INTERVIEW: Sara Soltau on composing, collaboration, and wrestling!

In some ways, the music of Sara Soltau is especially lonely. Her newest record, In Parts, which releases this Sunday, features her solo violin work, often unaccompanied and laid bare. As a writer of comparably pop formats of music, I’m speaking a bit out of my wheelhouse here, but Soltau’s style is occupied and often prone to abrupt change. This feels intentional, as Soltau is leading the narrative as it takes her, which is playful and aloof. Still, the stripped down nature of the compositions lends a bit of loneliness to the vibe, like an only child playing in their room. Perhaps above all else, Soltau’s music is earnest and well-considered with the sorts of melodies that will haunt you, like the best of Warren Ellis with a Louisville flare for the dramatic. You can catch her this weekend at her record release show with collaborators Jacob Duncan and Robert Simonds at Decca on Sunday and you can listen to In Parts below. We caught up with Soltau to ask about her compositions, formal training, and camels!

Never Nervous: Tell us a little about your history with music. Did you grow up with music in your house? Was it always the violin?

SS: My parents aren’t musicians but there was always music playing in the house. My mother went into labor with me while watching a Rossini Opera on TV. When I was 6 years old a German violinist named Thorsten stayed at our house. I can still hear his violin and ever since I knew I wanted that to be a part of my life too. I have played some other instruments for fun and not well but the violin has so many voices and can blend into so many different kinds of musical textures that I don’t think I could ever get bored of playing it.

NN: How would you describe your relationship to your instrument? Do you feel comfortable as a player? Do you try and push yourself outside of your comfort zones? Do you ever effect your instrument with pedals or anything like that?

SS: It’s a really complicated relationship! It is a very personal thing for me. Sharing recordings is intimate. It really is a part of me. And at the same time it’s outside of myself and a form of community. I have traveled, made my best friends, and met my soon to be husband because of playing the violin. It fulfills so many parts of me.

“Sharing recordings is intimate. It really is a part of me. And at the same time it’s outside of myself and a form of community. I have traveled, made my best friends, and met my soon to be husband because of playing the violin.”

And yes- I always push myself out of my comfort zone. Maybe it’s an unhealthy habit. Even every time I perform I feel out of my comfort zone! But it’s worth it to me because I feel alive and I’m learning and connecting with an audience. It’s when you push yourself that you feel vulnerable. When I fail at something I know I’m learning. I’d rather fall flat on my face than know I didn’t try. I can feel very awkward as a performer. I went through really awful stage fright. So I’m always fighting that demon. But I’ve come a long way and am happy with all I’ve learned personally through the violin and performance.

I have used some pedals and effects, but I don’t do it very often. I like to challenge myself to create effects on the acoustic instrument without electronic help. I also love the raw sound of the violin and I loose a lot of that when I put an effect on it. But that’s just a personal preference- at least for now.

NN: Do you believe a formal education in music shapes a musician? As someone self-taught, I have in the past feared training, as it seemed counter-intuitive to my nature, but I feel that less so as I get older. What do you think?

SS: Yes of course. It totally changes you, hopefully for the better! I am also a violin teacher and I love working with students to challenge them and find their own voice in the instrument. Violin is really hard to teach yourself and I am always so impressed when someone did it! But I can’t imagine my playing without my teachers. I can’t imagine myself without my teachers. They were life mentors to me. They taught me about the violin but also how to overcome challenges and also about bigger picture life things. I haven’t had a violin teacher since I left graduate school, but I still seek out those roles in other musicians who inspire me and who I can learn from, for example Rob and Jacob who played with me on this tape.

NN: How did you come to work with auralgamiSOUNDS or City State Tapes? What is the connection between that scene and the compositional music scene, for a less articulate description?

SS: They both asked me to record which I was very flattered by and of course said yes! I wouldn’t have any recordings released if it weren’t for Nick or JC! They also both gave me total creative freedom which was great. On City State Tapes I wasn’t ready to release anything with my violin, so I played the stick, a simple one string instrument I made.
As far as the connection between them and the composition/classical scene they are starting to bridge that gap. For example with the series I’m part of on auralgamiSOUNDS there’s still a pretty big gap/disconnect, but people on both sides are interested in connecting, so I think it’s just a matter of time.

NN: What can you tell me about your own writing process? How do you compose? Do you write music? Work us through that. Do you ever collaborate?

