AFTER a good listen of Aja Volkman’s solo debut album, Sandy…
I was excited to learn more about the American musician; the themes and ideas that contributed to Sandy‘s sound. She talks to me about the album and whether it was quite an emotional experience. Eager to learn about her band days – she used to front the L.A. group, Nico Vega – Volkman discusses Emily Kohal: the Warpaint lead who gave Volkman the push needed to perform on stage; they are still great friends to this day.
Volkman reveals whether her at-times-uprooted childhood – having divorced parents for one – was a hard experience to endure and how infant hearing problems impacted her decision to go into music. I ask her whether there are any tour dates planned and if a U.K. visit is likely.
Hi Aja, how are you? How has your week been?
Hi! My week has been great.
For those new to your work, can you introduce yourself, please?
Yeah! My name is Aja Volkman. I am a singer-songwriter. I was born and raised in Eugene, Oregon and now I live with my husband and three kids in Las Vegas. I used to sing for an L.A. rock band called Nico Vega. Now I am doing my own thing. I just released my first album called Sandy.
My Man is the lead-off single of your debut album. What can you reveal about the song’s origins and creation?
It’s actually a pretty personal song. It’s about unconditional love.
I wrote it about my husband. I also am a huge fan of throwback vibes in music. I tend to incorporate tonnes of different styles into my songs.
Joshua James really helped me bring this song to life. It was just acoustic before and he helped with crafting a more flushed out version.
Sandy is out now. Was it quite an exciting time putting your first solo album together? It sounds like it was, at times, quite an emotional process. Does it feel quite a relief hearing it back now?
It’s wonderful to have a vision and see it through. I actually really believe in not overthinking things.
This album was not overthought. I wrote it over a year period and then we recorded it in five days. It was nice to go into the studio with what I already felt was material that represented me well.
Joshua was the perfect producer because the songs still needed completion. They were pretty raw and basic.
The album came together, over a year, with Joshua James in support. How influential was he putting the songs together and what was the reason behind a ruminative and un-stressful approach to recording?
He was already my spirit-animal when I went in.
I’m a huge fan of his work and how liberated he is. He is his own person completely. It was great for me to have someone around with solid ideas because I can be pretty flexible – almost too flexible. It’s so important to make music with people that make you feel good. People you can trust.
Formerly, you fronted the L.A. band, Nico Vega. Is it quite different being solo or do you have more freedom to create the music you want?
It’s so different. I’ve always felt pretty free with music but Nico was more about the live experience for me. Sort of just letting myself go completely. This is different: it’s more peaceful; more harmonious with my lifestyle right now.
Meeting Warpaint’s Emily Kohal was, I guess, a pivotal moment in terms of stage confidence and the boldness needed to perform live. How did you come to meet her and do you see one another quite regularly?
She will always be one of my best friends. We grew up together and sort of found our voices at the same time.
It was awesome to have someone to bounce ideas off when I was just getting started. Our first and final performance was high school graduation. Haha.
You are the wife of Imagine Dragon’s frontman, Dan Reynolds. You met after Nico Vega opened for his band. Was it quite a nerve-wracking moment meeting him? What was it about Dan that formed that ‘click’?
We were immediately drawn to each other but from quite different backgrounds.
We actually met when his band, Imagine Dragons, opened up for Nico Vega. They were just getting started. We just kept in touch and fell in love over the next year or so. He is my best friend and a total inspiration to me.
Sandy has quite a vintage, Blues sound. Who were the artists you grew up listening to and how important are those early sounds in the context of your debut album?
Well, I love everything from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline. There is a Cat Stevens influence and a little Cat Power. I really connect with a character-driven voice because mine is sort of like that.
Not technically ‘perfect’ but easy-going and recognizable. That’s what I truly connect with.
If I may, I want to ask about your blog. In a post earlier this year you revealed: “…the doctors told my parents there was a possibility I would lose most, if not all, of my hearing”. What was that like having to face that and do you feel your embracement and commitment to music is as a result of overcoming that scare?
I was so small when that happened that I wasn’t aware.
But, I have always struggled with my voice and my ears: there have always been hurdles. I think, sometimes, resistance helps you to figure out who you truly are. You have to work harder and push through short-comings. You have to want it really bad when it doesn’t come easy.
Are there any tour plans coming up for you? Any idea whether you’ll be heading to the U.K. this year?
I would like to say yes and it is a possibility. But, most likely, I won’t be touring this year because I have two brand-new babies and I need a little time with them before I start running around too much.
It seems your music and career so far has been impacted by your early life – a sense of instability having divorced parents – and discovery. Have any of those early memories and times gone into your songwriting or is it a time of your life you prefer to keep separate?
I think everything a person has been through molds who they are. I have amazing parents so I can’t say that I am damaged from anything they have done. But, I have made a lot of poor choices and learned from a lot of mistakes growing up.
I’m grateful to be where I am now. I feel very blessed in the way my life has turned out so far. My music has always been influenced by real life. That’s why this record is mostly happy.
Who are the new artists you suggest we look out for?
You know it’s funny.
Our life at home is so crazy that I find myself listening to nostalgic, calming music. Enya and Miles Davis are on constant rotation at my house.
I can’t say I have been on the hunt for new music lately. This year has just been a doozy.
If you had to select the three albums that have meant the most to you; which would they be and why?
I would say Al Green’s I’m Still in Love With You – it was probably one of the first albums I memorized from beginning to end. It still always makes me feel good.
Another I would say is Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around – although it’s a record full of covers, I think he communicated perfectly through music. He made those songs perfect in my opinion. Not an easy thing to do.
Another album I love would be Soul Journey by Gillian Welch. She is so pure and simple and her songs are like lullabies for adults.
What advice would you give to any new artists starting out right now?
Just be you. Never try to emulate someone else. Being influenced is one thing. But being competitive with someone who isn’t you is pointless.
The world needs individuality. It needs us each to be who we are.
Finally, and for being a good sport, you can name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
Play Song for Zula by Phosphorescent (I love that song).
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