Summer Dean’s Bad Romantic is pure honky tonk pleasure, blending dance hall fervor with lived-in narratives, intimate interpretations, and old-school country attitude. Flying solo as well as sharing the pen with the likes of Colter Wall (who she also duets with) and Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs, Dean also slips smoothly into the pride of Linda Hargrove’s “Blue Jean Country Queen” and the quiet defiance of Leona Williams’s “Yes Ma’am, He Found Me In A Honky Tonk”. Elsewhere, Summer’s sultry, Texas twang emotionally charges tunes written by Brennen Leigh and Simon Flory while leaving her own rebel bootprints along the way. Bad Romantic lands everywhere on August 27th.
AI- There’s really not a whole lot about you out there on the internet, but I was able to learn a few things. I know that you grew up in a musical family and church– and I know that being a musician was not your first life!
SD- Oh, no, not at all! Yeah, I grew up in a musical family. I’m the only one that has chosen to make a living doing it, but my mom taught piano forever, and she played piano in the Baptist church for– I don’t know, 30 years? Like a long, long time! My dad’s mom was a music teacher, his sister’s a music teacher, so I come by that part really honestly. I was always into it and always did it, I just didn’t decide to make a living out of it until a couple o’ years ago. I taught elementary school for 10 years.
Had you always been a songwriter?
Yeah, probably just out of default, out of just being creative, you know? I’d written as a little girl, but not really thinking about it too much, and then started in college forming together actual songs. But no, there wouldn’t be too, too much out there on me just ’cause I’m just now goin’ public with all of it (laughs)!
What led you into getting out and starting to perform? And then ultimately into the EP that you put out a few years back, Unladylike? What set that into motion?
I had life events lead me to quit tryin’ so hard at other things and just settle into what I really love. I was working really hard to be the little Texas girl I’m supposed to be and get married and have babies and have my little job– and that’s it! I was workin’ really hard to get that and it wasn’t fallin’ into place! So I decided just to settle into what felt a little more natural. I started writin’ more songs and playin’ around with some friends doin’ covers. But I got a little frustrated with the covers and really felt led to write some more.
I have a friend, Will Dupuy in Austin. He will be most known for bein’ in the South Austin Jug Band. They’re not a band anymore, but they were really great! [Will] had some experience producing and he was my friend, and so Unladylike, that little 6-song EP, it had no concept or anything. It was just I had been playin’ out and needed to put my songs somewhere where people could get them and hear them if they wanted to. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna make an album and start a career!” It was just content (laughs)! I was pretty much by default.
You say that, but then you ended up gettin’ mixed up with some pretty great characters. As a matter of fact, I was just recently talking to Vincent Neil Emerson about you. That’s just one name, but there are so many others. I’ve seen you linked with Matt Hillyer and Eleven Hundred Springs and of course, Colter Wall, who I want to get into here shortly. But between Unladylike and what you’ve got coming now with Bad Romantic, it looks like you basically just barnstormed the dance halls and the honky tonks as a performer.
Yeah. I love to perform! I don’t know how I fell into all these people? You know, bein’ from Fort Worth helped. We’ve got a great music scene here. That always helps, being a part of a good scene that’s working and supportive. But I don’t know how I fell into all those people! I guess, you just kinda find each other. When you’re like-minded and you like the same things, and you like to watch and talk and hear about the same things then you just fall into your crowd. I feel real grateful to have talented friends. Matt, actually, we’ve written together a couple o’ times. I’ve told him this, “I can’t believe you’re my friend! I’ve been your fan for years! I can’t believe you’re my friend! I was your fan when you had really long hair and just listenin’ to you in the audience thinking, ‘Man, this band is awesome!'” So that’s pretty crazy! But we’ve written a couple of songs together and one of them made the album. The other one we recorded, but I think I’m gonna save it for another album sometime. It didn’t quite fit Bad Romantic. But yeah, I’m a big fan of Hillyer and I’m grateful we’re friends. I’m real sad that Eleven Hundred Springs is playin’ their last round of shows, but it’s certainly not the end of Matt, though! So that’s good!
The influence of that group… I don’t think I understood just how pervasive it was throughout that Lone Star music scene. Joshua Ray Walker stopped into the studio a while back and he and I had a long conversation about it. And it was really him educatin’ me on just the support and general influence that group had.
