I was first introduced to singer-songwriter Sonia Rao at BMI’s Acoustic Lounge at the legendary Genghis Cohen in December. After her emotional performance, I knew there was something special about this young artist. Today, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rao one on one, to discuss her journey, challenges, and goals within the Los Angeles music industry.
When did this journey start for you? Did you always know you wanted to be a professional musician?
I definitely didn’t know I wanted to be a professional musician at first. Looking back, I think the journey started when I was very little. My mom had my brothers and I learn three instruments each. I played violin, piano, and flute, so there were lots of lessons, orchestra rehearsals, and practicing, but I never thought of myself as creative because I was just studying what was on the page. The actual songwriting happened after college.
How has your life changed since deciding to pursue a career in music?
Everything is so different. Life changes logistically, of course, in my day to day, but more internally it changes how I interact with the world. I just wrote this song about coming into songwriting: growing up I didn’t really speak out at all, I would never participate in school, etc, and once I started songwriting I started finding that I had all these opinions and ideas of things. It changed my life in that way, and I like that. It changes everything – you’re going after a thing you love, so I think that you have to face yourself, you have to be really honest with yourself, what you want, whether this is worth it, the battles you come up against. You face your family, and expectations. I’ve battled my own inner self – Do I think I can do this? Can I make a living out of it? But for me I feel like those are the good questions to ask in general.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
I guess one challenge after graduating college was realizing that my parents and family had certain hopes for me that were different from the hopes I had for myself. I surprised myself with this music career, so a big challenge for me is continuing to stay at it when everything and many people close to me were not wanting me to do it because they were worried. Facing doubt in general from others and from myself, and still sticking with it has been a challenge. As you know, LA is kind of a beast of its own, and deciding you’re going to stay here, no many how many inner demons arise, no matter how many doubts you have in yourself. I’ve been in LA 3.5 years, and with each year that passes, I’m so glad I stayed.
What is your inspiration?
Books that I’m reading. Relationships – beginnings, endings, songs follow the arch of a relationship. I’ve written a little bit about my family. The last album is called Los Angeles – so I’ve written about moving here, my experience with reality TV (Rao was a finalist on the 1st season of The Voice), all that. Everything is inspiration, as for me songwriting is a way to process how I think about things.
Can you tell us about your songwriting process?
I think there’s two kinds that happen for me – one is when I really feel like writing, but a lot of the time, I don’t feel like writing, but I decide I’m going to sit here from this time to this time and I’m going to write no matter what. One song comes out first, then a song that makes it to an album comes after that first song. It’s like when you meet up with your girlfriends and you talk about whatever for a minute and then the real stuff comes out – that’s what songwriting is like for me.
You’ve placed a lot of your music on several television networks. What can you tell us about that process?
That is all because of my publisher, he does all that, he’s awesome. I met him when I first came to LA and got very lucky with that. That’s just been so helpful for my music and for having my career here. It’s funny though, because when I write these songs, I’m thinking “this is about my ex boyfriend” and then it’s used with Snookie and someone are making up after a fight, which is totally opposite from what I wrote about. They use my songs mostly for the emotional scenes.
Your website mentions that you’ve spoken and performed at TEDxWomen, can you tell us about that experience?
That was an amazing day. All day you’re listening to these really inspiring speakers. It was so great to perform after all that inspiration, the audience was so hyper-present. I performed four songs and spoke in between about my experience with my family and pursuing music. One song I wrote about patriarchy, so I discussed that and the importance women’s equality in our society.
What are some of your short term goals?
I’m going to Nashville in two weeks to finish my next album – we’re so close! Then I’m looking at artwork and planning the release and the tour.
How do you hope to impact the industry? What would you like to see change?
I’m working on an interview series called “Conversations”, where I speak with artists more about their inner experience -how they experience jealousy, what was the hardest thing for them about their career that they didn’t expect, when have they experienced contentedness… questions like this. I feel like a lot of the video interviews out there are more promo based, and while there’s a place for that and it serves artists, I do think that there is a desire for people to hear more than promotional material from artists. I really want to make sure that I stay in that same space when I’m writing, in the self-expression mode instead of thinking about what the product is. I’d like to see more of that in the industry. Sometime after this album, I would also like to have an all women’s project, where the writers, producers, engineers, are all women. I realized all the people I’m working with, who I love, have been men. I’d like to see what could happen and what would be different when we get a bunch of talented women together to work on a project.
You just performed in Bali for New Year’s Eve, what can you tell us about that experience?
Bali was beautiful, it was awesome to play the countdown show at Ayana on New Year’s Eve. It’s such a lucky thing to travel and get to travel for work, and then I travelled around afterwards. It was a nice way to end and start a year.
What advice would you give fellow aspiring musicians?
If you ever lose sight of yourself or what you are doing here or why you’re doing it, just come back to what is it you want to say, what is important to you – come back to self-expression, as that will always guide you back to why you wanted to do this in the first place. The other thing is don’t dismiss yourself just because there’s so many people doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t make it less important that you’re doing it.
What’s next for Sonia Rao?
Finishing this album, figuring what the name of it is. Releasing it and touring. We’re thinking Midwest, NY, Nashville, San Fran, and LA.
To learn more about Sonia Rao and to keep up with the release of her upcoming album, and to follow her on social media, head to www.soniarao.com.
Drea Dorman is a singer-songwriter and music enthusiast living in Los Angeles, CA. Learn more about Drea and her music at www.dreaofficialmusic.com.