SISTER HAZEL Band keeps its focus on making music

Going independent has allowed band members to stay fresh.
Sister Hazel feels a bit freer these days. With no pressure to come up with a radio hit (and fast!), with a schedule that allows them to release as much material as the group wants, the likable pop-rock band from Florida just goes with the flow of the music.
"When we make a record, we don't set out any specific goals," says lead guitarist and vocalist Ryan Newell, who's calling from Atlanta. He's speaking on behalf of his band mates -- lead vocalist and guitarist Ken Block, bassist Jett Beres, rhythm guitarist Andrew Copeland and drummer Mark Trojanowski -- who are unavailable.
"Depending on what place we are in, our lives determine where the songs go," Newell says. "We've been together over 10 years and gig every night, and with that we've become a tighter band."
The group's latest and fifth album, "Lift," came out in August and garnered mostly decent reviews but no real hits. On it, the band mostly sticks to the formula that has served them well since forming in 1993: an accessible marriage of melodic pop and streamlined country-tinged rock.
"The new record is more of an introspective record than the past albums," Newell says. "We write 50 songs for each record, then we find the songs that take you on a journey, that keep you on a trip. We felt more comfortable doing that this time."
Long dry spell
It's been nearly eight years since the quintet was in the Top 10. "All for You" topped the adult alternative charts the summer of '97. "Somewhere More Familiar," the group's sophomore album that featured the hit, was released by Universal Records and eventually sold 1 million copies.
But the follow-up, 2000's "Fortress," failed to match the success of its predecessor. The guys started to feel the pressure to keep churning out the hits.
"Universal was great to us," says Newell, who's 33. "They gave us creative freedom. But they were definitely waiting for the radio hit. We don't turn our noses up at being commercially successful. But we don't set out to make singles. If we did, it would sound fake."
Parting of ways
So after "Fortress" bombed, the guys and Universal amicably parted ways, and Sister Hazel formed its own label, Croakin' Poets, whose first release hit the streets in 2003: "Chasing Daylight." By this time, the group, which is named after a Gainesville, Fla., woman who runs homeless shelters, had been together a decade, amassing a devoted following. The guys regularly packed clubs and medium-sized venues throughout the Northeast and the Midwest. So fans strongly supported "Chasing Daylight," though critics generally found it forced and bland.
"We want to stay fresh," Newell asserts. "We don't want to put out the same record over and over again. Now that we're independent, we get to release records more often. We have a live CD. Andrew has put out a solo CD. So we get to have more of an impact."
As an independent unit, Sister Hazel founded the Rock Boat, an annual music festival at sea featuring up to 30 acts. This year, the four-day cruise starting Sept. 29 will include O.A.R, Marc Broussard and platinum-selling singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw.
"We developed a fan community, a really active message board," Newell says. "We have fans who travel to see us at every show. The Rock Boat sells out fast every year. We've created a musical community-type atmosphere for our fans."

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