Understanding the Immersive Soundscapes of Sonoda, Meditative Pop Extraordinaires

Lo-fi indie bands used to be a commodity in the rock world. Solo artists like R. Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink are two of many modern acts that have reached iconic status in the eyes of both fans and critics in part for their adherence to defying the ordinary and consciously choosing to go against the grain to achieve an engulfing sound and aesthetic.

The same DIY ethos that was once considered a unique characteristic is now more alive than ever and flourishing among the vast sea of internet-era indie bands kick-starting their careers. The obsession with vintage and atmospheric sounds especially permeates the world of dream pop and “bedroom” musicians, which in short, can also be summarized as the New Wave of DIY artistic minds.

Nestled deep in the realms of this style and sound are Los Angeles-based outfit Sonoda. Heavily inspired by the atmospheric soundscapes of modern indie pioneers, such as Beach House and Broadcast, Sonoda’s entrancing songs constantly reach for something out of the ordinary. Typically glazed with hazy, ethereal synthesizers and simple yet hypnotic guitar leads, their sound oozes of a stimulating aura. At times, it’s wide and spacious. In other instances, it’s warm and inviting. In all cases, its rich textures and sedative charm produce a fuzzy ambiance that’s quietly addicting.

Sonoda4 by Jack Wiegmann

The band’s output has always derived from an intimate place. As the brainchild of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Lisa Sonoda, many of their tunes originate from raw and fragmented recordings.  “I started writing my own songs in college, although I had always done that as a kid,” says Lisa. “It just wasn’t anything I cared to remember. I actually started out recording them on my iTouch.”

Alongside boyfriend and bandmate Adrian Garcia, Lisa’s songs have come to life on a bigger scale. Over a few years, tracks that were once bedroom demos have evolved into larger and more elaborate creations, at times featuring as many as seven different members in order to capture the numerous moving parts within each song. Through the entire process, their signature calm and dreamy aesthetic has remained, a style they’ve since branded as “meditative pop,” an appropriate describer for the subdued intensity of the band’s most recent creations, notably their 2018 live record Karaoke Life.

So how does one stand out amidst the saturation of one of this era’s most definitive sounds? For Lisa, creative energy comes from a variety of places. Her songs not only draw inspiration from other dream-like sounds, but also the emotional and spiritual states from which they arise. A keen advocate of meditation, self-reflection and bodily healing, her flow state when it comes to writing songs is naturally an extension of her contemplative outlook on daily life.

“Whatever my feelings are will drive me to shift and create,” she says. “I’m a huge supporter of introspection in the form of meditation and dream-journaling.”

This existential fervor pervades Sonoda’s music in subtle yet immediate ways. Subsequently, it’s also key part of the band’s stage presence. Go to any given Sonoda gig and you’ll find tingshas and a Tibetan singing bowl, items traditionally known to promote relaxation and offer powerful healing properties, propped on Lisa’s instruments. They are as much a part of the songs as they are eye-catching decorations.

Pensive and willingly observant, Lisa’s instincts as a songwriter continue to grow in unique ways. Paired with her band’s increasingly ambitious approach (they’ve played well over 40 shows this year), Sonoda as a conceptual project figures to only gain more creative steam.

Sonoda kicks off their West Coast tour Sept. 6 in San Diego and continues through Arizona, Idaho, Oregon and Washington throughout the month. See here for a full list of dates.

Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson recently caught up with Lisa Sonoda to talk tour, loving Beach House, the essence of introspection and more. Check out their conversation below.

Sonoda3 by Jack Wiegmann

What made you want to make that initial leap with your music from something small and intimate to bringing your songs to life on a bigger scale?

Lisa: The first transition past performing as a duo (with Adrian) was partially the venues we were playing. You know, better sound system and a larger space. Plus, just the songs – lots of them have so many little parts for just two people to play. More people in the band really helped get as many of the melodies out as possible.

