Discover more from Sounding Softly
Introducing Sounding Softly
Plus an interview with singer/songwriter Julia Alsarraf on navigating life without social media, having a full-time job outside of music, and more.
In This Edition
✸ Introduction to Sounding Softly
✸ Interview with Julia Alsarraf
✸ Who am I?
You’ll notice my newsletter looks a bit different. I’ve been itching to expand and deepen the scope of this space for a while now, as well as turn it into a more regular thing.
Welcome to Sounding Softly.
This is my unapologetically tender and earnest take on living life as a musician, with each monthly installment featuring a conversation (in transcribed, written form) with an artist I admire. I’m particularly interested in talking about the difficult truths of being a musician, the untold stories, the delights and sorrows. My first interview is with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Julia Alsarraf. You’ll find that below. Next month I’ll be sharing a conversation with Anthony Cubbage (Age of the Bear), in which we talk about his journey after dropping out of music school, burn out, and more.
Why “Sounding Softly”? If you’ve been on my list for a while, you know that I’ve been grappling with the concept of Softness for quite some time. In all that I do, whether it’s the music that I create or the shows that I present, I am striving for a vision and version of Softness. Let’s chase that idea together.
Why change to Substack?
At the end of the day, expanding my newsletter in this way will require extra time. In order to offset and justify this additional labor, I’m introducing a paid version.
Don’t worry! There will always be a free version of this newsletter. And I’ll still let you know what’s going on in my corner of the world, whether it’s a new music release or upcoming concert. But if you’d like to go deeper and ultimately support my creative work in general, you can do that.
For $5/month or $50/year, you’ll get access to the full texts of the artist interviews. This first edition is available in its entirety for free so you can check it out. You can easily upgrade to a paid subscription at any point, or simply enjoy the free version. In whatever capacity you wish to share this space with me, I’m grateful.
In Conversation with Julia Alsarraf
I wanted my first interview on this newsletter to be with someone I knew for sure I could get into the weeds with. So, I asked Julia Alsarraf, who happens to be one of my best friends and chosen family. I also play in her band Paintbrush Charlie. I am certainly biased, but in all honesty I think she’s one of the most interesting musicians in the New York Capital Region. Her songwriting is always surprising me, and she inspires me with how much she pushes herself to further her craft.
Julia is an integral part of our local music community. She plays in several other bands besides her own, and is one of those invaluable people who “show up”. All the while, Julia does not have any social media… here’s our conversation.
How have you found your place in the musical community without using social media?
If it were going to be a Facebook status, I would say “it’s complicated”. I always enjoy getting the curated version of social media from my sister and other people that spend more time on it, but I just find that it is not a place where I want to spend my time.
I totally get that. But it is also true that it’s a place where a lot of things get shared about what’s going on musically. That said, it’s also a very passive space. You can share things on Instagram and sometimes people are seeing it and actually interacting with it. But a lot of the time people aren’t, or they’re engaging in a passive way with a “like”, but their engagement doesn’t go any further than that. You’re also at the whim of algorithms. Do you feel like it’s a source of power for you to not be on it? Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on anything?
One caveat I want to make is that the events I do are often shared on social media, whether it’s by my wife or by the venue or by other people involved in the show. I appreciate that and I do think that I have benefited personally from other people using social media to promote my stuff. So I don’t want to devalue that. What you said about it being passive is really important. My focus is on establishing connections with people. For me, the little heart icon on Instagram doesn’t do anything.
I do think in a funny way that not being on social media has impacted me positively. It encourages people to sign up for my email list so I have this very direct way of reaching people when I have something to say, versus feeling like I need to constantly be creating content just to stay relevant. It’s very simple: if I have a show, or an album, or a specific thing that I’d like for you to know about, then I send an email, and people get the news directly.
