Sonya Hunter
by Johanna J. Bodde

January 2004 (by E-mail) and

The first time I heard the name of Sonya Hunter was in October 1998, during an interview I did with Russ Tolman in Heilbronn, Germany. I asked him about the new label, Innerstate, that he was starting up together with Pat Thomas in San Francisco. He told me that the first two releases would be albums by Sonya Hunter and Steve Wynn. Yes, I knew Steve but Sonya? "Finders, Keepers" was a sold-out German limited release, that Russ and Pat picked up again. Recorded live in the studio and I liked it a lot.
The first time I heard Sonya play was during that fabulous Neil Fest on June 6th, 1999 at the Justice League in San Francisco. Her beautiful cover "Expecting To Fly" from the Neil Young tribute "This Note's For You Too" became a single, all thanks to Jos Starmans and his Dutch Inbetweens Records. It was a night to remember and while everybody was busy, Jos with music affairs, Russ and Pat playing, I kept an eye on some merchandise. Sonya passed by after her set and, without knowing who I was, gave me a BIG smile...
A few months and some airplay later, it was time for a short tour in The Netherlands and I did my best to fill that first Saturday in Rotterdam. Sonya and Jos arrived by train, Wim Kerkhof picked all of us up and we went to the studio of Radio Rijnmond, where Sonya did a nice mini-interview. No live-set, the extra engineer came in too late due to an error in the schedule. Next stop: Hitsound Records, where Wim said bye-bye and owner Willem Vonk welcomed us. Lunch first? Willem knows those good little restaurants and I know the smile on his face when he hears a voice that he really likes, I saw it when Sonya played her in-store! On Sunday 013 in Tilburg was the place to be for the Dutch Neil Fest, where Uncle Neil's fanclub was gathered to hear the highlight of a show that lasted for six hours in total: Sonya, accompanied by two Dutch musicians, in the breathtaking duet with Ad VanderVeen, "Star Of Bethlehem". Mondaynight found us in Rotterdam again, Sonya played a concert at Rotown. She was happy, she had just fallen in love with her long-time guitarplayer Erik Pearson and I was happy for her!
What's new? I still see Sonya when I stay in San Francisco, sometimes she plays at The Make-Out Room, sometimes we're just having tea and a long talk. One time she helped me set up my E-mail address, yes, she's a computer wizard in daily life. Last time she handed me her new album "Sun In Mind" and I won't tell what we wanted to do with Mr. B.'s picture on the frontpage of the paper... Hope to see you again soon, Sonya!

Johanna: Sonya, your latest album is called "Sun In Mind", that title sounds quite cheerful, where does it come from? Did it pop up right away or did you also consider other titles? Did you feel "sunny" while recording the album?

Sonya: I was actually set on the title "Bergamot", which is somehow a dark (and warm) scent to me - it's what flavors Earl Grey tea - but then I fell in love with a piece of artwork on a friend's website, which ended up being the cover of my album. Michael, the artist, referred to the piece as "Sun In Head" and I liked that, but then I twisted it to "Sun In Mind" because I think that's a little more poetic sounding for an album. Anyway, the title, in my mind, alludes to being hopeful... you know, like "keepin' on the sunny side of life." Particularly during these times.

J: "Aquamarine" is a great openingstrack! I remember that you played it live already before the album was being made, the boardwalk is an image that stayed with me. Please, tell us something about the song?

S: I had the Santa Cruz boardwalk in my mind when I wrote it. Santa Cruz is a big, lovely, oceanside town about 70 miles South of San Francisco. There's an amusement park along the beach, and I used to go there as a kid. I thought it would be sort of fun to use a rollercoaster ride as a methaphor for a relationship.

J: There's one cover, "Tall Trees In Georgia", written by Buffy Sainte-Marie. You like her work, don't you?

S: For me, Buffy's one of the finest songwriters from the 60's era. I don't listen to her that much these days, but there was a time in my teens when I listened to her a lot. Particularly her early stuff -- songs like "Piney Wood Hills" and "Little Wheel Spin And Spin" (which I now cover with Magic City Chamber of Commerce, a six piece band I'm in.)

J: In what ways is this album different from your earlier work? Do you like to experiment in your music? It is a self-released CD, right?

S: "Sun In Mind" feels like the most cohesive thing I've done. I spent a lot of time on it, in a wonderful small studio that was affordable, so I didn't feel so rushed that I couldn't try out different production experiments. A lot of the experimenting took place with Erik (my partner and guitarist) and Desmond Shea. Desmond the engineer had some good ideas about doubling up vocals and such. He really encouraged Erik and I, for example, to stack up loads of vocal layers on "Be My Baby".
Also, I think my songwriting has grown. It's become denser, less simple, I suppose.
As far as self-released, yes - except I've had some help from Innerstate Records distributing it. No European release, as of yet, unfortunately. But hopefully it's trickled in through import, and of course people can always buy it on the web.

