Sonia Rao is perhaps best known for her appearance on the first season of The Voice, NBC's hit reality singing competition. Not long after her brief stint on the show, she put out her first album, Calm Her. To her credit, the album is a showcase for her voice -- as opposed to just being a showcase of an artist who performed on The Voice. The beauty of Rao's vocals are highlighted on songs like "This I Know" and "In Her Room."
It was in her room in her North Beach apartment in San Francisco that her debut effort was conceived. As we sat down to talk about music at her current residence in Los Angeles, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of music might come from her time spent in her new SoCal abode in the future.
Though The Voice shined a bright spotlight on Rao's relationship with her immigrant parents, how they challenged her decision to pursue music, it seems to be just one aspect of Rao's life story that the show's producers latched onto.
In our interview, what I found more interesting was her relationships with fellow singer-songwriters. Rao and LA-based singer-songwriter Connie Lim remain close friends from their time singing together in an a capella group at UC Berkeley. Rao also talked about other artist friends who are part of the indie singer-songwriting scene in Los Angeles, including people who have appeared on an increasingly popular reality show on NBC.
Interview with Sonia Rao
May 12, 2012
Interviewed by Vincent Lim
Camera by Brian Lam
Video Edit by Craig Stubing
APA: How did you first become interested in music?
Sonia: My mom, growing up, made sure my brothers and I each played three instruments. Mine were violin, piano, and flute. I was classically trained, so I've always been playing music, but it was always something out of obligation -- going to lessons, going to orchestra. I sang in an a cappella group in college, and that was my first experience with singing.
But I had never written before in my life. The time that music turned into artistry and expression happened after college when I was living in San Francisco. When I was writing those first few songs, I was realizing that I did have something to say and that I did have something to create. I had a lot going inside my mind, and it felt like such a release to finally find that outlet. Once I found it, I wanted to do it.
APA: What was it about living in San Francisco in that North Beach apartment that affected your creative process?
Sonia: Something about that city is so nurturing. It kind of brings out who you want to be. I think being in that city allowed me to start writing and just be open to that. I wrote my first songs there, and most of them are on the album. The very first ones I wrote in the first few months. After The Voice was done, we recorded them and released them.
APA: You were on the first season of The Voice and unfortunately were rejected twice by the judges. What was your experience like?
Sonia: In general, it was really, really positive. I met really awesome artists. It was just completely new for me. I was an artist in San Francisco and completely removed from any sort of industry in LA, so I was just kind of thrown into it. I think it did open doors for me, and then I moved down to LA two weeks after it. So my life definitely changed, because I'm now in LA.
APA: Has moving down here to Los Angeles provided any new sources of musical inspiration?
Sonia: It really has. It's a completely different place, which is very obvious to say, but I don't think I expected how different it would be from San Francisco and how different my lifestyle would be. The songs that I'm writing are very different too. It's all very unexpected, so I'm kind of rolling with it.
Asia Pacific Arts: The Voice just wrapped up its second season this week. Did you follow Season 2 of The Voice?
Sonia Rao: I did not get to watch much of Season 2, but I did watch Orlando Napier's audition. He's awesome. He's a good friend here. I hear that there were some awesome people on there -- a lot of singer-songwriters from the community here.
APA: Has your hometown of New Jersey provided any inspiration for your music?
Sonia: I grew up in the same town in New Jersey my whole life, so it's not so much the place but more my relationships there. I've had the same friends always, my whole life, and I'm really close to my family. On The Voice, this was my story too. They highlighted that on the show: my parents and whether they supported me doing music. I haven't really written about that or sung about it or talked about it much -- honestly -- outside of the show. Recently, I've been writing more about those two worlds coming together: me trying to pursue music as a first generation here, and them [being] immigrants from India. I'm kind of exploring that now.
APA: Since you play so many instruments, do you have a favorite?
Sonia: I write with piano mainly. I got a guitar for Christmas. I don't play it, but I write with it. I guess violin might be my favorite because I've been playing it the longest, and I just love that instrument.
APA: Are there artists -- past and present -- that have influenced your music?
Sonia: Definitely. My brothers, I'm actually realizing, have been a huge influence on my music. Because I'm the youngest, they would basically choose what I'd listened to, because they'd have control of the radio or the CD player. They played a lot of Queen and Third Eye Blind. My brother went through a punk phase; for one year, we only listened to punk music. Whatever phase they were going through, I got immersed in it.
It's kind of funny, but my dad's actually obsessed with Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. He's the one who introduced me to them. I don't actually find new music on my own. My friends will give me CDs to listen, or they'll suggest things and email me songs. They pretty much shape the music that's introduced to me.
I love Norah Jones's new album. It's amazing, and that's kind of what I'm listening to right now -- all day.
APA: You've done quite a bit of touring recently, and you'll be back at the famed singer-songwriter hideout, the Hotel Cafe, soon. How has all this touring been?
Sonia: The touring has been really amazing. It's my first time really doing a good amount of it in a short period of time. It's really interesting to going to a new city, a new venue. You've never been there; you're playing with new players and just doing your songs. It's really beautiful to have that completely new experience each night.
APA: Do you have any favorite venues?
Sonia: I love Hotel Cafe. I'll be back there in July. There's this venue [I'll be at] in August. It's called the Witzend. It's in Venice. I'll be there every Thursday. It's a really awesome venue. The owner is a musician himself, and I think he runs a really great place.
APA: You've toured with singer-songwriter Connie Lim for a few performances this year and are friends with many people in the indie singer-songwriter communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other places. Are there any other friends and artists who you would like to collaborate or perform with in the future?
Sonia: Definitely. Connie and I went to college together at Berkeley, and we were in the same a capella group. We've always been really close, so it's been really cool that I get to play shows with her now. We have two more tours planned together for later this year. It's always fun singing with her.
As for collaborations, there are so many artists. I think I would pass out if I got a chance to play with Ray LaMontagne, so I don't think it would be a successful performance, but that would be awesome. It's amazing singing with any of the artists that we're friends with around here -- like Justin Hopkins and Orland Napier. Any of them, I would love to sing with. They were all on The Voice, which is funny because they're all part of this same circle of people.
Sonia Rao will be performing with Connie Lim at the Hotel Cafe on July 11. She will also be performing at the Witzend in August.
For more information about Sonia Rao, visit her official website.