Oh, man, yeah! I don’t know why it didn’t take off at the time like others did, but I think they went deep instead of wide, you know? Because a lot of people, they have a wide reach and that makes ’em go that direction. But Eleven Hundred Springs is deep. Their fans are their fans and if they play around here and they play around Texas, it’s sold out! I’m just super proud of that band and like I said, I can’t believe Matt’s my friend!
Bad Romantic was in the works ’round the tail end of 2019, right? So you had anticipated [releasing} this before now?
Oh, this was supposed to be out way over a year ago! The first thing we did, it kinda came together organically. I recorded “Bad Romantic” the song with Niles City [Sound] via Fort Worth putting together some sounds and songs of local music. We started with that and I told Niles City’s Josh Block, “I really want this on the album too, so let’s just start, and we’ll start with ‘Bad Romantic’. That way the city has their song and then we can keep working from there.” So two birds with one stone on the “Bad Romantic” song. We kept working a little bit and I had the duet. Colter and I were both out on tour, but he was kind enough to find a couple of days in his tour to come down to Fort Worth. We recorded it for a couple of days, and then went our separate ways on tour again (laughs)! I was really grateful for that.
“You’re Lucky She’s Lonely”, the song that you duet with Colter on, and as I understand it, co-wrote with. There’s been a premium placed on the fact that this is the first co-write for him of note.
Yeah, that’s out. He told me that he doesn’t really do co-writes, it’s his first one. I think since this has come out, he’s done a few more, but nothing has come out or flourished, like you said, of note. He kinda keeps to himself. We didn’t write it together in the same room. So how it came about is I had written the first verse. Colter and I are friends, and I just took a chance. We both had a song on a soundtrack for a film called Texas Cotton. We have a mutual friend, Beau Smith [who was an actor in the film], so just a shot in the dark, I messaged Colter about the song.
I thought, for sure, he’d just ignore me (laughs), but no, he responded! He responded, “Yeah, no problem. Let me hear it. It’s my birthday, so gimme a minute and gimme a couple of days and I’ll get back to you and let you know what I think.” And sure enough, a couple of days later, he sent me the second verse that he sings on the duet! After I knew he was for sure on it, I wrote the chorus. I thought, “He does that falsetto kinda yodel…” He does that really beautifully and I wanted to capitalize on it. I thought, “Oh man, what if we did that in harmony?” So I put that in the chorus just ’cause I was tryin’ to capitalize on that beautiful quality of voice that he’s got.
And I love singing with Colter! I’ve got a low register for a girl and we all know his register’s pretty low, so I can actually sing harmony on top of him comfortably (laughs)! Most men, I’m like, “I’ve got the same register as you! So it’s hard to sing on top of your vocal, you know?” But I’m real grateful for Colter for doing that. I know what a draw and a pull that he has and I know that I’m lucky, real lucky to have that song with him and that he agreed to do it. I’ll be grateful forever!
You kicked the album off with a “Picket Fence” and indeed, kickin’ down doors along with the fences! Something that always boggles my mind, it’s a dream for so many boys and men to sling on a Telecaster and go out and make a livin’ playin’ in honky tonks and clubs, drink beer, avoid the mainstream and the standard. And I don’t know why it’s considered an alien concept that a woman would want to go and do the same thing and enjoy that same… You can call it freedom or perceived freedom, but freedom, nonetheless. You tackle that with finesse on [Bad Romantic], particularly with the song “Yes, Ma’am”. Obviously, it’s a challenge for you anyway, but is it something within the music industry and with you as an individual that you feel like you’re stepping up to with this album?
Something that I’m stepping up to? You know? No (laughs)! But I know that it is a hot topic and I know that it deserves attention and the topic deserves to be talked about, but I was just makin’ songs and writing songs and choosing songs that I really liked, that felt comfortable to me. I wasn’t thinking too much about, conceptually, the narrative of the songs. When I started puttin’ all the pieces together, I saw what it was. So it was a little a journey for me too. I’m not tryin’ to make any political statement with my songs or anything like that. It just so happens that’s how it dadgum came out (laughs)!
I was just tryin’ to make the music that I like and sing songs that I listen to. People have commented how country it is and I was like, “Well, it just sounds like my record player at home!” Or [they say], “Summer, she’s throwin’ it back!” It’s hard to go back to something that you never left. So I’m not tryin’ to make any statement– but maybe I am. If people are hearing it, that’s what’s the cool thing about art. If that’s how it came out and people are hearin’ it, then let’s go!
