that’s the way they like it.
The “bird” half of the name comes from a character in the Dr. Seuss book, “Happy Birthday To You!” known as the Great Birthday Bird.
“We both liked that name,” Looney recalled. “Waylon said, ‘Well, I really liked ‘bird.’ So, we kept bird, and I came up with cotton because of our strong ties to Alabama, and I think cotton is a strong image. Plus, all the good names are already taken.”
Smith and Looney share lead vocal duties, as well as backup and harmony parts. Looney plays percussion including snare drum, cymbals and tambourine, in addition to keyboards and guitar. Smith plays guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. Drummer Leif Bondarenko and bass player Eric Onimus of Birmingham, among others, round out the lineup.
The music is an eclectic blend of originals and covers that draw from a wide range of influences and styles. In other words, to really get an idea of what the band sounds like, the best way is to just attend a show.
Smith grew up as a fan of “The Jackson 5” and “The Beatles,” both immensely popular and influential acts, but not exactly the kind of music his peers were listening to. This became more noticeable in his high school years.
“The music that inspired me to learn to play guitar was ‘The Beatles,’ and after that I would say Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Neil Young and Tom Petty. Those are the big ones,” he said.
Looney is originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana.
She said the first cassette tape she ever bought was of ’60s girl groups. She also named Lucinda Williams as an influence, and one that’s a lot closer to home: her dad.
“My dad [Bobby Looney] played guitar for me and my siblings growing up my whole life, and he just had this way of taking a great song, making it his own, and it was somehow even better. It sounds like I’m biased, but it’s really true,” she said.
When asked about their style, Smith said they try not to define it.
“We have not found [a genre] that satisfies us, but we have influences, and some of those influences are rock and roll, older rock and roll, ’60s and ’70s rock and roll and even ’50s rock and roll,” he said.
Looney added: “A lot of artists that I think of pop as much as rock are influences of mine. I think we both have a really wide variety of influences. To say that we are a rock and roll band probably would not be accurate.”
Looney attempted to define the band as the following:
“We are artists, we are writers, we are audiophiles, we are veteran gig musicians who are passionate about being in a band making our own music the way we want. And we want it to sound good.”
Looney is a classically trained vocalist with a background in musical theater. While this experience is no doubt valuable to her career, she explained that there was quite a transition to singing in Cotton Bird.
“I’ve had to teach myself how to sing pop,” she said. “It’s completely different.”
The group formed in 2012 and started out as a duo. Smith and Looney met at a gig in Montgomery at the 1048 Jazz & Blues Club, where he was playing with another band. Smith had been playing gigs since graduating from college in 1987.
“It just kind of evolved naturally,” Smith said. “We found out we had common ground musically. And when we sang together it sounded good, and we found out we could write songs together, collaborate on that. We both seemed to have enough of a shared vision that we felt like we could pursue it more seriously.”
Cotton Bird is working on its debut album, yet to be named. The group indicated the songs represent different stories of life experiences.
Looney said some of the songs are very personal for her, naming two examples, “Maybe I” and a song called “Alabama.”
“‘Maybe I’ was written from a situation in my life where I was sort of replacing these other women, one was in a job and one was in a friendship,” she said. And in both cases I felt that I could not live up to the woman that had been there before me, so ‘Maybe I’ was an exploration of what I could add to these explanations. It’s sort of like you’re in competition with a memory, and people love to romanticize memories.”
“Alabama” is about coming to terms with memories of calling Alabama home, drawn from a collection of experiences living in the state.
Smith described his song lyrics as “kind of impressionistic.”
“I know what I mean by my lyrics, but I can’t necessarily tell you what it means, and so that probably leaves it open to interpretation to people who can interpret it in different ways. That’s OK,” he said.
The debut album was recorded at Smith’s home studio in Chilton County and is a collection of songs in various stages of completion. The band is hoping to release it sometime in 2019.
Smith said the band’s audience comprises a wide range of ages, from senior citizens to the middle-aged, college-aged, 20-somethings and even children.
“We’re trying to be as versatile as we can so we can play as many gigs as possible and reach as many people as possible,” he said.
Cotton Bird performed at the Chilton County Fall Supper at the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce and Chilton County’s 150th (Sesquicentennial) anniversary Goose Pond Gala event in October.
For more information, visit Cottonbirdmusic.com.