An Interview with Vera Sola

Mike Giegerich speaks to the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist about the intimate writing across her new album Peacemaker, its expansive dreamlike scope, all of her songs holding many different emotions...
By    March 27, 2024

Image via Vera Sola/Instagram

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Listening to Lingua Ignota gives Mike Giegerich catholic guilt and he’s never even been to church.

Almost 100,000 acres of land were scorched by the Woolsey Fire that tore through Malibu, CA, in 2018. It was an ecological disaster that claimed both land and lives against an iconic coastal backdrop. For Vera Sola – the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist born Danielle Ackroyd – it was also a personal calamity as cascading fires stormed toward her mother’s home. While the house was ultimately spared, the traumatic experience directly influenced Vera Sola’s sophomore album, Peacemaker.

Written and recorded over a five-year period, Peacemaker alchemizes Vera Sola’s anger and fear – both on the macro and micro level – into a creative triumph. Album opener “Bad Idea” directly addresses her experience with the Woolsey Fire atop dramatic strings. Later, the morose “Instrument of War” inverts the St. Francis prayer into a call for bloodshed. It’s here that Vera Sola explicitly addresses interpersonal violence (“You let him lay his heavy hands on me”) while the song’s spiritual subtext pulls straight from her Catholic upbringing. It’s this sort of multi-layered writing that makes Peacemaker feel so intimate.

The album’s balance between concepts like spirituality and brutality also sits squarely in the record’s title. The Peacemaker was a pistol created in the late 19th century, blighted by its use in the brutal westward expansion of the United States. It’s a symbol of Vera Sola’s rage that is transmuted into a beautiful exterior across Peacemaker. Subtle picking and silky vocal melodies on “I’m Lying” belie her personal reckoning: “If you break me, make it quickly now / What makes me suffer makes me grow.” And in a more literal sense, the Peacemaker pistol manifests in Vera Sola’s embrace of technicolor Westerns and their cinematic fantasies.

Alongside contemporaries like Ethel Cain who are immersed in the aesthetics of American reveries and nostalgia, Vera Sola’s music even more so sounds the part. Peacemaker’s twangy, reverberating guitars conjure up images of great American landscapes. The influence of the grand New World Symphony seeps into the scope of her compositions. She intermixes singer-songwriter simplicity with orchestral swells and occasional indie-rock catharsis. And Vera Sola’s vocals have a propulsive tone – not necessarily baritone, but baritone in spirit – that makes every recording feel epic in scale. While her debut album was a sunfaded daydream, Peacemaker is an exposition of American musical heritages, all thread together with her incisive narrative inflections. It feels right at home with records from City Slang labelmates Anna Von Hausswolff and Jessica Pratt, both of which have their own singular sounds.

While recalling her anxiety around the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Vera Sola expresses an overarching grief about other fires across the globe. She was deeply affected by the destruction of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral as she watched it burn on live television. She also sees the razing of the American Rainforest as the destruction of the Earth’s greatest cathedral. Alongside imagining music in a Cinerama scope and exploring the nonduality of reality throughout our conversation, we discuss how Vera Sola’s interior fire was purified during the creative process of Peacemaker.

What immediately sticks out to me on Peacemaker is how full-bodied your vocals now sound. Can you talk about finding your physical voice alongside your creative voice on this record?

Vera Sola: I’m not sure how much you know about my first record, but I had never properly sung before making my first record, and I’d never properly [sung] until I got into the studio to record. So I opened my mouth, and this voice came out. And I was like, “Whoa, what the f*ck is that?” And it came out. There was the sense of, you know, still finding myself through that record. And I also think that a really big part of the reason that I chose for that one – and I promise I will get back to this [new] one. But a really big part of the reason for that record, that I chose to play everything myself and not have any other input, was because I didn’t trust that my boundaries were strong enough, and my vision was strong enough to be able to communicate that to another person.

