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As the country-turned-pop trio celebrates the release of "Woman," they reflect on how their lives have — and haven't — changed since their breakout hit became last year's anthem

By Nancy Kruh
January 26, 2021 05:15 PM
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Certainly for a cat, Gumbo couldn't have had a more significant exit.

His unexpected death last June (granted, peacefully in his sleep) proved to be the fateful last straw for the saucy trio known as Avenue Beat: Sam Backoff, Savana Santos and Sami Bearden, Gumbo's owner. 

Seriously? After all these miserable months, now the cat is dead?

"That's why we called it quits on 2020," says Bearden, 23. "We're done. It's not happening."

Everyone knows what came next: "F2020," the group's musical kiss-off that has become the unofficial anthem for our collective annus horribilis.

But for three women who can appreciate absurdity, lyrics such as "yo, my cat died and a global pandemic took over my life" actually turned their 2020 into quite a stellar year: millions of views on TikTok, millions more streams on music platforms, celebrity high-fives on the socials (Justin Bieber and Will Smith, just to name two), and an appearance on the Top 40 pop chart. To cap everything, their remix with Jessie Reyez hit the No. 1 spot on The New York Times' Best Songs of 2020 list.

Gumbo's elegy came with one final surprise: It transformed the trio from country newbies into pop darlings. 

"That," says Santos, 22, "was purely, purely accidental." 

The three women, who began singing together at age 14 in their hometown of Quincy, Illinois, and moved to Nashville in 2016, had previously found their home in country with their smart lyrics and tight harmonies. But no doubt their unconventional sound was already pushing the genre's bounds.

Once "F2020" took off in the pop realm, they realized their country days were over. It's been a quick adjustment. 

"Now I feel like there's just no limit," says Backoff, 22, "and we can do whatever we feel like doing."

Incredibly, the women say the switch didn't even merit discussion at their record label, Big Machine, which, as the former home of country-turned-pop superstar Taylor Swift, knows a few things about genre-hopping.

"We're just like, okay, I guess we're doing this," Backoff recalls, "and they're like, 'How can we best help you promote it?'"

Avenue Beat
Avenue Beat
| Credit: Delaney Royer

Indeed, if the "F2020" blowup presented any new complications at all, it was just feeling the pressure to not be a one-hit wonder. 

"Once we kind of reached this high," Bearden says, "we were like, oh crap. What's the next thing we're going to do?"

Their follow-up single release, "Woman," out on Jan. 15, actually comes to grips with that reality in its intro: "I'm just tryna recreate what I did the first time / Is any topic even worthy of a first line?" ("We love to be meta," says Santos.) But then, backed by a funky beat, the lyrics strike out in the completely opposite direction of "F2020" — from big-picture to intimate, gloomy to gleeful.

As the title suggests, the song celebrates the beauty of a woman, but just to be clear, this isn't about aesthetics. "Woman" is a very sexy song. Bearden sums it up: "What is one thing that everyone on Earth just knows and acknowledges? Women. Hot. Yes."

The inspiration, the trio say, arrived when Santos' girlfriend of three years, songwriter Alysa Vanderheym, happened to walk into the room during a band writing session, and the first lines of the syncopated chorus soon spilled out: "What's more beautiful than a woman? Nothing / Ain't no f—ing vibe like a woman's lovin'."

Avenue Beat Woman
Avenue Beat's "Woman"
| Credit: Courtesy Big Machine

Despite the personal connection, Santos seizes on the universality of the lyrics' message. "I think what's cool about women is that even if you're a straight woman, you can appreciate the fact that women are beautiful, and it can be in a nonsexual way," she says. "And so I think that's what makes it work that we can all sing it together."

For their part, Backoff and Bearden are enjoying being able to help their lead singer express her passions. "We've always wanted to write a sexy song," says Backoff. Adds Bearden: "As women, we're kind of used to the sexy song being, 'Look at me and how sexy I am,' but that's not even really our style. Sexy songs for men can be 'Look how sexy that lady is,' and then we get to do that." 

Yet the bandmates don't consider themselves groundbreakers with the song, especially now that they're in a genre long inhabited by many other out-and-proud artists who span the sexual continuum.

"I just feel like we're living our truth and putting it out in song form," says Santos. "It never was, should we put this out? Is this too edgy? It's just like, we write music that's about our life, and this is our life."

Bearden adds: "We're at a point in history that we have so much privilege because so many people for so long have had to defend themselves and their sexuality and who they love. They fought so that we can feel like, oh, this is no big deal. We can just sing about what we feel. We're at a point where we can be honest about who we are, and that's really an incredible thing."

Vanderheym, meanwhile, is just getting a kick out of being Avenue Beat's muse. "She loves that we wrote a song about her," says Santos, who co-produced the song with Vanderheym, Backoff and Bearden.

Avenue Beat
Avenue Beat
| Credit: Delaney Royer

Now that Avenue Beat has begun living into the pressing question of "F2020" — "Can we just get to 2021?" — they're looking forward to putting out even more music, and possibly their first album by year's end. Just like everyone else, they're awaiting the day when COVID-19 restrictions come down, so they can begin touring.

In fact, perhaps the most absurd part of their "F2020" saga is the fact that, because of the quarantine, their day-to-day lives have changed so little despite having created one of the year's biggest viral sensations. 

Without the pandemic, there'd be no "F2020," but because of the pandemic, they have yet to capitalize on its success through personal appearances. (They've actually performed the song live only once, at a Nashville drive-in concert last October.)

"It doesn't really feel like a lot has happened," says Backoff, "even though these things have happened. We see the cool things on our phones, and then we sit on the couch and watch Netflix."

Bearden remains philosophic: "Hopefully this kept us from getting too big for our britches because truly nothing has changed."

Santos drolly adds: "That's only right for our brand."

Bearden reports that she did make one significant change in 2020, adopting another rescue cat. Unfortunately, Pigeon recently joined Gumbo in taking her permanent leave, the victim of a feline coronavirus (though not so ironic as to be the COVID-19 variety).

"I now think of myself as a cat hospice nurse," Bearden laments.

"It was," Santos summarizes, "2020's final joke."