SOPHIA BASTIAN AT MISS LILY’S IN NEW YORK, MAY 2017. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: JOSHUA LIEBMAN/HONEY ARTISTS. HAIR: CLAY NIELSEN AT SPOKE AND WEAL SALON SOHO. MAKEUP: JENNY KANAVAROS FOR HONEY ARTISTS USING NARS COSMETICS.
For Sophia Bastian, pursuing classical ballet starting at age four was nearly an act of “rebellion.” The New York-based artist, who describes her younger self as “quite a serious little chick,” was raised by creatively-inclined parents (they brought her along to plays, and her father owned a gallery) but her approach to art was never laissez-faire. At age seven she was a dedicated ballerina, performing in opera houses, listening to classical composers, and asking for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score so she could perform her own iteration at home.
When a growth spurt intervened in her fledgling career at age 14, Bastian’s seemingly unfortunate break-up with dance brought her to music. She found that her love extended beyond classical composers, and began writing and recording her own demos, as well as embracing the artists her parents played (Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and reggae musicians), which led to a stint in jazz school. “Now I’m a lot more loosey goosey than I was when I was six,” says Bastian. “I’m glad that music took over the way it took over, because I do feel that my life is in the performing arts. … People ask me, ‘How do ballet and being a soul singer connect?’ I used to say, ‘Not at all.’ But now that I’m really doing the listening process, I realize it’s my tastes. I’m into romantic things.”
Today we’re pleased to premiere Bastian’s latest song, “Rhythm To My Heart,” alongside its original video directed by Sandra Winther. The visuals are spare and put the heartfelt and ultimately buoyant song front and center. Bastian is currently working on more soul music for her third EP and first full-length album, and of her current approach says, “I’m trying to keep it very pure.”
HOMETOWN: I grew up here [in Manhattan], and I’m half German too, so I grew up a little bit in Berlin.
IN THE STUDIO WITH PHIL SIMMONDS: The day we met is when we recorded “Blind Ambition.” Usually you would meet with someone, talk about what you like, and try to sniff each other out on a personal level too, but with him it was that I was in London for a few days. I hadn’t really had time to check out anything he does, and it was so pivotal for us working together, because at least I had no preconceived notions, and I think neither did he. I just met him at his studio, we listened to a few things, and then I played him the demo. We literally recorded the entire song right then and there. I cancelled a meeting with other producers, because I realized that once you’re in that zone, and it flows, that’s the sacred moment. Even for fantastic musicians that can play multiple instruments, once that magic is in the room, you want to keep surfing. So that first collaborative thing we did together was so easy that I ended up staying in London for a few weeks more to keep working with him. Part of that was “Rhythm To My Heart.” It’s funny, “Blind Ambition” came about super easily, and “Rhythm To My Heart” was more like a project in the sense that I was really excited about the way it felt when I finished writing it on guitar. Then when I came to the studio, I said, “Look, this is a little tricky, I wrote the verse in 6/8, like a waltz, and then the hook is in a 4/4.” Phil is a really big fan of Sting, who has a bunch of music in different meters, and he’s so effortless as a musician that he was like, “No, no, let’s leave it that way. We’re going to create a bridge.” It was a project, that song, to see how we could really create a big sound although it’s sort of an introspective, sad-ish song, to make it feel bigger and give it a space.
JAZZ TRAINING: I went to jazz school for a little bit. I didn’t really finish. I had a very regimented life, being in a ballet academy—that’s all I knew, that was my life—so when I ventured into music, it felt like I knew that I was [going to be] writing songs and I’d be a singer … Once I started getting gigs for my own music and my band, I was like, “I’m going to do this.” I do feel like later in life I might just go back and study more, because that music informs so much music that is out at any given time in history. Definitely those singers influenced me in the beginning the most, like Sara Vaughan, Diana Washington, and Aretha Franklin. All of the singers I really look up to have their foundation in jazz and the church.
LET IT RISE: For me, songs are like wild children. I’m not a very calculated writer; I don’t sit down and say, “The next EP I want to do, this is the theme.” It sort of shapes itself as I go and write songs, and basically there are days in a month where I’m like, “Okay, let me just close my eyes and go through all of my voice memos, and see what’s a song and what is just awkward and I want to delete.” I have these filtering processes of my material, and when it still moves me, then I give the song my full attention; I finish it through. That way, I can really let something come to the surface that needs to. I’m always scared of contriving my process, that pressure of having to come up with something new and being productive, at least for me, doesn’t really work. I don’t get excited about what I make when I have a session that way.
PUSHING THROUGH: The self-criticism comes when we start mixing, and I’m thinking, “Wow, I should redo this vocal.” In the studio I really want to get it right, and I don’t feel good unless I’ve exhausted myself to a degree where it’s like, “Right now, this is the best that will come out of me.” That’s also an important thing for a singer, because you push to uncomfortable places vocally when you do that, and then you have a new recorded version. It’s like when you’re 14 and have your first demo, you know, “Oh my god, that’s the best I’ve ever done it,” and you listen to it six months later and think, “Delete this.” With songwriting, I never actually think. Once I’m in the zone, I don’t ever even think about whether the song will see the light of day, because I would never do what I do. It’s difficult to write most of my material because it’s something that I’ve been pushing away, and it’s something I definitely don’t talk about at all. Then when it finds its way in a song, I definitely don’t even think about, “Am I going to play this for someone now?” It’s almost like a secret I have for a few weeks, maybe less sometimes, but I need to cross that barrier, where it’s just so insane that it becomes okay again. It’s weird how a song can then have it’s own life, and technically, you end up standing in front of people and singing and performing a song that lyrically, you wouldn’t say or write to someone.
OPEN EARS: I listen to the albums that I love over and over again. I feel like I have so much listening to do, like, I haven’t even fully listened to every Stevie Wonder album, and obviously, Ray Charles. That’s my daily diet and then there are a lot of current artists I like too. But I feel like right now I’m really just driving into the school of music, music I should really know, and music that is not of my time. Especially when you’re about to enter recording, it’s infinite inspiration.
HER NEXT EP: I have a bunch of material where it’s just me and the guitar, so I have a collection of acoustic songs. Some of them I can hear, “This is definitely a song I would do with Phil,” and then I’m working on some stuff with Raymond Angry, who’s a semi-member of the Roots—he a keyboarder for them and produced a few records, he actually produced on the Solange album. He works with a lot of different artists, like Lauryn Hill. I’m excited about what we’re doing together, it’s very different than what he usually does, and so those are definitely the two guys I want to work with on finishing this project. I’m also already working on an album. I have so many songs. I would be interested in collaborating on the writing process with someone, because I always write by myself; it creates a certain mood in my material. I feel like sometimes, when you go in a room with someone that you have chemistry with, there are all these songs hanging off the ether, and you just pick them.
FOR MORE ON SOPHIA BASTIAN, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.