Vera Sola has crafted a strangely bewitching sound that resists easy categorization. She possesses an eerily affecting, haunting and perhaps even haunted voice that doesn’t really sound like anybody else’s. The local singer spins webs of entrancing spells that are alternately dreamy and chillingly funereal, but she’s no mere laid-back escape artist. Her languid songs can be lulling and hypnotic, but Sola also has an unrepentant punk-rock side that crops up in the most unexpected places. She likely will draw from several of her musical personas when she and her band open for pop-harmonizing sisters Lily & Madeleine at the Bootleg Theater on Wednesday, March 27.
The fact that she reinvented herself as a singer just three years ago makes her evolution into a distinctive, fully formed artist even more impressive. In 2017, Sola came to some attention when she released Last Caress, an EP of Misfits covers that she slowed down and transformed into solemn dream-pop incantations. A year later, she followed up with her debut full-length album, Shades, a collection of multilayered original songs. On the surface, Shades unfolds as a series of gentle reveries but, on closer inspection, Sola’s enigmatic lyrics also comment on such heavy subjects as Trump’s election, the extinction of animals and the protests at Standing Rock.
How would she describe her music? “That’s the hardest question of all,” Sola, 29, says by phone from her Studio City home. “People really like boxes. I describe it in varying ways. I’ve heard it described as ghost folk, but that doesn’t really get it. It changes vastly depending on what my mood is,” she adds, describing how her band will spontaneously change a folk song into a heavy, punk-rock arrangement. “I love flipping the script on songs,” she continues, “and darkening really happy songs and distorting them” or doing the same thing in reverse to a serious song.
“I hate limiting myself,” Sola says. “Some days, I want to sing a Patsy Cline–style waltz, or other days I want to howl like PJ Harvey or yodel like Tommy Johnson or Jimmie Rodgers. Everything creeps in,” she says, citing such disparate influences as Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and Chopin’s nocturnes.
Sola daydreamed about being a singer for most of her life but didn’t have the confidence to really do it until three years ago. “I was always secretly playing songs in my bedroom,” she says. “As a teenager, I was a New York City punk kid. I wasn’t good at guitar, and I was really insecure.”
A few years ago, Sola was playing bass with folk-rock stylist Elvis Perkins, but even that early experience was more accidental than planned. “Elvis was always very encouraging of me,” she says. “He had a real faith in my musicianship,” even though there was little evidence at the time that she could actually play. “He actually sort of tricked me into it,” Sola recalls. Perkins invited her to join him on tour, offering what she thought was a low-pressure opportunity to play autoharp and harmonium on some songs. But at her first rehearsal with his group, Perkins announced that she would also be his bassist, even though she hadn’t previously played bass. “I learned to be a musician in front of audiences,” she says. “At my second show, I was shaking so much, I fell off the stage.” Before long, Sola was thriving enough at concerts that she even managed to contort her body so that she could play bass, autoharp and harmonium — simultaneously.
“It was shortly after I got back from Standing Rock,” Sola recalls about her experiences taking part in the protests in the Dakotas against a massive oil pipeline that would go through sacred Lakota land. “I wanted to see what it was like to sing my songs. I timidly played my songs at open mics in New York City.” Perkins caught one of Sola’s embryonic performances. “Elvis said, ‘Your songs are cool; you should record your own record.’” She found a studio in St. Louis and decided to give it a try.
“It was just going to be an EP for me, for my enjoyment and nobody else’s, but I was still terrified,” Sola admits. “I was completely lost but I had a moment of clarity: What is there to lose by singing? I’ve wanted to do it all my life. I had this break; I stepped outside of fear. … I was so crippled by fear that it physically held back my voice. But everything had burned to the ground around me [in her personal life], so I had nothing left to fear. I gained octaves by letting go of fear. I suddenly had this vibrato in my voice. I always heard music inside wild spaces. My voice went into wild spaces when I finally let go. That was the turning point, and I realized that I had to do it, and that I had to do it alone,” she adds. “I’m a very cerebral person; I think too much. I’m at my best when I completely let go and channel whatever is coming through. It was a total shirking of the ego.”
Sola actually started recording Shades first, although the Last Caress EP would end up getting released first. The EP of Misfits covers started out as a lark before the record took on a life of its own. “I needed to do something,” she says. “One night I was at a bar in L.A. People were passing a guitar around, so I broke out my version of ‘Last Caress,’ and people flipped.”
