This Saturday Sonja Sleator launches her latest EP, Violent Strawberry with a show in the Pavilion. Ahead of the show Benjamin Magee sat down with her to discuss her new release and the journey up to its release.
How did you originally get into music?
I think it was about when I hit my early teens, I was just getting more into music with MTV and anything else I saw on TV
► Who were you listening to at the time?
At the time, I mean I was quite young, so I was listening to a lot of music that my brothers and sisters were listening to. So it was a lot of Radiohead and Björk. From there I started finding artists like Dido and McFly when I was about 14. (laughs) I thought they were class! It was around this time that I asked my mum for a guitar I had seen, it was about 100 quid. It was this lovely, shiny blue and I was just said “Can I have it?” and she bought me it. That was the start of my learning to play.
Having said that, I still can’t read music or anything, I’ve been playing for years and I can’t read music at all. I barely even know what chord it is that I am playing, I just learnt the basic four chords and started writing my own lyrics and my own songs, because (laughs) I couldn’t read what anyone was writing on the guitar sites! So I just kept building from there. And then I went on to music tech.
► So at music tech, that’s when it grew into more of a passion project.
It did yeah, whenever I had to go to the interview to see if I could attend the school, I said to them “I can’t read music, I’ve only been playing for the past four or five years” so I had to prepare a piece and I then did that as my interview. Luckily, they said that they could see some potential in me and they offered me a place on the course. I was studying music theory which I failed (laughs) but I passed the music performance side!
► So who would be your favourite artist to listen to now?
Ooooh, that’s a tricky one (screws up face). So we bought Hozier’s new album recently. When his first one came out, we listened to that religiously, but like I still listen to ‘White Flag’ (Dido) all the time. I keep heading back to my old albums. I would actually be listening to local artists more than big international musicians, guys like Glass Wings and Joel Harkin. I did a gig with Joel a few weeks ago that was really amazing, he’s a fantastic performer. It just really depends on what mood I’m in.
► What is it about music and performance that really drives you?
I feel that I’m not very good at many things. I work in sales and I can make a pretty good coffee, because that what’s I trained in while I was trying to do my music career. I think a massive part of it is the emotional release of it. I’m not a very vocal person, but whenever I get to sit down for a couple of hours by myself, either writing or singing, it just releases the build-up of stress that I’ve had. I also love to travel, so the fact that I can play my music and travel about with it is a bonus.
► The new EP has been well received, but the first thing thats struck me about it was the name. Where did that come from?
That actually an inside joke between me and a friend, but I actually feel like –
► Is that you, is it your nickname?
No, no its not, its just a private inside joke that I cannot (laughs) I CANNOT say what it means.
► So what inspired the EP?
I think the Ghost came around first. My guitarist Daniel had actually written that and left it on the computer. I found it, added some melodies to it and whenever he came back I said: “Look I’ve modified this a little, do you want to to listen, see if there’s something we can do with it?” I don’t think it was ever meant to be a full EP but I think after Ghost, I wrote the next songs in under a month and they all just came together.
I was listening to a lot of different music at that time and playing more electric guitar, playing with reverb and different sound effect and trying to make it more than the standard singer-songwriter album. I was starting to find new pedals, play about with them and it all fed into this Ep. It’s unlike anything that people are used to hearing me play and it’s only recently that I’ve started playing full shows, all electric.
► Its almost exploratory then?
Yep, just getting out, exploring some sounds and techniques.
► The first word that came to my head while I was listening was ‘defiant’, particularly in Ghost. Its subtle, but it is there. Is that something you see in yourself?
Yeah, I’d say it is. I feel like I always have to dig deep when I’m writing. Ghost though, I feel is the clearest of them. It says, you know, I’m done, I’ve had enough, I’m over it. I think, again, it was a release to get it out. Even though its only 3-4 minutes long it’s always such a weight to get that off my shoulders.
► They are very personal songs then, and at times they feel almost conversational or confrontational. Are they directed at anyone?
Yeah someone is definitely at the other end. Ghost is about an old partner that I was with, and just being unhappy, but also realising that I was unhappy long before it ever ended and when I was finally done with it, the person kept coming back and I just had to say “No I am tired with this, I am unhappy, please just leave me alone.”
► The influences you can hear in the album are varied. Where do they come from?
Honestly, I don’t know. I never know what I’m gonna get whenever I pick up a guitar. I have to just kind of see how I’m feeling. There are plenty of times where I’ll pick up the guitar and go “Nah I’m not feeling this” and leave it, but there are other times where I feel like there’s a lot going on and I’ll write it all in one go I just never really know what I’ll come up with whenever I sit down. So whenever I bring a new song to the band, they are always like “Ok we were not expecting that at all” which MIGHT be a good thing (nervous laugh). I just try to work with whatever I’ve got and worked on the go.
► It is a very unrestrictive process then. Is that what you are like in real life?
I would say I have my routines in life, most of that coming from being diabetic, so when I’m writing I do feel a certain want to be freer. Like I don’t want someone saying anything to me about going from acoustic to electric, so I just go in-between and thankfully the band helps maintain a bit of balance.
► So the EP was recorded with Micheal Mormecha of Mojo Fury fame, what was it like working with him?
