Sonnymoon: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features
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Hometown: Boston
Members: Dane Orr, producer; Anna Wise, vocalist; Tyler Randall, multi-instrumentalist; Joe Welch, percussion
Albums: Sonnymoon LP; 2012 and Golden Age EPs
For Fans Of: Little Dragon, Four Tet, Digable Planets

The hip-hop-tinged electro duo-turned-quartet Sonnymoon has learned the value of being open to change. When they met in the freshman dorms at Berklee College of Music in Boston, both Anna Wise and Dane Orr intended to graduate with degrees in music. Wise, who’s been singing since childhood, was the first to decide she didn’t need a music degree to pursue a career and dropped out after six semesters.

“A school doesn’t make you a musician,” she says. “You have to go and be that already. I got everything that I felt I needed and I just stopped.”

With two Sonnymoon EPs and a full-length under her belt, along with appearances on songs by Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and CunninLynguists, and the decision looks to have been a good one.

Both she and Orr admit to a certain amount of flightiness. But it’s a virtue that manifests itself through their music which sounds like Janis Joplin if she lived inside the world of Tron. There’s boop-boop-beep-boops and looped samples of all kinds, but the soulfulness and clarity of Wise’s voice elevates the music from electro experimentation to something original and revelatory.

It would be easy for Orr to coat Wise’s voice with effect after effect, but he makes sure that she always sounds like herself. Adding just the right amount of echo or the right sample is key to making music like this work, and Orr navigates this terrain to great effect. The music ranges from joyful (“Run Away”) to esoteric (“Universal Appeal”) to trance-like (“Wild Rumpus”).

As a duo in Boston, Orr and Wise were surrounded by musicians who showed interest in joining their project, but it was two or three years before they finally settled on two good friends, Tyler Randall and Joe Welch. Orr is looking forward to taking the same approach as the great Duke Ellington in catering to Randall and Welch’s strengths.

“I know Duke Ellington used to always write for his band,” he says. “They used to say that he would write specifically for the musicians that were in his group, and he would write to their strengths and kind of avoid their weaknesses. I’m really excited to start working on new music with that same strategy in mind. Tyler plays guitar, and he can do electronics as well. Joe has acoustic drums, but also some electronic pads that he’s working with. So we’re really expanding our whole universe,” he said.

A classically trained saxophonist, Orr said he originally thought he’d be content to help other people realize their musical visions. “I really wanted to be a hired sideman. But within the first year, I realized that it was the opposite for me. That I was supposed to be writing my own music, and not just playing someone else’s.”

His own music shifted in a new direction when he met Brian “Raydar” Ellis, a faculty member of Berklee and the resident hip-hop guru. Ellis put together the J Dilla Ensemble, which included both Orr and Wise, in 2010 and had them perform at that year’s Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. It was around then that Orr changed his plans from getting really good at the saxophone to learning electronic production and design.

As for Wise, she was in it to meet other musicians. Her unique musical identity gave her a square-peg-round-hole complex, and finding Orr was a relief. “There’s a lot of songs that we did on Golden Age that were little ideas that I’d always had but never felt I could share with anybody, and had been developing within myself,” she says. “I brought them to Dane and he was the one who helped me develop them. It was nice for those little baby songs, gettin’ in the sun.”

Sonnymoon’s music is so dense and textural that they begged for matching visuals to round out the live show. Orr and Wise, however, are happy to let other artists handle the visual side rather than stray from what they do so well. “While that is really exciting to us, we realize that it’s not our forte,” Wise says. “But we do have the ideas, we just don’t have the technical prowess to necessarily go out and shoot our own videos.”

“We wanna make the music for the next generation to sample, rather than being the ones sampling, if that makes any sense,” Orr adds.

Above all, Orr just hopes people give the music time to sink in. “It might take people a little longer to grasp what we’re trying to do,” he says, “because even we don’t know—we don’t have a formula or anything. We’re also searching. But we’re hoping that people will search with us.”