Interview: Jillian Billard
Photo: Olimpia Dior
Danielle Aykroyd is Vera Sola; a poet, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist. A self-described drifter, Aykroyd has worked on a number of projects over the years with other artists; including touring with singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins, writing film scores, and creating music for theater productions and performance art pieces. When she did perform solo; she donned a pseudonym and chose dimly-lit settings where she could remain anonymous.
But in 2017, something shifted. Assured of her own vocal and instrumental abilities, Aykroyd was suddenly compelled to record and perform her own music. Hearing not only the emotive energy, depth, and range of her voice; but also the poetic lyricism and complex instrumental arrangements in her work; it seems inconceivable that she hasn’t been doing this for years. It is nothing short of extraordinary.
Sola’s sound is captivating; almost hallucinatory. Her voice sends shivers throughout the body, as she stands with resilience and ethereal grace; at times flashing a knowing smile. Uniting the surreal and the deeply innate, Sola taps into the spiritual subconscious; conjuring an alternative, (in my interpretation, distinctly Lynch-ian) universe, while elucidating something hidden within ourselves. We are enveloped in a poetic narrative, as though traversing an uncharted environment.
We spoke with Vera about her love of language; learning to surrender to intuition; and the importance of keeping a sense of humor.
When did you first begin playing music?
I began playing piano at a very early age, but was obstinate and refused to learn anything that wasn’t impossibly difficult. I memorized Rachmaninov and Liszt pieces but that’s about it, never practiced scales or learned any useful theory. From then on I picked up and put down various things, but didn’t really begin any sort of formal musicianship until I bought an old plywood guitar and began singing secretly in my college dorm bathroom. I’ve taken lessons sporadically, but most of my practical musical knowledge is self-taught and picked up on the fly.
Who were some of your favorite musicians growing up?
My real devotion to music came with a discovery of early punk, but I always listened deeply to dark classical pieces, field recorded gospel, and mid-century pop, soul and country music. I grew up with James Brown and Jackie Wilson, Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee. If I had to choose one record though, I’d say Skip James’ “Today” changed it all for me.
You began writing and producing your own music in 2017, after touring extensively with Elvis Perkins. How did you make the shift toward writing and recording your own music? Had you been writing for a while before that, and felt that you had suddenly found the sound that you sought to express, or was this your first experience writing your own work? What was this like for you?
I’ve written music for a long time, but never sang it out to anyone, unless it was under pseudonyms in smoky city hookah bars, at poorly lit open mics or softly through a closed door in my home. I’ve amassed many songs over my lifetime, but it wasn’t until last year that I experienced a marked shift in relation to my voice that drew me to record them. I’ve always heard sounds, but didn’t know what they were exactly (something like a demon’s orchestra) until I got into the studio and discovered what I’d been hearing all along was my own voice in multi-layered harmony. In making the record, I never expected much to come of it, it was pure expression, a channeling more than anything else. And it was powerful. And it was terrifying. And it was hilarious.
Can you talk a bit about your experience collaborating with Elvis and other artists, before discovering your own sound? Do you think that touring and recording with these musicians has influenced your music, and/or your style of writing?
I do believe that I am, and my music is, the monstrous chimerical sum of all of my experiences, so certainly work with others has informed my own. Elvis was of course a huge factor in my expansion. The greatest gift he gave me was to help me shake off the old skin that there was a right or wrong way to play music. I could play any instrument I wanted, whether I was trained in it or not. Touring with him I played what never played before, instruments I never considered myself able to play. That certainly influenced the making of my record…which initially I’d planned to have others play on…but ultimately came to do all on my own.
My music is the monstrous chimerical sum of all of my experiences.
Your songs are deeply poetic, and the lyrics possess a great deal of weight on their own. Where do you typically derive inspiration for your songs, narrative-wise?
I’ve always been a compulsive reader and a lover of language. I find inspiration in spates of overheard conversations on the street, tabloid advertisements, classical mythology, shampoo bottles, stories told to me in bars, the lives of those I’ve loved and the observation of what I’ve despised. Moral degradation, spiritual uplift. Whatever. It’s all the same to me. It’s all a wellspring. And though I tend to sing a lot in the first person, my songs are generally from the perspective of other people, other characters, other women. The “I” rarely ever refers only to me. And there’s a sense of humor run through––that’s important to note. That even the darkest of narratives are wrought with a self-awareness of their sadness, the multiplicity and irony of it all.
Your live performances include a variety of musicians, from string quartets to stand-up bassists to percussionists. Do you have a specific touring band that you play with, or musicians that you collaborate with? How does the inclusion of other instruments play into your songwriting? (Do these elements come after, as an accompaniment, or are they integral to the writing of the songs?)
When it comes to live performance I like to keep it as dynamic as possible. Play around with instrumentation and arrangements. I write all the songs myself and have specific melodies and rhythms in mind going into rehearsal, but depending on the players the music morphs to fit the scene. Every show is different. Every new player brings something to the table.
I’ve been working recently with the brilliant Aster Quartet out of New York City, and alongside arranger Jon Bell to translate my recorded and unrecorded music to string format. That has brought an amazing expansiveness to the project. I’ve also recently started playing with bassist Janie Cowan, an absolute genius who seems to psychically understand what I hear and feel, without my ever singing or playing a note of what I’d hope for from her. The combination of Aster and Janie has been a deus ex machina for sure. And easy and I’ve been working with the killer drummer, Wyatt Bertz, who makes even the most difficult transitions easy and is just a blast to play with.
What is your writing process typically like? Do the lyrics tend to come first, and then music, or does it happen simultaneously? Is it a solo or collaborative process?
Writing has been an entirely solo endeavor so far. Until playing with various incarnations of a band I’d only ever played my own songs myself; including playing every instrument myself. Sometimes lyrics come knocking––I was a poet before ever a songwriter––and sometimes the melodies snake their way in first. There’s no format. Some songs are written in an hour. Some take years.
And really it all depends. I write sometimes on piano, sometimes guitar, sometimes autoharp. Mostly just sing into my phone. I hear music constantly, its the environment and what I have on hand that dictates how it’s born.
Even the darkest of narratives are wrought with a self-awareness of their sadness, the multiplicity and irony of it all.