WRBB’s Craig Short caught up with singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Joseph LeMay, who performs as SONTALK. His music, a blend of delicate dissonance, distorted slide guitar transmissions, sequenced beats, vinyl samples and warm electronics, has culminated in the debut album Stay Wild.
Joseph LeMay, the singer and songwriter behind SONTALK, has always loved the art of simple song craft. The power of words and melody are central to his songwriting. But on his latest record, Stay Wild, the first under his new moniker, LeMay breaks new sonic ground, applying his folk and Americana wisdom to an expansive world of synths, drum machines, and unorthodox production. I sat down with him to discuss his new direction, and how he stays true to his songwriting roots even in this exciting new format.
What prompted the move from recording music under your given name to recording as SONTALK?
Joseph: So, when I started making this record that turned into Stay Wild, I didn’t set out to start a new project, but we did want to make something new. And to be honest, I wasn’t hating on the Americana or folk genres. But there are elements of it that can be a bit trapping. Like if there’s not a steel guitar, or you’re not wearing a denim jacket and a cool Stetson white cowboy hat… I don’t want to make it out like that’s all there is to it, but all that said, I did have a desire to move outside of that genre. And we just went a lot further than we thought! So towards the last day of recording, I had this epiphany on the way to the studio like, “okay, the reason that this doesn’t sound like a Joseph LeMay record is because it isn’t.” And so then we had to go about creating the new vehicle for the music to live in.
Wow. So with that change, did you find that your creative process was evolving a lot? It wasn’t just sitting in a trailer this time?
Well, yes and no. Because I intended to make another Joseph LeMay record when we first started, a lot of these songs started in the same way that my previous records started. I still just write alone in my writing room. But it has evolved, in that now the possibilities are bigger. I think a bit more about sounds while I’m writing. I might write on electric guitar with a really inspiring guitar tone or use drum loops or synthesizers. That can be really freeing, and more exciting than only telling a narrative story with chords on a guitar and lyrics and melody.
There’s definitely a lot of interesting production elements going on in this current record. Do you find yourself collaborating with people more to get that tone?
Yeah absolutely. This record was an incredibly collaborative process. Previously I’d just worked with my friends and people that played with me live, so I had to overcome the fear of working with new people for that. But I think it ended up being a good thing, because it was a clean slate for everyone. Nobody had to break any old molds, so to speak.
Did you find yourself giving up more creative control?
Correct. I gave up a ton of creative control on this, and it was a lot more satisfying than if I had created this simply out of my own mind. It had this harmonious way of coming into being was pretty awesome to get to be a part of.
So, thematically it seems like a lot of the music you write is a way of figuring yourself out and expressing things that you wouldn’t be able to express in other ways. Do you find that music works for you as a tool of communication?
It’s just easier to say hard things about yourself or a place that you’re from when you put it to song. We also know that it’s easier to hear those things when it’s to a song. I don’t necessarily find myself saying “I need to get some stuff off my chest. I’m going to I’m going to write a song about this.” It’s a subconscious outflow. A lot of times, I don’t realize how much I’ve been dealing with a certain thing until it comes out as lyrics or a chord progression. So it is cathartic, but it’s not a scheduled therapy session.
Have you been able to express yourself in new ways with the new direction your project is taking?
In my previous stuff I had a tendency to want to resolve things in life. My last record was primarily a love song album, so it’s nice to get a little bit more realistic. There’s not always a happy ending immediately, and especially not at the end of a four minute song. And live, [the music] is even more rowdy than than the record, so I get to get out some of that some of that aggression, and sing a bit louder and play harder.
Now that you’ve forged this new territory, where do you see yourself going in the future? Are there any more things you’d want to try?
I like this project because it allows me to write songs the way that I like to, which is somewhat traditional. I think somewhere inside I’ll always want to check off the boxes of a Nashville songwriter. I like stories, I like fun wordplay. And so I can write traditional folk songs or a classic piano ballad, and then put it through this SONTALK filter and get the excitement of experimenting with sounds. And that’s a lot of fun to do.