An Interview with Sonya Heller
by Laura Hemenway
New York based singer/songwriter Sonya Heller’s style could be compared to Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro, with sensibilities honed in the 1960s and 70s, but ringing clear and true with 21st century artistry. When playing guitar and singing, she has been described as having "stars sparking in her fingers and a voice like roses." And, as Rolling Stone Magazine puts it, "Sonya Heller is very much her own artist and comes alive onstage." Her song “Just Another Daydream” is featured in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here.
In this spirited conversation, Sonya discusses her background, her process, and offers words of encouragement to others who are following an artistic path.
LH: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person?
SH: I had the great fortune of being born into a musical environment. My parents met, singing. My mother was a soprano who could also play anything on the piano, whether written or by ear. My father was a tenor. I come from a very musical, Russian/Jewish background; my relatives all played instruments and we had music in the house all the time. I was raised on the original “world music” which was basically Folk Music from around the world back then…and classical combined. I think it really influenced the kind of writing I do. More orchestral in nature. Movements as opposed to classic song form. I’ve gone back and forth between the two.
LH: Would you say the encouragement that you got came from your family primarily?
SH: I would say so. It came from breathing the atmosphere of music, because it was all around me. I had piano lessons. And went on to self-teach myself guitar. My father bought me my first guitar when I was 14, for 25 bucks. I got the Mel Bay books out, and studied all my favorite songwriters.
LH: When did you first start to create songs?
SH: I was 14. I remember my first song. A short little song.
LH: What was the name of it?
SH: “I’ll Still Love You” (laughing)
LH: Aw, sweet. Was it guitar-accompanied?
SH: Yes. Although I never took guitar lessons. I actually started off in theatre, before I got into music. That was my major in college. And then I started studying voice, at 19, with Liz Howard, who was a Juilliard-educated singer. And that’s how the whole singing thing started.
LH: Tell me about your first music teacher. Was that a positive experience?
SH: My first music teacher was this Hungarian woman named Mrs. Duragetzi, who used to pound my fingers, like a nun in Catholic School, on the keys, and taught me the 1-3-5 method; there were no notes. It was just 1-1,2-2,3-3…she would hammer your fingers, physically, into the keys…and then she would come to visit my grandmother, who lived with me, for pastries and coffee, on days she wasn’t supposed to be there. And my grandmother couldn’t stand her (laughing). She used to see her coming up the sidewalk and go “Oh mein Gott, she’s back!”
LH: Not particularly a positive experience, then?
SH: Not really. It was my third teacher that finally gave me a blues number. I went “Whoa! This I love!” And he had just gotten me interested…and then he died. So that was it for piano lessons! (laughing)
LH: In your songs, would you say your childhood home shows up?
SH: I think it does. My promo bio says “I was raised on Slavic doom and American sass”… Slavic doom definitely is a factor…the drama in my house…there was so much dysfunction …and Yiddish sentiment translated into English, which was very flowery and dramatic. I think that had a very strong influence, on my writing.
LH: What about geographical influence?
SH: No, I think it was more the times. I think it was being raised in the 60s and 70s, those being my formative years. I was very influenced by the politics, the world, the sexual and love revolution, the youth revolution, the first Earth Day, hippies, gurus, organic food co-ops, being a vegetarian, chanting…all that stuff…
LH: Do specific life experiences influence your songwriting?
SH: Absolutely. I put life experiences more into metaphoric or poetic form, where the listener is in a universe of possibilities in the story. Something in me always made room for the listener to have their own experience, and to fill in some of the blanks. I’ve also answered a lot of my own internal questions. My own angst has been expressed in those lyrics. I always tell people if you want to know anything about me really….just listen to the lyrics. I really tell all in them.
LH: Is there one songwriter in particular who is a touchstone for you?
SH: Yes. Laura Nyro.
LH: What is it about her? Her process? Her look? Her apparent lifestyle? Melody writing? Lyric writing? All of those things?
SH: It’s all of those things. We also have a very similar voice and vocal range, and a very similar shift in our registers. She also wrote more orchestrally. She wrote in movements. I was very attracted to that. I didn’t have the word for it then, I just knew it was the sound that I really dug. She wrote great stories that really travelled musically. There’s something in her freedom, in her stream of consciousness. She was my #1, especially as an East Coast artist.
And then I would say, Joni Mitchell, for her complexity. And again, a similar range and approach to singing. Those are my first two.
LH: Do you still look to them as role models, compositionally?
SH: Not necessarily. I think they gave me my jumpstart and it’s morphed from there.
LH: What part does “Place” play in your creative process?
