Interview by Matteo Bussotti
It’s always an unfathomable emotion every time we have a musician of great importance here on Femme Metal. This time we are really, really proud to have Sonja Kristina, Curved Air‘s lead singer on our website. Her answers to my questions are simply stunning, and it is an incredible opportunity to interview an artist who’s been in the music industry for such a long time. Of course I had to ask her questions about the past, but also the present and the future. Her answers are an insight about how music’s world has changed through these decades. It is with great that I, once again, introduce to you Sonja Kristina. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed making it.
Hi Sonja! I must say it is really an honor to have such an important musician here on Femme Metal! My first question is an obvious one: how does it feel to be back on stage?
Thank you, it feels surreal.. timeless and timely.
You are just about to release a live album, “Live Atmosphere”. Do you have any plans on recording new material, after your 1976 last album, “Airborne”? (I’m not counting “Lovechild” as your latest album because it was recorded before “Airborne”)
This band is very diverse in its influences and also respects the Cuved Air legacy. Yes we will create fine new material together. My first task is to know what I want to say in this time for these times. Each song must explore and express truthful experience – once a song is born it seems so natural but some births are easy some require more gestation.
In which ways do you think Curved Air has changed in this 40 years of career? You can talk as much as you want, feel free to say whatever you want!
I think the first album was very atmospheric and powerful and carried in it the experience of many live performances during which the songs developed. Each album was innovative due to the style and talent of the composers, Darryl Way and Francis Monkman. The second album contained “Back Street Luv” and the great show stopping piece “Young Mother” Darryl became more drawn to melodic simplicity with perfect beautiful arrangements while Francis took the music into more involved and intricate experimental places . This is how they grew apart. After Darryl and Francis and Florian went their own ways, Eddie Jobson at 17 was a perfect replacement to satisfy the expectations that Curved Air produce classic dramatic progressive music. Francis’s alter ego within the original line-up was his brilliant edgy guitar virtuosity – also a hall mark of Curved Air. Kirby Gregory took over that role… also young he kept the rock energy high and was a very exciting performer. Mike Wedgwood contributed a couple of songs which added to the album’s diversity and I am very pleased with these interpretations of my songs, “Easy” and “Elfin Boy”. This album, “Aircut” is my next favourite after “Air Conditioning”. Then when the original group reformed and we recorded our live performances something was revealed that was not on the studio album. “Live” caught me in full flight, raw and abandoned… out of control, not fettered by expectations of perfection. It is a great imprint of the power of Curved Air in the moment. “Love Child” is sketchy… my four songs were recorded as ideas for the next Curved Air album after “Aircut” but the band had disbanded, I am happy that they are available now though. “Midnight Wire” was a strange period, it had a more American bluesy influence from the new players . Darryl enjoyed this colour and his melodic pop inventions were embroidered with riffs and funky elements, I was in a dark place so my friend Norma was my voice lyrically, speaking my reality, I couldn’t write a sensible sentence at the time. “Airborne” was in my opinion a collection of diverse styles – a band with no direction, different writer’s statements, I like “Broken Lady” best, an intimate personal song.In 1990 after years of our individual projects the original band re-grouped and played two shows : the first of which, a magical, historic night was recorded through the sound desk and became “Alive 1990”. It was a confident dynamic reminiscence and it is good that it exists as a very rough recording. Curved Air today is a cauldren of potential. We are truly truly alive : new players, Paul Sax, Robert Norton, Chris Harris and Kit Morgan adding nuances and fresh interpretations of the best of Curved Air’s history and forming new masterpieces to add to the future albums and for the audiences who have welcomed us and are hungry to hear this music again played live to to hear what will be created next. This was why we recorded “Live Atmosphere”.
And…what about the music industry? How was in the ’70s? And how it’s changed now? You don’t have to be “gentle”, if you think something, tell us, I give you the permission to be as nasty and honest as you want!
In the 60s and 70s great independant rock groups and artists were very fertile but there were not so many bands and recordings available as there are today. There was a great thirst for the exciting and inspiring material that people were hearing on the new independent and pirate radio station. Radio Luxemberg was very influential and the ‘underground’ scene that spawned psychedelic, cosmic and progressive fusion bands as well as singer songwriters and folk influences. Then there was Lou Reed and David Bowie. The New York charged Punk era was a different colour of stripped down direct communication and theatricality. The Eighties were weaned on the sixties and seventies and kept the punk theatrics and pop explorations and launched the mighty robotic Art of Noise bass and snare sound, new voices. The Police, the Smiths…. The Nineties was the era of Ibiza house dance computer white label DJ music, everyone was the star at the raves and clubs, always little fringe clubs too with all kinds of genres being explored in the back ground… in the foreground rap and Damon Albarn, Nirvana and Oasis. Now there is so much diversity from Radiohead to Sigur Ros. However the media generated X Factor etcetera is a talent contest that seems to regurgitate and reproduce and never find the soul of this generation listening to the past great performers and waiting for inspiration.Today everyone can broadcast themselves, record themselves, everyone one has a voice and there is so much that is not transporting or truly inspiring : Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and the boy bands and girl bands are charismatic entertainers amplified and adored but this in not all that people want?
