Sondra Sun-Odeon...eloquent conversation

Sondra Sun-Odeon, one half of the Brooklyn-based band Silver Summit, has released an enchanting solo album titled Ætherea and its another connect-the-dot collection of songs and soundscapes that comes from a different branch of the folk music tree than most of the strictly-acoustic fans are accustomed to. Not being one to hold tight to the traditional, I sort of like that Wikipedia has seen fit to include the term psych folk as its own sub-genre, complete with a definition, which I shall paraphrase: "Generally favors acoustic instrumentation although it often incorporates other elements. Chanting, early music and world music influences are often found, and much like its rock counterpart, psych[edelic] folk is often known for a peculiar, trance-like, and atmospheric sound, often drawing on musical improvisation and Asian influences."

My path to the left of center began a couple of years ago when I first heard Marissa Nadler, the Boston goddess of folk-y goth, do cover versions of Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen songs. The story I wrote about her led me to Arborea, the husband and wife duo from Maine, and long email exchanges with guitarist Buck Curran helped me open my ears to the great Philadelphia band Espers, their cellist Helena Espvall and guitarist/singer Meg Baird. (Greg Weeks from Espers produced Silver Summit's album, which features Sondra and her musical partner David Shawn Bosler.)

Buck guided me to a better context of this musical format, when he described the songs he and his wife Shanti perform as such: "Our recording are quite stripped down, but they have an undeniable mood and atmosphere to them. These ethereal elements are certainly present in the music of Skip James and banjo players like Hobart Smith...elements that can definitely be attributed to the resonance and ring of their instruments and the tunings they used."

Finally...three paragraphs preamble complete...let me just be quiet and share the video and music that introduced me to Sondra. And it features Helena too.

There seems to be a large universe of bloggers and online magazines that have really embraced Sondra and her album, and the reviews have been consistently grand. Here's three that just take the words out of my virtual mouth:

AltSounds: "While it takes the same hazy gaze upon the otherworldly, it replaces the abstract ideas and concepts of Silver Summit with intimate songs of love and loss. It's an intricate album that soars through the ethereal, then dives, pummeling into moments of anxious yet delicate noise, all the while being led by Sun-Odeon's haunting voice."

Blurt: "There's a wildness in Sondra Sun-Odeon's altered folk, a sense not of home-y hedgerows and kitchen gardens but salty, windblown shores. It starts in her flickery voice, now a soft, shy murmur, now an in-drawn octave-leaping breath, now a raw bird-like cry cutting through the mix."

OurVinyl:On her solo debut, Ætherea, Sun-Odeon – with the help of some very talented friends – creates a set of songs worthy of her stunning voice. Ætherea is a collection comprised of meticulously arranged pieces of depressive psych-folk. The core of the compositions is clean electric guitar and strings. On most songs, the percussion is minimal. Sometimes, it consists of little more than chimes, tambourines and cymbals. When there is a drum kit, it remains quite low in the mix. Consequently, Ætherea tends to move to the rhythm of the strings, resulting in songs that feel weightless."

I reached out to Sondra recently to talk about her album and music, and below is our exchange. She was very gracious with her time, and her responses were quite thoughtful.

EE: I know you're based in Brooklyn these days, but long for the warmth of California. And that you've spent some time in my old hometown, Philadelphia...which has developed into sort of a center of alternative folk styles and players. Are you settled here now or still in the mood to keep moving on? 

"Well, I'm going on 11 years now here in Brooklyn, and right about this time of winter, I'm longing for the warmth and sun of just about anywhere, including California! But yeah, I'm definitely in the mood to spend some time elsewhere and take a break from NYC, or at least wander for the good next year...and that will happen, as there will be touring, here and in Europe."

EE: Any plans for promoting the solo album, Silver Summit or doing something new?

"I'll be playing shows throughout the states this year to support the solo album, then heading to Europe, perhaps even Asia towards the end of the year. I do have some new projects cooking up as well, as I am eager to explore a very different, harder more experimental sound and collaborations with some close artist friends."
EE: Artistic passion, or music as career choice?
"Music has always been an artistic passion for me."
EE: From what I've heard on both the new album and your work with Silver Summit, you know your way around both electric and acoustic guitars, piano and you even are credited with playing a Turkish instrument called a baglama saz. In a picture I've seen of you, it looks like you use a variety of effects as well. Can you share a little about that...electrical enhancement in folk music is not something often embraced by the traditionalists. In other words, what's your musical background?
"I was a classically-trained pianist for many years in my childhood and also played violin in school; at some point, I managed to be the first chair of the junior high orchestra. In college, I taught myself to play guitar and have always played electric more than acoustic and used effects. My background as a guitar player is kind of weird--I played really skronky, obnoxious, noise guitar in a few no wave bands in the 90s in DC. It wasn't until Silver Summit that I played anything that could be construed as "folk". And I still don't think of myself as playing folk--it's just that I've developed these fingerpicking patterns that just emerged from playing the way I do...and I suppose that makes me "folk"? But I didn't study it or anything...I just like to pick notes in arpeggiated forms."
EE: Whenever I seem to write about artists who are left of center of the root and folk music structure, I encounter a zillion labels. Even on your own Bandcamp page you list  rock-acoustic-ethereal-sadcore-goth-neofolk-stoner rock-Uzbekistan and on the Silver Summit page it adds acid folk-apocalyptic folk-doom metal-doomcore-psychedlic. Why does it seem so challenging to come up with a simpler description or label? I actually think of your solo album as just simply folk music.
"I think it's difficult because everyone has their own perspective and different ears...and that's a beautiful thing. I love that some people hear metal in my music...others hear a real ethnic tonality....and still others hear it as folk or experimental. And they're all valid."
EE: Who did you listen to when you were growing up...and what were your earlier musical experiences? 
"We were pretty poor and had no stereo, no radio growing up. The parents didn't play music or listen to music. So it was the piano and the classical music pieces I learned to play on it, and the Chinese opera videos my parents would rent. These were the first music experiences in my life."
EE: I gather that you are Asian-American, and in your melody lines I sometimes here what sounds to my ears like the five black notes on a keyboard. Am I completely out of my mind?  
"Probably not! :)  I'm sure there's a lot of pentatonic in my songs. Half the songs on the album are played in a particular modal tuning that I've played in for 15 years now, and a lot of my melodic lines are pentatonic minor sounding. But I got the tuning from some Italians, so whether what you're hearing is a product of what my musical history is, or that particular tuning, is debatable. Probably a bit of both, right? :)"
This is Sondra's artist website where you can find her tour dates, watch videos and read more.

You can hear more music and purchase her album on vinyl or download, at her Bandcamp page.

Silver Summit's EP Blood and Waters is available at their Bandcamp page.

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Tags: , , , folk, Arborea, Easy Ed, Espers, Helena Espvall, Silver, Sondra Sun-Odeon, Summit", folk", More…psych, psych folk, Ætherea


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.