SONIAdada’s Barefoot Soul
In late of August of this year, Chicago’s soul survivors SONIAdada released their latest studio album, Barefoot Soul. Their first studio work in four years, it represents the growth and feeling of a band that has defied expectation and classification for a dozen years.
For those who are not familiar with them, SONIAdada is an amazing electric rock band playing a fascinating blend of rock, funk, soul and gospel. Layered over enchanting arrangements and fundamentally sound songwriting are the angelic voices of a 3 piece do-wop/gospel group that far outshines nearly any vocalists in the jam scene. The resulting mixture is an intensely satisfying brew full of soul and pocket, enhanced by truly dynamic story-telling and tasteful orchestration.
Their last album, Lay Down and Love it Live helped to raise awareness of the band’s prowess to a whole new audience nationwide through the jam scene. Their appearance at some high profile festivals like Gathering of the Vibes helped to expose them to this whole new world. To try and get a feel for their new album and to check in with the current story of the band, Jambands.com went to New Hampshire to catch two benefit concerts that the band performed earlier this summer. At that time I was able to chat extensively with Dan Pritzker, the band’s songwriter and de-facto spokes-leader.
The shows were the first two that the band had played together in months. They shook the rust off quickly, and fired through two sets which featured both their previous hits and a fair amount of material from the new album. I got to spend a little time with Dan before the show and we spoke about the record and the state of music in general.
Phil Simon- So how did this album come together?
Dan Pritzker I’m slow with this stuff. I’m either really deliberate, depending on how you look at it, or really lazy, probably lazy. By the time it’s over I’m glad to be done.
PS How long did you work on this record, from songwriting to finished product?
DP About two years There’s a bunch of material that we recorded that didn’t make it onto the record. Unlike our last record where we had 15 songs, we tried to make something more contained and reasonable.
PS What’s your favorite song on this record?
DP I think this one, "Better Brains" (the first song on the album.) I like them all pretty much, and I like this one, too- "Raise the Roofbeam. "
PS Where does the name Barefoot Soul come from?
DP: A friend of mine took a picture in the early 70’s of a blind guy playing the violin on a mat, with some money- and it’s a beautiful shot. It’s a great picture, and I have wanted to use it for years, so we worked it up for the cover of the album. We were all ready to use it, and then 9/11 happened, and unfortunately this guy has a turban on, and the graphic designer asked if we should still use the picture. It didn’t even occur to me, so we went back and forth, and we loved the shot. We chose not to use the picture because we found another which worked beautifully with the title.
So I found this picture, decided it illustrated the music well and named the album after it. But we had to scrap the picture and find a new one to fit the title that we liked, weird.
PS Do you find yourself bumping up against the sensitivity necessary after 9/11 in your songs or how you operate your band?
DP: That was the only instance, it didn’t even occur to me really at the time. It’s a great shot and it’s a shame because it would have been terrific. We did come up with a great one that we found in Keith Richards’ pool room. (The actual album cover.)
PS The current record has a couple of songwriting collaborations on it. How does that process of collaboration work for you?
PS You do so much of the writing yourself, does it happen in rehearsal where someone might make a suggestion about how a song goes?
DP: I’ll have a verse and a chorus, and someone might suggest a bridge or something. Generally speaking I will have the song model half way built, or sometimes I’ll go in with just a part, something that might just sound like a chorus, and we’ll play it a zillion times until we come up with other stuff to go around it. But that’s a shitty way to do it. The best way is when they’re done, we present them, and then we cut em, and there you go. It’s more out of laziness that it happens the other way- Okay, I have something so let’s all get together and see if we come up with something to make it whole. We’ve done that more and more because I have a studio in my garage and so that facilitates laziness and sloth. You can beat something around for two months! I think that when we’ve done that, especially on My Secret Life, it shows to me that we’ve done that, to me. On this record, we didn’t do that so much. We did lots of different songs rather than take one and record it forever and ever. Instead we’re going boom boom boom boom boom, do as many songs as we can, and in the end decide which ones we’re going to use.