Sonja, how did you get started? Why and when did you start singing?
As a young child aged 7 I used to recite poetry at school and loved creative writing. Both I found put me in an altered meditative state that I enjoyed, as a result of intense imaginings, I learned to play a little piano and then a little guitar and learned songs from a book of 101 American Folk Songs. When I sang them people became entranced and were encouraging, so it was a rewarding activity also there was much of interest in acoustic music folk styles and blues and songs and singers – I heard Buffy Sainte Marie and her passion and beautiful delivery and songs were a big revelation, the Incredible String Band later, Robin Williamson’s unique melodies especially delighted me, Bob Dylan’s word weavings. I also was a fan of Dusty Springfield and the early Rolling Stones, I learned songs I liked and began to write some of my own and found folk clubs were places where people like me could show up and sing..
What was the main reason that got you say “Ok, let’s do this, let’s get back on stage” back in 2009?
Darryl Way had been asking for several years if we could try a reunion tour and Francis and Florian were up for it. However I was busy writing and recording with Marvin Ayres as MASK and I felt I couldn’t divide my creativity.Then in 2008 Marvin and I had finished our second album “Technopia” and Darryl asked again so I thought that it would be a positive time to try taking Curved Air out and continue what we had started so many years ago. Francis however wanted to start again with new devised material and not deliver past songs and Darryl wanted to perform the best of our old material. They could not agree so Francis dropped out. After a few months of touring Darryl found it all too stressful and became unwell so he dropped out too. However we had already a wonderful guitarist and bass player, Kit Morgan and Chris Harris, and to replace Darryl I invited two musicians I had worked with in the late ‘80s /90s., violinist Paul Sax and Keyboard player Robert Norton, this is a group of virtuoso players who are happy to tour. Florian Pilking Miksa, the original Curved Air drummer has never played better and this lineup is a godsend for both of us…
You career spans for decades. If you had to pick…let’s say 5 favorite moments of it, which ones would they be?
Playing the RoundHouse in Camden Town in 1970 and all our concerts there; The opening night of “Hair” at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London in 1968 and the entire run; Running my psychedelic wednesday nights at the troubadour club in Earl’s Court in 1967; Playing with my Acid Folk Band on the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury Festival in 1990 and all through till 96′; Playing in New Orleans in a sweltering arena supporting BB King and all the other US stadiums in 71/72.
And what about the songs? Can you list some songs (as many as you want) to whom you’re really attached, for any reason?
David Bowie – “Five Years”, “Wild is the Wind”, “Golden Years”; Buffy Sainte Marie – “Until Its time for You to Go”. Guess who I saw in Paris Janis Joplin: “Me and Bobby Mcgee”, “Summertime”; Edith Piaf – “La Vie en Rose”; Jeff Buckey – “So Real”; Dusty Springfield “Snow Patrol” – “Chasing Cars”; Seal – “Kissed by a Rose”.
Back in the 70s, why did you choose prog-rock? What attracted you to this musical genre?
I didn’t chose it, it came to me. Curved Air needed a singer, I enjoyed their sound.
Can you remember the (almost) exact time when you were aware you were one of the most important prog-rock bands of your time? How did you feel at that time?
When we were rehearsing our set and Darryl played “Vivaldi”. It was exciting, I felt this music was important like I knew “Hair” was groundbreaking theatre before the show opened in London and I was privileged to be part of it. I felt the same about this band.
You had lots of line-up changes. What have you learned from every Curved Air‘s member, how did every one of them influence the band as a whole? Of course, you don’t have to list everyone (but you can if you want!), but maybe the most relevant ones (no offense intended for the other, of course!)
Francis Monkman was three things: an innovator of sound manipulation – a fearless guitarist and beautiful keyboard player; Darryl Way played violin in a true classical rock style and immersed himself in the latest technology for sound modulation for the violin and wrote great tunes; Rob Martin was a melodic bass player who also contributed beautiful pieces to “Air Conditioning”; Ian Eyre – flamboyant and dexterous bass player; Eddie Jobson – precocious brilliance, courage; Kirby Gregory – cool, hypnotic – true rock n roll attitude; Mike Wedgwood – loyal, solid great bass player; Phil Kohn – witty , quirky, funky; Mick Jacques – cool, expressive, kind, a real gentleman; Stewart Copeland – anarchic, ambitious and driven, very creative drummer.
