Queer group SONiA & disappear fear release ‘Tango,’ a multi-language CD.
By Gregg Shapiro
Last month in this magazine, JD Doyle of Queer Music Heritage, which airs during the Queer Voices program on KPFT in Houston, named SONiA as one of his favorite artists (“Listen Up,” January 2008 OutSmart ). I spoke the vocalist and songwriter around the time of the release of Tango (disappearfear.com), the latest CD by the duo SONiA & disappear fear. A truly international experience, the baker’s dozen songs are sung in English, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Gregg Shapiro: It’s been a few years since we last spoke, and one of the things that happened in the interim is that you did a little bit of dabbling in dance music.
SONiA: Yes, the title track from No Bomb Is Smart was remixed.
Do you think it’s every queer musician’s obligation to pay homage to disco?
SONiA: [Laughs] Absolutely! It’s a right of passage. I think it’s certainly a big part of queer culture, and it’s just fun. Dance is just so important, and it’s another way where we all come together—at the disco.
Absolutely! I’ll meet you at the disco! In 2006 you were chosen as one of Jeep’s Uncharted/Unfiltered artists.
Yes. I came back from Israel and a day and a half later I was on tour with the Jeep people.
What was that experience like?
It was actually really cool, I was really glad to be a part of it. I was kind of a well-paid street musician. There were eight troubadours, singer-songwriters chosen in the United States. I was the single female that was selected, and I got the mid-Atlantic region. We opened it in New York City in Central Park in the big Central Park Summer Concert series, and that was really cool. And then we each went to our respective places in the country and started our tour. I did Baltimore, D.C. and Philly, and Rehoboth, and places like that. It was really fun. We would just jump out of the vehicle, set up some speakers, and play music. I would play my songs. I was not censored at all, Jeep was really cool about it, and I just did my thing. They were choosing people kind of like the way Jeep goes. You see Jeeps on television, scouting out new terrain, and trying to make it through somewhere, and I think that was sort of the metaphor for the singer-songwriters that they selected. We were just charting our own course.
You mentioned not being censored. So you would say that there were no problems with material of both political and queer themes?
Nothing. They were totally cool, which was very cool.
Did you at least get to keep the [Jeep] Compass?
I did not get to keep the Compass! I got a freaking T-shirt. [Laughs] However, they might sweeten the deal down the line. They did actually offer it [the Jeep] to me to tour with, so I shouldn’t actually say I didn’t get to keep it, because I could have. But we would have needed to have it with a trailer, because it really only seats four comfortably. There would have maybe been room for me, and I tour bigger than that, so we would have had to put a trailer on it, and they didn’t want that. They wanted it just to be the Compass.
I’ve seen your van, so I know. Speaking of touring, how much of the year on average do you actually spend on the road?
Every two years or so a new CD comes out, and that really fuels the next tour. So now that a new CD is out, this should be a really insane year. I’ll probably be away, I’d say, about 90 percent of the time, maybe even more. Next year will be about half the year of a lot of touring, and then settling down, and probably start writing and recording for the next CD.
A number of the venues you play on your tours are what could be considered straight, or mainstream. Do you make a conscious effort to play GLBT events and venues as well?
Absolutely. My whole thing has been to be out and about wherever it is you are. And I know my fans will come wherever I am playing. And so it becomes who we are. I think that is a good statement.
Disappear Fear began as a duo, and after various incarnations, including your stint as a solo act, it’s a duo again comprised of you and Laura Cerulli. Do you think that’s the best way to get things across?
It seems to be. Laura is just enormously talented. It kind of just happened by accident. With Angela, our bass player, we were working as a trio for about a year/year and a half, and Angela had to go and take care of her mom. We had gigs scheduled, and her mom had a serious fall, and so we just said, “Go do that, that is a priority.” Instead of replacing her, we tried a show in Nashville, and we loved it. We had such an amazing time, so musically it just really came together with just guitars and drums and vocals. So it was like, you know what, this is great, and we did end up doing a couple of the other shows with Angela, but she really wanted to stay in Arkansas, and our journey was to be out about in the world playing everywhere, so that was a sort of parting of the ways. It just worked that way. Some of the shows will have my oldest Disappear Fear band—my guitarist Howard Markman and my bass player Chris Sellman—and probably some other guest musicians, depending on where we are. I’ve met so many people abroad as well who are just great players, like this great flutist in Israel, this great harmonica player in Great Britain. So we’ll see.
The notable thing about the new album, Tango, is that it is sung in four languages. In how many languages would you consider yourself to be fluent ?
I’m mostly fluent in English and Spanish. I know pieces of Dutch and Hebrew, Arabic. I know words here and there in other languages, and I am hoping in the next couple of decades of my life, particularly in this next year, to dive in and really get the three other languages on the CD, besides English, better. If I did it more I would probably be better at it.
Is the sound of the Tango disc, what you described as “Latin/Middle Eastern, folk pop sound,” something you were considering for a long time, or was it a new idea that you wanted to explore?
