Sonya Hunter and "Sun in Mind"
j. poet, Contributing Editor, Pulse Magazine
Sonya Hunter is a rare artist, a singer/songwriter who bravely diverges from the conventions of her chosen genre to forge her own unique vision. Hunter has been experimenting with what she calls "jazz-infused folk-rock" for quite a while, and her sound comes into fruition on her new Innerstate disc "Sun in Mind."
"Several years ago, I started bringing in some players from the local jazz scene, and found that sax and trumpets went just fine with my more country-ish leanings," Hunter says, explaining the process that eventually led to "Sun In Mind." "I felt I had come into my voice, and enjoyed performing more than ever. Erik Pearson had been playing with me for a few years at this point, and that was a nourishing collaboration as well. His inventive harmonies and pretty guitar work continue to shape my sound."
The sound is still mainly acoustic, but layered with Hunter's cascading vocals and the work of top-notch players. Tracks like the moody, late night meditation "Dance," and "Have You Ever Seen" that features a rippling, multi-tracked chorale of Hunters, show the singer moving into fresh territory marked by confident vocals that play around the beat and adventurous arrangements that continue her commitment to asymmetrical but appealing time signatures. It's a great leap forward for a restless artist who has always swum against the tide and pushed her own emotional and musical boundaries with her art.
In '98 Hunter ventured to New York City to immerse herself in music. She lived in Brooklyn, playing live as often as possible, often with saxophonist Chris Cheek, bassist Ben Street, and cellist Noah Hoffeld (all well-respected "down town" musicians). As the Century dawned, Hunter returned to San Francisco and began studying piano and database programming, setting her guitar aside for a while.
"When I started playing guitar again last year, it became even more clear what an intuitive, heart-led process music-making is for me," Hunter said. "I was drawn back into that curvaceous, open-road singing/song-crafting zone. I feel the absence of a formal music education, although regrettable in some ways, has made my approach to music pretty free and exploratory." That feeling of freedom is evident on every song on "Sun In Mind," the latest step in Hunter's continuing musical journey.
Sonya says about the process: "Last May (2001), after a bit of a break, I picked up my guitar again. I wanted to record my newest batch of songs while they were still fresh. I also wanted to capture the 'intimate psychedelic' sound I had developed with Erik and bassist Dan Seamans, which was really satisfying. We brought drummer Dan Foltz in for a few of the poppier numbers. I also decided to use a few of the recordings I made in Brooklyn right before moving back to SF.
"These songs and sounds were recorded over the course of a year, at a relaxed pace, twisted and turned on good ol' two-inch analog tape, right here in the Mission district. Production was a collaborative effort between me, engineer Desmond Shea and Erik Pearson. (When Erik isn't playing with me, he's backing storyteller Dianne Ferlatte on banjo and guitar, improvising with the psychedelic jazz group Mushroom on tenor sax and guitar, and composing music and soundscapes for dancers.) Desmond Shea, whose alt-country recording credits include Tarnation and the Court & Spark, is a vocal-harmony hound. One of the best experiences of recording this album was the vocal layering — you'll notice more harmonies than on my previous recordings."
Hunter has been singing since she was a teenager and writing, performing and recording almost as long. With three older sisters and parents who loved music, she was exposed to a whole world of sound including lots of folk, jazz and mainstream pop. "The girl across the street used to sit on her porch and play guitar and sing," Hunter recalls. "I remember thinking — Now that's power, making your own music."
Hunter picked up a guitar and a book of guitar chords at a garage sale and started out on the path she's still following. When she attended Nonesuch Farm School, a progressive alternative high school, everyone played guitar, and with a supportive teacher she took a few basic lessons and began making up her own songs. "I have a 'funny finger,'" Hunter says. "When I was a kid I put my hand through a glass door and cut the tendon on my ring finger. It was repaired with a tendon from my foot; that finger lacks some mobility, but in the long run it's been a blessing, because it's forced me to voice chords in a different way and use a lot of open and unconventional tunings."
Hunter finished high school at 15, and by 19 she was living in San Francisco, taking part in The City's vibrant acoustic music scene. Hunter went on to record numerous albums and tour extensively in support of her German and American indie releases. Her diverse collaborative credits include recording with Chuck Prophet and Bay Area jazz heavies Scott Amendola and Graham Connah; a stint in an SF "folky-super-group" with Victoria Williams and Pat Thomas; and performing her compositions with arranger and trumpeter Jon Birdsong's brass band Kaleidophone. Hunter's five releases prior to "Sun in Mind" are: "Favorite Short Stories" (1991); "Geography" (1993); "Peasant Pie" (1995); "Headlights and Other Constellations" (1998) and "Finders Keepers" (Germany 1995, U.S. 1999).
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