SoFar Sounds invites discovery through secret shows
By Christina Campodonico
If you’ve been wondering where young urban creatives go to discover new music in Los Angeles, put down your smartphone and head to SoFar Sounds LA. Only SoFar Sounds isn’t so much a place as it is a state of mind.
The global music collaborative, which operates through volunteer-run chapters around the world, curates secret concerts in intimate spaces — from private living rooms to music stores to commercial and industrial spaces far off the usual nightlife path.
In these temporary venues, emerging artists are as likely to headline as established ones — performers such as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, New York alt rockers X Ambassadors, the indie rock band Bastille, gospel singer Leon Bridges, English acoustic folk rock trio The Staves, the vocal ensemble DeVotchKa, and singer Andra Day, who performed at the Grammy Awards on Monday after being nominated for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album.
Audiences don’t know the exact location of a concert until the day before, and the lineup isn’t announced until guests arrive.
But you don’t have to be a member of the Millennial Illuminati to participate. You can either trust the music will be good and buy a ticket online (usually $20 to $50) or apply for a pair of pay-what-you-want tickets through an online lottery and hope your number comes up.
Recent Westside concerts have included secret shows at Timewarp Music in Mar Vista, the VNYL record membership club on Abbot Kinney Boulevard and a private apartment.
On the Saturday night I decided to check out what the L.A. chapter is doing, I’m instructed to show up at a small warehouse venue called World Arts. It’s tucked into a corner of a desolate-looking light industrial district in Culver City, and I’m not sure what to expect.
BEING IN THE MOMENT
Inside, my surroundings are less austere. A crowd of people in their 20s and 30s are bathed in blue and purple light and lounge on floor mats, many of them sipping BYOB drinks from small plastic cups and chatting with their friends or dates.
Imagine an indoor picnic, but with mood lighting and a soundtrack of largely undiscovered acoustic love songs and indie ballads that only music insiders really know by heart.
At certain points, audience members might bob their heads or sing along to the songs they know. A few might pull out their cell phones to post a picture on Instagram or shoot a short video clip, but for the most part people sit listening to the music with rapt attention.
Tweeting and gramming take a back seat to actually being in the moment with the music.
That focus on the music traces its lineage back to SoFar’s origins, a story told at the beginning of the set. Cofounder Rafe Offer was attending a gig at a London bar and was frustrated by all the people talking and drinking instead of listening to the band. So with his friend Rocky Start, they came up with the idea to bring musical acts into their homes and host small concerts. The idea took off from there as friends of friends of friends wanted to start hosting gigs not just in their own cities, but in their own homes too.
‘IT OPENED ME UP’
Even in a more commercial space like World Arts, SoFar Sounds LA’s laid-back and chill atmosphere generates a warm and supportive space where artists can be their most authentic selves.
“It opened me up,” says Kera Armendariz, lead singer of the “bipolar folk” band Kera and The Lesbians, who performed solo on Jan. 23, the night I went to SoFar Sounds LA. “It gives me freedom during the set,” she says, adding that having the stage to herself allowed her to experiment in ways that she might not if she were playing with her bandmates.
I see that kind of transformation myself with Soren Bryce, a skinny-jean-clad singer-songwriter who gets up onstage and confesses to the audience that she has “bad social anxiety.” But her revelation belies the big voice that bursts from her small body — a commanding and versatile sound reminiscent of Adele’s belting bravado, but also Lana del Rey’s ethereal vocals. Her smoky voice hauntingly drifts over big striking chords in her mournful “Forever is not Enough.”
Bryce, whose song “Sirens” has been featured on NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” gives credit to a SoFar Sounds show in San Francisco for helping her come out of her shell.
“There were no mics or P.A.s, just playing for [the audience] as your friend or family. You could see people were listening and genuine. It opened up my heart to them,” says Bryce, 18, who started her music career singing songs at a gelato shop in Texas.
“It’s nice to be back playing at intimate clubs,” she says. “I feel like part of the crowd.”
The feeling is mutual for the James Davis band’s Jess Reynolds, who sings with her twin sister Rey and their brother Auston.
“They’re all dope! The audience is all ready for the music,” Reynolds says from the stage. During the show her vocals give a soulful overtone to the group’s fierce “Blood in the Cage,” powerful “Better than You Are” and finely crafted three-part harmonies. Jess’s belting voice beautifully intermingles with Rey’s breathy vocals and Auston’s dreamy falsetto. Aside from a few guitar chords, the group sings almost a cappella at times.
‘THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE’
The stripped-down acoustic quality of all the singers’ sets gives an intimate vibe to the whole evening. At intermission performers and audience members mingle freely, allowing listeners to share their love for the music directly with the artists.
“It’s a fantastic platform for artists, a very supportive community,” says Adele Ho, a SoFar Sounds LA fan who also works in the music industry. She often comes to SoFar Sounds LA to check out new talent, but also to enjoy music with her friends.
Yet what keeps Ho coming back to SoFar Sounds LA is that she never knows quite what to expect.
“The element of surprise keeps things going,” she says.
SoFar Sounds LA returns with a secret show from 8 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, in Mar Vista, followed by others from 2 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 27 somewhere in Culver City. Visit sofarsounds.com/la to apply for or purchase tickets.