Among your seven studio albums, what was the most difficult to record? Or, maybe, the one you’re attached emotionally the most?
The most difficult to record was “Midnight Wire” – our first recordings were rejected by RCA so producers were brought in who forced the band to rewrite and rerecord the whole album – a miserable experience.The original version was great unfortunately now lost.
What can you tell us about your involvement in the acid folk movement in the ’90s? How did you get attracted by it?
I was relaunching my career in 1988 when my youngest child was three, I was looking for a musical scene where I belonged, to begin again in those times. I returned to the Troubadour club in Earl’s Court London where I had heard a “new acoustic scene” was happening, I watched and felt excited by these new young singer songwriters playing without amplification with personality and attitude. I took my turn to sing like I did when thirteen years old : I felt the fear of intimate exposure and began to write new songs. I was invited to play a headline set and sang all new songs accompanied by my new friends then I heard of the psychedelic scene when all kinds of weird and alternative new bands and poets and performance artists were attracting the new traveller hippies and newage punks. I asked to play and was made welcome. I gathered a band of strong improvisers – two brothers who were wild – Simon who played drums and steel drum and Tim who sang and played deep dark acoustic guitar – a brilliant violinist who a friend had seen busking with a street band – Paul Sax (now the violinist with Curved Air) a five string bass player and a fifteen year old child prodigy cellist. We played clubs and bars and colleges and festivals, sometimes unamplified – without even a mike, at other times electric and loud, with an oil wheel lightshow even in the most serious folk clubs. We toured for 7 years.
And what about your solo career? Did you get the chance to express ideas and explore things you couldn’t have done with Curved Air?
My solo career is just continuing what I did before Curved Air, writing songs… except creating with my own bands and musicians and lately with an inspiring modern- classical composer/ multi instrumentalist Marvin Ayres.
Progressive rock now is not very followed worldwide nowadays. Talking about your fans, do you see new faces at every gig, or do you have your “high-fidelity fans”? I mean, how do younger people react to your music? (Needless to say that as soon as you’ll come playing to Italy you’ll see my face among the crowd!)
I have been in Italy on Halloween October 31st at the Xroads club in Rome with your band Oak who play progressive rock of their own and also covers of other progressive songs and instrumentals, I have been their special guest and they have been playing some Curved Air songs and I have sung other songs with them.There are young progressive rock bands in the UK who have supported us at concerts and festivals. They heard progressive music when teenagers and started writing their own music, yes there are new fans and children of old fans and people who are seeing Curved Air play for the first time as well as those who have followed the band for many years.
What can you tell us about your experience with musicals? Did they influenced you as a musician, or maybe gave you “hints” on how to act and entertain the public on stage during your concerts?
I was lucky enough to be in the Rock Musical “Hair” which did transform me from a static singer into someone completely at home on the stage. I had acted and been to drama college for one year but this was completely different – it was about being free on stage rather than forma stage craft. So when I joined Curved Air it was this experience I brought with me. I think of performance as shamanistic rather than disciplined, an exchange of energy between audience and performers, working with imagination and inhabiting personas. I also played in a traveling show of cabaret style French Piaf and Brel and other beautiful classic songs with strong English translation, “The French Have a Song for It “. Marsha Hunt, who also starred in Hair, wrote a musical and I played the female lead in that in 1982, I acted and sang in a musical play for TV in 1980 “Curiculee Curiculaa”: I found these all enjoyable, not least because I love being part of a company, a group of people engaged in entertaining an audience and telling a story through Drama. I have played in theatre in straight plays also.
Now, a more “general” and more difficult and serious question. What do you think about how the world’s changed in all these years? In all these years, you’ve seen some big revolutions, both political and intellectual (and musical, of course).
Yes, we are in times of great change and innovation, on the brink of great upheaval in lifestyles and government. The 60’s hippie dream seems far away but also integrated into the present time with “green” policies yoga, Tai chi, meditation, vegetarianism and rapid social changes between now and then that now seem unextraordinary. Such as women, gay and racial equality and the and the all seeing Internet.
Now that you’re fully back on the scenes, what are your plans for the future, both as a person and as a musician? Do you have any upcoming important projects as “Sonja”? I mean…let’s say, just to make an example…maybe you’re organizing some big event? Just saying, it would actually be great to see a big festival full of important bands’ reunions, like a big prog-rock fest!
I just look to get through every next day with an open heart and clarity and joy, to be free to jump into new arenas. This Curved Air band of superb players’ development is important to me and also the potential of continuing my work with Marvin who is now the Curved Air producer too, I would like to do some quality film drama work and theatre too, plays rather than musicals.
Well…there would be lots of other things to talk about, but I think for now it’s all! Thank you so much for your time, good luck for everything…and I hope to see you soon in concert!
Thank you Matteo – Curved Air “Live Atmosphere” has been released on 12th of November .