Like, “That’s not exactly the right part.” Or if they offered a suggestion to me, I might just have taken it thinking, “Oh, they’re more experienced than me, they know more than me.” That said, I do think that I was still influenced probably subconsciously by what I saw to be the trend in female voices, which is, it tends to be breathier, it tends to be lighter, softer. The past five years, this is what I see out there; less sort of engaging with the depth, and if anything, the masculine side of the voice, or the sort of powerhouse. And of course, there are loads of examples to the contrary, but this is what I was seeing, at least in the indie realm. And I think that unconsciously, I may have tempered myself, in order to fit into that on that record.

So in the process of playing those songs out, I realized, “Oh, I don’t sing like that.” My speaking voice is very deep and very embodied. And I realized, I have a lot of power, I pack a lot of power, both in the range of my voice and in the tone of it. So I found that during the process of playing out and then going back and cross referencing it with that record that I made Shades. It was like, “Oh, this is a lot less [me]. It is me, but it’s a lot less me than I can be.” So when it came to this record, I really wanted to capture – among people who have seen me play, I’m known for really big, dynamic, intense live performances. And I wanted to capture that on this record, I wanted to give this sense of spontaneity and electricity that comes through in my live shows.

And a big part of that is just my voice and giving it the full space to be what it is. And then creatively, it was just having that confidence, seeing that I could do it by myself on the first one, that I could enact this vision and bring it to fruition that I was really able to open myself up to the magic of collaboration. And that working with other people actually strengthened my creative voice because I did have to say, “No, like, this is the right move. I know that chord doesn’t seem right. I know we’re switching keys in the middle of this verse. This is what I want. And this is what this song needs.” And that actually sort of deepened my certitude and myself and I think that’s the main shift. I mean, there’s lots of other things and lots of influences that came in – and stuff that I was able to do because I had these super talented people working with me – but really, it was that it was kind of just coming into myself.

Even though her work is closer to pop, your point about breathy vocals reminds me of Billie Eilish’s vocals back in 2018 – that almost whispered cadence.

Vera Sola: Yeah. And Billie Eilish has an incredibly powerful voice under there. She can really, really sing, as we’ve seen in her more recent stuff. I think that’s a really interesting comparison.

What was your evolution into the role of composer and conductor on your new record like? Was there anything unexpected after your first album was self-insulated?

Vera Sola: No, I think it was totally, exactly what was in the cards to happen. My first show that I ever played, I played with a string quartet. And I didn’t arrange it. I didn’t arrange those strings. But from there, I really realized how much my music and my songwriting and my melodies really lent themselves to that sort of thing. I’ve always been very detail oriented … And so that really lent itself to this process; it was just another natural evolution and natural thing that came forth. And I mean, [it was] challenging at first in the sense that I really did have to push past any lingering insecurities about my abilities. But once I did, like, I know what I want. So I’ll get it somehow. Whether the person can do it, or I have to do it, or it takes three months, I don’t know, I’m gonna figure out a way.

When I think of great musicians, I think of the ability to delegate, so it’s cool that you made this jump on album two. I know Peacemaker is influenced by the New World Symphony. The album definitely feels like a great American Western. Can you talk about the scope of the record’s sound? And if there were any films or images that played into that aesthetic as well?

Vera Sola: Sure. I have a Dropbox folder with over 1000 images from all over the place. And I grew up on movies. And, [was] really influenced by soundtracks for sure. It was said about the last [album] that I made that it was very cinematic, so I knew that I wrote cinematic music. I really wanted to lean into that because I love that overdone, sort of blown-out widescreen music. I can appreciate simplicity, but generally I tend to be a maximalist in my tastes. And yeah, I wanted this to be as wide as possible. And really when I’m arranging music, I do see it not in a synesthetic way, but I see it visually. So I see it in space and I see where it comes from and where it goes and sort of trails of it as it moves across in the panning. To me it’s like a dome or a planetarium that sits over my head and then everything goes around it … remember that theater that’s down on Sunset Boulevard, it’s like the Cinerama Dome?