AMAZING. I always felt so relaxed in his studio, very comfortable. Whenever we were actually doing one of the songs, we spent like five/six hours doing the drums, the guitar, getting the vocals right and at the end of it I was just thinking “…This is not right, this is not how it’s supposed to sound” and we had to start all over again. I thought he would lose his mind but he was just like “That’s cool, we’ll go back to the start.”
► You obviously then have a family good relationship with everyone you work with. Ethan Hanna and John Andrews come to mind. Who is your favourite person to perform with?
It really depends, because If I get asked to play on a bill with a whole bunch of people I haven’t heard before, then its always nice to go out and hear a bunch of new people. I love playing with Ethan and John because they’re my friends, and they make me very comfortable, and I know I have them there if anything goes wrong. So it’s very enjoyable to play with them. Glass Wings as well, when I played with him in The Empire I knew I wanted him for the EP launch, his music is just incredible. It fits in well with what I’m doing.
► On the subject of local music, any under the radar listens you would recommend?
The gig I played with Joel Harkin really opened my eyes to his music. We were gigging in a cafe, we brought the PA system and everything and he didn’t use (laughs) ANY of it. He just said “I’m gonna stand here, and sing loud, and sing to the cafe” and it was just… it was really really good, I was shocked by how good he sounded, and I definitely feel like he deserves a lot of credit as a songwriter.
► So you’ve had some stints on both TV and radio, is there any standout experiences with that
Well, I’m happy with any radio play that I get, north or south, because then its just proof that I’m doing something good. It’s great to get on things like MVTV because it’s not just music people that are watching. They do lots of different shows, so I might be reaching lots of people who may never have heard of me, which is great. I’m just grateful whenever anyone asks me to do anything on the radio at all.
► Were there any nerve-wracking experiences?
Everything is nerve-wracking for me. Whenever I play on the radio I am shaking, even if its just me in the booth. I think I’m getting better though!
► You’ve performed in all over the world at this point, where has been your favourite place to play?
Nashville was a really good one. I just remember that night the weather was atrocious and I just thought “No one is gonna come to this,” But I got down and it was this big hall with a good amount of people in it, and everyone just shut up and listened to myself and the three other performers play. And it was just really nice, a really nice setting, really nice people. There was also a show in Leeds last year, in Northern Guitars. It was like a pub and a guitar room upstairs and just a wee stage There were people just sitting there before the music had even started, gathered around the stage, drinking beer, enjoying themselves and then we just set up and started playing. And no one left! everyone stayed and more people came and it was just so lovely.
► Is there nay interesting stories, any favourite stories from travelling?
There’s been a couple of times where I’ve taken diabetic lows on stage. I’ve been with the band and I can just feel my blood sugar levels starting to drop and once that happens I start to lose the ability to concentrate and speak. I just remember looking at my guitarist this one time and him being like “Aw here we go.” Thankfully my friend spotted it and ran a coke over while I took a step back and took a song off. And then I was like “Okay I’m back now” and away we went. Those are always awkward because people have no idea what’s going on.
► The elephant in the room question: I understand that Ryan Adams was a big influence on you and that the alleged allegations affected you to the point where you took your influenced EP down. Can you walk me through what that was like?
It was that night, I think it was on the 13th of February… I think it came through the NEW YORK TIMES or Twitter and I just remember reading it and bursting into tears. It felt like my legs had fallen off and I was just in a blank zone for about a week I remember walking into work and people asking me “Are you okay?” and I was just like “Don’t even speak to me or I’ll start crying.” It was hard to take, but you know, you power on, I’m surviving, I’m okay.
► Has it coloured your music going forward?
No. No, it hasn’t. Actually, It has helped me write these next four songs that will hopefully be around this year because it’s hit a nerve and I don’t know how to express that nerve vocally without maybe being knocked down by it. So the best way I can put these feelings into a song, maybe it’ll make me feel better about the whole thing.
► Onto happier stuff. Your EP launch is coming up. How do you feel about it?
I’m excited about it. It’s nice to run my own gig and put on who I want and do my own thing. With Tin Man Heart backing me up on it and supporting the decisions I’m making, its grate, it just gives me such a boost. It’s also nice to keep an eye on my friends and make sure they enjoying themselves as well. It’s nice to have the freedom to do that.
► Tell me about your support slots then. The guys you’ve picked to play with you, why them?
So we picked Ethan Hanna because I work well with him. We share a practice space so I am also in his band and we try to help each other out, in the same way that ZOOL might pick their friends to help them out. I love to support him, he loves to support me and we can work interchangeably so he was an obvious choice. Glass Wings, when I played with him at the Empire, I was just blown away by his set. I love his music, he’s such a beautiful songwriter and he was a really nice guy and I immediately thought he’d be a great support to have on the bill. Sarah Buckley, I enjoy doing some gig swaps with her, being able to go down to Dublin and bring her up to Belfast and when we got in contact we decided to help each other out.
► What does 2019 look like for you?
Busy. Once I get the EP out and done and dusted, I’m off around Ireland again and organising shows in Limerick and Waterford and Cork, Derry. I’m also working on releasing some music videos, I have some studio time booked and hopefully, that means more music on the way too.
‘Violent Strawberry’ will be debuted at The Pavillion Bar in Belfast on April 20th 2019. Tickets are available online or at the door.