I think it’s something I had considered for a long time. It was just a matter of going out on a limb for me. My brother said to me, “People love your lyrics, and they’re not going to understand a freakin’ word you’re saying.” [Laughs] And I’m, like, “Well they’re going to have to listen with another part of their anatomy.” [Laughs] Of course, when you buy the CD, everything is translated in all of the different languages, so we are inclusive about that. It’s a chance that you take, but always I try to be true to the music. Some of the those songs that I translated, like “Cayendo,” which is “Fallin’,” and “Telepatia Sexual,” which is “Sexual Telepathy,” really wanted to be in Spanish—they just yearned. I thought about it for a long time, and I was originally going to make the whole CD in Spanish, but then with my experience in Israel, last summer, I decided that there was more I wanted to say.I was just writing a lot about that experience, so now it becomes more of a world CD and not just a Latin sound.
I’m so glad you mentioned “Cayendo (Fallin’)” and “Telepatia Sexual,” because in addition to them, “Se Tu Aquella (Be The One),” “Porque Estamos Aqui (Because We Are Here),” and “Milliones de Cuerdas (Millions of Rope)” have all appeared in English-language versions on previous discs. Is that why some of those songs were chosen for translation and inclusion on Tango ?
Definitely. Those were always songs that I had planned on putting into Spanish. And also with the other languages, I have fans in different countries, where they have learned my songs in English and that isn’t their primary language. It was an opportunity for me to say thank you and to kind of move into their languages.
Did the new songs begin in English or the language they appear on the disc?
Each has its own story. “La Tormenta Santa” started in English, and I looked at how it felt in Spanish. Love songs seem to just really work in Spanish. It’s such a romantic language. In English sometimes it sounds corny or too over the top, but in Spanish it seems to be more passionate or something, it just really seems to say what I want to better. “Tango,” the Arabic song, and in correct Arabic slang, which is the Arabic I’m using on it—you can call it slang or modern—it is actually pronounced more like “banjo” than “tan-jo.” “Mica Moca” is mostly English, and the Hebrew is part of a prayer, and the Arabic in the middle is a translation of the previous verse, “I think your god likes me.” It really just depends on the song. “Shorashim” I wrote out a poem in English, and we worked out a translation into Hebrew, and I actually wrote the music to those Hebrew words. So I would consider that writing it in Hebrew.
I’m really glad you mentioned “Shorashim.” It is a duet with you and Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton. How did that come about? How did you decide to do that in that way?
She is a lesbian and she is out and she is wonderful. She is one of a few out Reconstructionist rabbis, so it’s a very inclusive congregation. We kind of came to a similar thought. I had been in Canada waiting to go through the border. I was watching these seagulls fly from Canada into the U.S. and from the U.S. into Canada, and here I am in this long line at Customs waiting to get through, and I’m thinking, What is it that is really there? A border is just an agreed-on separation of two countries or states that we have agreed to, but what really is it? Why can’t I just fly from, or drive from, one into the other. So there was that thought, and what are the seagulls really saying, because we don’t really understand the language but we do understand it, and I was sort of relating that back to understanding language. In the song I say, “How can they fly without a passport?”
And then a few months later, Elizabeth was giving a sermon, that I was listened to, and she was talking about how trees grow on the borders of countries and their roots grow into two different countries, and they don’t really know or care. That is just where they’re growing. So it was a very similar idea, and I talked to her about putting it into a song, and she said go for it, and that’s wonderful. So I did, and then it just seemed obvious to ask her to come and sing on it. She used to be an opera singer in Canada. I love her voice. It’s great, it’s one of the reasons I live in Baltimore—so I can be a part of her congregation.
SWINGER DOES HOUSTON
Martin Swinger, the gay singer/songwriter who Queer Music Heritage producer/host JD Doyle last month in OutSmart named one of his favorite artists (“Listen Up,” January 2008), will make his first Houston appearances this month. The Maine-based Swinger will perform on February 14, 8:30 p.m., at Anderson Fair with Ken Gaines and Wayne Wilkerson, Texas singers and writers and hosts of the weekly Songwriters series at the venerable live-music venue in Montrose. There is a $5 cover. Details: 713/528-8576, www.andersonfair.com.
“I have never been to Houston,” Swinger wrote in an e-mail to OutSmart. “I promise exciting shows, dynamic performances, and something for everyone!”
Swinger, a past favorite at the Kerrville Folk Festival, has released recordings of folk songs (American Seeds); children’s music (Mockingbird); and songs for gay bear men (BearNAKED). He is a music teacher and a member of ImproVox, an a cappella improvisational quintet. On his website, www.martinswinger.com, he recently reported that he has begun work on a new recording.
On February 16, Swinger will perform in a house concert at Bruce’s Loft, a residential performance space in the Heights. Admission: $15. Details: 713/501-7131. —Tim Brookover
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