So that technology really influenced me here. For a very brief period of time in the mid-century, I want to say Cinerama is what it was called, but it was this way of shooting films where what they would do is they would shoot with multiple cameras, and then blend them all together and the screen was curved. So it kind of wrapped around and it was this immersive experience. But then what happened when they tried to translate that to television, or out of that very specific theater, is everything got sort of warped and kind of f*cked up. If you watch those movies, now you’re like, “What the hell is the shape of that horse? Why are those trees like that?” It totally f*cks everything up. Sorry, I’m really cursing today.

That, to me, really gets to the core record. It’s super widescreen and immersive. And, you know, textural and you’ve got this wide landscape, but then the perspectives are really jarring and messed up and it’s almost like a funhouse. There’s all of this sort of twisted, weird, surrealist stuff, where you’re moving in and moving out. And you have these close ups and, and zoom outs, right next to each other. And that technology really came into this when I was thinking about the arrangement of this record. How to merge this widescreen Western sensibility with a twisted surrealism. And then, of course El Topo, and The Holy Mountain, and those sorts of films, like the psychedelic Western because it has that surrealist element to it. The dreamlike quality of the record is, to me, almost more important than the Western thrust. It’s like if you had a really long strange dream about the American West is how I look at it. And then there were all of these other random things that came in from your memory, and characters that showed up and places that showed up. And then Blood Meridian too.

I’ve seen The Holy Mountain and it definitely has that element of dream logic. You can sort of follow what’s happening at best, especially in the chamber ritual after he climbs into the tower.

Vera Sola: Exactly. And that’s what I think a lot of the time is going on in my music, at least on a grander scale. If you take each individual song as you would on a streamer, you can kind of figure out what’s going on. But if you look at it as a whole, which is how it’s intended to be, you know, I don’t really write songs for streamers. They’re all six minutes long. It’s really tough in this day and age. But, you know, it’s a world that’s built and you’re going into different chambers, you’re going into different places and spaces.

When you were talking about the Cinerama warp of the record, It also made me think about how you’re lyrically bleeding surrealist and realist perspectives into the same songs. How does that warp manifest lyrically to you?

Vera Sola: I think that the warp comes in, throughout everything. I started off as a poet. So the lyrics are really important to me, but my poetry teacher back in the day told me that I wasn’t a very successful poet, which is true, like my lyrics [and] my words needed further scaffolding to really bring them in. And that’s what the music does. And so the lyrics and the vocal delivery and the arrangement, it all sort of works together in this push and pull. And so you’ve got the warp in the lyrics. And then you’ve got it also in the sound. For the life of me – I’m not gonna say I would never because I’m always changing – but I could never imagine at this point in my life using a click track. Because time and its work is so important to the sensibility of my music, and moving in and out of time signatures and expanding and contracting time, depending on what’s going on emotionally in the song to really mirror what happens in our lives when we’re going through something emotionally. Whether we’re happy or sad, time shifts around us. Time is just a construct.

Right, time isn’t linear. What you’re saying with the click track – that’s an artificial thing to hold everything together, when in reality, that’s not how time works.

Vera Sola: Which is a big theme on this record, too. The second song on the record is called “The Line.” And it’s exactly about that. It’s about the nonlinear nature of time. It came out of a conversation with a friend, but it’s simplified. I described it as a warm, dark circle. But now, we’re pretty sure it’s a toroid. I mean, we don’t even know shit. I don’t know. But it’s not linear. And I’ve had experiences in my life. I think we’ve all had experiences in our lives that prove that, and that’s certainly baked, heavily baked into this stuff.

On “I’m Lying,” I noticed you start with “I feel safe with you on pillow Street” and then progress into the refrain “I love you, I’m lying.” That seems to further emphasize the lack of stability and linearity.

Vera Sola: All of my songs always hold many truths, and come from many perspectives, and hold many different emotions. And on that one specifically, like, it’s yes I feel safe with you. And I feel profoundly unsafe. And there’s this thunder rolling in over the whole song. And then it’s also like, “I love you, I’m lying.” There is this flow between emotional states and this nonduality; nothing is ever just one thing. It’s ultimately, kind of a non-dual perspective. I can both love you and be lying to you, I can be lying to you and love you, I can be lying about the fact that I love you, and also love you. I mean, human emotions are all over the place. So I think I try to work through them in this stuff and get into all of that stuff. And all the crevices of possibility.