The other thing that helps a lot is that I have my stuff on Bandcamp. I think it is a really great platform because, again, it’s the passive versus active nature of it. Bandcamp leans more towards active and more towards helping people find music that they relate to. They are all about connecting listeners with the music and the musician versus music as a commodity, which is how streaming platforms operate. There’s also a contact form built into the platform, which is not true of any other streaming platform that I’m aware of. Many of the gigs that I have played have come from people who reached out to me through Bandcamp.
You have a full-time job that is not in the arts or music. Does your job life inform your musical life? Do you feel like having that full-time job is a helpful support for your music? Sometimes I’m envious of people who have jobs that are outside of music because you don’t have to attach monetary value and pressures to your art…
For me it is very freeing to not have my financial situation tied to my music. It does feel like it opens up opportunities for me to just do whatever I want to do with music. Also, there have been times when I have been less employed than I am now, and you would think that with having more time, and with all the passion that I have for music, that I would dive fully into it and spend all my time making music. But really I just spend the day petting the cats and reorganizing the rooms of the house. I wasn’t any more productive musically than I am now; to the contrary, I find that because I have a limited amount of time to spend on music, I am more intentional about using that time in that way, and maybe even more productive as a result of that.
As far as the interplay between my job and music, as a silly answer to that question, I do have the song “Circle Back”, which is a reference to an overused work phrase. Because music is the way that I process the world around me, I think that they both serve each other pretty well. Music is a way for me to recharge with something that isn’t work, and work provides my brain with something else to do so that I’m not overthinking my music.
There are obviously also some downsides. When it comes to doing shows and load-in times and logistical things, it can get stressful if I’ve got a busy show season during a busy work season. But so far, for now, that has been fine.
You mentioned that some of your songs have been inspired by work things. A lot of your lyrics are in direct response to something very specific that has happened to you in your life. Like your recent song “Picture of You”, which has a specific anecdote tied to it. How do you envision a listener might relate to these kinds of lyrics?
The nice thing about music is that people are going to bring themselves to it no matter what. I like the idea that someone could interpret a song completely differently from what it meant for me. Often I’ll find that a song that I wrote about one thing can be reinterpreted to apply to a completely different situation. I like the interplay between having lyrics that are pretty straightforward and not overly poeticized, but within that simplicity, there’s some nuance to how they could be interpreted. One songwriter that I think of specifically is Alanis Morissette. Her songs, at times, are literally translations of journal entries, but she doesn’t often talk about what they mean. Even the song “You Oughta Know” — everyone’s like, “it’s about the guy from Full House, right?!”, but it was decades before she would even hint at the possibility that he was in fact the source of that song. So yeah, a song can be personal for me, but it can also be personal for you in an entirely different way.
I think that gets at one of the great paradoxes of music, which is that the more personal it is to the artist the more listeners relate to it. Maybe honest is a better word to use. The more honest one is in their art-making the more other people can see themselves in it.
Tell us about this new group of yours, Paintbrush Charlie. What does the future look like?
Paintbrush Charlie is a name that I sat on for a while and then when I first played my music with you and Sam (Torres), I knew you were the people to make it happen. I really liked the idea of painting and using different paint brushes for different applications. I love applying that to music and thinking about how songs can be arranged and rearranged and I’ve already enjoyed doing that with y’all and having three different versions of one song. I love things that can be continually reimagined; every day is different. I also think that as a listener, for me personally, I love it when I go to a show and there’s something a little unexpected. They’re not just playing the album versions, they’re not just doing the rinse and repeat.
What about Charlie? Where does that name come from?
I like it because it’s light-hearted — it’s Charlie, not Charles, right? I also thought it would be great because it’s easier to spell than Julia Alsarraf but then of course somebody came up to me after our very first show and asked if it’s Charlie with a Y or Charlie with an IE.
I grew up with a beloved Siamese cat named Charlie, so that name is very special to me and my family.
