Before I heard Sonny’s angelic voice and sound of her guitar, I sensed her energy.
And I knew I wasn’t the only one and that something was up when I saw a group of people forming a semi-circle in the middle of the street in downtown Porto.
This young musician captured the attention of everyone walking by and forced them to stop, even only for a moment, to nurture their souls in her powerful presence and art that was being created in that moment, there, with no shoes on, nothing to stand in the way of communication between her body and the city she was temporarily gifting with her music; nothing to stay in the way between her art and the audience that was absorbing it only few meters away.
Something shifted within me when I stumbled upon Sonny Casey that February afternoon in Rua das Flores and I doubt it was only beautiful music (those who know me know how questionable my taste in music, or rather - the lack of the same, is). It was the whole vibe around her, her verses pregnant with stories but revealing only a silhouette drawn in light pencil, her voice dancing with the wind and gently overpowering the chaos and noise of a busy touristic street, taking us all out from our mind races… I simply had to talk to her and find out more. Who is this angel and what’s her story?
I hope you’ll all enjoy the interview with mystical Irish artist Sonny Casey and one day get a chance to experience her live performance! Until then, take a dive into her story and get your own creative juices flowing inspired by this fairy looking goddess.
Hello, dear Sonny! For the start, can you tell us a bit about your growing up in green, rainy Ireland? What it looked like and how do you believe your place of birth influenced you as a person and an artist?
Hello! I grew up in the wild Irish countryside. In a beautiful but very rainy place called Connemara. It's full of fields that are full of rocks that look as though they fell from the sky and it's surrounded by mountains and sea and silence. At night time there's no light pollution so on a cloudless night the stars take over the sky and the moon looks bright enough to burst. I think growing up there has gifted me with this deep-rooted respect for nature and the wilderness. It's also given me this immense love for freedom. Especially as I spent my first 9 years in a small town in England; moving to Ireland felt like being released. We went from having a little patch of grass and a pond, to having endless fields to explore and trees to climb and all this sea to swim in. Now being in nature feels like home. It reconnects me to my inner child. I think that core part of you is also where creativity flows from, so growing up in a place full of space and silence, I think my natural instinct was to create something from the inspiration I found in that. I think nature will always move me to create. I believe the stillness of it gives you the space you need to hear clearly your thoughts, to recognise how you're feeling and why and to create something that reflects those thoughts and feelings. Also all the endless rain we get in Western Ireland really helps set the mood for when you're sat inside writing sad songs and feeling sorry for yourself!
How did you discover you affinity for writing and expressing yourself through written word?
I've always loved reading and writing. Apparently I used to write before I could even write. My Mum said I used to hand her pages full of scribbles as a child and tell her to 'read the story'. Books were my biggest love and as I got older I'd write stories that I'd never finish. I wanted to be an author when I 'grew up'. I've always kept a journal and I'd write down my feelings and little poems and snippets of things people had said that had caught my ears and eventually they turned into songs. I soon realised that writing felt like the best way for me to express my emotions and make sense of my thoughts and myself and the world around me. I also discovered how magical it feels to capture something in words that would otherwise only be found in a memory. I love how you can write a song about an experience or even just a little moment and that sort of makes the transience of it all feel a little bit more long-lasting. I think I just fell in love with words! The way they can be feel so heavy with meaning or light with meaninglessness, how they can be bent and molded into something else and all the endless ways there are to say something.
When did music come about? Do you have any other musicians in your family?
I think music crept up on me slowly without me really noticing it. It had always been there in the background, I just hadn't paid that much attention to it. I had classical guitar lessons as a child but I gave up for years and it wasn't until I was around 14 when I picked it back up again. My family are all big into music, and a lot of my relatives play and sing traditional Irish ceol. When I was younger, whenever my mum and her sister were together, they'd put on all the old records and they'd sing until the morning. I'd sit and listen and occasionally join in. I remember my Auntie once telling me 'sing like you really mean it' and that really hit me. I realised you could convey feeling in your voice and release that feeling through song. Also around that time I was going through a traumatic family thing so that's sort of when music became my escape and something deeply important to me.
