Interview with guitarist and vocalist Melissa Moore
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: November 7, 2022
Sonja, formed in 2014, is a dark and enigmatic heavy metal band from Philadelphia, USA, influenced by several genres and who released their debut album, Loud Arriver, via Cruz del Sur Music on September 23, 2022. It has received many raving and flattering reviews all around the globe so far, so it's time to check out what the fuss is all about.
We contacted the band's luminary guitarist and vocalist Melissa Moore who was more than eager to shed light on the topic of Sonja, how everything started and how things have been going since the beginning, without completely forgetting to ask about plans they have for the future.
How's life in Philly these days, after most of the COVID restrictions are over? Feeling like a normal life is back so to speak?
Melissa: I have no concept of what normal life is supposed to be, but I can say I don't expect things to get any different or better here. People are as active and social as can be expected and restrictions are gone. The rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer, and unrest continues to build.
I read that Sonja was started in 2014 when you flew back home from an Absu tour in Australia. Was it one of those so-called "eureka!" moments for you when you sort of knew what kind of music you'd like to do from that day on?
Melissa: The impetus to start a new band happened on my long flight, and it was very sudden. I had no prior thoughts about starting a new band. My acute frustration at Absu's languishing periods of inactivity drove me there. From the moment that the Sonja vision ripped into my consciousness, it was a newborn babe to be cared for. When I brought it to Grzesiek (drums) immediately after the flight, our instincts were aligned. There was a natural spirit between us in every element, but also a craft that could not be rushed.
Was it obvious even at that early stage that Ben (on bass) and Grzesiek (on drums) were a perfect fit to complete the lineup or did you have a list of other musicians who would have fit the band as well?
Melissa: Grzesiek was the obvious person to start this with and it would not have happened otherwise. We knew our philosophies were the same and it helped that he was a drummer and I was a guitarist. When the two of us had it going for a bit, Ben was killing it on stage with other bands, so we asked him and luckily he accepted.
SONJA – WHERE DOES THE NAME COME FROM?
How did you pick the name Sonja for the name of the band? I mean, here in Finland, it's a common female name, so that's why I am a bit curious about this name choice...
Melissa: We called the band Strange Nights at first and released a 4-song cassette under that name in 2016. The lawyer for the rapper Tech N9ne sent us a cease and desist because they had a label called Strange Music and didn't want anyone else in music to use the word "Strange." Obviously, that's a losing lawsuit for them, but they knew we wouldn't have the money to litigate in court, so we had to drop it because that's how US trademark law works. The name Sonja then came to us when Grzesiek and I were backstage at a fest we played with our old band in Prague. It's primarily a vibe and an aura.
Your 8-track debut album, Loud Arriver, was released on the Italian label Cruz del Sur Music on September 23, 2022. How did you end up on that label and were there other labels that showed interest in signing Sonja?
Melissa: Cruz del Sur were the ones to really reach out to us and make a case. They found us when we just had a two-song digital demo (that old Strange Nights cassette notwithstanding) which we never formally released or promoted. Very few people cared about us then because we had almost no content, but we also refused to put out anything subpar. There were some others that would have given us a deal, but Cruz took the most initiative. I also feel that the band hasn't really started at all until right now. Even though we did play a small handful of gigs in the years before the album, none of those fully count to me.
I am sure you didn't want to rush things when you started composing for your debut studio album. Did the album turn out the way you wanted, or would you even say that you exceeded your expectations?
Melissa: We are all very satisfied with the result. It would have been easy if we were just doing something that already had a precedent in the world, but to be both new and familiar while creating this particular musical space was the longer path we had to follow. The music is actually the straightforward part. The lyrics and vocals are dangerous to acquire the inspiration for.
When you were in the middle of the songwriting process, would you say the whole band worked in a very uniform way to get the kind of result you had in mind?
Melissa: Yes, it's a very active and breathing process when we write the music. We identify the element that holds the magic and allow that to flourish. It's a matter of protecting and enhancing what matters so meaningless noise doesn't obscure it.
OF INSPIRATIONS AND INFLUENCES
You have also mentioned such names as The Cure, Manowar, and Judas Priest, just to name a few, as some of your influences and inspirations. After hearing your songs, "When the Candle Burns Low..." and "Nylon Nights," I guess it's safe to say your main influences are deeply rooted in '80s metal, correct?
