SOUND THROUGH SILENCE
The last time I hung out with Sonia Kreitzer, face and voice of indie pop queen Doe Paoro, was in London. We met for a spontaneous drink at The Eel Pie; Sonia was in between meetings with producers for her next record, and I was on a quick trip from Berlin. As typically “London” as that was – draft ale and rainy days – Los Angeles provided an equally stereotypical “LA” experience, in all the best ways. We caught up on a bench in Santa Monica one Friday morning after a trip to Beaming Café: “How do you feel about bougie superfood shakes?” LA, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty damn perfect, but Sonia is not an LA girl at her core. She’s from Syracuse and has mixed feelings about the city, but as a yoga fanatic, the healthy lifestyle speaks to her.
Sonia’s debut album as Doe Paoro was released in 2012 after recording the demos in a sequestered cabin and fleshing out the tracks in Brooklyn. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2006, and has been straddling New York and LA ever since. Sonia learned how to embrace seclusion during her time at Oberlin, where she studied painting, spending hours alone – “I would leave and be out of sorts because it required this intense solitude.” Though she “jammed around” in college and spent a couple semesters studying the Sitar, it wasn’t until after Oberlin that Sonia began to claim music as her own. Despite her familiarity with solitude, adopting painting as her life’s work felt too isolating. Music, however, provided the perfect balance of internal and external. “It’s something I can do by myself but also experience with other people.” And Sonia Kreitzer is all about that balance. She embarks on a ten-day silent retreat once a year; Sonia’s understanding of the power of her own voice is shaped by her experience without it. This next record, unlike her first - which was, “basically a blind date with a bunch of guys with Bon Iver" - is proving to be more methodical. Sonia and I ordered two mint chip smoothies (which were, in fact, life changing) and sat down on a sunny Santa Monica street. Between minty sips, we chatted mythology, merchandise, and meditation.
DRØME: Meditation and yoga are a big part of your life. How do these practices play into your music?
Sonia: Music can get very manic and extreme; sometimes nothing’s happening and then all of sudden everything is going at once. It’s great practice to be able to meditate and understand that everything is impermanent. That helps my music in terms of dealing with the lifestyle a healthy way, and also learning how to listen.
D: Does it help with life on the road? I know you were driving your own van in between shows, which is insane. It’s not hard to imagine just how difficult it must be to rest up and stay fit!
S: It’s really hard! (Laughs.) I’m a total nut job when it comes to health. I practice yoga six times a week; I meditate, and I’m mostly vegan. On the road you can’t maintain that, and it’s a lot of pressure. So that’s an ongoing struggle - I’m hoping to master it one day. My friends who seem to keep it together, they run every morning. You just have to do it, you have to wake up and move your body. Otherwise you’re completely stagnant in a van, and then you are supposed to explode on stage. The first festival I played, Florence Welsh was playing at -
D: Awesome! I love her.
S: I love her too.
D: So much energy.
S: SO much energy! I saw her backstage right before she went on and she was just jumping for a few minutes, which makes so much sense. You don’t just run on the soccer field - you have to warm up your body. Singing and drumming are such physical instruments, so it’s the same with music.
D: Before being a musician, you were a painter; painting is not really rooted in performance at all. When did your interest in performance kick in?
S: I really love the introspective aspect of art making, and channeling these mysterious aspects of life-- that is what I find most interesting. The performance part is something I’ve really had to work at. I felt so vulnerable and unsure of myself in the beginning. I would get off stage and just want to cry in the green room (Laughs) - I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t get over it until a few years ago when my manager had me sell merch after we opened for Sylvan Esso.
D: Do you think that it’s difficult because Doe Paoro is distinct from Sonia Kreitzer? So when you are onstage performing, you are not Sonia, but offstage, you are very much yourself, selling merch?
S: It's odd because music is such an indirect art sometimes. You make these songs and you know people are listening to them around the world but you never meet them, and even on stage there is a division. When I started coming out after shows I was really connecting with people, and it helped me come out of myself and be like, “Why am I falling apart? This is a beautiful thing, learning to come out of my shell and connect one on one.” I really like it - it’s really cool to meet other people.
D: Have you been selling merch since? (Laughs)
S: Oh my god, yes! Eventually, I hope not to, but for now I want to do it after shows. I don’t dislike it anymore.
D: So we talked a little bit about being on tour: healthy, unhealthy. How do you make sure that you take in the entire tour experience and it doesn’t pass by as a blur?
S: Hmmm, breathing? I don’t know. It’s really easy for the days to bleed into each other. Despite waking up in different cities, there’s oddly this track of repetition on tour. The most important thing for me is to connect with the songs when I am performing, and connect to the moments in which I made them.
D: And how do you do that if you are playing the same songs over and over?
S: Yeah, that’s the question! (Laughs) That is the question! How does Stevie Nicks sing “Landslide” all these years and still be into it? Or at least convince people she is… I don’t know what she is doing! It’s easy to go on autopilot, and that’s another thing my meditation practice helps me to do: be really present in the songs when I’m singing them. If I need to close my eyes to connect to myself, to my breath, to the words, and try to re-enter that space, I will. All those practices help.
D: Your Tibetan Folk Opera practice, Lhamo, is so interesting. Can you talk about that and how it has influenced you creatively?
S: Lhamo is the only formal training I’ve had, and it has helped me gain confidence to make music. Before, especially at Oberlin, all the people I was playing with were so much more musically educated than I was. I couldn’t ask someone to play in a certain key with certain notes, so I got used to being like (singing) “Can you sing it like this!” I found this Tibetan Conservatory when I was travelling in India and it was just the most amazing music I'd ever heard. I asked if I could study it, which led to me returning to India three times; I studied the practice everyday for a month each time. The music has to be sung at these heights I didn’t even realize were possible; to be able to reach that level you have to be so present in your body and really have this relationship with the voice. Something about that broke through for me, and my entire writing and singing style changed afterwards.
D: How did you come up with the name Doe Paoro?
S: At the time I came up with it, I was really feeling like it was an “Act II” of my own life. I’d just spent seven months traveling by myself and had gone through a lot of symbolic deaths. So I felt that I was entering a new version of myself, and I wanted to create a stage name to make it okay for me to do something I hadn’t before. I wanted to make a safe space in which I don’t have to identify as Sonia, and I don’t have to just write about the experiences I’ve had. I can try things musically that I haven’t tried before. I can be anything. The name itself is about rewriting female mythology. Paoro is a translation from Maori myth, meaning “Goddess of Echo” and Doe, as in “Jane Doe.” There’s also a connection to the animal - a doe.
D: There is a really interesting, and sometimes complicated, divide between someone as a human being and someone’s artistic project, especially when music embodies so much more than just a “project.” Names tend to blur that divide in a beautiful but often confusing way.
S: Yeah! Because it is my life! It is interesting, names are so fascinating. For me, the name comes down to an intention to check in with myself. If I experience doubt, I go back to the root. When I named Doe Paoro, it was about being able to completely rewrite my narrative over and over again, and having a safe place to talk about female experiences.
D: Have you ever wavered in your decision with the name or the identity?
S: I mean, I’ve definitely experienced doubt throughout the process. I met with a guy from a major label who said, “The name’s got to go, it’s hard to remember.” I subsequently spoke to Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] about it and he said, “Well it worked alright for me.” There’s this myth, involving Hermes, about making rituals for yourself that you don’t share with anyone else. Naming your band is one of those odd things - I make music because it’s a promise I make to myself in a certain moment. If other people get it, then that’s great.