A Conversation with Stevie Jackson
Mike Ragogna: Hello to you, Stevie Jackson. How are you?
Stevie Jackson: Hello, fantastic, yeah! I'm in Glasgow and it's dark and it's rainy and it feels like home.
MR: What? You say you're in Glasgow? What are you doing there? Aren't you Stevie Jackson from sunny California?
SJ: No, no, not me, sir. I'm Scottish. I'm as Scottish as they come.
MR: Scottish as they come? Why, I could have sworn you were Stevie Jackson from Venice Beach.
SJ: Oh not me, no, no. I've been there once. I rode a bike along it once but that was a long time ago.
MR: [laughs] I'm just being dopey, Stevie, I've been a fan of Belle & Sebastian for years. So for your new album, (I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson, how did you approach a solo project versus one for Belle & Sebastian?
SJ: Well, I just had time on my hands, you see. I made this record with Belle & Sebastian called The Life Pursuit and at that point, we'd been going ten years and I'd been really busy with that, then suddenly, I had time on my hands. I think there was understanding that we were just going to leave it for a while, for like a year or so, and I was involving myself in various things like doing art projects and writing songs for fun with other people. Some time went by and I realized I had a few tunes so I thought it would be fun to record them--not to put them out or something, I had no big ambition to do that, just as something to do, really. I recorded the pile of stuff and it just kind of sat there for a while. Then Bell & Sebastian actually got together again and we made another record and then we were on tour and then just at the end of that, I recorded some more and it just occurred to me that it was probably a record. Then this title came to my head--(I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson--and then I imagined the cover and then it just all kind of happened, so it all kind of happened at once.
MR: You knew this was going to come up. As the group Belle & Sebastian, you have so many albums and EPs. What is your creative process and how do you slow it down?
SJ: Well, it doesn't compare to the sixties or something, it's not that prolific, but I guess we've been going for like sixteen years and we've got eight LPs, so that's one every couple of years if you balance it and a bunch of EPs, which are not on a record. I think it's just what we do, I guess. [laughs] It's our job. Creatively, it's kind of changed a lot over the years. he'd just come in and bring songs, then he encouraged other people to bring in songs, and then over a period of time everybody started contributing songs and songs started getting written by the group themselves at least in the way that, obviously Stuart (Murdoch) would still be the main writer and come up with the main melodies and stuff, but we'd get together and just try bits of music. If anybody had an idea--it could be anything, like a riff or a drum beat or a bit of melody or a bit of lyric--we'd just kind of hash it out and try things out and it would just be a kind of workshop kind of vibe. Then suddenly, one of the writers would finish it off. In most cases, it was Stuart, because he was the one with the most aptitude. So creatively, it's changed over the years, it's developed and evolved. It kind of keeps more interest.
MR: Is that how you approach your solo material, too? Do you bounce ideas off of other musicians as you're creating it?
SJ: Well, with the solo record, I was going for a kind of raw approach where it generally meant that I'd gather some players in a room, teach them a song, do two or three takes and then record. I was just trying to capture something. Sometimes when you're getting music together, sometimes the first thing you do is your favorite thing and then you go over it and it kind of loses something, so I was trying to capture that instantaneous kind of vibe. If you listen to the record, it doesn't sound that polished in certain instances. There's quite a raw feeling, although I tended to polish it by putting some strings and backing vocals on it and things like that. But I was generally trying to go for a quite lively approach.
MR: Well, you are basically an "indie" artist in terms of sound.
SJ: I guess. I never really think in those terms, but yeah, I guess so. I guess I am. I'm the guitar player in Belle & Sebastian. I wear glasses and suits, so I guess I am an indie artist. Let's face it.
MR: [laughs] By the way, is that the same process with The Vaselines?
SJ: Oh no, in The Vaselines I'm kind of like a session guy, really. Eugene and Frances are The Vaselines. We started off just kind of touring and playing their back catalogs from twenty years ago, but then we started writing some more songs. But they are The Vaselines, they are in charge. I played on their records a couple years ago but that was more just--what's the word--taking suggestions. That's a different thing. That's not to say that it's not creative and satisfying, because it is. I get to play in certain ways I don't normally get to play with Belle & Sebastian, for example, controlled feedback and things like that. Playing with The Vaselines was a period of growth for me, playing a bit louder.
MR: And do you remember a group called The Moondials?