Melissa: Well, there are some things from there but also '70s and '90s for sure. Kiss, ZZ Top, '70s Scorpions and then Danzig, melancholic doom bands from the '90s like old Anathema and even the first two Moonspell albums. People think primarily of the '80s when the words "heavy metal" are used because it was so popular then, but that's not what our minds are like. It's a spirit across all time and different sounds, but you can feel the energy underneath. When a fire dies, you can't get it back, so you have to start a new one. So, what is heavy metal in the 2020s? In this moment where the world is literally falling apart, and authoritarian forces rise and advance unfettered with me as their prime target? We are going to find out.
Are there any particular metal albums that you consider the reasons you became a fan of heavy metal?
Melissa: I mean, as soon as music took over my life at age 12, it was metal. But I considered all forms of loud rock to be metal back then. Like I would listen to Iron Maiden and Nirvana and Hendrix without blinking an eye. King Diamond and Mercyful Fate became an obsession at a young age. It all changed once my friend got ...Death is Just the Beginning III from mail-order in the '90s. It was a multi-disc affair that exposed us to Mortician, Deceased, Dissection, Cradle of Filth, Celestial Season, Pungent Stench, Hypocrisy/The Abyss, Amorphis, etc.
OPENING THE VEIL TO THE SPIRITS
What I also paid quite a lot of attention to is your vocal lines that radiate warmth and some irresistible melodies and are just very soulful, the metal way. Are you a self-taught singer or did you take vocal lessons when you were a kid?
Melissa: I had never been a singer until this band. It was just that I didn't trust anyone else in the world to be able to deliver the vibe, so this was a role I had to take. Some of the songs took multiple sessions to finish because one or two verses took everything out of me. I never had a lesson before the album. In the studio, I scrapped entire vocal songs very frequently until the right feel came to me. Though I had been singing these songs since the beginning, I hated everything about the sound of my voice until the late stages of recording. My vocal style didn't manifest until I was deep into the recording process, and I allowed myself to be softer and gentler and capture the real essence. I avoid tracking vocals that make me feel wrong. Opening the veil to the spirits required persistence.
And speaking of "Nylon Nights," which you have also shot a video for, it shows in a very sad and brutal way the ugly side of exploitation in this rude world, especially bringing up the ugly face of prostitution, drugs and all that shit. How did you get the idea of talking about this very sensitive, almost taboo subject? Some (asshole) people think when you have got some extra money in your pockets, you can buy and own everything, which isn't true at all...
Melissa: Let me say something first; anyone who has any disrespect towards sex work is a false metal poser. The societal stigma itself is what needs to go, and immediately. If anyone disagrees, I kindly request that they analyze those thoughts. Patriarchy, religion, and hypocritical lies have too many people under a spell.
Back to the video. Our protagonist is seeing clients and not really confident at first. After a particularly bad experience, she comes into her own and gets everything sorted out, and she commands the power of her future appointments to prosper greatly. The visual depicts an energy transformation and a path of thriving.
LOUD ARRIVER - THE ALBUM COVER
The album cover for Loud Arriver, in my opinion, reflects very well the '80s metal scene, especially the glam rock/metal scene in those days. Was that one of your main purposes, to get as much of the '80s feeling and vibe as possible, or was it just a random suggestion from your label guy? Please kindly elaborate more...
Melissa: Well, even though the album is called Loud Arriver, the scene on the cover is sort of representing the lyrics from the song "Nylon Nights." I was telling my drummer some stories and he stopped me to say "We gotta take our band pics at that actual hotel." Similar to what we did with the music, it took us time and deep reflection to get to the visual part right. But we wanted a little bit of a Pulp Fiction Noir vibe, and our photographer Stephanie Slate performs a very unique chemical alchemy with her prints that gives it this spirit realm feeling which fits well with the dissociation in the lyrics. I can't say we intended a specific '80s feel. Just an artful depiction of the day-to-day life moments that the music is coming from. Then Annick Giroux did the layout and I think she really was subconsciously in touch with that '90s black metal/doom style which has a very subtle hint also.
What are some of your let's say top 3-5 album covers of all time, and why?
Melissa: Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse
Actually, most '90s black metal layouts have a special feeling to me.
