SonikBuster | 'Among the Stars' - Interview
There's no denying that 2020 is the year of the Ladies when it comes to Synthwave Music with such luminaries as Dana Jean Phoenix, Mecha Maiko, Nina, Czarina, Bunny X, Oceanside 85, Roxi Drive and SONIKBUSTER!
Sonik is a passion project of musician Ashley Lynn Watts from Virginia U.S.A and she certainly has the skills to be counted 'among the stars' on the scene.
She has worked on a variety of game tributes and projects such as Miracle Mia, NIBEL: Ori and the Blind Forest Remixed, Chronicles of Time, ZODIAC: Final Fantasy Tactics Remixed, and several other tracks for the video game music label Materia Collective. Which is undoubtedly impressive in itself.
I caught up with her to discuss all things Sonik, take a look!
Tell us a little about you, where you’re from and how you got started in Music? I live in the heart of Virginia with my family in a quiet city near Lynchburg called Forest. I started learning the piano when I was maybe four years old, but I would say that there are a few moments that really stand out to me. I randomly decided to sing in a talent show when I was 9 or 10 years old. No one really expected me to participate. It surprised my mom, my music teacher, my peers, and I placed pretty well in the competition too. Honestly, I had terrible stage fright, and I still have to fight that fear before every show. I was just as shocked that I pulled it off as everyone else was. The second was when I discovered Linkin Park. I saw their MTV debut, and was completely blown away. That year I spent a lot of time listening to Stevie Nicks, Collective Soul, Jewel, and Linkin Park. Ha! What a combo right? That’s when I started writing original music. I would just sit at the piano for hours and play whatever I felt like playing instead of studying for my lessons.
How has your sound developed over the years? Has the current market been of any influence in that? When I started music production my focus was initially on orchestral music. My taste in musical genres has always been all over the place, and while I did want to dive into electronic music, my mentor, Sean Beeson, was accomplished in instrumental styles so for a while I focused more on writing that kind of music.
I experimented with electronic elements but was on my own to figure that aspect out for a while. Eventually James C. Hoffman, and BLiND came alongside me and have been mentoring me for years. Between these three people my skills as an artist have grown immensely, and continue to grow.
Discovering and Exploring Synthwave, and seeing the market, and what people love, hate, and otherwise has been an experience for sure. I initially started by looking for Synthwavers in my area and met the guys from Megatronix, and The Rain Within. From there I have continued to meet and listen to other artists, and I can admit that I’ve fallen head over heels for Synthwave. Perhaps some of my earlier stuff was more raw, but some of the recent artists I’ve been very very inspired by are Michael Oakley, The Midnight, Gary Numan, The Birthday Massacre, FM-84, The Protomen, Dance with the Dead, and Gunship. The variations in tone, attitude, mood, and style is something that I adore about being a Synthwave artist. The various blends of modern and nostalgic sounds are refreshing, and the possibilities are truly endless.
My current sound has definitely been influenced by listening to other Synthwave artists. I’m still myself, and draw a lot of inspiration directly from within, but it’s hard to fall in love with someone else’s art and not be changed by it. My music, and Synthwave in general is ever changing and evolving in one way or another.
How would you describe the music you make?
I’ve always moved to my own beat, and as much as there is a part of me that wants to fall purely under one sub-genre of Synthwave I haven’t been able to pull that off yet. One day I’ll fall somewhere between Stevie Nicks meets Birthday Massacre. Next I might write some kind of combination of 80’s action soundtracks, cyberpunk and Video Game Music/Chiptune. It honestly just depends on what my mood is, what I’m experiencing, what I’m experimenting with, and what I’m listening to when the inspiration to write hits. Whenever I write an album I try to do the initial burst of writing all at once. It makes the album like a photograph of who I was, and what I was inspired by in that moment.
I’ve made a lot of songs that could be described as Chipwave. A blend of Samples from the SNES, Game Boy, and Atari with EDM and Synthwave elements. My new album is actually a lot more tame on the Chiptune front this time as I opted for a cleaner, more celestial kind of sound. It definitely sounds like me, but with a fresh new color palette.