J: The digipack of "Sun In Mind" has real nice artwork, in bright colors, please tell us a little about it? There's even a reproduction of your own "Bear Looking West" inside! I didn't know about this other creative side of yours, do you paint often?

S: Well, I mentioned the cover art in my first answer, but yes... I pulled together visual things I liked... a photo of an old suitcase of mine, a watercolor I'd done years ago, a photo of a toy snail Erik gave me when I moved to New York. (Which had been accompanied by a note saying "slow but steady wins the race.") Some photos of me by Tom Erikson, a local musician photographer I've worked with a lot. And then Kevin Clarke, the designer, pulled it all into a nice little piece, thank you very much!
I don't paint that much, but making gift cards seems to be my visual-arts creative outlet. I'll watercolor, or do collage, or some kind of mixed media, and because it's just a small card, and I'm usually under a deadline ("got to get this card in the mail") I'm not overly perfectionistic. Just make something for somebody, and it's done! Very satisfying.

J: The talented Erik Pearson plays various instruments on your album, he sings harmonies and is a co-producer. (I like his album "Water" a whole lot, by the way.) After being your musical partner for several years, he even became your partner in daily life! Please, tell us about him and his many projects? You also started a new band together?

S: Erik's got a degree in composition from Oberlin, a renowned liberal arts school in Ohio. Before that, he played rock in a band as a teenager. And wrote sensitive folksy songs. And played classical flute. I guess the point I'm making is that he is a musical variety show, a musical chameleon. He plays his own songs with string arrangements periodically, plays guitar and sax in Mushroom, accompanies a performing storyteller with banjo and guitar, plays guitar in a country band, is learning tenor saxophone in the jazz vein, and plays "old time" banjo with friends. And finally, he's in Magic City Chamber of Commerce, a band I'm in as well. It's a collective of singer-songwriters and country musicians, playing our favorite covers (from The Roches, George Harrison, Exene Cervenka) and a few of our own songs as well. Reeeeeeaally fun.
I've played with Erik ever since a friend from the Mommyheads (one of the greatest, semi-known now-defunct rock bands on earth) recommended him as a guitarist 10 years ago. We've been "going together" for over 4 years, and have continued to play music together. I'm very fortunate to have him as part of my sound, in fact, downright spoiled! I'll write a new song, and then instantly I get to hear what he's going to add to it, usually on 12-string guitar. And singing together is a joy. We often play a little at my family get-togethers (all of my side of the family is right here in the Bay Area) and some of our happiest musical moments happen there... just playing around, entertaining my sisters and mom.

J: As there are so many, it's hard to pick favorites, from your older albums. I'd like to mention three of them, could you tell me a bit more about these songs? "Wedding", "Going North", "London Bridges".

S: "Wedding" was written about a heartbreak, although the wedding part of it was, I admit, fictional. It started as a waltz - that's how it is on "Favorite Short Stories" - but then a few years later I was playing with an accordionist, Roxanne Marie, and it morphed into sort of a Cajun thing - and we recorded it together for "Finders Keepers".
"Going North" - I suddenly found myself very nostalgic for my hometown, Sebastopol, which is just 60 miles North of San Francisco. It's an ode to a time in my teens when I was going to a very liberal alternative school out in the hills near Sebastopol... a very special place called Nonesuch Farm.
"London Bridges" - Wrote that during my first ever trip to Europe. I didn't have an official tour there, but had put all my belongings in storage and headed to Germany (and beyond) with plans to play scattered gigs that I had booked writing to journalists! (This is back in '92). It was a very adventurous and eye-opening time for me - I traveled around Europe by myself for almost 3 months, playing shows, meeting people, and writing songs. "London Bridges" was written right after a short stay in England, and is very directly inspired, musically, by Tim Buckley. My hosts in Germany had been playing Tim Buckley a lot during a visit.

J: "Just A Job" and also "Sad Eyed Sales Girl" sound to me like songs about people who want to do their creative thing, but have to work a day-job to make ends meet, like almost everybody on the scene in the expensive Bay Area. Did I understand that right?

S: San Francisco is a hard place to be an artist. But there's always that compromise you make by living in a major metropolitan area - lots of other artists around to bounce ideas off, more places to perform, great acts coming through town to inspire. I still would prefer the expensive city life, with all those benefits I mentioned, to the quieter life in a small town or out in the country. By the way - I recently moved across the Bay to Oakland, which is a wee bit less expensive, and a wee bit more quiet, but still has plenty of arts and music about.
In respect to those particular songs you mention, I was thinking about a struggle many people have with the working world, while trying to find satisfaction in their days. Not just artists. And not just in the city. My father worked the same job for over 30 years - he had security, and continuity, but he also had frustration and unfulfilled dreams. We're all trying to come to terms with realizing our potential, while just enjoying the day to day.

