by Rob Mair
photo: Anthony Yebra
“I remember having this awakening; like looking in the mirror as the record started playing, and ripping out my ponytail from soccer practice and saying ‘I’m gonna be a rocker chick now!’ No word of a lie. I was about 12 at the time, and it was probably super endearing then and super lame now.”
It could have all been so different for Weakened Friends’ singer-songwriter Sonia Sturino. At the time she was playing goalkeeper for an all-girl soccer team – and was competitive in the process. But, just like many teens with multiple interests, at some point a decision had to be made. Having always been interested in writing music – first on a keyboard, then a guitar – the music won out. A decade and a half later, and with 2018’s debut full-length Common Blah still making friends and influencing people, it looks like a sound decision.
Today, Sturino is at home in Portland, Maine, relaxing on a rare day off with wife and bandmate Annie Hoffman. It’s a well-earned break too, considering the stresses of the previous seven days. Being in a DIY band is undoubtedly a passion project, but even the most burning passions can be doused when faced with adversity.
A week prior to this interview, the airline WOW Air collapsed, costing the band (who had booked flights with the company for their forthcoming European tour) a fortune. Forced with a choice of cancelling or shelling out for more airline tickets – considerably more expensive than the original ones they’d booked – the trio, completed by drummer Cam Jones, opted for the latter; seeing the European tour as an investment in the band’s future.
“I feel like most touring musicians are a different breed of human,” says Sturino. “We have these constant hurdles thrown at us. It’s like being a student and dealing with student debt if you go to school. Or if you buy a house and you’re constantly trying to fix things. If it’s something you want to do, you’re always going to find ways to get over the hurdles that life will inevitably throw at you.”
They don’t even know if they will get their money back following the airline’s collapse, having to wait 90 days for the appeal to be processed. To tide them over, Sturino put out a call on social media – born more out of frustration than any desire to make money – for fans to buy records and t-shirts.
“I always like to be transparent, and I’ll say if shitty things happen,” she says. “This lifestyle lends itself to having lots of financial blows. But, if you really like a band, and you really like their music – and this is especially true when you can get music for free – then buying a record or a t-shirt is the best way to keep bands you like making music.
“The response, for us, was awesome. We pretty much sold out of most of our shirts. People overpaid for stuff. We obviously have a really good fanbase.”
This notion of transparency is something that continually recurs throughout our chat, and is reflected in the content of Common Blah. It also helps to explain why the album continues to be a slow-burning success, possessing a relatable and real honesty.
Take, for example, ‘Early’, where the protagonist is trapped between wanting to move on and find a better a life and making that leap into the unknown. It’s classic James Joyce, recalling any of his frozen characters in Dubliners, where inertia is paralysing and preventing personal growth. Or how, on ‘Hate Mail’, Sturino drops the line: “Remembering dates / In pictures and portraits / I thought we looked great / Don’t we look great?”, seeking affirmation from an unknown friend.
These moments reflect the themes of mental health, anxiety, and insecurity which loom large throughout Common Blah. Yet, for the heavy lyrical content, it is not a trying listen, as every doubt and concern is set to a gloriously grungey three-minute power-pop gem.
It’s a sound that has won them friends in high places – guitar master J. Mascis pops up throwing licks on the fantastic ‘Hate Mail’, for example. But just as there is honesty in the writing, it’s sold by the delivery and conviction of Sturino’s vocals. These two work together in harmony, feeding off each other to make for an intense and powerful experience. Yet finding a way to be comfortable with her voice has come with its own challenges; something Sturino has had to fight with over the years.
“Sometimes you get caught in the pressure of wanting to change your music to be more what you think people are going to like, and I definitely still struggle with that,” she says. “I listen to my stuff, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I dunno… I wish I sounded like someone else instead’, but I just channel it and let the music take over.
“In fact, I think, sometimes people might hear a voice like mine and think that I’m putting it on for attention. If anything, it’s the opposite.”
What has helped Sturino more than anything, however, is working with musicians and producers who can help her get the most out of herself. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to the ‘benevolent dictator’ idea of a musician and songwriter – someone like Colin Meloy (Decemberists) or John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) – who has a preconceived notion of how everything sounds before they get into the studio.
Instead, working with Hoffman – who produced and engineered Common Blah – allowed Sturino to cut loose when recording: “I think the voice is an incredible muscle, and when you add emotion to it, you can hear what your true self is,” says Sturino. “But, when you have a good band and a good producer, you’re able to capture that and hit that sweet spot. I’ve been lucky.
“Being in a studio setting where I just get to feel comfortable, and also able to work with someone who pushes me when I’m coming up short, it’s a real treasure to have that in the whole songwriting and recording process. Also, as you get older, I think, like everything in life, you just become more confident with who you are.
“And yes, Annie,” says Sturino, addressing the other voice in the room, “You stop giving less of a shit about what other people think.”
Throughout, Hoffman has provided sage advice (like on drive times on the East Coast) and, when the moment calls for it, the occasional witty aside. When talking about childhood musical influences, Sturino quickly – and jokingly – stops a laughing Hoffman from interjecting with some of the more embarrassing examples, knowing full well that such input was not far away.
For a band that has had a considerable autumn and winter schedule – a schedule that saw them play the UK for the first time, as well as the prestigious Pitchfork Paris and SXSW festivals, not to mention the first trip to punk rock mecca Fest – the current atmosphere feels jovial and relaxed. Sure, there might be concerns over flights and financing, but with a winning album under their arms, and a continued buzz that shows little sign of abating, the trio are in the eye of a perfect storm. Soccer’s loss is undoubtedly music’s gain.