For Briston Maroney, his debut album, Sunflower, is one he thought would be his first—and last. “A big anxiety I had the whole time was that I was never going to write another song after this record,” Maroney tells American Songwriter. “I was completely paralyzed by that fear.”
In the end, none of this came to fruition for the Knoxville, Tennessee artist. “I’m approaching things moving forward with the mindset that the only way I wouldn’t write another song is if I stopped trying, so it’s more about making sure I write every song that I want to as opposed to waiting for something to happen,” says Maroney. “I’m more down to write 100 percent bad songs and one song that I feel tells the right story than I was before.”
Sunflower is a collection of 10 tracks that Maroney got right, a result of a nearly decade-long journey for the 23-year-old artist, excavating real-life stories and transmitting them into lyrics. Working with producer John Congleton, Sunflower is an oratory of youth-filled anxieties, growing older, and the awakening of what’s blossoming all around.
Moving through Maroney’s silky indie-rock motions, Sunflower unearths all the complex motions and moments in its refrain of Some things are out of your hands on opening “Sinkin'” through the more the angst-empowered “Bottle Rocket” and heartaches of “It’s Still Cool If You Don’t,” “Freeway,” and emotive “Deep Sea Diver” (the latter two tracks released in 2020), before swelling around “Why.”
Brewing for some time, Sunflower is raw and revelatory on the sweeping “Rollercoaster,” which Maroney wrote in high school, and one of the more “heavier” tracks for the artist. “It’s funny how far away you can feel from those times and then when you’re not thinking about it and stumbling in situations, you’re like, ‘oh, this still applies’ or maybe it applies even more to something that’s happening in the future or something that I don’t even know yet,” reveals Maroney. “Sometimes it lines up really heavy that way.”
Sunflower is a departure from youth and all its hangups from delicate “Cinnamon,” a song Maroney was initially going to cut because it was too “soft.”
“I was in the mindset of like, we’re in a nice studio, this is my first major label debut and we have to be doing everything all the time,” says Maroney. “There were definitely some feelings throughout the record of we should be doing more, and it’s not enough as it is. John [Congleton] did a really great job of making me realize what I didn’t need to do and just being like, ‘dude, just do what you’re capable of doing.’”
“Kids” returns to the root of Sunflower in All for one and one for all / Together we rise, together we fall… Cus’ other than loving there’s nothing that matters at all, before closing on the more stirring, acoustic-led “Say My Name,” a song drawn from a very distinct memory for Maroney. “It’s a really weird dichotomy to be trying to grow up and take accountability for who I am and take responsibility,” he says, “with these really angsty self-centered, self-oriented songs that you write when you’re 19—when you think that you are the center of the universe.”
Sitting on the album for some time—including an added delay in 2020 around the pandemic—Maroney is just excited that people are finally hearing this album. “Knowing that people have heard the record now, and because I’ve been sitting on it for so long, if someone said, ‘Hey, this is the worst album in the universe,’ I would be like, ‘I don’t care. I’m just glad that you heard it,’ because it’s been so long,” shares Maroney.
Some of the tracks were four or more years old and all are, ultimately, rooted in love, says Maroney. “It’s a crazy thing to spend that much time with the story,” he says. “It feels really odd to feel far away from those situations, but with this being like a debut record, I want to feel connected to it really strongly, so that when I get the opportunity to present it, so trying to find ways to still connect to some of these really old songs has been a battle.”
The underlying thread in Sunflower finds Maroney on the other side of his “stories” and experiences. “It’s about my happiness and my understanding of what I need to do to be happy,” says Maroney. “The record feels like a grocery list of ‘don’t go down this path again,’ or ‘don’t think of these thoughts when you’re sad.’ It’s a layout of looking back and realizing what you did wrong, or what helped. It feels like an outline of how to be 23.”
He adds, “It’s been really interesting and dangerous at times to feel like I’m stunting myself from moving past them, but ultimately, it’s been a really beautiful thing, because now I know where I stand in relation to those feelings. I have a healthier balance, and I don’t have to be there to remember that.”
The past year in lockdown allowed for more time to reflect on the songs and what they still meant, and Maroney accompanied the album with a 40-plus minute film, which he helmed, along with collaborator Joey Brodnax. Filmed in Acadia, Massachusetts over a week, the film features each track in its own cinematic bubble.
“I think we slept for 47 minutes total on that trip and was definitely dying by the end of it, but it was awesome,” says Maroney. “We shot in Acadia, which I think is my favorite place in the world now. It looks like a postcard, so it really set the tone for a lot of the visual stuff I was trying to express, and how much nature was really a big part of my life and what I find beautiful in the world.”
Writing now all comes back to simplicity for Maroney. There’s less overthinking. “Songs that end up making the records usually for me are ones that come out in like 20 minutes and that’s changed a little bit as I’ve just written more and let that stuff like fly more freely,” he says. “It all comes back to simplicity, the songs that just pour out are the ones that I end up connecting with the most, the ones with the least thought.”
Now, Maroney is just making sure every song matters. “It has to be something that I couldn’t live without,” he says. “If we’re going to record something, I really want to make sure that it sounds to me like it’s always going to give me chills and always gonna give me some emotional fulfillment from here on out.”
Looking back 20 years from now Maroney wants to know that he never compromised when making music. “I don’t want to look back and think that I was compromising any emotional aspects of making music,” he says. “I want it to be really meaningful to me, no matter what I’m doing. It’s not selfish. I just feel like that’s the best way to do it.”
Maroney adds, “People connect with the ones where you really let yourself be open while making so that’s the intention behind this. I want people to just know that they’re not alone in having really intense emotions.”