Interview: Vera Sola Discusses Songwriting, Influences and Upcoming Plans

When diving into Vera Sola’s music, the inevitable result is a transportation. You’re picked up and delivered into a pensive, intimate, cathartic, often moody and sonically lush environment. It’s a world that is curated, with a meticulous intentionality towards each ambient instrumental flourish, and at the same time, wild with emotional abandon.
 
Before delving into playing her own music, Danielle Aykroyd was a seasoned storyteller and performer. Stemming from a love of poetry and prose, Aykroyd married her story crafting with music. With the release of 2018’s Shades, her full-length debut, Aykroyd achieved a personal and public triumph. Personally, it was a powerful fist-thump to the chest, as she took her music from the “smoky city hookah bars,” or “poorly lit open mics” she describes frequenting in an interview with Ravelin, to the public stage. In music news, it was a highly praised piece of work, lauded for its virtuosity and dynamism – a bold piece of work powered by a “unique talent,” as described by The Line of Best Fit.

Photo by Damon Duke

“Someone once told me they find my sound to be ‘frustratingly influenceless,’ but I think that comes from the fact that there are so many disparate influences that a single vein is hard to find.”

Vera Sola

Her songs are often a wrestling act, as she seeks to come to conclusions and confront often-harsh truths. There is an intoxicating, cathartic freedom to the heart-beat rhythms and layered harmonies abundant in her work. At the same time, there’s an astute self-reflection and caution – like someone who’s gathering courage to step over the line between darkness and light. It’s a balancing act shaped by the expressive vibrato of her voice. When she repeats “I want to hurt you,” in Shades’ “Small Minds,” it belies the complicated feelings beneath the surface – the feelings of somebody who couldn’t bear the thought of hurting somebody they love, yet wishes that person could feel a semblance of the pain they’ve caused. 

Faced with a bit of downtime between tours, we connected with Vera to gather her thoughts on performing, songwriting, time spent in NYC and (local) plans for the future. Before heading off for a new round of shows, Aykroyd will join Sad Songs Summer Camp, an immersive songwriting workshop where guests will learn and craft music directly with the Milk Carton Kids and guest hosts.”Nestled in a remote camp in Big Indian, NY, she’ll be a featured songwriting and lyricism coach, working directly with camp goers to help them hone in and craft their stories. The camp takes place from July 23 to July 26 and space is limited. Learn more about joining.


Rob Simakovsky: You’ve recently finished a tour, traveling nationally and internationally. What was that experience like? Any highlights or favorite moments?

Vera Sola: The whole thing is so surreal. Two years ago I was holed up in my bedroom alone with my songs, and now I’m singing them out to faces around the world… in wild places like Alpine caves, or Prince’s club from Purple Rain, or a sold-out Saturday night at Irving Plaza. It’s like a fever dream. I still don’t believe it. When people tell me they like my music I experience this brain glitch, pure cognitive dissonance—“How do you know I make music?”

My very favorite show was the last one on this U.S. leg… there was a violent thunderstorm and the electricity cut out a number of times during my set. I ploughed through unplugged and unmic’ed, and the power kept dying and coming back for certain crucial moments in the set. 

RS: Now that you have some down time, is there anything in particular you’re catching up on?

VS:
I have trouble winding down, especially after working for so long without meaningful time off, so I’m just trying to be easy on myself. Allowing for days where I just watch TV and read and do laundry and don’t feel guilty that I haven’t written anything or solved some intense problem. I guess I’m just catching up on being a normal person in a house with a solid foundation.

That and writing and demoing. I have a lot of songs rattling the cages right now. 

Photograph by Damon Duke

RS: You’ve performed with a full stage, but also often perform in your own intimate sets, supporting artists like The Milk Carton Kids. What’s the solo experience for you like on stage?

VS: The full band can be comfortable in that there’s a cushion to fall back on—other energies to draw on if I’m tired, other noises to cover for my mistakes. It’s far less vulnerable and easier to hide my humanity. 

Solo there’s nothing but the self to confront and be confronted with. It’s harder to capture and keep the attention of an audience when one’s just up there alone. But if the landing sticks, it’s more rewarding because of how stacked the odds feel. Either way, bad show or good show, I think there’s great beauty and power to getting up there alone. And I like the more difficult route, I’ve never been one to just take what’s easiest. 

RS: Many artists approach songwriting in different steps. Some write either the melody or lyrics first, and some may flesh out an entire story. How do you usually formulate your songs?

VS: Sometimes they come together, lyrics and music, sometimes they’re separate. I’m constantly writing, accounting for ideas. I write a lot in the notes on my phone, both fragments and fully fleshed poems. Sometimes there’s a melody to the words and sometimes not. 

It depends on the situation. There are songs I’ve written in minutes, and songs I’ve been slaving over for years. There’s one in the bank right now that has my very favorite chorus I’ve ever written, but the verses—both lyrically and melodically—are objectively terrible. Don’t know what’s going to happen with that one. Hoping for a breakthrough at some point.