SJ: Oh yeah, yeah.
MR: It's fun to watch your career evolve. From the first album, Tigermilk and on, Belle & Sebastian has become a bit of an "indie" household name. There's that word again.
SJ: I would say so, yeah, in terms of the indie world. I think we've done really well and we seem to be sustaining a living out of it for quite a long time. As long as that continues, to me that's the mark of success, to make a living out of something you love. We're very, very lucky. When we made Tigermilk, I thought it would appeal to a certain amount of people because I knew it was good, I knew it would do well, but it did much better than I thought it would, especially in America. America really took this to their hearts, you know? College radio and stuff. It's really fantastic.
MR: Yeah, that's why we took it to heart, it was that kind of music. And you could kind of interchange "indie" with "college radio" here...kind of.
SJ: Oh sure, yeah, it's a term that I used to fight a little bit because I considered ourselves to be a pop group like any other pop group, and I considered the term "indie" to be almost like a put-down in some sort of way. When you start to get really successful, people in Britain were like, "You're an indie band, how dare you be on Top Of The Pops," which is the big music program. But as I've grown older, I've realized that the term "indie" means something else to me now and I embrace it and I'm grateful for it.
MR: Here's a loaded question. Did Belle & Sebastian ever have an anthology or collection to get new listeners into the group in an easier way other than buying all the EPs and the albums?
SJ: No. I don't believe so. I think there was maybe a sampler that the press got, that's the only thing I can think of. We just made the records and the EPs and put them out. In this day and age, I don't know how much that matters because you can go on Spotify and check out anything you want. Whatever, it's a different world we live in just now. I've never thought about doing a Greatest Hits or something like that, but there's certainly a compilation of the EPs. That's called Push Barman To Open Old Wounds. Next year, I think we'll do another one of those for the other non-LP tracks.
MR: Let's talk about your own material, such as your song "Men Of God." Can you go into the story behind it?
SJ: Well, I was sitting with my friend at the piano and we just made the song up in one go pretty much. I think he had a bit and I had a bit and we stuck them together and then we just started laughing when we were taping it. I think I just went back and listened to the tape and wrote it down and that was the song. I think the song was written in the time it takes to sing it...maybe another five or ten minutes on top of that. That was a great one. It's great when that happens. You just write a song and there it is.
MR: How about the lyrics? How do they relate to you or you to them?
SJ: It's kind of a fun song, really. Part of the thing is, "I am a man of God," I feel like a man of God, and I want to convince this girl that we should be together. Somewhere along the line, it got more tongue in cheek and then the writer is suddenly dimming the lights and playing seventies soul records. It's definitely got a sort of story to it, a religious undercurrent.
MR: Is there another track we can get a story on?
SJ: Oh sure, what about, "Where Do All The Good Girls Go?" It's a song, which I had the tune for years and years and years. I used to sing the tune to myself, and me and my friend Ryan Miller, we were sitting watching Serge Gainsbourg DVDs. We're big fans of his and Brigitte Bardot and that kind of French pop, and I just got the idea from that to make a sort of French song so that I can go, "Excusez-moi...where do all the good girls go?" There are bits of song weight, shall we say, added. It's like another fun tune.
MR: Stevie, what advice do you have for new artists?
SJ: You know newer and more current trends? Ignore all of them. If you're trying to shape your music or adapt your music to current trends, as soon as you get it together, the trend changes. I think you're best just being as creative as you can with your own vision. Just be good. Don't worry too much about perception and fame and all those things. I think if you just concentrate on your art, that's the most important thing. And if you're in a group, I would strongly suggest that you share everything equally if you want to survive through the years. Don't get greedy. Share everything. Be really positive about that. Those are the main things that come to mind. Generosity, creativity, and trying to ignore all the nonsense that's out there, because it will just distract you.
MR: That's basically been your path, right?
SJ: Absolutely, yeah. That's Belle & Sebastian. I think that's why we've been going for so long. We're all in it together and we share everything.
MR: Actually, I interviewed Tom Keifer from Cinderella recently, and he voiced the same sentiment, as in don't follow the trends, let the trends follow you.
SJ: He's absolutely right, you know? You've had it if you're following trends. You've absolutely had it. You might get somewhere, but it won't last long.
MR: Stevie, although this is your first solo album, you were Stevie Jackson and The Wellgreen when you recorded George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby."
