with Jennifer Sonntag:
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Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Jennifer: When did I start writing is a deceptively simple question. I’ve been engaged in the process of writing probably since I fell in love with language at around four years old. Certain memories stand out, like finding that different letters could make the same sound or could change their sound when combined with other letters. I very clearly remember marvelling that language held the power of god. The texture and rhythm of language was a revelation. As a kid I wrote poems and then as a teen, piano pieces, then was in a punk band and a band where I was the only girl. My bandmates influenced me, their style, exuberance, dedication. I started playing guitar then, but didn’t sing until later. Aside from classical piano I loved goth and electronica, rock, punk, blues. Orbital, The Cocteau Twins, PJ Harvey, NIN, The Cure, PIL.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Jennifer: I’m an interdisciplinary omnivore. Anyone from Velvet Underground and PJ Harvey to Alice Coltraine, Nina Simone, Fever Ray. Poets: Anne Carson, Basho, Rilke. Usually influence is about inspiration. I find it often outside of music. Writers like Lydia Davis and Garielle Lutz. Directors like Terrence Malick or Guillermo Del Toro or Bi Gan. I find I write from dialogue a lot. An exchange or phrase will stick with me and act like a starter dough for a sonic mood or thought that wants translating and expansion. Also, nothing is better for writing than walking. But I spent a lot of time at Columbia working on a doctorate, so I’ve had to pare down influences in order to find my own voice, too. Listening as un-listening.
Some of my biggest influences are the artists in my life as well as the people around me who, in their demonstrative or quiet way, encourage me to keep making art. We need artists so much right now. Art has vivifying effects on the individual as well as the culture. If the world doesn’t fall into fascism it’ll be in part due to artists’ ability to synthesize forces–i.e. love–successfully, offering an alternative to hate.
Q3: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer/musician?
Jennifer: I first wanted to be an artist probably the first time I performed music with other people in front of an audience, in high school–where I felt the presence of a larger consciousness among the musicians communicating in real time, or even ahead of time, and it was instinctual–we were becoming a new organism. As far as singing goes, that was different, later. I’d made up some terrible song and sang it for someone and it was like a conversion experience. I just broke down in joy.
Q4: Who has helped you most with your career?
Jennifer: I’ve discovered that artists really do have to find the conditions and people that help make the work happen. Sometimes that can take a while. It’s more psychological than anything else, for me. With music, I have a handful of people who have provided unconscious and conscious help. My mother and maternal grandmother had lovely singing voices and sang a lot during my childhood. Barbara Maier Gustern, my vocal coach, is a big wise kid who helps me with architecture and technique. My psychoanalyst Raul Garcia really helps me keep open a space for creative exploration. And Barb Morrison, who produced my recent track, is an all around inspiration and genius. I had wonderful, supportive, brilliant professors in the academy who encouraged and inspired me and taught me how to think critically and slow down as a writer, which can be really important for creative work. John McClure at Rutgers. Edward Said, Gauri Viswanathan, and Ann Douglas at Columbia.
Q5: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing/music & did any travels away from home influence your work?
I grew up in Washington and NJ. The trees, topography, were a great influence–honestly is there any artist who isn’t in continuous communication with non-human nature? Especially now? The mostly public schools I attended were, thankfully, diverse. I was introduced to a lot of rap, soul, and funk along with the post-punk I adored.
I do love traveling. Just before covid lockdown I’d been in Berlin, Dublin, London, Amsterdam. I spent much of the last year in Oaxaca. I love Oaxaca–its kindness, humor, the spirit of solidarity, the beautiful formality in conversations, its aesthetic and artisanal traditions. The color and patterns and textures are so alive. I got in touch with my shit, there. I mean that quite literally. You can’t just flush everything away, out of sight. Every morning you haul your rapidly decomposing garbage down the street to chat with your neighbors while waiting for the garbage truck. You get to be in touch with a lot more of the spectrum of experience. For the traveler, everything’s ‘off,’ rearranged or deranged in a new way, with new people, and that makes for a semi-controlled tumult of stimuli. Traveling is a great generator of experience.
Q6: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far to you?
Jennifer: After I stopped work on my dissertation and had been writing music for a few years, just experimenting but kind of committed to it, my nephew Kody died of an overdose. He was scheduled to go to rehab the next morning but decided to go out with friends one last time. This was the first year of the Trump regime, everything was already so dark. Losing him was horrible. When I got the call I was out and I just fell onto the sidewalk. When I flew back from his memorial I went to bed for ten hours, woke up talking to him, grabbed some earbuds and recorded the conversation. A few years later, when Barb produced the song, we were able to preserve that initial mood really well. We even used some of the demo vocals that I’d recorded on the cheap earbuds. It was an important part of grieving for me. Details like that matter for historical and artistic integrity. I’m proud of the song, but I’m also proud that I was able to follow my own inner demand to create something while in a very raw state.
Q7: Favorite activities to relax?
Jennifer: Few things are better than a meal with friends at home on my patio or at Rucola in Brooklyn.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem/writing of yours or others?
Jennifer: I keep in mind Blake’s line “expect poison from the standing water.” Being truly alive obliges a certain grace for change. Blake understood this principle of mutability; it feels good to remember it.
Q9: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Jennifer: I’m working on a video for my recent track, Simple Things, and making new music.