It all does make sense, though. This music stuff is expensive and when it came time to pay for it all, I called my parents and I said, “Let’s sit down. I think I’m gonna spend some of my little inheritance. I’m the only grandkid that hadn’t spent some of it, and I think I’m gonna spend some of it and finished this album all the way out with a nice bow.” My mom had a better idea and she said, “You know, I’ve got this wedding money set aside that I’ve had for you a long time, so let’s use it.” (Laughs) It just all came by naturally, that’s the point! And then when you sit back and look at the songs and what I wrote about and what was coming out of me and how the album even came together, it is a testament to independence and a choice that I’ve made. But I’m not against getting married. I just went through this whole thing about being the kind of woman that I thought a woman was supposed to be, tryin’ to get the things that make a woman a woman. I’ve learned through this journey that I can be as feminine and graceful and as much of a woman as anybody else that doesn’t take a husband and a family. So that’s been a beautiful thing that I’ve learned through this.
As a teacher in an elementary school, you tell children, “Work hard, study, you can be whatever you want to.” I think that sometimes when you say that, and as children, both male and female grow older, they become jaded with that idea, or the idea gets perverted for them. For you, having I’m sure told that to young people early on, did you finally just see an opportunity to say, “Hey, you know what? I can go do this and be what I want!”?
Yeah, for sure! It was never anything of defiance though. It was more out of just the journey of becoming who I am. I was never thinking “damn the man” or “screw the system.” I was naturally walkin’ my line– and this is where I fell in! So I think my message to the little kids would not be anything defiant or “be a rebel.” It was just, try to follow what comes naturally to you. You don’t have to follow any rule book that’s already made. You can follow what comes naturally to you– and what comes naturally to you may be the “norm.” What comes naturally to you may be exactly what’s been shown to you. And that’s wonderful! But I hope that those little kids get in tune with themselves and do what they want to do versus what seems like what they’re supposed to do.
I saw you had written on social media, something to the tune of calling 2020 the “Blue Duck of years,” which I just thought was hilarious and sad and true! It’s the baddest of the bad…
They just couldn’t kill him!
And it just keeps comin’! The pressure cooker of our era and something that you have discussed was that you were excited to see what was gonna come out of all of this music and songwriting-wise. You’ve likened it to the ’60s and the way that era shaped that music and those voices and those artists. I’ve always listened to a lot of Johnny Cash, but particularly, the Man In Black album has really been on my mind and my turntable. You’ve talked about the anticipation of the music that’s going to come from this unprecedented point in history…
And it’s happening!
What’s it doing for you as a songwriter? You’ve just said that you don’t intend to be political with your songs, but is the world creeping in? And how are you channeling it into your songwriting?
I’m alone a lot. I’m alone more than I am around people. The solitude that happened during COVID happened to a lot of people. So I was alone even more. I really got into just listenin’ to myself and bein’ quiet. I didn’t write as much over the pandemic as I thought I would. I did a lot of waiting and wondering, and that consumed a lot of my brain. There’s so many albums that are coming out now and I’m stoked! Some of them, people like me, people waited to put it out until things opened again. And some people got it done during the pandemic, which I guess is still going on. So I think it’s gonna be just the coolest! I’ve already experienced the concert back where I was in the audience and was sweaty and hot and crowded– and felt that guitar wave hit my face, you know? And I was like, “Ah! This is what I needed!”
I miss that, but I’m terrified to get back to it.
Yeah, and here we are again! So who knows what’s gonna happen with this resurgence! But to answer your question, I spent a lot of time in my head. I didn’t let out as much as I am now. I’m writing more now than I was durin’ the pandemic for some weird reason! I spent a lot of time figuring out what I was gonna do– if I was gonna put the album out or not. I spent a lot of time wondering, and I think the dust is just now settling. Now, I’m feeling a little more creative to write, and I hopefully have the next album just about finished. So that’s great!
The solitude– is that geographical or is it self-imposed?
Maybe a little bit of both. I mean, I live in Fort Worth, right in town. My parents live on the ranch on the homeplace and they’re only a little less than two hours away. So no, just a bit of a loner spirit. It’s not necessarily forced or anything. Bad Romantic is looking at that independence from a lot of angles. There’s some songs that are sad about it. And wishful songs. And then there’s some songs like “Picket Fence” that are just like, “No, I want this! This is what I chose. You can’t get me down. Can’t rein me in!” It looks at independence as a 41-year-old female from a lot of different perspectives.