SF-based singer/songwriter Sonya Cotton funded her latest release, It Is So, in under 11 days by raising $10,000 on Kickstarter. The result is a stark and beautiful examination of life, love and loss. We had the chance to ask her a few questions before her release show September 23rd at The Community Music Center in San Francisco.
Your album is a tribute to your mother, who passed away two years ago from cancer. Were these songs composed during her illness, or after she passed? Was this something you knew you wanted to do (or had to do) immediately or did it take some time to cultivate?
A couple of the songs on the album were written while my mom was ill, but most of them were written after she passed away. This album wasn’t something I set out to create, I simply wrote songs throughout the experience as a way to deal with my sadness, my helplessness, and my regrets. It was also an expression of my deep, deep love for my mom.
Songwriting has always been a helpful outlet for me, a way to express those emotions that transcend words. At some point the notion of finding meaningful ways to pay tribute to her life became very important to me. I didn’t want her beautiful spirit, or this traumatic experience of losing her to fade into the background. I wanted to honor all of it. And the album, I think, was born out of this desire.
I imagine that being a very painful time for you, were you able to gain some sense of clarity through the creation or was it more or an exorcism of sorts?
I don’t think I will ever feel clarity in relation to that experience. But it was helpful to assign words and melodies to the overwhelming emotions, the overwhelming reality that my family and I had to deal with. Telling our story was therapeutic for me. And yes, I think it was an attempt to come to terms with what had happened, to describe it as I saw it.
You were able to record It Is So thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Would you classify your Kickstarter experience as a positive one?
Yes, my Kickstarter experience was incredibly positive. $10,000 was donated in just 11 days. When I first had the idea of funding this album through Kickstarter, I felt really hesitant. I felt uneasy pairing the most sacred of subjects with a “please donate” sales-pitch. I thought that would feel icky. But I sat with the concept for a while. I tried re-framing it. I thought: “okay, although this is an album about my personal loss, a large part of why I want to make it is to share it with people who are going through similar things.”
Looking at it as a service project to share with the community, then what better way to create it than with the help and support of the community? That felt right, so I decided to try it. I put a lot of effort into making a video (with the help of Scott McDowell, Aubrey Trinniman and Blake Henderson,) and writing a description that really captured the spirit of the project with integrity. And in the end, I feel like it was a good decision.
Certainly more people know about the album because of the Kickstarter campaign, which is important to me. I didn’t just make this album for myself; I made it to share it. And already many people have expressed thankfulness to me for sharing my story. I relate, I feel thankful to artists who share their stories of loss. As humans, we want to relate. We don’t want to feel alone. I feel so grateful to Meghan O’Rourke’s for writing her memoir about losing her mom to cancer (“The Long Goodbye”). Though I would never wish that experience on anyone, somehow seeing my own life reflected in hers brought me a very deep solace.
How long have you been playing music for? Tell us a little about the artist presently known as Sonya Cotton.
I’ve been singing my whole life, ever since I was little. At first, my dream was to be a singer/tap dancer on Broadway. In high school I began writing my own songs. Generally my songs have been deeply personal.
After making this last album, which is the most personal collection of songs I have ever written, I’d like to try to take a little brake from sharing such personal subject matter through song. I’m so happy I made this album, but it’s just so vulnerable to play these songs night after night. I’m simultaneously yearning to become a more active animal advocate (something I’ve been interested in for years,) so my idea is that my next album will be all about the animal liberation movement. A call to action, perhaps!
You mention that half of the proceeds from the album will be donated to The American Bird Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that your mother used to work for. Any idea what they plan on doing with your contributions?
The stated goal of the American Bird Conservancy is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. I don’t know to which specific initiatives the proceeds from the album will go, but whatever it is, it will be protecting the interests of animals that are being pushed towards extinction and need our help.
You have a record release show coming up. Tell us about it and about what else you have planned for the upcoming year?
The release show is later this month, on Friday, September 23rd, in the recital hall of the Community Music Center in the Mission (It’s on Capp Street between 20th and 21st St). The lovely Kelly McFarling will be opening the night. As for plans for the coming year: write my next album, walk dogs at Family Dog Rescue, read important books, spend as much time with family and friends as possible, move out of the city, build a tree house, figure out how to be a more effective advocate for the things I love, including: the planet, trees, foxes, sharks, whales, and all the other amazing species currently being driven to extinction.
Sonya Cotton plays the release show for It Is So on Friday, September 23rd at The Community Music Center in San Francisco. Doors are at 7:30 and the show is all ages. Pick up your copy at her website - www.sonyacotton.bandcamp.com.
Photo credits: Aubrey Trinniman and Elizabeth Weinberg; The cover of the album is a painting by Cotton’s mom, Karen Cotton