Behind the Music: Interview with Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez

‘It’s been a process of finding my own voice, trusting my own voice, and trusting what I’m hearing.’

Following the arrival of new single ’40 Days’, and ahead of her new album ‘If They’re Mine’ (out 21st May), we put in a call to NYC-based Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez to discuss growing up in a family of musicians, the importance of harmony within her sound, and what we can expect from that forthcoming release.

Hi Raina, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. If you had to use five words to describe your sound, what would they be? Yeah, that’s a good question… I would say something like honest, juicy, emotional, strong – I know these aren’t really musical adjectives haha. I also think harmonically rich and lyrically poignant. Fierce at times. These aren’t five words though :-).

In terms of influences, obviously there are a lot of soul and jazz-based ones coming through in your sound, but how wide do your influences go? I think influences are different things. So the original source is both my parents as they are musicians and they’ve taught me a lot. I grew up improvising with them and think my musicality and my musical practice is from them, and the family culture around that. My mum’s an avant-garde, free jazz singer, and composer so I was always exposed to a lot of fundamental music-making. I don’t approach writing from a place of ‘I want to sound like this’, and don’t have an external goal, it’s really bottom-up in that way. I think that I sort of rebelled from the family culture and listened to a lot of pop divas of the early 2000s, so there’s this mix of contemporary popular music, jazz, and my own explorations. In terms of artists, I also really love James Blake, Erykah Badu, Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers, and D’Angelo. There’s a wide spread of folks covering different phases of sound. My mum was also huge Lauren Nyro devotee so I have my parent’s musical lineage too.

Turning to your sound, what else do you bring to it other than your vocals? I create all the music and do everything except the executing of the arrangement. I don’t have the software know-how that my brother does so it’s co-produced and arranged together. In terms of the songs, I write them at the piano, starting with the harmony – that really informs and is inspired by what’s happening in that. Then I start to sing, improvising lyrics and melody together in a way that feels true, and only go into production once the form, the harmonic world, and the melody are in place.

So you’ll come up with the harmonies and work backwards for the improvisations will you? Yeah, so I’ll play around on the piano. Like, the other day – with the most recent song I wrote – I was just practicing and playing the C minor scale, and decided to go up and play all the chords in C minor. I landed on a harmony that I liked so started to explore the different harmonic options. I eventually abandoned C minor and don’t actually know what key the song is in anymore – I was just rock-scrambling my way through, following the muse. I have a jazz background, and some theory, but I’m really following my ear, searching for harmony that inspires me to sing. I may find two chords I like and then improvise lyrics and melody together over that, expanding the harmony along the way, but it starts from the piano. Even one or two chords can feel provocative in some way.

‘I went into this session once and the producer said ‘What kind of song do you want to make today?’ It scares me that that would be a way to approach making music.’

Was it this approach that led to the opening motif of ’40 days’ then? Yeah, so 40 days actually started really simple and what I had written on my own was what you hear when the rhythm section comes in. That was the fundamental, the whole form. Then in production, we overdubbed the track and improvised. My brother did a take and I did one, using the backing harmonies from the verse, and we were like, ‘Let’s try and put them at the beginning’. ‘What would happen if we isolated them?’ Originally, they were just going to be underneath the verses, but the piano introduction was my brother crafting the sound in production from some improvised piano takes.

It seems that harmony is more a part of your music than we actually hear because of how everything relates back to it. Has the importance of this always been there? Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the writing process because I’m starting there. It’s interesting because the reason I said harmony is important is that I’m very attached to the voicings of things. I’ve had these thoughts where I’m like ‘I’m gonna hand off the piano parts to a different pianist.’ I love to play the piano, but wouldn’t call myself a pianist in a more traditional sense. But, then they sort of approach it as more as a chart and I’ve realised that I have an attachment to the specific voicings of the rhythm piano.

When you spoke about your mum earlier, you said about her being a vocalist and composer. Are all your family full-time musicians? So my mom is a professor at New York University in the experimental theater wing. She’s a singing teacher, an improviser, composer, and she’s just made her living as a deep teacher of music, a singer, and a performer. My dad is a playwright, musician, guitarist, pianist and poet, and has made his living performing as well. My brother is a producer, composer, and art maker of all kinds so we’re sort of this tribe of artists, all four of us.

I’m guessing it would have probably very hard to not go down the music route as a career then? Yeah, it’s funny because I have these moments in my life where I remember these ‘mental forks’ in the road. I don’t think I ever had a real heart conflict, but I had ideas. There was one where I got into NYU, and thought ‘maybe I should be a detective. Maybe I should go into something. But there hasn’t been a ton of questioning in all honesty, and that continues to be the case. Not a lot of questioning, I just keep going. Music is such a gift to everyone and to be able to pursue it is such a gift too. I think that, especially now in the pandemic, we feel how much we need music. We need live music, it’s an embodiment ritual, it’s spirit.