RS: Are there connecting themes between your music, or recurring themes you find yourself revisiting?

VS: I think a lot of my work comes out of longing. Not just a lovelorn longing—but for a better world, for reconciliation, for understanding. Longing, to me, is best described as a searching for something not immediately attainable. In that process I make a lot of music, fill that void, whatever it might be, with song.

RS: You mentioned you have a particular love for 70’s and 80’s punk. “The Cage” could almost be rearranged into a punk song with a drum and snare 4/4 rhythm. Does the “punk” pathos, or your history of punk influences play a role in your songwriting?

VS: Absolutely, all the music I’ve ever loved finds its way into my compositions. Someone once told me they find my sound to be “frustratingly influenceless,” but I think that comes from the fact that there are so many disparate influences a single vein is hard to find.

When it comes to punk, I’m definitely hindered by the fact that I barely know how to play guitar with a pick. Down-strokes are not my strong suit…That said, I do still have a rather hard-hitting sensibility to my stuff, especially when I’ve got the band going. 

But I think even more than the sound itself, I’m influenced by the raw nature of punk, a sort of purity of expression. At a certain point I discovered that same unbridled truth in the work of early folk and blues songwriters like Skip James. And that’s what moves me most. I don’t like being limited by genre, I just want to play and sing and let fly what will. I need that freedom or I lose touch with myself as a person and a performer.

Vera Spla

RS: Let’s talk about your voice, particularly your expressive vibrato. Was it there before you found your songwriting niche, or did it develop as you found your own style?

VS: I’m not sure if I’ve found my songwriting niche yet! I have trouble locating what I do and how I write in any particular place at all.

As for my voice, it sort of appeared out of nowhere. I’d been writing songs for years, but was too afraid to sing them, and that fear was a literal choke-hold. Even when I decided I was going to record something (I didn’t know yet what it would be), I had a very limited vocal range. It wasn’t until I actually opened my mouth to sing in the studio that I let go of all that tension and fear, and that’s when the vibrato arrived. What’s particularly cool (to me) about the album I made is that it truly is a ‘record’ of that moment of catharsis. You hear, on those songs, me quite literally hearing my own voice for the first time.

That was just over two years ago now. I’ve grown stronger and more self-assured. I’ve certainly developed my voice—but it’s completely true that I didn’t even really have one until February 2017.

RS: A few of your songs seem to have thematic dualities: Peace and struggle; joy and longing; betrayal and forgiveness. There’s an acceptance of balance. Would life be too boring if things were always good, or as they should be?

VS: I’ve lived a very privileged life, but it surely hasn’t been without its sorrow. I’m lucky in that even in the darkest moments I’ve been able to hold on to my sense of humor. There’s a lot of laughter and good-hearted self-deprecation in my work. That’s where I find a sort of radical acceptance.

Otherwise I’m a person who feels very deeply, and everything around me deeply too. I’m quite a pessimist, so it’s hard to even imagine a perfect world. To be completely honest, I play music as a way to process and conquer and come to terms with what’s hard about life. So I probably wouldn’t be a musician if everything was awesome all the time.  

RS: You spent a good amount of time in New York growing up, and have said that the NYC environment had an impact on your work. How?

VS: The city’s got this special coexistence of cold detachment and deep empathy. Growing up in that environment I learned to observe and to listen and to draw from the diversity of the surroundings for comfort and creativity. 

RS: Any particular local spots you’d visit for artistic inspiration?

VS: I like to walk long distances alone and compose in my head as I do. Doesn’t really matter where, as long as I’m moving through the streets at a clipping speed, it’s good.

RS: After going on tour with The Milk Carton Kids, you’re now going to be a guest instructor on July 23 at their Sad Songs Summer Camp, where guests can workshop their songs directly with some amazing artists. How did the opportunity come about?

VS: Kenneth has been a dear friend for a little while. He says he’s always admired the way I approach lyrics in particular. I think the kicker, though, was a discussion we had about a couple of Dylan songs. I was giving him a run-down of various critical interpretations, as well as what the words meant to me personally, and he invited me to teach a course on lyricism and poetry. I told him that I was deeply unqualified but he made a compelling case for why I should do it, and it was such a great opportunity and he’s such a doll I couldn’t say no.

Photograph by Damon Duke

RS: How does it feel to be able to have a chance to coach others in their songwriting?

VS: Totally wild. I guess I do have a few tricks up my sleeve thanks to a striking combination of personal error and schooling. I’ve been lucky enough to study under some incredible poets and it’s cool to be able to pass along what they taught me.

RS: You recently released a couple of new singles,and are going to be playing a new set of shows in July and August. What exciting news should our readers keep in mind?

VS: More music as soon as humanly possible. I’m excited about what I’m making now. 

RS: Being a storyteller, how might you give guidance to somebody who might have a start and end of a story, but not a middle?

VS: Oh gosh, I have a number of those going right now. I have no idea…make a list of possibilities and roll some dice maybe?

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