Sola devised the EP’s arrangements and played all the instruments. “I wanted to make it like a ’50s record, but it was just me. I couldn’t pull together a killer rockabilly band, so I did it myself,” she says. With her intimate delivery and stripped-down arrangements, Last Caress ended up not sounding at all like rockabilly or even The Misfits. Instead, Sola concocted a strangely engaging variation on Glenn Danzig’s raging punk anthems, and the recording stirred up attention in unexpected places. “I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch,” she sang coolly on her version of The Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare,” turning Danzig’s defiant lyric into an introspective, delicately moving confession.
“I was on Dutch TV singing ‘Skulls,’ and I built a fan base in Europe,” she says, marveling at how quickly things started to happen for her. “I’d like to do another round. I’ve got a lot of Misfits songs I cover that didn’t make the cut.” Recalling her days in New York, she says, “I would finger-pick Distillers songs” as a solo performer before she eventually formed her band, which includes bassist Janie Cowan and drummer Wyatt Bertz. “We cover Slayer’s ‘Reigning Blood,’” Sola adds. “I play that on autoharp, which is so fun. We did that as a sort of band exercise, but it was too much fun to pass up in the live shows. I like running it through pedals so it doesn’t sound like an autoharp and instead sounds like a churchy organ.”
As much as it was a kick to cover Misfits songs on the EP, Sola really came into her own with the 2018 release of Shades, revealing her astonishing range of musical shadings and lyrical subjects on the album. One of the key tracks is “The Colony,” a swirling, strangely exotic garage-pop idyll that was inspired by her time at the Standing Rock protests. “At the end of 2016, I was going through a series of disasters, catastrophe on catastrophe,” Sola says, recalling her personal heartbreaks and worries when her mother was going through an illness.
“I found myself in fall 2016 drawn to the Standing Rock protests for a number of personal reasons. I saw that I could help there. I read that the people on the front line [of the protests] were horsemen and horsewomen.” Sola had past experience working with horses. “I ended up going to Standing Rock. We rehabbed horses that had been injured. We did anything we could to support the people on the front lines,” she says. “Of course, I’m witnessing all this horrible shit that was happening. I’m aware of my part in the problem by nature of being a white person. I started to see myself as a colonizer. I wanted to explore this guilt in myself. It’s heavy-handed. I know that it’s dangerous territory to step into. I wasn’t co-opting anybody else’s feelings. It’s an expression of my own experience, and I’m open to dialogue about it all.
“I absolutely don’t intend to write political songs,” Sola continues, “but the political is personal now.”
The glassy-eyed soundscape “For” is another intriguing track from Shades. “‘For’ is a direct reaction to my utter despair at Trump’s election,” she explains. “Sometimes it takes me years to write a song, and sometimes it just falls out of me.” An even more mysterious song, “Black Rhino Enterprises,” unfurls as a courtly ballad that’s distinguished by candied instrumentation and Sola’s reverential vocals. “The title is a bit of an inside joke. My father’s production company was called Black Rhino Enterprises,” she says. But the song was really inspired after the singer read an article in National Geographic about the extinction of the black rhino. “‘Black Rhino Enterprises’ is about the enterprise of killing for the horns, killing for the bones,” Sola says. “So it’s a song about poaching but it has many meanings. There are so many pretentious little Easter eggs in there.”
She finds inspiration in a variety of ways and places. “I have a sticky brain,” Sola says, describing how she’ll mishear something people say and like the mistake enough to turn into a lyric. “I love words, and I love big words,” she says, citing such literary influences as Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, John Berryman, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. “I tend to like really florid language,” she says. “Cormac McCarthy’s language is consistently astounding to me, and his use of imagery.”
As the child of celebrity actor parents — Donna Dixon and Dan Aykroyd — she tried to hide her background to the point of changing her name from Danielle Aykroyd to Vera Sola. “Initially, I wanted to stay away from that as much as possible,” she says. “I changed my name specifically for that purpose, but it got out obviously. I’m proud of my parents. They are wonderful people.”
What did her parents think once Sola decided to become a singer? “They were shocked because I had been so quiet about it. My dad was a little bit worried that I was going to make sad, quiet songs,” she recalls. “I come from this very loud, performative family. It’s in my blood. He was proud that I wasn’t afraid of my voice.”
Vera Sola and her band open for Lily & Madeleine at Bootleg Theater, 2200 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; Wed., March 27, 8:30 p.m.; $15. (213) 389-3856, bootlegtheater.org.