We spent a few minutes talking about Pete Townshend’s album Scoop, in which there are some of the early blueprints of famous songs. I asked Dan if as the songwriter he prescribed the majority of parts for his band members before they started recording.
DP: I have tunes that are really mapped out like that sometimes, but more often I’ll come in with a little something to play on the guitar. The most important part is the melody, the phrasing and the melody, whereas what Eric plays (bass player Eric Scott) is not defined by me. It is great the way that he will listen to the melody of lyric, and work toward the best and most supportive foundation. I think he really shines on this record.
PS Has Eric Scott always been with the band?
DP: Eric is the most consistent musical signature of the band. He’s a great great player.
SONIAdada had a humble beginning. Eric Scott, Dave Reznick and Hank G were trying to put something together with Pritzker, who had a whole slew of material and they were in search of a proper vocalist for the record. As luck would have it, on his way to a baseball game in Chicago, Pritzker stumbled on a three piece vocal harmony group performing in the subway, and somehow convinced them to come to his studio to experiment with this material
PS How did the coupling of the electric portion of the band, and the vocal portion of the band come about?
DP: When we first started it was a process of throwing material out there, and the singers were very receptive. It basically was willingness on both of our parts to try and work out something positive and productive. When we were putting something together and it didn’t work out, we persevered. But we got lucky because our initial joy and wonderment produced some really good stuff.
PS What were some of the songs that first came together then?
DP: “As Hard as it Seems?” “I Live Alone”
Lead guitar player David Reznik happens by..
David Reznik: Our demos? We did “You Ain’t Thinking About Me” and were really happy with it.
DP: After a while we discovered that we had something, that we were recording interesting music, so okay let’s go do some more of that, there might be a band in here. I had written some of these sings, “Deliver Me,” “Jungle” before I ever met any of the singers.
At this point we were interrupted when the band had to go on stage before a packed house. They slayed the joint for the next few hours with tight vocal harmonies, searing guitar work, and a general sense of efficiency and beauty that only comes from thousands of gigs together. The benefit was a tremendous success. I followed the band to their next stop, for the next benefit and we got to continue our conversation.
We spent a lot of time talking about everything under the sun- the Beatles, literature, religion. Pritzker quite clearly has been around the block a few times, and luckily for him he was ready for life on the road when he got this great band together. We began by talking extensively about songwriting.
PS Most songwriters don’t have the weaponry that you have in terms of front vocals.
DP: A palette, it’s like a painter, if you think of it in terms of someone who can choose colors in a vast array. You start out with the voices because primarily it’s about the melody and the lyric. That’s probably my primary contribution, but then beyond the individuals singing the song, then you have a vast musical palette to choose from instrumentally, because the players are so adaptive. That really allows for “yielding to the song”
You cut a tune, and it either lives of dies on guitar or piano. If it lives from there, then you can hang all sorts of ornamentation on it. But if you don’t have a skeleton to work off of, you are just hanging ornamentation on nothing.
PS Do you have an idea when you are writing a song or a lyric, which of the three lead singers are going to do it? (SONIAdada features the amazing front line triple threat of Michael Scott, Paris DeLane, and Shawn Christopher.)
DP: Michael, being a tenor with a pretty vast range takes up a lot of areas of the vocals- in the lead singing thing for me. The things that I hear in my ear. Paris can sing the Basso Profundo, and up high in his head voice with great deal of accuracy and emotion and sometimes that’s a desirable thing. Between Michael and Paris, sometimes I can tell and sometimes I can’t who should sing a song before we try them. But what I can do is I can hear their voices singing before I show it to them. After ten or twelve years of working with them I can hear their voices as I write the songs.
PS So how does it come about that a particular song, say “Jungle” becomes a song sung by Paris in the lead? Is that prescribed?