Who are your influences in music today? Who did you listen to when you were growing up? Growing up I listened to all kinds of different artists from Dave Matthews, to the Dirty Dancing Soundtrack, Lorrie Morgan, The Labyrinth, Collective Soul, Mariah Carey, Paula Abdul, Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Natalie Merchant, Sting, Phil Collins, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Judas Priest, Little Feet, Nirvana, Korn, Hole, Kittie, Backstreet Boys, Boys II Men, MC Hammer, Bryan Adams, Roxette, Shania Twain, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Alanis Morissette, Cher, Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, Guns n’ Roses, Sonia Dada, Queen, The Partridge Family, David Cassidy, The Carpenters, Johnny Cash, Bee Gees, Melanie, Billy Joel, Elton John, Dolly Parton, John Mellencamp, ToTo, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Van Halen, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Bruce Hornsby, U2, Tiffany, Eric Clapton, man this list can and does actually go on forever and ever from genre to genre, and that’s just when I was very young listening to the things my parents loved, what was on the radio, and what my Aunt played for me whenever we ventured out on our own. There is no way that I can list every artist even from before I turned 11. Ha-ha I actually have a playlist that I curate with things I’ve listened to and have influenced me, and things that I’m actively discovering and enjoying and so far that list is 6 hrs and 45 minutes long, and I know that I’m still missing things.
While I still listen to an insane amount of music including everything from Classical to Metal there are a handful of stand out artists and composers that have remained a steady source of inspiration for me. Stevie Nicks, Nobuo Uematsu, BT, Gareth Coker, and Trevor McNevan.
All of these artists have an important common thread. All of them have composed music for themselves and others. They work in an incredible variety of styles and genres, but they each possess a strong sonic signature that makes it easy to recognize their work no matter what color palette of sound they’re working with.
All of them have supported, challenged, and given incredible advice that up and coming musicians would be wise to follow. None of these artists limit themselves, and have lent themselves to an impressive variety of work including original music, soundtracks, and producing other artists. They have all also shown themselves to be incredibly sincere and human. There is something special about people who can wear many hats, and look sharp in all of them. Nothing is lost in transition, but rather you get to see their personality shine through many different angles like the facets of a diamond. I want to be like that.
Many artists develop an incredible sound, and I admire their work sincerely. However, these artists in particular have inspired me both musically and as a person.
Is there anything new you’re working on currently that you’d like to share a little bit about? I Just wrapped production on my third Synthwave Album, SOLARA, and It's something pretty different from my other two releases. I feel like my skills have improved a lot from project to project, and it really shows. SOLARA is a very personal album, and that is something that has kind of caught me off-guard. In it I explore the heartbreak of being abandoned by a friend. It is definitely not the same as losing or being left by your lover, but it’s a deep cut. That is what the opening track, Among the Stars, is about. Actually, the majority of Solara is instrumental because in writing this I was challenged not to write lyrics, and also I was trying to listen to the section of my listeners who prefer songs without vocals. I’m a songwriter, and I have a lot to say so at first it felt really wrong to leave the songs lyrically naked. But as the process went on I realized that I had a lot to say even without words.
Your Mind is a Galaxy is about not letting anyone arrest your mind. Knowledge and wisdom can’t truly be developed in an environment where everyone is trying to tell you what you should and should not think. People are varied and complex. Even people who have everything in common still don’t experience those commonalities the same way. It’s such a short refrain in the song, but I think the message is clear. Gemini is named for my Brother, Matthew who was born in June and is a Gemini. This year is a big year for him and his family, and I wanted to dedicate this track to him because I love and care for him, and also as a reminder to enjoy the journey and appreciate the adventures that are yet coming. Lastly, Radioactive Space Hampster Zone is off the rails crazy, but it’s purely a track that I was having fun with. My husband suggested the name and it was absolutely perfect. I could picture this nonsensical world with intelligent alien hampsters. Some of my Twitch friends pointed out that this and a lot of my other songs have an attitude that reminds them of Mass Effect, or Super Metroid. Neither game which I had played when writing this track. As a result of that I recently beat Super Metroid for the first time, and man was that a wild ride. The soundtrack for that game totally sounds like the kind of thing that I would write both in arrangement and sound design. It's really kind of spooky.