SJ: Oh yeah! That was for my friend Michael Shelley in New York. He was putting together a compilation of artists doing seventies covers and he asked me to do one. These guys, The Wellgreen, are amazing. They came and played with me. They're a band themselves, obviously, but they were my rhythm section. They're talented, talented boys. That was fun to do.
MR: And we don't want to forget how you contributed "Good Time" to Caroline, Now, that collection of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys songs.
SJ: That one's quite a while ago!
MR: So what does the future bring for touring and the future in general?
SJ: The truthful thing is that Belle & Sebastian will be working together next year. Stuart, our singer, is currently editing a movie he just made in Glasgow during the summer. It's tied in with his God Help The Girl album. He's actually made the film, so he'll be doing that for the rest of the year, I guess. Next year, we'll be definitely playing shows and we're coming to America and working on a new record. I'm going to be doing my second record at the end of the year. I've been playing a lot and doing a lot. I've just got a run of about two or three months where I don't have to leave Glasgow, so I guess I'll be concentrating on getting another LP together. The first one took so long to come out, it took a long time for me to get around to making one. I've kind of got a pace for it now, so I want to do another one and then another one and just keep doing it until I fall over.
MR: [laughs] Oh, I have a feeling you will, sir, not fall over, but that you'll just keep going like the Eveready Bunny.
SJ: That's me. A whole paradox!
MR: How about one more song's story before we wrap it up?
SJ: "Richie Now" is one of my favorites, it's a song about my best friend at school. His name is Rick and we played guitars together at lunchtime and learned guitars together. You're at that age, fifteen or whatever, when you're dreaming of being stars and being famous and going down that road. It's an exciting time in a young guy's life. I lost contact with Rick along the way and I found myself just singing the song. We used to imagine our solo careers. He was going to have an album called Richie Now and it just came into my head, "Where's Richie now?" Like any song about your friend, it's also very personal. It's about me as well, so it's almost like a song to myself. I hope everybody that's (reading this) was lucky enough to have a best friend at school, because it's really great. Maybe this song will have a resonance for you.
MR: Beautiful. Hey Richie, if you're reading this on The Huffington Post, say hi to your buddy Stevie Jackson! He wrote a song about you, man! That's really great, Stevie, I love that you did that. I really appreciate your time, and I'd love to re-interview you when you have your new Belle & Sebastian project.
SJ: Thank you Mike, that would be fabulous. I'll be back.
MR: Sweet. I appreciate it very much. Thank you.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with The Sword's J.D. Cronise
Mike Ragogna: Hey, how are you, sir?
J.D. Cronise: I'm good, thank you.
MR: So, Apocryphon is The Sword's fourth album. How did you dive into this one different than the other ones, and also can you go into the theme of the album?
JDC: That's a good question. The theme of the album, if it has one, is definitely more expressive of my worldview and viewpoints than our previous records where they had some messages hidden in there but always kind of cloaked in fantasy imagery and things like that. The last record was kind of a rock opera, so that was just pure science fiction storytelling. This one's a little bit more personal, I guess, in a way, lyrically. Writing this one was different. Every one is different, every album is a different experience. This one was written in a shorter space of time, I think, than the other records, so I think that kind of led to there being somewhat of a thematic cohesion to the lyrics. It's just ten hard rock songs rather than a sprawling conceptual narrative like the last one.
MR: You had J.H. Williams III create the artwork for Apochryphon, and of course, he's associated with Batwoman, Promethea, and a few others comics-related characters. How did you get him?
JDC: Well, you know, we just emailed him basically, to see if he was interested. I personally thought it was a long shot. He was my first choice because I've been a big fan of his work for a while, but I've always kind of heard that these comic book artists, especially the ones that work for the big companies, are super-busy and have deadlines and may or may not have exclusive contracts and things like that that would preclude them from doing anything like this. I kind of thought that the first choice probably wouldn't work out, and lo and behold, he was actually very enthusiastic about the idea and was aware of our band and was somewhat of a fan. It worked out wonderfully.
MR: Now, you also had a Metallica encounter this year.
JDC: The thing we did this year was their festival that they put on in Atlantic City, The Orion Fest. It was great.
MR: What was the scene like?
JDC: It was really cool. They got a very diverse collection of bands to play it. I got to see a few bands I haven't seen before and a few of my favorite current bands. It was really fun. I usually don't enjoy hanging out at festivals very much; we go and we play them and then just kind of hang out backstage. But this one was actually fun to walk around and talk to people and catch up with the other bands, a much more pleasant festival experience than usual.