DP: That one was early, and I wrote that before I met them. I think how we started working in the beginning was that we were getting time on the weekends and at night. We’d go in for 30 hours at a time in a guerilla fashion. The engineer was probably beat to shit. So we’d go in and do two or three tunes that we had together. One Sunday late at night, we had nothing left to do and Rezi suggested we try Jungle. Late at night it fell into place with Paris, and Eric came up with that great bass line. (keyboardist) Hambone went in and programmed some drum machine stuff, and it was obviously a lowdown Bass type of Paris vocal.
PS So it became apparent during the recording process how that would work?
DP: That was early in the process of us being a band, and it was one of the songs that made us think “Wow, look at this, see what we can do.” 4 AM..
PS I think that Paris’ voice takes people by surprise. The bass register is just so surprising in modern music.
DP That’s one of the things about having Paris on the vocals, having bass in modern pop music. I don’t think that people are prepared to listen to bass voices for two hours straight. But when you can give it to em like a spice for a full course meal, it’s great,
PS Vocalist Shawn Christopher must have a heck of a time living with you guys all the time, as the only woman in a large band like this?
DP: Her living with us is amazing. She’s a terrifically amazing person. Her mother was a very tough lady, and she is open and giving, and upbeat as she is… it’s amazing to me. And traveling with everyone, we try to give her her space. We maintain much more civility with Shawn around, you just feel like you should a little bit.
PS As a songwriter, do you write things specifically knowing that you have a woman in the band- from a female perspective?
DP: The only song that I have written down and wrote for her specifically was “Don’t Go Giving Your Love Away” off the last studio record. I thought that it really went with her voice, and I think that it succeeded. Other than that, Paradise, which she sings, I wrote before I met her.
I wrote that song in about 1985 or 86, and I met Shawn shortly thereafter. I saw her singing around town, out singing with Chaka Kahn, and I saw her sing one night, and I thought that God I wish I could get her to sing Paradise. And about ten years later, I did. It’s hard for me to really think about writing. I just sit back and do it. I don’t really write a song for Shawn, or for Paris or anything. I’m not very good at that.
PS Garcia once said that he would rather fill the o’s in for the whole phone book rather than sit down and write a song. Are you the same way that songs are tasks to write out?
DP: I don’t treat it like a task, in so far as I don’t treat it like a job. But, my manager thinks it’s a fear thing- a blank piece of paper, trying to create something out of nothing. You end up feeling worse than before you started. It’s a tricky sort of psychology; you have to do it without really knowing that you’re doing it (songwriting.) My most successful songs were the ones that weren’t really labor.
PS How did those songs come about?
DP: It was a harmonic merge of elements- cadence, melody, lyric, all coming out together. I wrote a song once where I wrote a phrase and wrote the rest of the song around it. I don’t feel that was successful. The ones that are the most natural musically are the ones that are the most uncontrollable and spontaneous. A first lyric or a first phrase
PS So you don’t necessarily think of the storyline before you start.
DP: I’ve written literally hundreds of songs now, so it happens all of those ways. Most times, I’m just trying to find something in myself that resonates with some accuracy, or soulfulness, or provocativeness. It’s a self explored thing… You’re trying to find this place inside of yourself where you can pull something out that is natural and musical and resonates with someone else. It doesn’t really matter what I wrote it about, because whatever it means to you is really what it’s about. It’s the piece itself and what it resonates in the listener.
PS Do you feel that the video music age and the Behind the Music addiction that we have in modern pop culture has ruined that relationship between listener and song by over narrating the rock music process.
DP: I agree. The way you pose the question shows me how you feel about it.
PS I’m addicted to that shit. Rick Emmitt from Triumph said that he hated doing videos because it shed too much light on what the artist thought of a song and it ruined it for a listener.
DP I agree with what I think he meant. I think that it interferes with the listener’s imagination, and the listener’s ability to have the song resonate with something that is meaningful to him. Film is great, but making this music into film can sometimes be really successful, and sometimes not. But more often than not it limits the viewer’s ability to use their own imagination, and imposes a strong music mood in a different dimension. What I imagine and you imagine, most likely are so different, and the TV thing takes that out of music, and that’s too bad.
