On a frosty Free Week Sunday in early January, Sweet Spirit, the pop powerhouse fronted by veteran vocalist Sabrina Ellis, blazed through a stunning 45-minute set, thrilling the packed house at the Mohawk inside and establishing the band as an easy frontrunner for Austin’s next big thing.
With two, sometimes three guitars, keys and a horn section, their sound was huge. It was unified, but versatile. One moment they were confidently covering Marvin Gaye, the next they were conjuring sweeping anthemic pop with singalong hooks. They were soulful and they dabbled in revisionist doo wop, while sidestepping the throwback sound that 20,000 other sharply dressed bands are trying to recreate. Their songs have a classic quality, but they also feel modern and refreshingly unique.
Clad in a pair of skin-tight gold lame pants and a black bra top, Ellis was an entrancing lead. Her voice soared, jubilant and powerful whether she was barreling into a guitar riff or dropping six-string duties to dance with abandon.
One of the fans swept up in the magic that night was Britt Daniel, who’s become her most prominent champion. “I just remember getting kind of an ecstatic feeling,” the Spoon frontman said last week. Daniel was speaking specifically about his response to “Break Your Bones,” a song the band recently recorded for their debut full-length scheduled for a late summer drop, but he’s a big fan of Ellis in general.
“She’s channeling Freddie Mercury,” he said, referring both to Ellis’ full immersion flamboyance as a performer and also her pipes. “She’s really got talent as a vocalist.”
Daniel will be back in town this weekend, and while it’s unclear whether he’ll show up at the Friday night release party for Sweet Spirit’s self-titled EP at Radio, a tiny club on Manchaca, he’ll definitely be at C-Boys on Sunday for a birthday tribute to Mike McCarthy, the producer Spoon and Sweet Spirit share. Sweet Spirit, playing under the name Britt and the Sweet Daniels, learned a Spoon set to back Daniel at the event.
This isn’t the first time Ellis has been in a band circling a breakthrough. Her punk outfit a Giant Dog (which includes longtime friend and Sweet Spirit guitarist Andrew Cashen) is widely regarded as one of Austin’s underground treasures, and in summer 2013, the eclectic rock act Bobby Jealousy led by Ellis and her then-husband Seth Gibbs was drawing attention. The raw chemistry between Gibbs and Ellis was electric, and their strikingly original sound resonated with critics. But as enthusiastic reviews of the band’s albums and passionate performances poured in, Ellis was breaking down. She found herself plagued with anxiety and panic attacks.
“I went to the hospital a lot in two years, during the time that band was working,” she said recently, warming her hands on an almond milk latte as a chilly breeze ruffled her whipsy blonde curls on the front deck of the Quickie Pickie in East Austin.
She still struggles to describe exactly what went wrong. “I think honestly Seth and I as writers and as a couple got into a really dark hole. And I became really afraid of death and I obsessed over it,” she said.
Her love for Gibbs was “so immense” it terrified her, filling her with a gnawing fear of an inevitable doom, a ruinous emptiness that was the flipside to love, she said. Though she hadn’t shared her feelings with her bandmates, by the time Bobby Jealousy played the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October, Ellis had decided she couldn’t go on. “I knew that I was going to have to change my life drastically,” she said.
She had been working on new material that was a significant departure from the work of either of her bands. Coincidentally, Cashen was exploring a similar sound and together they developed the new band. Bobby Jealousy played its final show in December 2013 and in January 2014, Ellis and Gibbs, who were married in 2011, separated. In that same month, Sweet Spirit debuted, performing the Free Week shows Ellis had booked for Bobby Jealousy.
Classic country music was the springboard for Sweet Spirit’s sound, but they rapidly branched into ‘90s alt-rock and, for the first time, pop, a genre that had always intimidated Ellis and Cashen. “When you’re playing in a punk band you’re up there and you’re surrounded by peers and you’re exorcising something,” she said. “But when you’re playing pop you’re putting yourself out there for everybody.”
Pop turned out to be a good fit for Ellis, and her natural ability to engage an audience. Throughout 2014 the band worked as a six-piece: Cashen and Ellis plus one more guitar, bass, drums and keys provided by Bobby Jealousy’s Jake Knight. As they turned the corner into 2015, Jason McNeely of Hotel Vegas booked the band onto his annual New Year’s Eve hoot night with an assignment to play Marvin Gaye songs. They brought in a trumpet and a sax, and a friend of Ellis’ who didn’t want to pay the $20 cover sang backup. The experiment kicked Sweet Spirit’s soulful side into overdrive. They kept the extra players.
Now working as a nine-piece, they’re poised to take off. The EP coming out Friday is a solid four-song collection, but the real barn burner will be the full-length scheduled for later this year. Songs like regular set closer “Take Me to the Party,” a punky number with the chanted hook “Got a broken heart, so take me to a party,” have broad mainstream potential and radio appeal.
“It’s just exciting to me how fast they’re writing,” Britt Daniel said. “So they have 16 new songs aside from that EP and all this has been done in a year and plus they wrote and recorded a new a Giant Dog album in that time. I think they’re going through a very inspired moment.”