MR: And Austin is no stranger to festivals, considering South By Southwest claims Austin as its home.
JDC: It does. I actually don't live in Austin anymore. I moved out last spring, but the rest of the band still lives there. We have quite a few festivals.
MR: Let's check out some of these titles: "The Veil Of Isis," "Cloak Of Feathers," "The Hidden Masters," "Hawks & Serpents," and, of course, the title track, "Apocryphon." It may not be a concept album, but you do have a theme running through your songs.
JDC: Yeah. Yeah, I don't know if I've even put my finger on precisely what it is, but it definitely feels like a record that has something to say. There's something in there.
MR: You have chosen images and metaphors, like when you look at the lyrics, they've got a certain language with a sci-fi/fantasy focus, like a gamers' world, too, in a lot of ways. Can you go into what inspired you to pursue this genre?
JDC: Well, I'm a science fiction nerd, I have been since I was a little kid, since my dad took me to see Star Wars when I was like seven or eight or something. I'm not quite that old, I didn't see it in the theater the first time, I actually saw it at a drive-in. I've always looked at heavy metal and hard rock, the kinds of music we do, as kind of the musical equivalent of science fiction and fantasy. It's supposed to be escapist in a way; it's supposed to provide some cautionary tales much like science fiction does. To me, they're one and the same. It's supposed to fuel the imagination. I just can't write lyrics about everyday situations and things like that, and really feel like I'm saying something interesting.
MR: And yet, this is the most personal album to you.
JDC: Yes, it is.
MR: So how does that work?
JDC: I try to kind of look at things from various perspectives, and even if I'm writing about something that is personal to me, I'm not going to describe it in mundane terms or black and white terms. I would always prefer to use imagery and metaphor to kind of make it more interesting for the people that don't care about me and my life so that they can interpret it as they will.
MR: J.D., how did the group got together?
JDC: I was in Austin playing in another band that was kind of floundering a little bit, not really doing much, and I kind of had this idea for a while to start a heavier sort of band. I had a demo of some songs that I'd written and I just started giving that around to my friends and, eventually, Kyle (Shutt) heard it. He played guitar in another band in Austin and he offered his services and then, my old buddy Trivett (Wingo) moved to town and he played drums and then after a couple of shows as a three-piece, we found Bryan (Richie), who joined on bass. In the last year and a half, we got a new drummer whose name is Jimmy Vela, and it's been awesome since he joined. It's a good vibe and we're really stoked.
MR: I'm looking at your endless tour dates, you're playing virtually non-stop. How do you do this kind of grueling schedule?
JDC: We've definitely done more grueling ones in the past. I'm thirty-six now. I'm getting a little older as far as band guys go, and we still like to take some breaks and some days off here and there, but when we're on the road, we don't like to have too much downtime because downtime on the road is boring. There's nothing to do if you're in a strange place or in the middle of nowhere stuck in some motel or something like that. The whole point of it is to play live. That's like an hour or an hour and a half a day that you're doing that, which compared to all the downtime, is really quite a ratio. We like to play as much as possible while we're out, but we still take breaks. We're doing a six week tour, but we still take a week break in the middle and we get a few days off here and there, so we're not quite as hardcore road warriors as we used to be, but we still hit it pretty hard.
MR: How did you end up on that feisty indie, Razor & Tie?
JDC: They had one of the most attractive offers and they're an independent label, which there aren't a lot of prospering independent labels now, unfortunately. But they seemed to be one of the few that were. We didn't really want to go with a major. At this point, in the way that the music industry is, the majors are kind of desperate to grab as much cash as they can, and that means taking part of your merch and more than they used to because they unfortunately don't sell as many records as they once did. It's almost like the death throes of a dying beast. You just kind of don't want to get too close to it because you don't know what's going to happen.
MR: I can see it now... Musicocryphon will be your next project.
JDC: I hope I don't have to do that. [laughs] But Razor & Tie is a good independent label and they offered us a fair chunk of cash to get a record done, and they seemed to be really interested in trying to sell as many records as possible, which is great. Our label was good for a while, but they kind of weren't as concerned about "moving units" as Razor & Tie is. It's good to have people that actually care about pushing your music out there.
MR: Can you go into some songs on Apocryphon?