So on the topic of live music, I know that you’re quite involved within the New York music scene, but does it spread to the outskirts and beyond? Well, New York has a lot of different music scenes. In the city itself, there’s free jazz music, there’s experimental, the R’n’B pop music scene… I think that also in the States, every city has its own scene in that way with communities of musicians. A lot of our shows this summer are upstate, so I wouldn’t call that a scene because it’s just different in nature, but in New York there’s a lot of arts spaces. I think it’s different to Europe, there’s less state funding of art and there can sometimes be less support.

Returning to your releases this year, are both of those from your forthcoming album? Yeah, so the first one’s called ‘Better For You’, and then ’40 Days’ and both are off the album which is called ‘If They’re Mine’. It’s coming out so soon and I can’t really believe that I’m in this and that it’s happening. It shows a lot of different sides of me, which I am excited about because I think that they’re all true. I’m just excited to share all these different simultaneous truths.

Yeah, there’s phenomenal contrast between those two tracks that you’ve just mentioned. Obviously they sound completely different, but very much the sound of your music. How do you create differences in sound but still keep your sound there as well? That’s cool, that’s really good to know. I wanted to show a very different side and there are other songs that have different references, but I really wanted to show a contrasting side. In terms of your question, it comes back to approach. I went into this session once and the producer said ‘What kind of song do you want to make today?’ and I said, ‘I have no idea what you mean.’ That’s just not how I work at all and it scares me that that would be a way to approach making music. I think that because I’m coming from the bottom up there’s going to be a variety of influences. With the opening of ‘Better for You’ I just liked the rhythm, I wasn’t thinking, ‘oh, that rhythm fits into a category.’ It’s driving, and that makes me want to play. That opens more possibilities so I’m curious to know what you think when you hear the album.

I think as two preview tracks go, it shows that you could have one side, another side, and everything in between. I feel it’s really important for an artist, if they are releasing an album, to show that contrast before it so people don’t think ‘Ah, this isn’t quite what I was expecting. Yeah, definitely. There’s one song in the album that’s much lighter, in 6/8. You know there’s a little something in there for everybody.

I imagine it’s the same in NYC as here, but did you have a chance to play any of the tracks from the album live before everything kicked in? So, the truth about this music is that we started making the album two and a half years ago – come July it will have been three years – and I wrote the songs probably between a year and six months before that, so these are older songs. As an independent artist, I’m not sure how you stay in step with yourself. To be honest, like a lot of the folks that I talk to I haven’t yet figured out how to keep in time with myself with the process of recording, writing, and funding, and also living, teaching, and supporting the craft. Performing was mostly what I was doing, so I’ve performed these a lot, but we have a release show live stream on 4th June and that will be all this material, reimagined and expanded, from what we were doing before.

‘I have a jazz background, and some theory, but I’m really following my ear, searching for harmony that inspires me to sing.’

I bet you’re really eager to get out there and just perform in some context? Yeah, it’s been beautiful as I’ve been able to do a lot of remote shows over this time, and last summer I was up-state. There are some shows coming in now, and we’ve got a bunch of shows this summer, and hopefully more on the way and that’s exciting.

It gives you something else to aim for doesn’t it, a sense of direction? Definitely. I think if there’s ever any a doubt – which there is – whenever I play and I’m connecting with people, all of that doubt goes away. It’s important to stay connected with people.

So as an independent artist, do you ever get opinions from people outside of your musical bubble? This one was very much our bubble, just my brother and me. We have a lot of overlap, but also have real differences. I think that in terms of the next project our process will shift and expand, but I think that there’s this fine line between being open to other ears and sticking to what you’re really hearing. It’s been a process of finding my own voice, trusting my own voice, and trusting what I’m hearing. Sometimes I just actually need some quiet and fewer voices. We did get some other ears on it when mixing and mastering it, and that felt really important, when we were producing we really took our time.

I suppose if you get too many people involved too soon, it takes it away from what you’re trying to do as an artist? Definitely. I think when it comes to producing it’s limitless. You have a computer, you can do anything, so the task is refinement and really listening to what I can hear. There’s a lot of music happening around us all the time, a lot people are putting things out, and it’s easy to get caught in the wind of the ‘auditory zeitgeist’. It’s important to listen inside.

Thanks so much for your time Raina, we will look out for the album and see about getting one over to the UK. Yeah, it’s out 21st May so keep your eyes open. There’s lots coming and I hope to get over to the UK soon! Thanks so much for having me.

Photography Credit: Alice Plati

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