Sonya Cotton’s self-released Red River is a tightly-woven tapestry of striking images and delicately blended sounds. After reviewing the album I became incredibly curious about the person orchestrating this music; the forests and animals alive in Red River call to mind a life lived with a reverence for, and connection to, nature that is rare in this young computerized century. What world does she know? Where can I find it? I asked Ms. Cotton via email, and here’s what she said:

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Where did you grow up? Were there woods for you to run around in?

I grew up in suburban NJ. There were woods to run around and build forts in, open fields to lie in, old barns to explore, lakes to skate on. Though there’s a depressing amount of over-development in that area, there’s also a fair amount of beautiful open land.

There was this great medieval hunting exhibit at the J.P. Morgan Library a couple of years back. Your album reminds me of the drawings at that show. Do you come from a family of hunters? How did you find your way into that imagery?

No, quite the opposite. I come from a mother who was a passionate animal welfare activist. As for the dead deer imagery: I grew up in the suburbs, and I often saw dead animals along the roadside. This sight affected me deeply; it saddened and disturbed me. I felt connected to these animals, and their deaths had been painful and violent. The image of the dead deer, an animal I feel especially connected to, found its way deep into my psyche, and began to symbolize more personal pain, as well as the needless destruction of a life. As for the hunter imagery (in the song “Hunters,”) that was inspired by an experience I had walking with my dog through the woods near my house in NJ. I thought we were alone, and I happened to look up and see a man with a gun in a tree-stand. He just stared down at me, not saying a word; I felt violated and afraid. He had an enormous weapon! Those were protected woods so he wasn’t allowed to be there. That made me angry. Children and dogs have been shot and killed in my town by hunters.

Where did you find the musicians playing on your record, and are they touring with you?

There were four other members in my band at the time that we made Red River. I met Anna Perlmutter (vocals, violin) and Nick Stargu (guitar) at an open mic in San Francisco, at the Hotel Utah. I met Gabe Dominguez (vocals, flute) and Sean Jones (bass) at the Bicycle Music Festival in San Francisco in 2007. We played as much live as we could on the album. The title track, “Red River” was actually recorded live as a 5-piece band. But the other 16 guest artists on the album are all friends and musicians in San Francisco except for one and that’s Nick Tardif. He’s an amazing upright bass player, and he kindly came across the country from Connecticut to record on Red River. The upcoming train tour, which we are re-scheduling now, will most likely include Gabe, Anna, and Nick.

What is “the green and glowing joy?”

The first time I hung out with the man who is now my boyfriend, I was inexplicably smitten. The day after we hung out I flew home to New Jersey to spend time with my family. It was such crazy timing, to connect so intensely with this new person, to feel so much potential, and then to leave for ten days. In those 10 days that I spent at home I felt a deep excitement running through my veins. It was summertime, and I remember driving with my mom, and seeing a lush green hilltop in the distance. That sight stirred something deep in me; I felt as though there was something beautiful and life-affirming awaiting me. Something as beautiful as that green hilltop. In the distance I saw “the promise of a green and glowing joy.” And that promise was fulfilled; soon after I fell in love.

Many of the songs on Red River sound sort of like skewed hymns, and the vocal harmonies in particular call to my mind that tradition. Did you grow up singing in church, or is that a stylistic choice?

I grew up singing in choirs; I’m sure the hymns and madrigals I learned as a child and young adult have affected my sense of melody and harmony. I also learned recently from my aunt, who’s been studying my family’s genealogy, that I have relatives who were shape note singers. That style seems very spiritual and cathartic, which is a style of singing and songwriting that I identify with. I find the simplicity of hymns to be very comforting, so it makes sense that my songs would have a hymn-like quality to them, since I often write songs from a place of seeking comfort or solace.

A semi-related question: the lyrics on Red River evoke for me a strong sense of spirituality in nature, and I was just wondering what your thoughts are on that? Do you subscribe to any organized religion, or do you connect wild life with a presence of some kind of God?

