Name: Sonny Singh
Occupation: Trumpet player, dhol player, singer, songwriter, educator-activist
Recent release: Sonny Singh's debut solo album Chardi Kala is out now.
Recommendations: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Aval Allah Noor Upaya; June Jordan – Poem about my rights
If you enjoyed this interview with Sonny Singh and would like to find out more, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing music as a young child learning kirtan – Sikh devotional music. I was probably about 5 years old when I started learning basic harmonium and tabla and sang verses from the Sikh scriptures.
This was something that many Sikh kids did – we’d go to these camps where we learned. I didn’t really understand the words, but always felt a connection to the melodies and rhythms. My mom says when we’d be at gurdwara (Sikh house of worship), I’d always be drumming along on my knees, totally engrossed in the music.
At age 9, I started playing trumpet in school band. Trumpet was a pretty arbitrary decision but by the time I got to high school, I had developed a close connection to the instrument. The air, the resonance, the tone felt like an important way for me to process my emotions and to attempt to put some beauty into the world.
My identity as a musician began to really form in high school, mostly through playing western classical music and in marching bands. Some friends turned me onto to ska music in the 90s, and it struck me in a whole different way. I dove deep into that scene and eventually started my first band my first year in college – a ska band called Turban Jones.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
Growing up as a Sikh, a child of immigrants, and a person of color, music was often a way for me to cope with the traumas of racism. Being harassed and bullied were everyday parts of my life growing up, and listening and playing music became soothing mechanisms for me—on a mostly subconscious level.
For me, music is deeply emotional and spiritual – even when it’s not “devotional music” per se. It is the sound of feelings.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I have been a so-called professional musician in one way or another for over 15 years, and in some ways feel like I am just beginning my journey of really finding my voice as an artist. I guess that journey should never end, and I hope I am so lucky as to always be growing and evolving.
Chardi Kala, this album I am now releasing, is musical autobiography in a sense – a coming together of so many of the political, spiritual, aesthetic elements that have shaped me. It’s my first time returning to my musical roots – kirtan – with the lens I’ve developed over the years as a touring musician. It’s also my first time releasing a “solo” album, where my music is directly tied to my name. That was never a goal for me necessarily—I’ve always thrived in bands, in collaborative and collective spaces, but that is how this project came to be.
And I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of something. We’ll see where it goes.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I cannot disconnect my artistry from my identity as a brown man, a turban-wearing Sikh, a child of immigrants. My trajectories as an activist and social justice educator are deeply tied to these lived experiences, and so is my voice as a musician. All this to say, I firmly believe all music is political.
So the question becomes: What role is my music playing in the world? What am I supporting or challenging through my art? In this moment, my album Chardi Kala is the most intentional and loving answer I can attempt offer to these questions.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Chardi kala – the Sikh concept of revolutionary eternal optimism. This idea that even in the hardest of times, the darkest of days, we have a spiritual and political obligation to remain in high spirits. My music attempts to embody this idea and practice of chardi kala.
I want to make music that is both introspective – an opportunity for the listener to reflect – and a call to action. My music lies at the intersection of spirituality and rebellion. And for me these two things go hand in hand.
Just like I don’t see a purpose for a spiritual practice that does not call on us to take action for justice and liberation in the world, I don’t see my music as something passive. I hope it calls on listeners to act.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I am the most drawn to music that feels and sounds like it’s coming from an authentic voice – by that I mean a real, honest glimpse into the heart and soul of the artist, the community they are a part of, their visions and dreams. We are all influenced by hundreds and hundreds of years of artistic and cultural and linguistic traditions in all the music we make. I think there is an important place for preserving these traditions, studying them, and keeping them alive in art, but I am most drawn to music that is grounded in tradition(s) but pushes boundaries. I hope that is the kind of music I am making myself.
There is a bit of a tension in the Sikh community around what I am doing – Sikh kirtan is usually not played on brass instruments, drum set, and electric guitar. Genre-wise and instrumentally, what I am doing is super outside of the box, so that is going to push some people’s buttons since many of the words I’m singing are sacred. But ironically the most common instruments kirtan is played on today – harmonium and tabla – were not even around in South Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries when many of these devotional songs were written.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
As a trumpet player, practicing playing long tones. Approaching practice as a meditation is hugely important to me. Unfortunately I developed bad practice habits as a child (I didn’t come from a musical family at all), so I have to remind myself of this still everyday.