I think the human experience is on a gray scale and definitely not black-and-white. In terms of duality, the record is called Peacemaker which was the instrument to bring about “civilized society” in the American West. Can you talk about that contrast?

Vera Sola: I think, again, it does come back to a sense of a nondual sense and [that] everything can be true at exactly the same time. So originally, I was going to call this record Instrument of War. That’s kind of what was on the docket, which is the final song in the album, [and] to me, the thematic centerpiece of the album, The sonic centerpiece – it’s where everything grew out of. But I really didn’t want to lead with that. And I didn’t want that to be the tone of what I was coming out with. But … it was important to me that there was something abrasive and a little bit violent. And that’s something that got to the core of the angry, protective nature of the emotions that were coming through on this record.

I was meditating, and the word peacemaker sort of dropped out of the sky. That’s how it came in. And I immediately knew that that’s what it would be called. And what it did for me was it – you know, it’s the original American instrument of war, right? It is this object that has caused so much pain and so much violence and so much destruction. And we’re still suffering the consequences of what that weapon did every day. And yet, it is a beautiful word. And if you divorce it from that object, it’s a beautiful sentiment. It’s something we need so badly. And so it got to the core of what I think I do in my music. I can be abrasive and I can be full of rage in these songs and full of sadness. And yet, I’m wrapping it in transmutation or the beauty of music. Whether the music is beautiful to you or not. It’s the fact that you’re making music about something painful. [That] makes it into something beautiful, it changes it. It’s like alchemy. Over the course of making this record and releasing it, I have managed to make peace with these emotions, these f*cking terrible, painful, horrible times in my life. And these people who have done great harm to me and to others, I’ve been able to hold everything as true this person can do harm and be worthy of compassion.

In terms of the transmutation, I noticed “Lord, make me an instrument of war” is an inverse of the St. Francis prayer.

Vera Sola: Thank you. Yes. The first person who’s ever gotten that [laughs]. That song’s been around for 10 years.

I saw in an older interview that you had a Catholic school upbringing. So I’m curious about the decision to take the St. Francis prayer and turn it into something harsher.

Vera Sola: Well, yeah, I did have a Catholic school upbringing. And certainly I also love religious iconography. We’ll get back around to it, but if you can believe it or not, I am many, many things, but I would consider myself to be Christian. I totally dig the Christ consciousness and love the nature of the notion of the Christ. Not what’s been done with it, obviously … [I] really grew up in this Catholic school with this sense of resentment toward what had been done with these beautiful scriptures and with these beautiful words. And for a long time, [that] really tortured me. I have a song on my last record that’s the story of Adam and Eve [and] what it means to be a woman in a biblical world. You know? I had a teacher in college who used to say the Bible is a collection of stories essentially about men who hate women. It’s written by men who hate women and all the women are barren, or they’re whores except for Mother Mary. It’s pretty, pretty rough.

So with that one, that came out of that part of me, which was not in a peacemaking place, [and] which was like, “How do I weaponize prayer?” I’m going to make a prayer for war, essentially, and a prayer for redemption … I love the prayer of St. Francis, I really do. I think it’s ultimately the cool thing about it is that in the process of making this and releasing it again – I’ve come back around to the prayer of St. Francis with the title. “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon.” And that’s kind of what I’m trying [to do]. [That’s] what my message is, at least. You can still be f*cking angry, and full of rage, and you can still be hurt, and [yet] show love and compassion and kindness and peace. And that’s where I come back around to … I’ve sort of reverted back into this place of studying the Bible again from a good non-religious place. And it’s really cool. Ultimately the words of Christ are astounding, and the message of Christ is not what is out there, obviously not what is worshipped these days. Especially in this country, like, [he was a] f*cking radical. That guy was radical, you know?