SS: I improvise, but don’t compose. I’ve tried to write things down but I never really learned how and I have never had a enough patience to learn. When I did try I ended up having to simplify the music, because I don’t know how to successfully write down what I’m playing or thinking. It’s something I’d like to work at but on the other hand there is so much amazing music already composed! It’s a totally different process to play other people’s music and I find it really satisfying. You’re connecting on an emotional level across space and time with another person artistically and giving a voice to their ideas and then sharing that with an audience. I love that process whether it’s with music that’s centuries old or written recently.

I do collaborate and I love collaborating. I don’t do it a ton but when it’s the right time and project it’s great!

NN: Relative to that, how did you chose the collaborators on In Parts? Have you worked with either before?

SS: Yes, I had worked with everyone before and these musical projects were happening before JC asked me to record. Jacob Duncan and I were playing improvised duets for fun every couple weeks for a bit. This came up so he came to the studio and I said I wanted a few shorter pieces and that’s all we talked about. We recorded 5-6 pieces and 3 of them are on the tape as “Interludes”. With Rob Simonds we had learned this piece before the tape and he asked me to record it with him and so I asked if I could use the recording for this release and that’s how that happened. I really respect both of these musicians so much and whenever you play with great musicians you learn a lot too, so I’m really thankful for them.

“Whenever you play with great musicians you learn a lot.”

I also collaborated with composer Robert Andrew Scott for the track From Clouded Gardens. He currently lives in Whitesburg, KY and we met during the Rural Urban Exchange program. Over the phone and computer he coached me on his piece, he mastered it, and created the drone from my violin sound. Working with him totally changed how I heard and played the piece and I am so thankful he took the time to really go over the details with me so I could more closely perform what was in his mind.

For the release party this Sunday, I am also collaborating with Dane Waters. She’s opening the show and we’ve recently started messing around with music together for fun. She’s written a beautiful duet for voice and violin that we’ll premiere at the show. The words are also beautiful and in German (by poet Rilke) so that’s even better:)

NN: Is there any common theme or central thesis to the album? What do you hope people take away?

SS: I guess I’m the common theme! It’s kind of a snapshot of the music I’m interested in and that I was working on at that moment. It’s parts of me. I hope people take away that they don’t have to fit in a box or be locked into one genre or idea. We all have many voices and I it’s healthy to explore different parts of ourselves and figure out how to express them.

NN: What drew you to the songs that you covered or interpreted?

SS: Each one has something different. I could easily write a few paragraphs about each piece! But I won’t put you through that. I guess all of them have something that I find interesting. They all have layers. And I feel like performing them and learning them gives me some sort of artistic satisfaction. But to me they are all so different. Maybe to someone else it all sounds the same though, I’m not sure.

NN: How did you come to work for Louisville Public Media? What do you enjoy most about your work there?

SS: I had moved back to Louisville because I grew up here. LPM got a grant to support an education manager for the classical station, 90.5 WUOL, and it seemed perfect! Through music school I was always trying to figure out how to not just play music but somehow try to make a difference with those skills. It can be stressful work, because my heart is really in it but it’s so worth it when I take a step back and see a way our work has effected a kid positively. My favorite part is performing stories and music in schools, because I can be really silly. I also have a lot of creative freedom. I’m producing a music education podcast and recording elementary kids pretending to be aliens listening to Mozart. That’s pretty great.

NN: If you were to join the WWE, what would your wrestling name and gimmick be and why?

SS: My name would be Little Bear. I have a lot of hair, so I would brush it into my face so my opponent wouldn’t know which way I was facing. grrrr.

NN: You have one wish and you can’t use it for more wishes. It’s not from a Monkey’s Paw or anything heinous, either. What do you wish for and why?

SS: A camel. I’ve been wishing for one since I could throw a penny and it still hasn’t come true. Why do I want a camel? Why not!

“Why do I want a camel? Why not!”

NN: What non-musical things get you fired up lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth mentioning?

SS: I’ve been reading some short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marques that are entertaining. My fiancé has gotten really into studying wine lately, so I’ve been doing a lot of blind taste test competitions against him which has really made me second guess my taste buds.

NN: What are your top three desert island albums and why?

SS: This is the hardest question of all! Only 3?!? I’ve thought about which musical scores I would bring but full albums are hard! I’ll try to choose quickly:

  1. Arthur RussellLove Is Overtaking Me
  2. Brahms Symphonies (Maybe CSO recording)
  3. Studio One DJs Soul Jazz compilation for some chill beach time