SH: I think it does play a part. When I come out to the West Coast, I get a different sound, because it’s lighter here. And you don’t all wear black and gray. I even paint my toenails lavender before I come out here, instead of dark. The last tune I wrote out here was very lighthearted and had a faster rhythm to it. It bounced. It didn’t go down very deeply. Not to say that people aren’t deep thinkers here. But that’s my take as an outsider, on what the vibe is here. People are a little more laid back, more relaxed. I wear more colorful clothing. It’s sunny here, so people are sunnier. And then I get sunnier. That’s a part of me that’s not as ignited back east, especially up in the mountains, or living in the big city. I think the molecules shift.
LH: What about when you’re in Europe? Do you write differently there, too?
SH: I think I do write differently. Again, it’s environmental. Something different happens there, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what it is.
LH: Maybe the rhythm of the language?
SH: It’s the rhythm of the language, and the way I combine words, because some of the time I’ve been speaking another language, and my brain will start to shift a little bit. The music might appear first rather than lyrics…I might switch into a waltzy rhythm. More of an old European style…but something definitely shifts. And I enjoy that, because I love the change in language…even the body language changes when I’m there. I dress differently, I walk differently, my mouth forms words differently. It’s really interesting.
LH: When writing, do you think first about how the lyrics will look on the page, or is your first concern performance? How you will be imparting the entire musical/lyrical package to an audience?
SH: Well, I don’t necessarily write lyrics first. Sometimes the music dictates what comes down lyrically. I might start off by writing a story line and let myself have all kinds of ideas. And I resist the urge to edit like the plague. I keep telling myself, “Don’t edit, don’t edit, don’t rhyme, don’t do any of that stuff till it’s all out”, and then I can take a look at it. And then I might start playing a few chords, and start using a few of those ideas and interject them, and sometimes they just fall right into what I’m playing. It’s a very complex thing. I don’t even always know how it happens, honestly. And I certainly don’t think about performance when I’m in the midst of writing. I think the muse is very pure. And I just let the ideas come down first, very raw. I try to step aside and let all this impulse come through. And I try very hard not to take a look at it till way later.
LH: So for the visual element, you’re not thinking about how it’s going to look on your album cover?
SH: Not at all.
LH: You just kind of channel the lyrics through your consciousness?
SH: Absolutely. I really do look up before I start writing, and invoke whoever might be there. Sometimes there are maybe three or four of them up there, especially if I haven’t written in awhile. And I can literally feel them clamoring; they start speaking to me at the same time, and I have to tell them…this may sound really nuts…I go, “All right! Take turns, because (laughing) I can’t hear all of you at once!” And sometimes I’ll be very aware after awhile, that I’ve got two or three songs coming down at the same time, and I have to separate them out.
LH: So then, do you have separate projects going? Like 2 or 3 songs at once?
SH: I start out trying to use it all. And then it becomes really clear to me that “this is not part of this song, this is the other one.” I use different colored magic markers to show me which lines are keepers for one section, and which lines kind of group together for something else. One color could mean “verse of this song, and chorus of that song or another song,” and so forth.
And sometimes, it happens in an instant. It’s just magic.
LH: And there’s no way to predict what the process is going to be? You just open yourself up to it and see what happens?
SH: I think all songwriters go through that, unless they’re doing work for hire, and then, it’s just very, very specific. But yes, I just let it come down and see what happens. Because all the work happens AFTER that. That’s when you have to put your songwriter mechanical cap on and start developing the form. That’s Part Two.
LH: Do you have a favorite topic to explore in your writing: Story songs? Songs about emotion? Songs about place? Songs about relationships?
SH: I think I write a lot of “healing” songs. Introspective songs that have questions and explore answers. I write a lot about spirituality and sexuality and nature and how they intermingle.
LH: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: creating a song, performing a song, recording it, promoting it?
SH: I’m a recording studio freak. I could live in a studio the rest of my life. I don’t care if there’s a window, or if the sun comes out…I love being in the studio, I love recording. I love mixing, I love listening to the playbacks; dissecting sound. I have a thing for sound. I enjoy my ears. I really get to experience my sonic gift in this particular way. I love when my engineer/producer hears the same thing. You know then, that you’re with the right person, and they share the same kind of discernment you have. And that you can nitpick and get that “Eureka” moment you’re listening for.
My equally favorite thing is the birth. The birth of an idea, when something comes down so strong when I’m sitting there, in the middle of the night, and I can feel it through my bones and cells. A couple of choice lines come out, and next thing, I am just weeping. And when I’m weeping, I know I’ve got a keeper. And it doesn’t mean it’s over, it just means “you’re going to be working on this one…but this is a keeper.” That really comes from up above.
So those are my two favorite moments. That first moment of conception…and the birthing in the studio. Putting it together.
