By John Clay, Special London Correspondent & Columnist
Interview: Sofia Martins Gray of Starsha Lee
‘This is the first of a number of in depth interviews with Sofia of the rock band, Starsha Lee. Some will be in written form, others in video format (Crispin, husband and guitarist in the group will be in attendance for a few of them). Here, in this first sharing, the main topic of interest is Sofia’s spirituality and how it connects to her artistic expressions in her music, art and outlook. Enjoy.’ – John Clay
Hello there Sofia, how goes it with you today? I’m thrilled to be talking to you on behalf of Rock at Night.
John, all ready here! Bring it on ❤ XX
Great, so, let’s begin with your spirituality, namely your solace within the world of Butoh. What inspired your requirement of the practice in your life offstage?
Sofia: Thank you for the interview.
Yes, I’m now doing Butoh courses and I can say it’s the main interest in my life right now, I’m not into rock ‘n’ roll anymore to be honest.
I became aware of Butoh through a close friend around 15 years ago. He’s a cinema critic specialised in Japanese avant-garde cinema and theater who showed me a Butoh performance by Kazuo Ohno. I immediately felt grabbed by the hair – something very silent and primal, a possibility on the horizon.
But back in those days I was graduating in Philosophy and was too busy reading and writing essays. In addition I was still listening to some rock n roll (Body Count, Lydia Lunch, No Wave) so I thought my opportunity on stage would be a band… which turned out to be true…
I grew up in the countryside of Portugal, a very religious side of my culture. But soon I discovered God was no longer up there in the clouds, but rather hanging in the horizon as proof of everyone else’s mortality… I cannot handle mortality. So my background became a Stockholm Syndrome to my art. I sometimes go to Sunday masses in Portugal just to feel the human side of God and then write, write and write… I wish things weren’t like this. I’m compulsive with eternity.
My spirituality is possibly just like in a Butoh performance, there’s a possibility of being everything, you could be energetically a flower, a cloud, everything. I believe in energy, in transformation of the self (maintaining the self in difference if that makes sense…).
Do tell us more about your belief in energy, as the word has been co-opted by quite a varying number of faith practitioners over the years.
Sofia: I’m referring to any metaphysical experience, which means it’s a subjective experience. I know there’s something beyond our material bodies that influxes into things, it shapes things – it’s spiritual intentionality.
Are there a few specific songs or parts of tracks which provide an example of your spiritual outlook? Feel free to quote a lyric.
Sofia: No, not yet. To this day Starsha Lee is channeling spirituality in reverse (so to speak) – it’s all about body parts and mortality…a childhood revenge.
A childhood revenge? Please, elaborate?
Sofia: Yes, as a child I was already who I am now. Experience brought very little to the equation… I naturally struggle with time and consequence, my nature fits eternity. Unfortunately, it has given me a mortal body, so therefore I complain.
So the use of the word revenge is linked to your experience of mortality?
Sofia: Yes. It’s revenge without a target… Where do you complain about it? There’s no courtrooms when it comes to existential complaint, the target is anonymous… Art is the healthier response to all this.
Understood. Will Starsha Lee address more of your spiritual side, or is that not possible in your consideration of the musical form? Perhaps your photography is more suitable a conduit, or perhaps you don’t require that happening, given your embrace of Butoh?
Sofia: In reality I’ve always been exercising Butoh on stage, the principles are all there. Every show is a psychoanalytic path, therefore the involuntary movements and involuntary vocal delivery (people call it punk rock and bad singing). It’s difficult to put it into music form because I am not a musician, I work with a musician. I have to adjust myself to that.
Isn’t it unfair to not label yourself a musician, given your voice training?
Sofia: All the material of Starsha Lee was a rejection of what I learned. But I think it only works in theory because it was a theoretical decision, so I ended up not sounding musical at all. I’m not in that place anymore. But I’m not a musician, no.
We’ll have to come back to that last point in a future interview, for now let’s round off the discussion on spirituality and of course, give credence to your latest single. So, if the musical aspect of Starsha Lee doesn’t cover your spiritual awareness, and the onstage performance does, could you take us through your realisation of said onstage activity?