What sound do you love the most? I love the rain. I love water. I love it when it drizzles, when it pours, when it storms, and even when it’s at its most dangerous. I do a lot of my best writing when the rain is falling down. I think that rain is the only kind of weather that can be both truly sweet and gentle and completely terrifying. It makes our world grow and fills it with color, but it can also destroy everything in a deluge. I love to watch the rain fall, and listen to my son’s laughter and excitement when he plays in it. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the mountains, on the beach, or by the river...I love being wherever I can hear the water.
Do you have a day job? How do you balance this with the passion for creating the great music that you do?
During the day I work teaching English as a Second Language. I actually really love teaching and watching my students learn and improve their speaking abilities. I’ve been doing this for about four years, and it is a pretty satisfying job. It doesn’t pay incredibly well, but it does allow me the time and flexibility I need in order to work on music. I also have had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful and interesting people along the way. I love hearing their stories and being a part of it. It’s actually pretty complicated to balance work, spending time with my husband and son, and my music work. I’ve actually recently started looking to see how I might improve my work-life balance, but that seems to be a never ending conversation that never seems to have a completely satisfying answer. Of course in a perfect world I would be working in music full-time.
If you’re having a bad day what do you do to make yourself feel better?
If I’m pushed up against a deadline, my creativity is waning, I’m stressed, and need to re-align myself in order to finish strong. I stop. I take a break, stretch, dance, go for a walk in the park, go to a concert, drink some tea and sit on my back porch. It’s the best if it is raining. I can sit, listen to the rain, read a book, drink some tea, snuggle up with my son, and enjoy the moment. I find that when I can’t seem to force the work the worst thing I can do is ram my head against it constantly. It takes me twice as long to accomplish something if I just sit and stare at it. I may as well step away, clear my mind, exercise, and re-align. Then I’ll come back, sit down, and most of the time have a fresh wind to carry me through. If something awful has happened, I’ve argued with a friend or family member, or the political wall becomes too intense, or I fall into a pit of self-doubt or self-loathing it can be wickedly difficult to claw my way out of that spiral. During those times I rely on my husband very heavily. I’m grateful that he is always there, and is insanely patient with the pure insanity that follows me has got to be hell to put up with, and I’m endlessly surprised and thankful that he sticks with me through all my sleepless nights, anxiety, fear, and negativity. God, my husband, and my son are incredibly important to me. There is no better way to escape anxiety than spending time praying and meditating. However, sometimes I still just eat all the chocolate in the house if it’s really bad, or if it’s Monday.
If you could collaborate with anyone else on the scene who would it be and why?
I would love to work with Gunship. Because they’re bad-ass, and I want to be a bad-ass too. I would also love to work with Michael Oakley because he’s a genuinely kind person, and I feel like some of our writing styles are very complimentary so I’d love to see how that would play out.
Who or what got you into the Synth scene initially? I stumbled upon Synthwave accidentally thanks to a challenge from my friend Analogstik who made a loop and handed it over to a group of us to transform it. I took it down into that 80’s action territory, and made a couple other songs in that vein later on. After that people started asking me how I got into Synthwave, and to be fair, at that point, I had never heard of it before . After that I started hunting down the scene, and the artists, and man… what I found in this genre and all of its various sub-genres, and communities has been incredible. I have a deep love for a number of 80’s film soundtracks, trance, video games, and all things cyberpunk. Finding Synthwave was like finding a drug that was designed just for dance loving nostalgia junkies like me.
How do you feel about the popularity of the Synth Genre as a whole and the new Generation of Producers who keep evolving? I feel like Synthwave is a huge umbrella under which there are endless possibilities for creativity. There are definitely some people who are gatekeepers, and want to see synthwave as a pure and singular genre, but it’s not.
Dreamwave, Chillwave, Vaporwave, Darkwave, Chipwave, and Spacewave are just some of the children of Synthwave. These are of particular interest to me, but it goes much broader than that. I think it’s thrilling to see all of the different ways that we can take inspiration from the past and marry it to the things we love in the present. Everyone does it differently and I think that is beautiful. I’m a part of that new generation of synthwave artists, and I’m sure some love my work while others loathe it. That’s the nature of art. I genuinely enjoy a number of new artists, and there are some whose work just isn’t my thing and that’s okay.
Please consider supporting Ashley Lynn Watts (Sonikbuster) via the following links:
New release 'Solara' is available on all good streaming services