Iron Maiden - Fear of the Dark
The album only has a few essential tracks, but the art is great and this one struck me when I was young.
Mortician - House by the Cemetery
Kind of like a bit more extreme Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Obituary - Cause of Death
The bookstores used to sell HP Lovecraft anthologies with different scenes from this artist.
I'm definitely leaving some good ones out that I can't think of...
How did you find Zev Deans, the director of the video?
Melissa: It was Ben's idea. Zev has done videos for all the top metal bands, but that was not what excited us. It's just when you look at his work, especially if it's a band you already know, and the colors you hear are so perfectly captured in the visual form. We went back and forth a lot to get to the concept and it was great creativity together. There was a frenetic energy we all got into for the video that was totally intense. We teamed up on this more than is usual for a director and band, I think. We modified our debut single release schedule and asked the label to not have any audio/visual output until the video was done so it was the first official thing from Sonja. Zev helped immensely to push the video when it dropped. Our collaboration was and is on a whole different level.
The power of audiovisual stuff cannot be underestimated. Nowadays, if you want to get the word out about your band, it's almost mandatory to do some videos due to this huge digital world and its countless possibilities. How much did putting out the "Nylon Nights" video help you guys to bring some extra hype around the band?
Melissa: Since we haven't toured yet, it's been our calling card so far. As with everything else, we needed to make an impact. This was the initial explosion. Sonja is a real thing, and we had to show it. But if it didn't feel right, we would have scrapped it, even after the blood sweat and tears. The initial display needed to meet a high standard.
Do you possibly have some plans for shooting videos for other songs off of the Loud Arriver album?
Melissa: We definitely want to make more videos and we definitely talk about it a lot. When? I can't say for sure since we are riding the rock 'n' roll chaos at the moment. It was hard to decide on the first single and we went back and forth till the very last second. We are always going crazy until the last second on everything we do so it would probably be like that again.
PUTTING REAL LIFE INTO MUSIC
What makes Loud Arriver such a special album? And do not be too shy and modest; superlatives can also be used if you feel like using them at this point of the interview... ;o)
Melissa: I think most bands write about theoretical things, but Sonja is just taking real life and putting it to music. I literally don't have a choice, I can either hide or I can rule the shadows. Strangers and familiar people alike just bring me their darkest desires, completely uninvited. It's very disorienting. When you combine my constant immersion in that numbing energy with our devotion to the craft of rock 'n' roll, Sonja is what comes out. There's no winning, but we don't know how to lose and the struggle in the void is loud, agonizing and full of fire.
Speaking of Sonja as its own single entity, what kinds of sacrifices have you made in the name of this band so far, in order to keep its wheels running as smoothly and steadily as possible?
Melissa: Sonja requires everything, and it is all offered willingly and gratefully. The biggest sacrifice to me has been how much we have held back. How much we have waited. I say it all the time that we just want to play, but the vision had to be realized in tangible form first. Now that the moment is here, I don't even know how to feel.
TAMING THE BEAST IS IMPORTANT IF YOU WANT TO SUCCESS
As far as I understand, the band really isn't that well known yet, so apparently you have a semi-huge promotion campaign going on, to get the band's name on the lips of as many people as possible with the help of your (recently released) debut album, right?
Melissa: Well anytime an album is released there is that window where things are being put out there about it, but then you gotta ride the beast and tame it or it will escape. We are very unknown, but it seems like with the album maybe some people are now hearing about it. There are all these phases; writing, recording, video, album release and now we are entering the "play live" phase should we be invited to the stage.
What are going to be your next steps after your debut album is out?
Melissa: Every second of our days and nights is doing what's needed for the band, and there is so much more to do. Writing new songs, playing live, living the lurid experiences which give the lyrics life, all while civilization teeters inevitably at the brink of its darkest upcoming age beyond our worst fears. My number one priority? Tour excessively before it all collapses. The real ones will need to stick together and thrive as we all head deeper into the cataclysm.
That's all I had in mind for this "chat." I, for one, sincerely would like to thank you, Melissa, for taking your time with my questions. In the very same breath, I'd like to wish you all the best with any of your future endeavors with the band. Goodspeed to all of you, and bye for now! Eh, any closing comments to wrap up this conversation in a proper way?
Melissa: Thank you, we appreciate the talk!
|Other information about Sonja on this site|
|Review: Loud Arriver|
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