We spent the next ten minutes talking about books and movies, Jonathan Irving, David Foster Wallace. Pritzker highly recommends Infinite Jest. Pritzker is obviously a very well rounded and intelligent person, and he brings those qualities into his music. We sat in that small dressing room in the basement of a theater in New Hampshire, talking about everything that I find important- music, songwriting, living the life of a musician and how it is possible to do this without going crazy or broke.
PS How does a Chicago white guy end up creating music for a gospel infused band fronted by three black singers?
DP I think it was not as surprising to me as it might be to others. When I wrote “Deliver Me”, it was the night before a law school exam, and I had the TV on, and it was showing old films of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was just unbelievable; I had never seen anything like it. It was two hours of this riveting stuff, and I wrote this song afterward, from that perspective. And I cut the song originally with a whole Indian orchestra, with sitar and tablas. It was great, lush. I wrote it from the perspective of someone who survived and watched their family die, from a Jewish perspective.
PS So it was later that you found it to be a gospel tune?
DP The funny thing is that I think that I am pretty much an atheist. I try to write from a perspective so that no one would be able to tell that at all.
PS It’s interesting to have the knowledge that you as the songwriter, and a Jewish atheist, are writing gospel music including Hallelujahs and Jesus imagery. How is it that you can do that?
DP The very distinguishing thing between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is that both Islam and Christianity are about selflessness and reconciling yourself to a miserable life on earth in pursuit of the greater hereafter, that leap of faith being the framework for their morality. Judaism doesn’t really talk about heaven, and that doesn’t seem to be what Judaism is about. It’s more about living a moral life now.
So in the song “Preacher” the chorus is “Ain’t life for the living.” That’s a little lyrical trick. That is one of the great things about that song, which is a fundamental contradiction within the lyrics and their orchestration. The contradiction of a preacher singing about a concept which is by definition not very Christian.
We then dissolve into a conversation about Jewish theory in relation to Jack Lemon movies, Orson Wells and motivation
PS So there is an irony in a Chicago Jew writing Gospel music.
DP: I don’t think it’s really Gospel musicPaul Simon did some of the same stuff…
PS Do you have The Capeman?
DP Oh yeah, to me, and this may be rock n roll blasphemy, but I put him at a higher level than Dylan because I think that he has been a higher quality for a more sustained period of time. Dylan’s thing has always been much more derivative than anyone realizes, from Woody Guthrie and Ramblin Jack. But Paul Simon is a great record maker, one after another. Even his dogs are great- “Hearts and Bones” is a great album. “Renee and Georgette Magritte” is a great song.
Our conversations meander over our opinions about different songwriters- from Randy Newman to Gershwin, McCartney and Lennon to the Band.
PS I don’t hear the Beatles in what SONIAdada is doing, but if it affected you it obviously affects the band. What do you think of the Beatles?
DP The best by far. I’ve probably listened to the Dead more, but to me, when I want to impart to my kids what’s the best in that kind of music, that’s what I play. To me, I love Rock n Roll, Hendrix and the Stones, and the Beatles. Sometimes I listen to their music and it’s really inspiring, and sometimes I listen and it’s depressing and I think why bother? I listened to Pet Sounds the other day, in the studio, late at night. And, there’s some great stuff on there, “Wouldn’t it be Nice?” etcBut there’s some really schmaltzy stuff on there, too.
PS Do you think that rhythm guitar is the least romantic modern rock instrument?
DP Isn’t Keith Richards a rhythm guitar player? I always thought that at heart Townshend was a rhythm player. For me, it’s just the vehicle through which I write songs, and it was not really something I set out to do. I never really thought of myself as an instrumentalist. My only interest has really been in working up stuff I have written, even when I was playing in other bands.
PS Do you think that there’s a secret part of every rhythm guitarist that wants to be a lead guy?
DP We all want to get laid.