Sonya Belaya | The Family Interviews
Meet Sonya Belaya
Sometimes we stumble upon an artist who pulls right on the old heart strings, and Sonya Belaya straight up yanked ‘em. Belaya is a Russian-American pianist and singer who draws on her heritage and classical training to make some pretty stunning sounds, mixed with some powerful personal narratives.
Her recent release, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” got us right in the feels for its neo-folky sounds and family ties — ‘cuz ya know, we’re into that whole family thing here.
Below, we discuss the importance of improvisation, building on the rich history folk music, and the emotional intelligence of first-graders.
Give it a read, give it a listen, give someone a hug. Thank us later.
SPECIAL SPRING CLOTHING SALE: A Mad-Lib by Sonya Belaya
MASHA, MY OLDER SISTER has announced that her HOPEFUL clothing store in the heart of downtown MOSCOW is having an AMORPHOUS sale of all merchandise, including ANCESTRAL suits and slightly irregular JEANS. Cable-knit WOMEN!, only $15.99. Hand-woven Italian COFFEE, half-price Double-breasted cashmere TRUTHS, $50.00. Genuine imported AQUA GRADUAL shoes, INCANDESCENT handkerchiefs, and women's embroidered FLOWERS, all at rock-bottom prices. This is a chance to get some really HABITUAL bargains!
Would You Rather…
have a hundred extra arms or ten extra heads? Why?
Extra heads, gives me more brains to do MORE! And maybe to compartmentalize better?
Some Questions with Sonya Belaya
What was the last book you read? Did you like it?
I read Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope In The Dark” recently. I tried to read it a while ago, but didn’t make it past the first chapter. My most recent attempt was much more fruitful. It really puts our current political climate into perspective, and made me realize that long-term change is gradual and slow, but every action we take powerful and can cause seismic shifts for our future.
How do you translate your sound to a live performance?
In a live setting, my music is all about the acoustic, organic sound. I want listeners to hear the instruments and know them intimately - every creak, pitch, and resonance is honored. I want that “homemade” feeling to be a part of the emotion of the music. I normally play with my octet called “Dacha”, (which means “summer cottage” in Russian). Playing with eight instruments is not always feasible, but to have that sound bank, to have so many dialogues happening, is my ideal scenario. My music always has improvisation in it. Improvisation is a vehicle of open, honest dialogue, responding to what’s happening in the moment through our internalized value systems of communication. In a live setting, that’s super important to me. I find that vulnerability in live music through improvisation.
If you could give yourself from ten years ago any advice what would it be?
Oh man. Save more money! And believe in the future, believe that you will find love, support, and understanding. You have power to dismantle abusive relationships, you have power to undo damage, to make alternate versions of reality for yourself apart from the ecosystem that was set up for you. The way you make music will shift, and that is OKAY. You have so many superpowers, own them. Stop worrying about what other people think.
That last bit is still valid today.
What does your family think about your music?
I grew up in the US, as a first generation Russian-American. My parents immigrated from Moscow, and in 2014 my mother went missing. Shortly after I severed ties with my father. My closest bonds are with my extended family that is in Moscow, and my sisters who live in the states. I used to spend most of my summers as a child in Moscow. Having such complex family roots has been a huge inspiration for my music. My family is supportive, but due to distance, they’ve never seen me play live. They’ve only heard recordings of me online. Sometimes they
don’t understand the music because it’s so distant from the kind of musician I was as a child. Musically, I live in a million “categories”, and am deeply committed to that kind of multiplicity. I think it’s hard for my family to make sense of that multiplicity sometimes, which I am empathetic to.
When “Songs My Mother Taught Me” came out, my aunt called me and thanked me for writing these songs. I think it was extremely meaningful to her to have a body of work that honored my mother.
When building on top of folk music how important is it to keep in line with the initial intention?
Great question… I’m actually in the midst of a project that is arrangements and responses to Russian folk music (specifically, bard songs from the Soviet era). The arrangements are living in improvised music/jazz/American folk/noise influences, with the bard songs acting as the blueprint.
You are right on the money - the most important thing is to not lose sight of the focal point, the core, what’s underneath. The songs are rich with poetry, history, community. The essence of that can’t be lost, the humanity of it. I was inspired to do this project in part to find some musical diplomacy within my plurality as a musician, but also because the political climate in both of my home countries is a mess, to say the least, and in a lot of ways misunderstood, particularly in Russia. The roots of culture, music, food, the love that is felt in these places through art, can heal these places plagued by so much turmoil. I really do believe that. The synthesis of this folk music within my musical language is my form of healing. If you lose sight of the intention, you lose sight of the lifeblood of the music.
Do you think songs take on new meanings as they are passed down into new generations?
Absolutely. Particularly when it comes to lost songs, songs that tell stories of marginalized communities, songs by musicians and composers who were not given the opportunity to speak through their music in their time. We are seeing this rebirth, excavation, of historically lost material right now, by the new generation.
Protest music of previous generations takes on new meaning as it is heard by a new generation. Today, we can have a deeper understanding of the resilience and immeasurable power of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. Remembering this song in today’s climate of police violence against Black lives, of the industrial complex of modern slavery known as American prisons, we are reminded of the work that needs to be done. Songs like Strange Fruit are time capsules of the real history. New generations have a responsibility to know the real history, and to make decisions to actively undo this history.
Do you have any favorite family traditions?
Although I don’t get to do it very often because my family is so far away, the tradition of singing bard songs with a guitar after a large family gathering is my favorite. There’s always lots of Russian food involved, and after stuffing our faces, we sing. Every time I get to participate in this ritual, I feel I am home.
If you could only use 10 words for the rest of your life what would they be?
What have been your five favorite albums to have come out this year?
Big Thief - UFOF
Camila Meza- Ambar
James Blake- Assume Form
Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn - The Transitory Poems
Nathalie Joachim- Fanm d’Ayiti
Who would you love to have cover one of your original songs?
If I could go back in time, either Elizabeth Cotton or Joni (Mitchell). Especially Elizabeth Cotton. I would cry….a lot. Or maybe Liz Phair?? That would be hilarious.
What is your take on the current climate of folk music today?
Not sure what my authority is to answer this question, but, my view is that we are coming to understand that the term “folk music” means so much more than what first comes to mind. The meaning of folk music also varies depending on what culture you are from. I believe this understanding is imperative when it comes to discussions about folk music, so I can only speak to my understanding of American folk, and Russian folk.
Techno is American folk. So is jazz. There is a greater scope of oral traditions that we are now uplifting and recognizing as part of the definition, the canon. The work is still necessary. We have to keep going, dig deeper, learn more, undo.
Do you think your music could be played in a first-grade classroom? What do you think their reaction would be?
Oh YES! I think because there’s so many instruments in my band, the music could spark so many wonderful questions and an honest curiosity. We’d probably play some more up-beat tunes, you know, so little 6 year olds aren’t sad the whole time, but first-graders are way deeper and intuitive than we think. Even with some noisier sounds, I think first-graders would be down.
Any final comments? (This is your electronic soapbox for one last answer.)
Vulnerability is our strength. Stories are power. Listen, seek, find, do the work. Destroy your ego. There’s always more work to do.