As a songwriter, a tool I have gotten into these last few years is the Acappella iPhone app – which creates those little multitrack grid videos. Many of the seeds of this record began with me making little 1-minute videos of myself playing trumpet, dhol, harmonium, and singing and sharing them on Instagram.
Somehow I find it more artistically inspiring than recording a proper demo on real microphones – and getting that instant feedback loop with an audience helps to inspire me to keep creating.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
My life looks really different from day-to-day, but it always begins with a cup of milky black tea and watching Democracy Now! And then another cup of tea around 2 or 3:00. (laughs)
Cooking is another regular practice in my life that helps keep me grounded and creative. And when I feel in a funk for whatever reason, channeling my energy into making something spicy and delicious is always a good use of my time.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that’s particularly dear to you, please?
The inception of my album Chardi Kala was in the fall of 2018. I was feeling a lot of despair in the midst of the Trump administration’s reign, more far-right fascists coming to power in other parts of the world, and recent acts of white supremacist terror in the headlines. So, I started returning to kirtan. I sat down with my old harmonium and started trying to remember some of the shabads – devotional songs – I learned as a kid. I started making videos of them on my phone using the Acapella app and sharing them on Instagram. It was cathartic for me, and was really resonating with those watching / listening.
So I dove in, and started writing. I usually began with shabads that I was familiar with, whose meaning had particular resonance for our world at the time. And then I’d build melodies on my trumpet and harmonium around the words, most of which were written in the 16th and 17th Centuries. After posting a few of these videos, a few musician friends encouraged me to go into the studio and start recording this music for real.
I reached out to my old friend Wil-Dog Abers from LA’s Ozomatli, who was loving the videos, and asked him if he’d want to work with me as a producer and recording engineer. He loved the idea, so we dove in together. I sent him basic demos of 8 or 9 tunes, and we got to work in the studio when I arrived in LA. We workshopped each song and created new demos using samples and midi instruments, and then called up all our friends to record. It was a true studio album – there were never more than two people in the studio at a time. Everything was recorded separately, but everyone brought such a high level of musicianship to it, that the vibe is totally there.
COVID threw us for quite a loop but finally – we have a full record! I’m really proud of what we’ve created – all 30 people involved from musicians to mixing engineers. In this case, it literally took a village.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I love collaboration and thrive off real-time interaction and communication. I love improvisation for this reason as well – being in the moment and having a conversation through sounds. But this record came to be in a totally different way. All the songwriting happened on my own, in my bedroom – me playing trumpet along with me playing dhol along with me singing.
That being said, I could not have made this album on my own. Or if I did, it would be a lot worse! Having a deep creative collaboration with Wil-Dog as a producer brought a whole other life to this music. He heard how epic this music could be in a way I didn’t – largely because of my own insecurities. And of course each musician who played on the album brought so much personality and heart to the music. Some of our songs had literally 100 tracks.
So our mixing engineer Patrick Avalon deserves a lot of credit for making sense of it all – this is not a minimalist record at all – and getting a mix that does this music justice is quite a daunting role. I don’t know the first thing about mixing.
Lastly I’ll say collaboration has been so critical to this music becoming a live show. I have an incredible band in NYC that are making this music their own, bringing their own personalities to it, and I’ve been absolutely loving the process.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others – contributed to your understanding of these questions?
It’s all about accessing and processing our emotions. Music is the ultimate form of therapy for me, and many of us. (not to say that actually going to therapy isn’t also a great idea! It most definitely is).
This is why for me music and spirituality are inextricably linked – it’s all about connecting to something bigger than ourselves, about grounding ourselves in the truth, about immersing ourselves in love.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I don’t have too much to say about this, but I bet there is a great podcast about this somewhere that I should probably check out!
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn’t or wouldn’t in more ‘mundane’ tasks?
Music bares my soul in a way that other things do not. It is a window into my heart, and into hundreds of years of spiritual and cultural practices. Maybe that’s why I like to cook so much too because it is actually pretty similar in terms of accessing tradition, bringing my own voice in, experimenting, and improvising.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
That’s the spiritual, the metaphysical. I don’t need to know the science of how it is able to communicate all the things it does, but the fact that this is such an undeniable reality gives me all the inspiration I need to keep on making music.