“There is something powerful about a number of people gathering for a common purpose. That collective breath, that collective focus, it charges and changes what happens on stage—it’s electricity.”
Danielle Aykroyd, professionally known as Vera Sola, is a poet, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in literature, her career began as a stage and voice actor. In August of 2018, she released her first album titled Shades. Later that year, Rolling Stone Magazine named her one of "The Top Ten Country Artists You Need to Know." Her signature vibrato and hand-made percussion instruments create a haunting, soulful sound that has been compared to musicians like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Nancy Sinatra.
In this interview, Vera Sola shares what her relationship with music was like as a child, her experience touring with Elvis Perkins, and how traveling inspires her music.
TGL: How was your childhood?
VS: I don't think I was ever fully a child. I felt like a big person trapped in a little person's body. I was self-aware, analytical, creative, and judgmental. I was withdrawn and shy when I was younger, but when I turned 12 or 13, I became outgoing and bombastic. I grew up for the first part of my life in Los Angeles, and then between New York and Canada. When I was in New York City, I took full advantage of that, and I was out all the time. I retreated into myself once I went to college though, and it’s been a slow process drawing myself out again.
TGL: Did you sing as a child?
VS: I did school plays and sang in school musicals. Once I reached a certain age, I became terrified of singing, especially anything that I had written myself. I played piano, and I picked up and put down the guitar a number of times - guitar has always been difficult for me. When I started a career in music, I was forced to teach myself how to play guitar properly or at least in a way that was functional for me, because piano is a hassle to drag around.
TGL: Did you have a specific moment when you knew that you wanted to pursue music professionally?
VS: I always secretly wanted to be a musician, but I was too afraid to do so. I also knew that I wanted to be a writer from as early as I can remember. But I never thought I would be a musician. Even after I made a record and started playing shows, I didn't think that it was tenable - Even now it's amazing to me that this is what I'm doing. It was fluid and progressive, and it's still progressing now.
TGL: Your birth name is Danielle Aykroyd. Why did you choose the name Vera Sola?
VS: I’ve never associated with my birth name. It’s the same as my father’s, and it never felt like my own. I knew I wanted to sing under a different name, but nothing felt right. Finally, it came down to the wire, and I chose this one, which had many layers of meaning for me. I’ve since been told that it’s Roman dialect that roughly translates to “a real disappointment” or “very shitty.” That’s better than whatever I first came up with.
TGL: You have an amazing voice. How would you describe it?
VS: Thank you! It’s just the voice I was born with, tempered by experience. It feels strange to try and qualify it. My speaking voice is rather low. I’ve been quoted saying it is the cross between a mid-century radio broadcaster and an early nineties phone sex operator—I think that applies. This sometimes comes across in my singing, a quality that feels somehow removed from any particular time. Despite my smokey speaking voice, I have a good range. The one thing about my voice that is easily described is this vibrato - a sort of fluttering - that I do. It’s a hallmark in genres from other cultures and was more prevalent in American music of the past, but isn’t all that common these days. Stylistically, I get compared to singers from the 50’s and 60’s with a touch of Nick Cave’s attitude. While I’m deeply inspired by all that and flattered by the comparisons, I’m not trying for anything other than self-expression.
TGL: You studied literature at Harvard University. How did you first get involved with the stage?
VS: From the time I could speak, I told anyone who asked that I wanted to be a writer. I still identify with that as my main occupation, but there wasn’t really ever any question that I’d end up on some stage. I studied ballet for a long time, and I was active in theater all the way through school. In college I played both Hamlet and Ophelia in what was widely regarded by those who saw it as one of the worst productions of Shakespeare’s masterpiece ever delivered. I performed off-broadway a bit when I graduated and moved to New York to pursue a career in stage and voice acting, but rather quickly got swept up into music. In making my art, I’m able to incorporate acting, sound-making, costuming, illustration, filmmaking, and I can bring in all of my other passions and hobbies through my lyrics. It’s a synthesis of everything for me.
TGL: You began writing and producing your own music in 2017 after touring with Elvis Perkins. How did you enter into the world of your own music?
VS: I was writing music long before I began sharing it with other people. It was just a private endeavor for the bedroom walls and the bathroom tiles and me as an audience alone. I allowed fear to trick me into believing that what I was making wasn’t good enough to be heard and it was fine to keep to myself. It wasn’t until I’d shaken that fear that I was able to step into the possibility of my music and manifest it for the outside world. Funnily enough, it was the singing part that caught me up. I have no problem when it comes to public speaking and love to sing in private, but it wasn’t until I got rid of the limitations I had placed on myself that I was capable of not only recording and releasing my music, but actually properly singing it. Once I let go of that fear, my voice changed quite radically.
TGL: What are you currently working on?
VS: I’m nearly finished with my next record. I don't know when anything's going to happen with it.
TGL: You told me that you can feel the energy from the room when you sing. How would you explain this experience?
VS: It’s hard to pin down…there is something powerful about a number of people gathering for a common purpose. That collective breath, that collective focus, it charges and changes what happens on stage - it’s electricity.
TGL: Is creating your music a collaborative process?
VS: I’d say my practice is semi-collaborative. It’s surely not as collaborative as it could be and I eventually hope it to be. I just came from a record release show where there were about two dozen songwriters credited on the album - that’s common in the industry. As for my work so far, I write all of the songs and layout the structure. Then, depending on the instrumentation and the musicians involved, there are varying degrees of collaboration.
TGL: You have a nomadic practice. Are you inspired by the places you travel to?
VS: The way I write is rather scattered - it goes different ways. I don’t really choose what I’m inspired by, but generally yes, I keep a sort of scrap journal with jotted lines and those will often find their way into my songs or become whole songs themselves.
The first song on my record is called "Virgil’s Flowers" and opens with the line: “These are the flowers that you hate.” I put that down on tour with Elvis, after passing a wall of bright pink bougainvillea, while on an interminable grey walk to a beach that didn’t exist in a fishing village outside of Rome. A few months later, I came upon it in my notebook and out came that song. I am also inspired by the stories I’ve been told traveling, conversations I’ve had with people in bars or things I’ve overheard over the street.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
VS: Dolly Parton. It’s funny because we’re actually rather closely related, but we’ve never met. I say Dolly Parton, not because she’s one of the most brilliant singer-songwriters alive, but because of how she has established herself as a tough, take-no-prisoners businesswoman in a patriarchal society that for long tried to belittle her, steal from her, chalk her up to not much more than big hair and big tits. Her story is a remarkable example of what can come from standing tall, staking claim, and brushing off whatever sand is kicked in your face with humor and grace.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
VS: Let go of fear. It’s far too powerful and totally useless - at least when it comes to art. We should all be terrified about the state of the world, but don’t let fear or self-doubt hold you back when it comes to expressing yourself, doing what you love, and making your art.