J: Do you often get inspiration for lyrics from your own life or do you like to make things up?

S: More often it's from my own life, but not exclusively.

J: There's a breathtaking version of "Star Of Bethlehem", sung by you and "our" Ad VanderVeen on a CD-single, which was a Chrismaspresent from the Dutch Neil Young Fanclub. How did you get to work with Ad?

S: My friend Jos Starmans from Inbetweens (a label now based in Elsloo) hooked that up. It was lots of fun - Ad is a fine human being, and of course, a very talented musician as well. Ad had most of the song recorded already, and I just came in for an evening, while visiting and playing in Holland, and sang the song with him.
Inbetweens, by the way, put out the Neil Young Tribute album "This Note's For You Too". My contribution "Expecting To Fly" led to Inbetweens pressing a "sampler CD" of my music by the same title.

J: You lived in Brooklyn, New York for about two years (1998-99), why did you move there? Did you have a good, productive time?

S: My best friend Anna had moved there to study jazz bass, and after visiting her, I wasn't going to be satisfied until I gave it a whirl myself! Yes... it was very vital musically. I heard some amazing live music, and played lots of shows, some with very wonderful musicians. A few of the songs from "Sun In Mind" ("Bells And Whistles", "Seed" and "Dance" to be exact) were recorded with those musicians right before I moved back to San Francisco. I moved back because frankly, I was homesick, and more frankly, because I had become involved with Erik and wanted to be back in California with him.

J: When you moved to San Francisco, at age nineteen, what were the first things you did to start out on the music scene there?

S: At first I just went to hear a lot of music - I had a fake ID so I could get into the clubs without being 21. It was the tail end of the punk scene, and there was sort of an "alt country" scene happening, long before that was ever a term - and one of my favorite local bands were American Music Club. Tired of playing my own songs to just the window, I started attending something called "Circle Arts" - an "open mic cabaret" that moved from venue to venue, and got my start in performing there.

J: You were in a "folky-super-group" with Victoria Williams and Pat Thomas, as I read on your website. Intriguing, tell us more?

S: We were called "I-5 Choir" - I suppose after Interstate 5, the main artery between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Victoria would come up from LA to visit her friend JC Hopkins, and I believe it was JC's idea to form this group - initially it was for a New Year's gig at the Albion (one of the main venues for the aforementioned "Circle Arts") but we did a few other shows as well. Pat Thomas, mover and shaker in many musical worlds, played bongo in this outfit, and continues to be a friend and sometimes business collaborator.
Victoria Williams is as whimsical and sweet as her music suggests. Funny you should ask about this... I've just been listening to her beautiful album "Musings Of A Creek Dipper".

J: Not too many artists make a combination of folk and jazz in their music, how did that happen? You also like open tunings on your guitar, don't you?

S: Not too many, but some of my first influences, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, sure do!!! I was mostly raised on The Beatles, Donovan, The Who... not too much jazz to speak of. But I've always pushed, while creating and writing, for something of my own, and perhaps something unusual. I think because I started writing songs the minute I started learning guitar, I didn't run the risk of copying something else, you know - emulating to learn, and that helped me form my own voice right away. The tunings are very much influenced by Joni Mitchell, and encouraged by the fact that I have a problem finger (a tendon doesn't work quite right due to a childhood accident). Open tunings have enabled me to come up with interesting chord voicings without incredible dexterity from the left hand.

J: Any unfulfilled dreams and hopeful wishes you would like to share with us?

S: Well, like many child-less women in their late 30s, I suppose that's the biggest question looming! To have or not to have a child... I'll let you know what comes of it. ;-)   Without a child, Erik and I can continue to live a very spontaneous musician's lifestyle. With a child, less freedom, but certainly more of other life's joys.

J: We're both very much interested in politics, I'm handing you your little soapbox, what would you like to say in these trying times?

S: Oh boy, soapboxes! Or better yet, cereal boxes (do the Europeans have that tradition of morning cereal box reading as well?) To continue with your last question, my hopeful wish is that the American public will come to their senses, boot out Bush, and not be lazy because they think their problems are solved with a Democrat. There's so much work to be done, but I do feel there's an international movement brewing, that could bring about a more harmonious and sustainable planet.
But it's so hard to not be overwhelmed by the terrible things happening in the world, very much of which I blame a greedy, power-bloated US government for. Sometimes I just want to ignore it all. But I know that's a luxury we can't afford anymore. This isn't advice I actually follow that well, but someone offered it to me, and I think it makes a lot of sense. He said find ONE THING, one issue, that's really close to your heart, and mainly just work on that. Learn about, talk about it, support it in whatever way you can. This is a more effective use of one's energy. And advice I'll add: never stop dreaming and hoping: visualize the world you want to live in, and it will come to be.

Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.