Your sound could be classified as bedroom pop or dream pop, and certainly fits into some of the subgenres that have become big fads this decade. It brings to mind a handful of modern indie bands, notably Beach House. I was curious to know if you are a fan?

Lisa: Yes, very much so (laughs). We’re calling it meditative pop now. We played with Mutual Benefit last year and they said, ‘Oh, you guys play meditative pop!,’ and we were like, ‘Okay, that’s definitely it.’

Are you a Teen Dream or Bloom type of person? Or maybe one of their other projects is a sleeper pick for your favorite album?

Lisa: My favorite is actually Devotion. We used to cover “Gila” on our own, when Adrian and I were just playing around as a duo.

Musically speaking, what other sounds have been big inspirations for you guys?

Lisa: We’re huge fans of Broadcast; we’ve covered them a few times. We love their weird sounds, their synthiness, all the elements. We also love Angel Olsen a lot. Her first project is really simple, but so haunting. I feel like all of them (Beach House, Broadcast and Olsen) create this other world within their music and they’ve all really inspired me.

Your songs don’t just pull inspiration from other music. At your shows, your instruments are covered with props and various decorations. The cover of your last record also features characters in a different language. What are some of your biggest non-musical influences?

Lisa: I’m a huge supporter of introspection in the form of meditation, dream-journaling and asking around self for advice to reflect on your past and all the things we absorb each day. I guess the way it’s incorporated into music is with the flow of writing, both lyrics and sounds. It’s not so much a conscious thing, but I do hope it conveys a feeling and helps the listener reflect on their own life. 

You guys are going on a West Coast tour throughout September. After a couple years of playing regular shows, what’s it like continuing to see your songs come to life on stage in front of different crowds? Has your perception of your own songs changed over that time?

Lisa: Seeing and talking to audiences on tour is one of the most rewarding things. It’s so heartwarming. We’ve seen it change a lot, depending on how many members we’ve had. Now that we’re a four-piece, sometimes the bass player uses an ARP synthesizer but it depends on the stage space. We usually put a little field recorder in the room so we can hear the set afterwards or see how our instruments sounded. So, we have a lot of archives.

The band is dropping two new singles this week. Are they a piece of an upcoming album?

Lisa: Right now, we’re just taking it one step at a time. There are other songs we need to work on and record, but I don’t know if these singles are going to be on the album. They might be, we’ll see.

Naturally, the live record you guys did fit with all the touring you were doing last year. Looking ahead, is there a conceptual vision for the next album or another project in the near future?

Lisa: At each show, we start each song with the Tibetan singing bowl and I sing ‘Om.’ It would be cool to get the audience to join or bring their singing bowls too. That’s not a project, it’s just something I’ve always wanted to happen (laughs). Unrelated to the band, but Adrian and I just did a DJ set at the Moroccan Lounge. He brought his records, a lot of ambient and “synthy” stuff, and I brought my pedal board. He would loop and mingle sections of each song or add a lot of reverb and weird effects, so I’d be up for doing more of that stuff.

Would you guys ever consider releasing more experimental or ambient material?

Lisa: That’s very likely actually. Adrian and I are very into a lot of ambient music. That’s a huge aspect of our taste and how a lot of atmospheric elements come into our music.

As a young aspiring musician, is there a skill or philosophy you aspire to master and perhaps view as a challenge?

Lisa: I guess the technical aspect. We’re constantly learning about gear and Adrian is always reading about different stuff and how much that changes recording. Even with playing live, it could be borrowing a different band’s amp or how the different PA’s at shows that handle the sound differently. Also, learning about the music industry and the business side, especially as a “DIY” band. It’s something you are just constantly dealing with and learning about.

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Photos by Adrian Garcia and Jack Weigman. For more info on Lisa Sonoda and to stay up to date on tour and new music, follow her on social media. Stream Sonoda’s last album below and support their music on Bandcamp.

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