There’s a song on the new three-track Sugar Oaks single called “Very Sparrow.” It is, like most of the other songs by the Sugar Oaks, a combination of crystalline clarity and muted, soulful pop melancholy. Its gently delivered melodies float above spacious instrumentation. It sounds like the quirky, laid-back pop for which the group is known. It was also, until very recently, a complete pain in the ass.

“I actually wrote that song at least five years ago,” says Sugar Oaks singer-guitarist-songwriter Eric Hayden. “The chord changes were the same `as they are now`, the lyrics were more or less the same … but it was really, really folky, and we could never get it right with the Sugar Oaks. Every time, we’d try something new and it wouldn’t work.”

“We’d tried over and over again to do it live,” says guitarist Christopher Belt, “but we were never able to do it. But about a year ago, we tried it at practice and came up with an arrangement that worked and it finally came together. And now, because Jon `Kraft, drummer` is also the engineer for our records, that song finally got fleshed out in the studio.”

The addition of Kraft to the Sugar Oaks lineup last August has turned out to be a pivotal decision in the band’s cautious evolution. As an uncredited engineer on the group’s debut EP – last year’s Red Grapes in the City – Kraft helped the Sugar Oaks get a firm grip on how to make their soulful pop more effective.

“I guess I’m kind of the poor man’s arranger,” laughs Kraft with all humility.

“But, seriously, having that engineer’s ear is really helpful for the songwriting process,” says bassist Matt Gersting.

Kraft is the fourth person to sit on the drum stool for the band, having taken it over from Gersting after the release of Red Grapes in one of many lineup changes over the years. The band’s roots go back to 1999, as a duo featuring Hayden and keyboardist-vocalist Soraya Zaumeyer under the name Bear Country. (“We opened for Cub Country one time at the Social,” laughs Belt. “Actually, we changed our name right before that show,” corrects Hayden. “It would have been ridiculous.”) As the lineup expanded with the eventual addition of Gersting and Belt (and many others during the process), their sound also matured.

“It was more acoustic when it was Bear Country – a little slower, a little more downbeat,” says Hayden. “We noticed the sound was changing, so it seemed like a good time to change the name.”

The band’s focus also sharpened, resulting in a more practiced – if no less organic – approach to their music that has culminated in the rich and distinctive textures of songs like “Very Sparrow.” And while that song may have taken the band a while to nail down, it’s telling that they actually took the time to get it right.

“When we finally had to create something that we were accountable for, rather than just writing songs and playing shows, we had to start thinking about things differently,” says Belt. “It was a tremendous learning process, but it had a lot to do with how we coalesced into the band that we are now.”

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