JDC: Sure. We've played "Veil Of Isis" on your radio show. The song that would be lyrically kin to that would be "Seven Sisters," which is a later track on the record. I hate to pick a favorite song, but it's, in a way, the closest to my heart. I can't even really tell you why. That one kind of sprung up out of nowhere; the lyrics and the music kind of just arrived at the same time, which is rare. Usually, the music comes first and the lyrics come later. But that one was just kind of born fully-formed, almost. It does share some references with "Veil Of Isis" lyrically, which is something that I've never quite attempted in that way before. It's definitely got some interesting parts. As far as what it means lyrically or anything like that, it's very open to interpretation. It's almost hard for me to say. A lot of times, I don't really figure out what songs mean until later, but "Veil Of Isis" has a part talking about "seven ships colliding," and then in "Seven Sisters," these are the lovers of the seven sisters that went out to sea and died or something.
MR: J.D., who's your favorite Sci-Fi writer?
JDC: That's a good question. I've been reading a lot of Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock lately, but Dune by Frank Herbert is probably my all-time favorite book.
MR: Nice, mine too, and next, for me, is Ray Bradbury's A Medicine For Melancholy. Got a favorite sci-fi movie?
JDC: Other than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back...? I like so many of them. That's hard to say. Good question.
MR: What about graphic novel?
JDC: Let me take a quick glance at my bookshelf. I'm a big fan of all the Crises... from DC. I'm a big superhero guy when it comes to comic books. I'm into Batman and stuff like that. I think I'd have to say Batwoman: Elegy is pretty amazing, not to plug our own album cover artist.
MR: No, Dude, right on. I'm also a big fan of all of DC's Crisis... outings, from the original to Identity Crisis, although I think Final Crisis was horrible and the Legion of Super-Heroes's part of Final Crisis should be considered how they wrapped up that storyline. Oh, and I really dislike the New 52 a lot. I think they went too hip for their own good.
JDC: There's some definite issues, but I read a few of those books. I think some of them are good. There's so much that doesn't make sense, sort of.
MR: I read the first twelve of every one of them and I don't think I can make it to the zero issues and next layer. After reading these books almost my whole life, it's sad how they've lost me with this reboot. But I'm glad you're liking some of it.
JDC: There's a couple of them that are good. I've been reading Batman. Batman's issue zero is good. Green Lantern is interesting. They're introducing a new Green Lantern who seems like an interesting character. That's been good. There's a couple that are all right.
MR: Batman was supposed to have been left alone mostly, that was the DC directive, and that's why those titles carry the best. Okay, time for the hard question. What is your advice for new artists?
JDC: My advice for new artists... That's a good question because I think we, a lot of times, equate ourselves to Indiana Jones in the scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark where he kind of flies under the dropping door and grabs his hat out from under it before it slams shut. We kind of feel like we did that in a lot of ways with the way the music business has changed in the past few years. We got in right before it really took a nosedive, so to speak. Try to play live as much as possible; to me, that's the timeless advice that I would give anyone. That's what it's all about to me -- performing music in front of people. The more you do that, the more people will talk about it and tell their friends about it and sooner or later, somebody that can help you out is going to find out about that and come see you and do something to put you on a label or put you in a commercial or whatever. It's funny because these days, being in a commercial is kind of the equivalent to having a song on this radio because most mainstream radio barely plays any new music anymore, which is unfortunate. So a lot of times, you have to do stuff like trying to get a song in a video game or on a commercial to get that sort of exposure that people once got through the radio.
MR: Your influences have been Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin obviously... groups like that, right?
JDC: Yeah, definitely.
MR: But weren't you also influenced by folks like Bob Seger and Michael Jackson?
JDC: Sure, yeah, we probably said that at some point. We definitely listen to a lot of Michael Jackson. I don't know how much of a musical influence he is, necessarily. We also listen to a lot of R. Kelly, though I don't see us doing our own "Trapped In The Closet"-type series any time soon. But as a band, we have very diverse musical tastes. We don't just listen to Metallica and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, we listen to all kinds of stuff -- Steely Dan, rap music, hip hop... All over the board, really.
MR: Do you still listen to a little Billy Gibbons here and there?
JDC: Absolutely. Billy Gibbons is one of my idols in a lot of ways, especially with guitar playing. I listen to a lot of ZZ Top. Actually, I just ordered the new Moving Sidewalks LP Collection that just came out, which I'm excited about.
