There was a time when Sonya Cotton sat cross-legged in the corner of a tiny practice room at Princeton Day School and listened as I fumbled on an upright piano and spit out lyrics about ex-boyfriends. Occasionally, I’d pick through the chords of a Beatles song and she’d chime in with harmony. At 16, she was slender and delicate to behold. Her voice, too, was slightly reedy and fluttered around the edges, yet it was assured as she sailed through the high notes my nasal alto couldn’t touch. She applauded my teenaged attempts at songwriting (something I have since had the wisdom to leave to those more fearless than I) and we cooed together until the choir teacher called us back in to rehearsal.
Our close friendship fell victim to the rush of trying to grow up. I’d hear bits of news about her every now and again. I wasn’t surprised to hear that she’d continued with her abilities in visual arts, nor was I surprised to learn that she was playing guitar and beginning to sing and record her own songs in earnest.
Ten years later, I am surprised. She pressed a copy of her new CD, “Red River,” into my hand when we ran into each other at Small World Coffee last August. When I finally got around to slipping it into my car’s CD player I was met with the voice of someone I did not know.
Cotton now resides in San Francisco and is touring the east coast with different incarnations of her band this May. They make stops this week in Lambertville at the Centenary United Methodist Church on Thursday, May 20, and at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Princeton on Friday, May 21. “The original hope was to do [the tour] by train and not by car but it wasn’t feasible with the prices. It’s totally a goal of mine to do that in the near future.”
If she sounds a little out of the ordinary, there’s a reason. Born at Princeton Hospital (her father, John Cotton, is a pediatrician with the Pediatric Group at 66 Mt. Lucas Road), the 26-year-old earned a B.A. in studio art from Vassar in 2005, which is where she first began to write and record her own music. It wasn’t long before her work as a visual artist gave way to her songwriting and performing. Upon graduation, she played her way across the country and found herself in the city that would ultimately become her new home. Today, to support herself, she substitute teaches for Five Keys Charter School, a high school for adults inside the San Francisco County Jails.
What makes her different is that Cotton’s vision extends beyond the challenge of living and working as an artist. In addition to writing, recording, rehearsing, booking shows, and traveling to venues to perform, she challenges herself to do so in a way that embodies her personal ethics. She strives to incorporate activism into her music. “My goal in general is to learn to be a person who follows through with her belief system and fuses it with the music,” she says. Focused specifically on delivering a message centered on animal welfare and, “an overall vision of moving through the world in a less destructive, more sustainable way,” the idea of the train tour was born. “The highway system and cars are no good for wildlife and the train system and public transportation seem like a step in the right direction.”
Cotton comes by her deep passion for the natural world honestly. Her mother, Karen Imparato Cotton, who died in Princeton last July, dedicated much of her life to the protection and defense of animals. She held positions with many organizations including the Humane Society of the U.S. and the New York Audubon Society as well as sitting on the board of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Here in the Princeton area, she worked towards finding non-lethal means of controlling the burgeoning deer population. The band will be traveling in Karen Cotton’s old Volvo station wagon for their time in the area.
Writing is an exercise in self-awareness for Cotton. “I feel like my dreams give me insight into what’s going on inside me,” she says. “I tend to write about whatever is most consciously moving me on a given day. Lately that’s been very consistently about my mom’s death. It feels like therapy to write songs for her and about her.” A self-taught guitarist who claims to struggle with finding interesting guitar lines (you can judge for yourself, but they sound pretty good to me) she focuses first on lyrics. “I’m not musically driven. I love singing, but that’s not what comes most naturally in the creative process of having an idea for a song and wanting to share it with myself and the world — it’s a spirit that can only be put forth in words.”
Cotton’s songs are folk songs, no doubt, but there is something more to them. Her voice tumbles over melodies with a rich, haunting timbre that can suddenly swell into a sweet, clear soprano. The voices of other band members tumble with hers to form satisfying, unexpected harmonies. Lyrically, she tends to paint landscapes of the natural world and then ushers the listener between the ethereal and the concrete.
I watched the moon ripple and rise as ghosts were filling up your eyes
Slow as the withering tide, quiet as the sparrow’s cry.
Cotton puts a concerted effort into creating intimate, focused concerts that (bravely) don’t rely on booze to lubricate a bar crowd. “For the first four years of performing I would very consistently feel discouraged after a show. Its funny that it took me as long as it did to realize that I don’t have to play where most singer-songwriters play.” In 2008 she jumped off the club circuit in San Francisco and booked an album release party in a church. “Everyone listened throughout the whole show, and we realized that we could do this. It’s tough because there’s no built-in audience so you have to promote yourself [but] I didn’t want to have to change my music to fit into those venues.” She now books the band almost solely at churches, arts centers, and in private homes aiming for “places where there is a precedent of being seated and focused on the music.”
In addition to catching her in Lambertville and Princeton this week, you can glimpse a few of these intimate performances by searching her name on YouTube. If you sift through the results carefully, an unlabeled video of one song in particular stands out: it was her choice when I asked her what I often ask musicians, what her “dessert island song” is. If you could only choose one song by another artist to cover for the rest of your career, what would it be? “I’d have to say Matt Trowbridge’s song ‘Fat Lady’ is a good one for me. I love its simplicity. I think the most powerful songs are simple and just shoot right into your gut. That song just gets me. Nothing flashy or ground-breaking, but I feel like it just captures an emotion so beautifully.” Indeed, Cotton’s unadorned delivery is wrenching. And, she’s right, the simple, beautiful song gets you in the gut.
Trowbridge, another area songwriter, will be playing an opening set for Cotton and her band at the Unitarian Church on Friday. She will be joined by Anna Perlmutter (vocals, violin,) Nick Stargu (classical guitar,) Gabe Dominguez (vocals, flute,) and Sean Jones (bass guitar) in different combinations throughout her stint on the east coast, which takes the band from D.C. to Maine. For more information, visit sonyacotton.com.
Sonya Cotton, Centenary United Methodist Church, 108 North Union Street, Lambertville. Thursday, May 20, 7 p.m. Sonya Cotton Red River Tour features “Red River,” a new album of folk music. Featured guest Robert Schulze, classical guitar.
Also, Unitarian Church, 50 Cherry Hill Road. Friday, May 21, 8 p.m. Featured guest Boy Daughter. Opening set by Matt Trowbridge. 609-397-0275.