Small, rural towns have a (perhaps unfair, perhaps not) reputation for stifling artistic promise, as it can be an expression of one’s otherness. Perhaps this author is projecting, but dipping a toe in any alternative fashion or wearing a hairstyle that’s not in lockstep with everyone else can be enough to trigger a lifetime of insipid townieism, from peers and adults alike.
Still, Danielle Johnson and Chelsea Grant not only found artistic success in pastoral Delaware…they also found love.
Chelsea, a Bridgeville native, and Danielle, with roots in Smyrna, met at a party in Felton (note: author’s hometown!) nearly eight years ago, joined forces in the wildly popular band Hoochi Coochi in 2016, and moved to Wilmington in 2018. Since that time, Chelsea has begun quickly moving up the ranks within Brew Ha Ha’s organization to become a barista-turned-head roaster, a career she was tickled to hear this author refer to as culinary. Danielle—professionally known as Brown Sugar, or the abbreviated Sug—was recently hired by Gable Music as a booking assistant.
Says Sug about her new job, “I love music. I geek. Nothing about it feels like work for me. I know what it’s like to be an artist that’s up and coming, so I know it’s nice to have someone who can put your hat in the ring. It’s great to advocate for smaller band.”
All the while, the couple is creating. Sug, who also books and promotes the band, sings and writes lyrics for Hoochi Coochi while Chelsea is the drummer and sings backup vocals. Chelsea is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar and keys, too, with a marching band background. They are both in other bands: Sug in cover-based acoustic duo Brown Sug & Blonde Roast with Lauren Kuhne and Chelsea in Daisy Episode.
They’ve settled in a classic Wilmington rowhome, which sports a charming rotunda in the central living space, and room in the basement where the multiple bands they each occupy can perform. There’s a roommate, and feline life, and, unsurprisingly, an eclectic décor that reflects the creative sensibilities of a musical couple.
It’s not unusual in Wilmington’s music scene to encounter couples who perform together—Joe Trainor and Kerry Kristine and Hot Breakfast come to mind—but to learn that a couple overcame a number of odds to become both celebrated local performers and lovers, and boos who create melodies together, gives a person hope for the world.
We asked Sug and Chelsea how they came to be Wilmingtonians who rock:
IN: What made you decide to move to Wilmington?
Danielle: I wanted to come up here because there is way more opportunity for entertainers, especially musicians doing original music. Nothing against covers (note: more on that later), but I just really wanted to find a place that would accept originals and had some kind of community around that.
Chelsea: I didn’t want to come at first. I’d never been away from family. We’re really close. I found out my sister was having a baby, so I was going to be a first time aunt. I’d been teaching for twelve years, and I’d have to leave my kids and my classroom. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to make a jump.
Danielle: When I had proposed moving up north and was set on it, I thought there was no way I can get her to go along. Chelsea has always been the type of person for whom transitions never really set well.
Chelsea: When a big change happens, I like to think of every outcome. I hadn’t thought of everything yet. I worked with my mom, as well, so I was used to seeing her every day. Mom was not happy but then she was like, “You should.” Honestly, it’s been one of the best decisions.
IN: How did you meet?
Danielle: We met at a house party but I didn’t talk to Chelsea for three weeks. She had pigtails and combat boots on and I was fresh out of high school.
Chelsea: We kept passing each other. The party was predominantly white people so I identified with the other brown girl.
Danielle: One night we ended up not saying anything but dancing together.
Chelsea: I told her she had pretty eyes and eventually we shared a kiss. We didn’t even ask each other’s names for a long time. When Danielle said her name was Brown Sugar, I thought it was kind of rude, so I said, “My name is Choc-o-late.” She picked up on that right away and said, “No, it’s Danielle.”
Danielle: I was rapping at the time, and everyone called me that.
IN: What’s it like to make music with your romantic partner?
Danielle: It’s so fun. You get to see your partner be passionate about things they love to do. There’s nothing like that. I turn around and see her having a good time. Plus, watching her watch me is fun. It’s not easy to impress someone you’ve been with for close to a decade.
Chelsea: It’s a connection I don’t have with anyone else on stage. You become a little telepathic when you’re on stage.
Danielle: I tried to make music before with her on guitar and me singing but it didn’t work. I love her on rhythm.
Chelsea: Our understanding of music is different.
Danielle: Yeah, melodies and chords are different from the rhythm section. How I like to sing and how you play guitar is different.
IN: What is the musical air like in your home? Is music always playing? What bands? Or do you rely more on your own playing to fill spare time?
Chelsea: We keep a calendar for our music. When our band practices are. We were just listening to Hayley Williams’ new solo stuff. Brittany Howard solo, with Nate Smith on drums. The Teskey Brothers.
Danielle: We listen to lots of local music. I love it. I’m always singing, in the shower, when I’m cooking, anything. I let myself freelance as a work-for-hire.
Chelsea: People ask me to play drums but I think I need more me-time than the normal person. I’m generally very busy with our band anyway, so it scratches that itch to play music. Our bassist and I learn different songs and we sing them when we are just hanging out. We joke we are going to become a cover band out of spite.
IN: How long have each of you been making music?
Danielle: I started singing in church as little girl. I don’t even remember the start. My mom is a singer and I remember watching her solos. People falling out in the spirit and crying. I said, “I wanna make people happy like that.”
Chelsea: I always sang as a kid. Around third grade, you’re allowed to join the band. My grandfather played drums so I went that way. I was also in choir. Until you couldn’t do both. Then I chose drums, doing marching band and jazz band.
Danielle: I was in choir in school but I wasn’t good at it and didn’t take it seriously at all. Now that I’m a working musician, I wish I would have. I did not like music theory at all. Too many rules. I was just there to flirt with the girls.
Chelsea: In band in school nobody was there to tell me, “Hey ,you can do this for a living.”
Danielle: I had been doing it with rapping. I didn’t make money but I saw the business side and what networking was.
Chelsea: I was in a punk-country weird band. I thought, “I’m gonna have these inside things, and only people who listen to it will understand it.” We made it as weird and personal as we could. That partner was a great songwriter.
IN: Who’s a big musical INfluence for you and why?
Danielle: My mom is always my number one. I probably would have loved music whether she sang or not. Understanding what being in front of people was, and the energies, that’s what I wanted to do. I love funk and soul. Tortured ones like James Brown and Amy Winehouse. Prince—not so tortured—but anyone who can put on an amazing show. Plus all my friends. I don’t care what the genre is like, punk or jazz, watching friends do what they love inspires me, as well.
Chelsea: I grew up in the 90s, so I love Celine Dion. A broad spectrum: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Janet Jackson. I didn’t even know what genre meant for a long time.
Danielle: l grew up in a Christian household. Only Southern Baptist soul music for a long time. My second genre was classic rock because that’s what my friends’ parents were into. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles. That was like a generation before Chelsea’s music.
Chelsea: My grandma did sing. Both grandmothers sang a lot, but my mom has always been the most supportive person in my life. Let me do things despite being female, like letting me race motocross at a young age. As a person, not just as a woman. She wanted me to be good at whatever I wanted to do. She gave me the stops—if you want to do this, you have to focus, you have to be good or you’re not going to have fun. I have the confidence to go after things I like to do. That’s all you need when you’re a kid.