MR: Yeah. So it looks like every two years you have an album out. You went from Age Of Winters to Gods Of The Earth to Warp Riders -- love that title by the way -- and now, Apocryphon. Every two years, you seem to have an album, so that must mean in order to get the material together, you're already writing the material for the next album now.
JDC: No, no, not yet. I hate to have songs then have to sit on them and not do anything, so if I were to start writing now for the next record, it would be a long time before we would even get to play new songs live, much less record them. It's weird, the creative impulse is not really something you can turn on and off, but I can kind of take myself out of the creative frame of mind for a while and just not think about it. Occasionally, you'll think of stuff anyway. But nowadays, it's easier to put myself in the mindset of, "Okay, now it's time to think about inspiration for songs." But right now, we're just concentrating on the tour coming up and playing the new stuff live.
MR: Did you learn any new tricks while you were working with J. Robbins in the studio on Apocryphon?
JDC: Did I learn any new tricks? Not really. It was great working with him, he's a really nice guy and really easy to work with and he really understands what a band like us is supposed to sound like. But I'm trying to think if I learned anything new tricks and I don't know. In a way, there's definitely stuff on this record, parts here and there that are very different for us and different from things we've done before. There are more synthesizers, there are kind of colorful little touches here and there; falsetto vocals, like in "Seven Sisters," which I've never done before. To me, when I listen to this record, I think every song is weird, in a way, for us. It's like, "Wow, I can't believe that this is a Sword song," but in a good way.
MR: Like you said earlier, you're out there and you're just playing all the time. But do you find that you can balance everything -- studio, live, life -- by now?
JDC: Well, you know we're all still alive and well and doing it, so I guess we're doing something right. But as far as touring a lot, that's just what you have to do now. That's just the nature of the business. I probably wouldn't tour quite as much if we were able to sell more albums, but the fact is, people just don't buy as many as they used to, so you've got to go out and play live and make your money from that and selling merchandise...not that we don't love to play live. I definitely do enjoy my time at home, though. I'm kind of a homebody in a lot of ways. I have a dog and I really like where I live. But at the same time, it's always weird making the transition from being at home for a while and then going on the road. You kind of look forward to it and dread it all at the same time, but then, once you're actually out doing it, it's like, "Okay, yeah, this is where I'm supposed to be, this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
MR: Plus it's like the road is your home too.
JDC: Yeah, it's one of them. When you're in a band these days, you kind of have to have at least two homes. There are some bands that just tour all the time and never go home, but for me, I have to have some kind of stability and home base there as well.
MR: J.D., this has been really a lot of fun and I appreciate your time. Thank you so much, and all the best.
JDC: Yeah man, thank you!
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
The Ol' Q&A with Sonnet
Q: Hi Sonnet, thanks so much for chatting with us. So Sonnet is your real name, correct?
Sonnet: Yes, Sonnet is my real name. My mom doesn't have a very long or creative story about it, she simply says it just came to her and she went with it. However, Sonnet is derived from the Italian word "sonetto," which means "little song" or "little sound." When I've felt like giving up and giving in to the rejection, so prevalent in this industry, I look to my name as a reminder of what I am supposed to be doing.
Q: Your debut EP/CD came out last week, but prior to this release, you've have had two of your songs featured in major commercial campaigns. Tell us how those opportunities came about and what affect you think that will have on your career?
S: With the Lagoon Park/Coke campaign, I was lucky to have had the right song for the right project at the right time. The director for the Overstock.com commercial, Matt Hodgson, was the same director I worked with on the Lagoon Park/Coke campaign. Last year, he called me and asked me to submit a song for the Overstock pitch. I worked on it for a couple of days then sent him a text with a recording of some ideas. He played it for the Overstock.com folks and two weeks later, I was on a plane to not only record the song, but also star in three of the commercial spots. These commercials have been a wonderful platform for me to share my music with a greater audience that I would otherwise be able to reach. The response and support I receive from new and existing fans fuels my inspiration to keep writing and performing. Hopefully, the exposure from the commercials will help develop a wider following and open doors for more commercial work in the future.
Q: Tell us about the process of writing your debut EP, like how does singing your own music differ from material given to you by other songwriters?