Your choice to perform on the streets (and to do so barefoot) is not something we see that often. What do you think singing on the streets gives you that being on a stage or in a studio maybe doesn’t?
For me, singing on the streets feels more natural and I think it gives you more freedom. You're free to play wherever and whenever you want and passersby are free to stop and listen or to just carry on walking. There's an independence to it too, you're not relying on anyone to give you the space to perform. I love how you're not separated from the audience the way you are on a stage, you're all on the same level, there's a closeness and a realness there that sometimes gets lost onstage. I also love how nobody is expecting anything. It's spontaneous. People aren't expecting to hear you and you're not expecting them to stop. So when they do hear you and when they do stop, I feel like it means more. It feels more rewarding because it's not a given that you will have anyone there to listen. I think there's more energy on the streets. They're constantly flowing with people coming and going and that energy is always shifting, so busking can be really unpredictable. You never know whats going to happen. That sort of makes it feel more exciting and mysterious. And in busy cities when people take time out of their busy lives to listen or watch a street performer, I think that's really special.
You perform in lots of different countries and we all know the stereotypes about Latin people being warm and those from anglosaxon countries more distant and cold. Did you have that experience while performing or the truth is actually a bit different?
I think the truth is that no matter where you go , people are just people. Some of them are lovely and warm and unfortunately some of them are distant and cold. I don't think it's specific to one country! For sure though, people are generally a lot happier and friendlier when the sun's shining. But then again I've busked in the rain and snow and met the friendliest people who are so delighted to hear you singing despite the terrible weather so really I have no idea!
What does inspire you and motivate you to continue this journey of travelling, performing and creating? Is there a deeper sense of purpose to what you do?
I think it's the people I meet along the way that inspire me and it's those little magical moments that motivate me to keep going. Such as busking a song I've written and having a stranger come up to me with tears in their eyes thanking for it. Those moments are really rare but really special. As for a deeper sense of purpose, I think ultimately it's connecting with others. When I connect to a song and I sing something that someone can relate to and they feel something similar to what I'm feeling, I feel connected to that person, to myself and to something else that feels bigger than all of this.
Do you believe music has healing powers and it can release hurts that we all carry within?
Absolutely! I think music is like therapy. Whether you're playing it or just listening to it. It quietens the mind and allows you to process things. It's a safe place to lose yourself , to let go of whatever you're holding inside and sometimes share it with others. I think any form of expression is therapeutic, because you're externalising the internal. Singing feels like opening up and releasing any hurt or heaviness into the air and freeing yourself from it. It's kind of like washing all the dirt out of a wound; its the only way the wound will heal and not go all bad and infected!
I always believed there is something magical about street performers. It’s like... I'm running around the town, thinking about million stuff, stressing about doing this and that and if I have enough time and then - BOOM! I hear some soothing tones coming from the side, asking for my attention, pulling me out of my mind’s vertigo and into the timeless Now and even if I don’t stop to listen for a longer time, even those brief moments seem to refresh and repaint my day with a new hue. What it was that initially attracted you to streets and what makes you stick to that choice?
Like you said, I love the way street performers can sort of pull people out of their daily routine and remind them to slow down, that there's more to it than just getting from a to b. There's so much beauty around us that we forget to see because we're just so busy and I think street performers remind us to appreciate that beauty. The city I'm from (Galway) is famous for it's street performers. They always struck me as being these bright, colourful, otherworldly individuals. At sixteen, I remember seeing them and feeling this deep desire to be a part of that world. I never imagined it would be as rewarding as it is, that I'd fall in love with it, focus all of my energy on it, support myself with it, or travel the world with it. When I first started busking, I remember feeling so excited, as though I'd been transformed or something, as though I'd found the path that I was meant to be on. What makes me stick to it is the fact that I know I wouldn't have met all the beautiful people that I've met if it hadn't of been for busking. I wouldn't have seen all the places I've seen and I certainly wouldn't have the confidence that I have to sing in public. I'm so grateful for everything it's given me. Now when I look back, I realise how much my life immensely expanded when I started singing on the streets!