LH: So, when the birth happens, do you ever hear it fully realized, in your head, like the way you want it orchestrated?
SH: I have done that, yes. In my little home studio, I will often record bass lines, or very specific things that I hear, and then I’ll leave the rest open to interpretation…but sometimes if I get a line and I really want it there, like it HAS to be there. My first producer used to call it “demo-itis” (laughing), and you can fall prey to that. But there are some times you’ve got to stick to your guns, because as a composer you feel it, it’s just RIGHT. And it was given to you to DO that way. That’s what makes us all so different and unique. It’s your signature that’s coming out.
LH: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?
SH: Knowing that I’d be dead if I didn’t.
LH: That’s your inspiration.
SH: It gives me a sense of purpose, not only for myself, but knowing that I can be of service to others. That what I do can be helpful to somebody, somewhere. I have had those words spoken to me, many times, over the last 40 years. The first time somebody told me they were on the brink of taking their life but heard me at 3:00 in the morning on the radio, in New York City, and it got them back off a ledge, I said “If I die tomorrow, I did good.”
LH: I’ll say. Wow.
SH: And it’s given me my own sense of wellness, balance, grounding. I’ve gone through depression, and the highs and lows of life, and the creative process and writing are what ground me and connect me to my Creator on a daily basis.
LH: So, as a result of that positive feedback that you get, you don’t experience writer’s block, because it’s such a positive thing for you, that you just want to keep doing it, over and over and over, and you just CAN…
SH: Oh, I’ve had long bouts of writer’s block. Every time I start writing my album’s worth, which is what I do every February, I start fretting the week before, and up until that minute I’m thinking, “I’ve got nothing left.”
SH: There’s nothing there. But I also know, and trust, at that moment, that the same thing that happened last year will happen this year. Somehow my brain will open up, I’ll get the first prompt word, and I’m off to the races. It’s community, community, community. I know those people are out there doing it with me. That’s why community is so important. Especially as a writer, because it’s a lonely job. And we all share the dread we have before we do it. “Oh man, I’m busy, I know I don’t have it in me, I’m not feelin’ it, there’s so much goin’ on, I don’t know if I’m gonna get to it…” We’re all doing the same thing. And then we all end up exploding with stuff.
LH: Right on.
SH: I’ve been very careful to join writer’s groups and social media and stay connected, and we keep encouraging each other to keep writing and complete our re-writes. That’s been very, very good for me. But there have been many times where I’ve had lulls, and haven’t gone near my instrument, haven’t sang…just don’t feel it. I feel it more now, that I’ve gotten into the rhythm of writing every year, and going to more retreats, where we really get to focus on the music. You kind of have to get away from your daily life sometimes, to give that to yourself. Retreats. And anyplace you can gather as a community are very helpful. They’re friendly and loving and inspiring.
LH: What kind of advice could you give to other writers? Are there any subjects that you could give advice to other artists, about?
SH: Stay in your own lane.
LH: Explain that.
SH: Don’t try to imitate anyone. Keep exploring who you are, where you are. Go learn from people, listen to a lot of music, and then spend time not listening to any music. Take walks. Don’t feel like a lazy bum when you’re walking. You’re working. When you’re not writing, you’re working. Allow yourself to know that your subconscious is collecting information all the time. So by the time you sit down to write, all that material is already there, and you can draw upon it.
I think we spend too much time judging ourselves, as if we need to apply a certain amount of hours in the day to the craft. And although I think that reading books and going to seminars is a great thing to do, we also have to tune in to how it happens for US. What is YOUR process? For me, it’s about wandering the streets; like window shopping. And I used to feel that I was lazy. I had a teacher, and I said to him, “You know, I spent three days walking the streets, I came home, and I wrote this song in 13 minutes.” And he said, “You did not. You spent three days walking around. Your conscious mind needed to get out of the way so your unconscious mind could get busy writing and collecting. And you did not write that song in 13 minutes. You wrote it in three days and 13 minutes.” (laughing)
It’s an honor to have this gift. Take the time to recognize how that works within you and cultivate it.
Community is the most important thing. Find your tribe. Find the place that you feel well. Find the place where you feel you belong and you’re being encouraged, and honor each others’ differences. Go to open mics. There, you have an opportunity to listen to tons of people, to get up in front of an audience, to work through stage fright. Hear what you like about the tune, hear what you don’t like about the tune, and in the meantime, you’re making friends and dates, and it makes you want to run back home and keep working. So, community, community, community. I think it’s THE most important thing, right next to the process of writing.
LH: Thanks, Sonya.
SH: You’re welcome!
|Laura Hemenway and Sonya Heller at play.|
Discover more about Sonya Heller’s performances and music here.