S: This EP was a little different than any other project I have done because I wrote and produced the material with Ali Noori. I already had a whole library of songs, but we chose not to record any of them -- except the ballad "What If" -- and started from scratch with all new songs and a slightly different sound. The process had us writing one day and recording and producing the next, often working day and night to get just the right sound and vibe. For me, singing my own music is easier than singing songs someone else created. When I write a melody or lyrics, it is a direct expression from my heart, so it is easy to sing it with feeling because I am already attached to it. When I sing material someone else has written, I have to work harder to make the emotional connection with the lyrics and melody until it feels like it is my own song. However, I really enjoy the challenge both processes present.
Q: This album seems to focus a lot on the fundamental differences between men and women. What do you want people to take away from the project?
S: This record is my personal pop perspective on the trials and tribulations of relationships, especially those between men and women. Originally, the EP was titled Boys and Girls, after the two tracks I wrote early on for the album, which both focus on the different ways we communicate within relationships. My goal, really, is to help encourage self-expression, candid communication, and authentic love, probably because I am learning about these skills myself on a daily basis. During the cathartic process of writing this record, I examined a lot of my own personal beliefs, fears and experiences and embraced the challenges and benefits that would come from sharing my personal truths. In the end, I hope I've delivered a fun, digestible way to share the intrinsic differences between men and women in relationships.
Q: Sonnet, please would you discuss some of your musical influences and what affect they have on your music?
S: On my 5th birthday, my Uncle Greggy gave me my first records, Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark and Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman. I played these two tapes until they broke in my pink little boom box, absorbing every lyric and melody, even though, at the time, I had no idea what they were talking about. To this day, that is how I continue to consume music. I will find a song or an artist I like and play it over and over again until it is engrained forever. In high school, I primarily listened to The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ani Difranco. Ani delivers such truth in her music and has helped to shape and mold my thought process. Her lyrical approach continues to fuel my desire to create honesty in my lyrics. When I am writing a song and sense myself skirting around what I am really trying to say, I think of all the songs that inspired me, and I'm reminded of one of the important reasons I write and want to share with others, like when I got an Ella Fitzgerald record from my Grandpa when I was about 8. Her voice conveys such heartfelt emotion through simple lyrics; you can't help but be moved. Her music really introduced me to the importance of artists making songs their own and creating an identifiable sound. You always know when you are listening to Ella. I have always appreciated jazz but developed a love for straight-up pop music. Pop artists like Rihanna, Robyn, Christina, Black Eyed Peas, and Blondie are all on heavy rotation in my house.
Q: I've read you have a classical music background, yet your music is rooted in pop. What made you decide to take a more pop approach with your music?
S: Yes, I studied opera at UCLA for my first couple of years there. I loved the idea of singing your heart out, but I never quite related to the musical structure that defines classical singing. I changed to a jazz major at UCLA halfway through, looking for a platform that allowed a little more room for self-expression. It was a challenge to switch from one style of music, where you are taught to sing exactly what is on the page, to another type of music, where you are asked to take the music off the page and make it your own. I was frightened and terrible at it at first. A couple of years ago, I decided to try writing my own music. I found my own style and felt a freedom to share and sing from my heart. I gravitate toward pop music because I love the accessibility of it. I enjoy music that is easy to digest but offers substance and roots.
Q: Sonnet, I understand you are slightly hearing impaired in your left ear. Was this something you were born with? How does the lack of hearing affect the recording process?
S: Ha, no, I was not born with it. It is a result of many different ear problems as a child. I had ear surgery at age three to remove a cyst. I continued to have my eardrum burst over and over, so the ear canal is closed with scar tissue. It doesn't seem to bother me, really. As for recording, it is a challenge with headphones because stereo is a whole other meaning for me. I can still hear a little, or rather, maybe I can just feel the frequencies. I think I have great pitch because I can hear inside my head so well. However, I've also gotten really good a reading lips. Beware!
Q: You have lived a self-described "gypsy-like" lifestyle. So, which places have the most influence on your musical style?
S: Hmm...that's an interesting question. I have had several songwriting partners comment on my "different" way of phrasing lyrics, putting the emphasis on words in unusual places. To me, it sounds normal. I imagine this has something to do with learning to speak English in India as a little girl. Maybe I picked up some different type of rhythm to my speech and song. Also, not growing up in America as a young child and having a mom who lead a very nomadic type lifestyle, I wasn't exposed to a lot of typical "American" music. There is a huge gap in my musical education and I think that lack of exposure probably has influenced my music. I'm still not sure if that is good or bad. I try to go back and research the best-selling bands in the seventies, eighties and nineties that have influenced so many other artists, but I find it hard to attach to them without previous memories of the music that give them meaning. Often, my closest friends will make music compilations with songs or artists they think I should know. Do you have any recommendations?