What does a word ‘busker’ mean to you? What feelings and association come up when you hear that word?
To me 'busker' means someone who uses the streets as a stage to share their art. I think of expression, independence, spontaneity, connection. But mainly freedom!
We all feel good when we sing. But many of us never do so, because someone told us at some point in our childhood that we suck at it, so we stopped. Or we sing when no one’s around and when they enter, we shut up ashamed of our lack of skills. But is there more to singing than being pleasant for the ear of the listener, if you know what I mean? What are the benefits of singing to the person who is singing, even though they don’t have any talent?
I think singing simply makes us feel good. It's so pure. And it goes beyond the boundaries of language, it connects people. It's like our natural instinct- you hear a song, you sing along. You feel sad- you sing and your sadness goes. You feel happy- you sing and your joy expands.
What did you like the most about Porto and is there anything you found shocking or surprising?
I love the place by the Duoro river in the evening, when it's all lit up and full of laughing people. I also loved standing on the ginormous bridge and watching the sunset with the whole city slowly lighting up beneath you. I was honestly surprised by how beautiful and colourful and chilled out the city was! I think because everyone goes on about places like Paris and Rome and I'd never heard much about Porto before, but I personally found it to be far more peaceful and beautiful. All the crazy hills were a bit shocking though, especially as I had to drag all my busking gear up and down them everyday!
Do you have any piece of advice to girls wanting to go out to the streets, sing, perform and travel, but are afraid that it is not safe to do so as women?
DO IT. Never let being a woman hold you back from doing something you want to do. The majority of musicians and singers and buskers and travellers that I meet along the way are men and it angers me when I start thinking about it. Because we are just as capable of doing all of those things! Honestly, I was scared at first. Of singing in front of people, of sleeping in hostels on my own, of walking in new cities after dark, but I did it anyway because they were fears I had to overcome in order to do what I love. I think trusting your instinct is the main thing. If a person or a situation isn't giving you good vibes then leave them, get out of the situation. But I've found that travelling alone as a woman; people tend to look out for you more, and the world is full of kind beings too. You just need to figure out who to trust. And seeing as busking is a public thing, there's always people around. You're not really ever alone- there's always someone there who will help you if needs be. As for singing and performing, you just need to go out there and do it! I think the more you do it, the more comfortable you'll feel, and the more you'll find yourself starting to believe in yourself.
Who is your biggest support?
My mum. She's always there for me and whenever I start doubting myself in any way, she turns into this motivational speaker and magically I find myself believing in myself again!
✦ RAPID FIRE ROUND ✦
Ooh I love these questions! I think it's either 'The Journey' by Mary Oliver or 'Listen to The Mustn'ts' by Shel Silverstein. Sorry I can't choose.
3 musical artists you’ve been listening the most during the last month?
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dermot Kennedy and Blanco White
Favourite place you visited so far?
Berlin! (but Porto is my second favourite)
Do you ever get nervous before performing?
Not so much on the streets anymore. Unless i'm in a place I haven't busked before. Or unless there's a quite a lot of people who've stopped to listen. But before I go on stage, I get nervous every single time.
Do you write the lyrics first and then music or the other way around?
Usually the lyrics pop into my head first , and then I'll sing them and try and find the right chords for the melody.
And - I am really curious about this, sorry, but - aren’t you cold without shoes? (It was quite a cold day when I first saw you performing in Rua das Flores.)
I get asked this all the time! I think I've just gotten used to having cold feet now, so I don't really notice. But I'd rather have cold bare-feet than hot sweaty shoe-covered feet!
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