I am not a member of any organized religion, no. My spirituality is based in a reverence for the natural world, and a reverence for love. I perceive that there are forces greater than we can know or understand, and they are powerful, (in one of my newer songs I refer to these forces as “Great Spirits”.) But that’s about all that I can articulate. I don’t believe in one God. Many of Mary Oliver’s poems feel like true and holy text to me. “In Blackwater Woods” is an example of one.

Are you involved in any environmental initiatives? Is there a particular issue that strikes a chord with you in terms of destruction of the natural world?

At this point the only initiatives I am involved in are writing songs that convey my reverence and concern for the natural world, and planning tours that are more eco-friendly (by foot and train as opposed to by tour van.) There are so many issues that I would love to get involved in though! Hopefully in the near future, if I can get more help handling the business aspects of my music (booking, managing, etc) then I will have the time to be a more effective advocate for some of the things I believe in. I’d like to tap more thoroughly into the activist in me, not just the artist. I’m most passionate about animal issues. There are so many worthy campaigns: The Great Ape Protection Act, The Light Out Campaign to protect migratory birds, the spay/neuter campaigns led by the ASPCA, just to name a few that I’d be excited to be a part of.

So you’ve been releasing your records independently. Do you like it that way?

Not especially. I would be happier to delegate many of the responsibilities I am taking on now to other people. I’d like to sign to a label. As long as they would let me make my own artistic decisions, and support me touring however I want to tour (by train or foot or boat.) We’ll have to see what happens.

Where do you see yourself fitting in among other musicians out there right now? Who do you admire?

I admire Joanna Newsom for her tremendous creativity; her songwriting, her lyrics, and her harp playing is so beautiful and original. I admire Honeybody Moonbee; you haven’t heard of her yet, but you will. She is a true artist and visionary, and her songs make me weep. Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, Nina Nastasia, Bon Iver, Mark Kozelek, Jose Gonzales, Faun Fables, these are some other artists that inspire me, and that I think stylistically it would be fitting to share a bill with them. I would also be honored to share a bill with them!

How do you go about writing songs? What comes first, the lyrics or the music? Do you write all the instrumental parts, or kind of feel it out with the musicians you work with?

For every song on Red River, the inspiration was drawn directly from my life or my dreams. So far my songwriting process has been very consistent: something moves me deeply, and I write down some words about it. Then I pick up my guitar or ukulele and start to sing along with these words I’ve written. Once a song is effectively finished, I bring it to my band. Sometimes I’ll have harmonies or specific parts written when I approach the band with a new song, but more often everyone in the band brings their own ideas for their parts and I either say “yes!” or “let’s work on that together.”

I read an interview with Regina Spektor, where she said that her songs are fictional stories, but that people assume they aren’t personal to her, which is wrong. Other people obviously write directly from their own experience. Where do you fall on this?

I write directly from my own experience, and I always have. Turning my life experience into song is the most helpful way for me to work through things, to process, to find hope and affirmation, or to celebrate.

Have you been pursuing any non-musical arts recently? Writing things other than songs?

Designing the layout for my album artwork was quite an undertaking. But drawing and painting are art forms that I have always loved, and I miss that form of expression when I haven’t explored it in a while. I know something visual will emerge soon…I can feel it stirring. I try to write down my dreams whenever I remember them. Many songs on Red River were at least partially inspired by dreams.

What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve really been enjoying classical music: Brahms, Schubert, Bach, Chopin. I find it to be so gorgeous and centering. I grew up listening to the Beatles, but I’ve been rediscovering them and learning to appreciate them much more after watching the Anthology DVDs a couple weeks ago. And my extremely talented friends: SHAKE YOUR PEACE!, Boy Daughter, Live It Up Swet, Honeybody Moonbee, Geographer, and Stitchcraft.

by Eva Gordon
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