Q: Let's discuss some of the songs on this record, beginning with the first track "Boys." This effervescent track seems to set the tone, sound-wise, for much of the EP.
S: Yes, "Boys" was the first song we worked on when creating this EP. I came to Ali with this little doo-wap idea about "Boys," and we found a beat to put under it, and it all clicked. We were inspired to work together and finish a whole EP based on that experience. The anthemic chorus and synth melody line really drive the songs. It was the meeting of two worlds -- my doo-wap, old school melody/vocal styling and the eighties-inspired synths that fill and move the song along. We structured the rest of the EP based on the soundscape we created in "Boys."
Q: Your ballad "Half Your Heart" appears to chronicle a personal evolution.
S: "Half Your Heart" is the newest of the songs on my EP. I just finished it a month ago and decided to put it on the digital download version of the EP at the last minute. I feel like it really gives the listener a taste of where I am right now and what direction I am going. It is a personal song, like they all are, but I challenged myself to really be venerable and honest in a more evolved way. I think this song is relatable and sends a strong message that I want to get behind. If my purpose in sharing my music is to help others feel less alone and inspire them to manifest what they want in their lives, then I must set that example and really write from the heart, a whole heart -- not just half. Right now, this is my favorite of the tracks on the EP. Basically, this song is about having the guts to walk away from someone that doesn't serve you, even though the pain from leaving temporarily feels worse than staying in it. "I'd rather have nothing, than half your heart."
Q: The music business has changed so much in the past decade, how do you think it has affected artists like you? Are there more opportunities or do you think it's much harder and more complex than, say, some of your musical influences had to deal with?
S: I think the music business today is easier, in some ways, and much harder in others for new artists like me. There are so many tools that make it easier to create music on your own. You don't have to go into a professional studio to record, you can promote and share your music online, and you can play shows all over. That being said, the market is saturated with bands and artists, making it tough to stand out. If you want to be successful, you have to continue to think outside the box and make sure you understand the business side of the industry. I understand it is so important to network and promote your projects, but, man, oh, man, this is one of my least favorite parts. I just want to write, sing, and perform. But if you are serious, you have to embrace self-promotion and all the tools that connect you to the industry and your fan base. The options for promotion, exposure, and recording are overwhelming, which is why you need to surround yourself with a great team of people that can bring their own strengths to the project. Personally, what I have learned is that I need to pay attention every step along the way, from recording and mixing to branding, promotion and contracts. If I want my project to truly reflect me, I need to stay involved and up to date on all these aspects. Record labels don't really do the job they used to do. There is no "artist development" any longer. So you have to develop yourself, which, ultimately, has allowed me to have control of what I to be and share as an artist.
Q: Sonnet, what advice do you have for new artists?
S: I would say the best advice I can give is listen to your heart, follow your gut instincts, work hard and stay focused. Often times, no one but you knows what's best for you and your music. People will try to tell you how you should sound, what you should wear, what steps you should take... But ultimately, if that advice does not resonate with you, stay true to what you believe. This is hard to do when so many others want to offer their opinion, but what I have personally found is that every time I went along with what someone else guided me to do because I wasn't sure what I wanted, the music was never quite right and never made the impact I wanted it to make. I have made lot of music over the years, but only now am I releasing something that I can truly stand behind. Don't get me wrong, advice from others is invaluable, but just make sure it aligns itself with your beliefs and goals. Also, be prepared. Show up on time, prepared, and with a positive attitude. Please! Defy the stereotype of a flakey musician! If you love what you do, you can bring that love to every opportunity and work situation.
Q: What's next for Sonnet Simmons?
S. I am really excited about starting record number two, after I promote this album and play some live shows. I have been writing a lot lately and can't wait to go a little deeper and explore new sounds for the next record. Also, I am working on a couple holiday songs done in a signature "Sonnet" style. I play the Viper Room on October 9th and will have my record release show on October 26th at Hotel Café in Hollywood, California. In the meantime, I hope my new music inspires self-love and helps people feel a little more understood and less alone in this life.
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