Sofia: When you discover that you are the focus of your every experience, something changes drastically. There’s a particular state in performance just like in religion, completely metaphysical. Before shows I try to numb my perception in order to dig the abyss of the self, it’s ritualistic. I have to be by myself a bit and exercise erasing the layers of my judgement. It’s an unlearning exercise. The only rational thing I tell myself is “remember what you want to tell them”. Then off I go, as a child again, complaining existentially. This is Starsha Lee since day one. There’s a spiritual grammar translated into spontaneous body movements after this. The ground zero is needed to start again, just like in Butoh.
What you said reminds me of Damien Sayell, frontman of the St Pierre Snake invasion, a captivating fella who’d shadowbox and run on the spot before shows. Do you see what you do as a parallel to leading a ritual and if so are there further levels of that mindset to ascend toward?
Sofia: It is a ritual already, and the more you do it, the more your spirit expands. Sometimes, before shows, I repeat words in my head to exhaust their meaning and numb my judgement, I also like to put my body in awkward positions to create oblique sensitivity. I also train to achieve a lack of gender awareness when performing.
Is the lack of gender awareness linked to de-personalisation to achieve a particular execution of the songs and does the occasional toplessness play into that focus?
Sofia: No, it’s linked with the core of my deep self, it’s the opposite of depersonalisation actually. As a child who was raised by a negligent parent, my upbringing gave me a genderless point of view of everything. I was very surprised how people saw my performances, they included me in a sexual discourse that is the complete opposite of what I’m trying to say. This is one of the biggest problems about art: is it the audience that dictates its meaning or you? I’m not going into that right now…
To compound the dissonance would be past simulations of sexuality through the prism of rock and roll. We’ll chat about that in one of the future chapters of this interview series. Let’s discuss your upcoming single, notably different in sound to past works. Can you pinpoint a distinct difference in this new phase, and what inner and outer agents affected the change?
Sofia: I’m not in the same place anymore. I only started a band because I was angry. This upcoming single is a manifesto song, I like writing lyrics as manifesto songs, they are more direct. As a style I know it can’t be too different because I’m working with a strong individual with a unique guitar style that has been doing this for thirty years… and I know how much that weighs and leads to misinterpretation of everything I do. Nevertheless, when I was younger and listened to rock ‘n’ roll, I used to like rap-rock bands, I listened a lot to Body Count and Zack de la Rocha was quite present in my taste. I’m not a melody person, I like the punch of angular phrasing or speaking phrasing. My personal taste is taking over. This upcoming single is called “Killing Heteronomy” and it’s a conceptual manifesto on how to preserve identity.
The vocal phrasing is doing a lot of work in the song, more so than past material. What are the words to the song? Can we have them here for reference in the closing questions in this dialogue?
Sofia: Sure! “Occlusive words, occlusive words sound equal, I’m an everyday opaque-repetitive, effigies return in sequel – killing heteronomy! Not a word, not a word, I’m going neutral, many hecatombs, many of the faces, many ending up in sequel”.
Thank you for being so open with your expression. Writing a manifesto song must come from somewhere. What is it about a manifesto song that you intend to gain from that the Butoh perhaps cannot deliver to/for a mass audience?
Sofia: I think the fact that I’m translating the manifesto into a musical structure, with loud guitars and a chorus, will have more chance to be massified than a Butoh piece alone. I’m working on self-portrait videos now, it’s a series of “diachronic self-portraits” as I call them, but I won’t intertwine them with the band. To me rock ‘n’ roll is a difficult medium to mix with other areas. So I’ll leave those video series for my side projects.
So much to talk about, and we will do in relevant future interviews. Thank you so much for your time and in particular for outlining aspects of your spirituality.
‘Killing Heteronomy’ will be released on all platforms on July 16th. You can see the Trailer HERE:
(The video will be available for public view on July 9th at noon GMT)
Rock At Night interviewed Sofia Martins Gray in our Winter 2021 print issue. You can purchase the back-issue HERE:
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