Without going too much into your family history, I know there’s a shared interest in spiritualism. Before this interview, I was wondering how you balance that with your Catholic upbringing. Now that we’re talking, I see both of those things can be true.

Vera Sola: Absolutely. Once again, the dogma of religion has come in and taken out a lot. They took out the transmigration of souls – reincarnation – in the Bible. They just were like, “F*ck, no, we’re not doing that. Because people won’t worship us if they know that they’re doing this over 1000 millions and millions and millions of years [and] that they just keep coming back in different forms.” It just voids everything. But yeah, I have a really profound and deep spiritual life. And I come from a family of spiritualists. But that was pretty hardcore on the ghost side of things. And I’m not so much interested in ghosts, as I am interested in, like, consciousness and animism. I’d have to really describe myself like an animist Christian. I’m super down with the saints, and I’m super down with the Christ consciousness. It’s a syncretic form of worship, and I do pray a lot.

But yeah, I think that we’ve come to this place … where we’re divorced from the notion of spirit. And that’s not natural and normal for humans. For the vast majority of our time on Earth, however long you believe that we’ve been around here, we have been in touch with spirits and spirit, whether that’s our ancestor [or] there’s the spirits of the trees, the spirits of rivers, the spirits of saints in Christ and all of this. And so we’ve gotten to this place where we’ve kind of cut ourselves off. And I feel really lucky that I was born into a family that was open to all of that stuff and where I’ve been able to see. Because even me, you have to see to believe. And I’ve seen things that are absolutely, no doubt. There is so much beyond us and so much far beyond what we’re taught and that there is great. You can coexist as a spiritualist [and] as a Catholic. I study all sorts of religions, and ultimately, the message I think is the same.

I love the idea of the spirit of everything, like the philosophy of panpsychism. The belief that all matter is inherently conscious, it’s just different levels of consciousness.

Vera Sola: I’m absolutely on board with you. That’s my perspective as well.

So when you were talking about the anger that went into this record, I love how you conceptualize anger and traverse through it. My therapist recently told me anger is actually good – you’re experiencing an emotion and learning to work through it.

Vera Sola: If you don’t feel anger – this is my personal belief and I’ve seen it happen in my life. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the anger, and you don’t give it space, it will invert, and it will kill you. I mean, it will make you sick, or they say that depression is just anger turned inward, right? It’s so important to give space to that. And that’s something that we don’t do. In society these days, at least we don’t give it healthy space. We get all pissy on the internet and yell at each other. But are we really looking at what we’re really feeling angry about? What is [at] the core of when we lash out at other people? What is the core of what we’re feeling? And how can we sit with that and feel it and process it? And yes, move through it. And a big part of that is what you’re saying, it’s like, “No, we shouldn’t feel angry, or we don’t want to express it, because it’s negative, because it’s a negative emotion.” Do you know the scales of consciousness, Power Vs. Force, do you know that book?

I don’t know of it.

Vera Sola: [It’s] the Hawkins consciousness scale … There’s this very famous structure of emotions. And if you are at the top of it, very close to the top, you’ve got the Christ consciousness (unconditional love and forgiveness). And at the bottom, like the lowest rung is shame and guilt, [but] anger is farther up there than you would expect … That’s because anger is an outward emotion, there’s some propulsion behind it, there’s some momentum so that you can work with it. You can’t really like to do anything with shame – you can counteract it with other things, but shame makes you go inside and kind of curl up. Anger, at least, is outward. And also, I have the belief that there’s a lot of love in anger. You’re feeling anger because you love something. Because you care about something. If you didn’t care, you would just be disinterested.

In a classic mentorship setting, there’s the saying that to be criticized is better than to hear nothing at all. Silence means they’ve given up on you.

Vera Sola: Sure. Putting that forward, or at least you’re eliciting something like when it comes to art. If there’s criticism, at least something about what you’ve done has touched someone in a certain way, even if it’s negatively. When I would ask somebody for feedback in the recording process, and they’d be like, “Yeah, it’s nice. It sounds nice.” What do you mean, nice? That’s the worst thing that anyone can say to me. Or, “You sounded nice. It was a really nice show.” Come on, we’re rolling around on the floor here! Give me something more than that, you know?