I don’t know why, but it’s just a very sweet name. You don’t imagine Charlie to be something with a lot of gravity and seriousness to it. Also, there is an overlap between Paintbrush Charlie and my binary, non-binary alter ego, Charlie Computer. We had a Christmas party at work and we were supposed to dress up, so I got a cardboard box and turned myself into a computer and I was Charlie the Christmas Computer.
I can be overly logical at times to a fault. But with what we were talking about earlier with having a full-time job versus having music be my bread and butter — having my job allows me to be more intuitive with music and do things when they feel right. So even though the idea of Paintbrush Charlie has been rolling around in my head for a while, I’ve been able to let it develop organically because I don’t have the financial pressure attached to it.
It’s so important to follow that intuition and not push projects just because you think you should. Streaming platforms and social media push people to think they have to create constantly because that’s how the algorithms work. Spotify literally tells people in their artist guide that you need to release music as often as possible in order to be successful. But of course that makes them more money, so no wonder that’s their advice! That slow, intuitive way of working is not rewarded in most places.
Even on Patreon, which I think is well-intentioned, now you’re not only commodifying the work itself, you’re also commodifying the process. For some people I’m sure that’s a wonderful thing to share, but for me it still adds that pressure of having to produce content on a regular basis. I think it can make people feel like if they’re not actively doing art, that they’re not doing anything. We talk sometimes about rest as an action — it’s so important to not be actively doing something all the time so that you can give yourself time to process.
I think that is one of the biggest pitfalls of social media. I’m on Instagram and there have been some wonderful things that have come about for me because of it. But I’m also very aware of what it is subliminally doing to me, like the push to be productive. The pressure to show that you’re creating, that you’re performing all the time, that you’re recording and releasing. I just don’t work that way. I’ve tried, but it’s just not me. I can’t churn out videos. So I’ll go weeks or even months without posting something in earnest and that’s not what gets rewarded by social media platforms. But I’m ok with that, and I think it’s really important for everyone to decide their own terms, instead of the platforms deciding for them.
I make music because I love to do it. People should do what they love to do within whatever means they have. When you’re trying to do things you don’t love in order to game a system, that’s when it starts to not feel good. It takes away the joy from that practice.
To bring it full circle, this is why I preach the benefits of a newsletter to anyone who will listen. Because the relationships you’re creating through your newsletter, or through Bandcamp, are so direct. One relationship through one of those platforms is going to be worth so much more in the long-run than a stream on Spotify. Streams come and go, but I’ve had some people on my email list for gosh, a decade now? (Hi readers! I love you!) You can’t put a dollar sign on that. It’s invaluable.
Going back to that passive vs. active thing — I’ve had people reaching out to me directly about shows either letting me know they were going to make it or that they weren’t. It tells me that my shows are on people’s radar, and that our relationship is significant enough that they want to communicate with me about that. I love that. I love that these are people that I’m connected to. They’re not really “fans”, they’re connections. When I perform, it’s a gathering. That’s what I love.
Don’t forget to check out Julia’s 2020 EP Mixed Feelings. A Paintbrush Charlie album is in the works, among other news that I’m sure she’d love to share with you through her email list. You can sign up here.
Do you have any thoughts on this new newsletter format? What’s new in your corner of the world? As always, I’d love to hear from you. You can respond directly to this email.
Who am I?
My name is Sophia Subbayya Vastek. I’m a pianist, composer, educator, and concert producer/curator. If you’re relatively new to this list, thank you for being here! As an introduction to my work, I would check out my recent record In Our Softening first. For something completely different, I’ve also recorded the complete solo piano works of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). My album Histories feels like a lifetime ago, but check that out too. I often collaborate with my husband, mastering engineer, saxophonist, and supreme softie Sam Torres. He produced my album In Our Softening. Together, we curate The Lift Series at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. We also run a series out of our home, which, oddly enough, is a converted church space in South Troy, NY that we’ll be renovating for life. We have two cats who collectively have only seven legs. And I’m utterly devoted to my city, Troy, NY. Come visit.