I know the record was delayed by all sorts of environmental turmoil like wildfires and tornadoes. Did the creative process help you process those natural disasters?

Vera Sola: The tornado was less present on the record than I think that the press has made it seems, because it was at the end of the thing. So I didn’t actually didn’t write anything about the tornado. But certainly the anxiety and this sort of reckoning with natural forces. The thing about a tornado that’s so crazy – and the wildfire is very present on there. But the thing about a tornado that’s so crazy, is that it’s so powerful. And yet … it’ll touch down in a place and completely destroy one side of the street, and the other side of the street will be untouched. So I think it should there’s something about that, even more than a hurricane that just comes in and ravages everything, or a wildfire that comes in and just burns everything to the ground. I think there’s something about a tornado, that’s just more anxiety making. We’re all closer maybe to the vicissitudes of human life, like the random nature of disaster and how it can hit and like completely destroy one person and, and leave another totally unscathed.

But the wildfire for sure, fire was a really big part of this record for me. And of course,literally and figuratively. The fire of anger, the fire of purification that this record means to me. This record was a process of burning and purifying to then allow me to get to the place that I am now. But, you know, the first song on the record is about [the] wildfire. And it started about the Notre Dame cathedral. We landed in France for this tour and walked around. I love churches, I go wherever I am, I try to see as many churches as I possibly can for a number of reasons. And so we went and we were walking down the aisle of Notre Dame. And then two days later, we were in Germany, and we woke up and went down in the hostel [and] there was a TV and it was the cathedral on fire. I obviously was extremely moved, and pained by that, and really working through it.

And then a friend of mine was communicating with a friend of mine, and he ended up writing something – he’s an ecologist, he actually specifically works on frogs. And he wrote this piece where he was talking about, “Look, the destruction of the cathedral is devastating. And it’s a tragedy on a global scale. And there’s no doubt about that. But what you have to realize is that to those of us who work with the environment, and work with ecology and work with Mother Nature, like we’re seeing cathedrals burn on a daily basis. We are seeing the greatest cathedral of all, which is the Earth, literally burn right now.” And that totally laid me flat. And then in reading, I read that the part of the church that caught fire was the ancient forest. They call it the forest, this beautiful scaffold that holds the thing up is the forest. And that’s all of Earth, right?

Then right after that, the Amazon was burning because we do these burns to make fields for cattle to graze and And tthen wildfires in California were creeping up on my mom’s house. So it was this whole twisted web of a feeling of this encroachment upon me, this encroachment upon my mom. And then this encroachment upon my great mother the Earth – what we’re all doing to ourselves. That was a really huge part of it, certainly, and sort of also doubles back on to this Western narrative, which is the nature of what that Western expansion ultimately meant for the Earth. Taking away the connection to the land, wiping out the deep connection to the land that the natives were holding, you know, and this wiping out of wisdom, ultimately. But at the same time, [there’s] the complexity, this grand expanse of this beautiful landscape, and this way that the white people were trying to connect to the land – the only ways they knew how, which is digging for gold and oil.

I really like the phrase of Earth being the greatest cathedral. It seems natural to human nature that we would burn down that cathedral, then burn the cathedrals we’ve made ourselves.

Vera Sola: For sure. And not respecting the divine, you know? Whether it’s the divine in the grandfather trees, or the divine in this spectacular building that we built and prayed and for all these years, or the divine in each other. That is ultimately the thing that we’ve lost the most, I think more than anything is seeing the divine in each other. Because if we were able to see the divine in each other, we wouldn’t be out there destroying everything in the name of capitalism, which is what we’re doing right? Nobody’s going out there and really cutting down trees to kill God, they’re doing it because they need money [and] they want money. That’s it. And we wouldn’t be fighting each other If we just knew that we’re all God.

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