Sonny Falls is the songwriting project of Chicago DIY veteran Ryan “Hoagie Wesley” Ensley. Hoagie’s writing gives voice to a depleted notion of modern Americana saturated by fortuneless upbringing, tragic devotion, and the untold losses of the opioid epidemic. These themes recur honestly and without pretension in his writing; erected as dark windows into the soul of songs that nonetheless break glass to let the sunshine in. With a graceful balance of honest guitar rock and soulful self-expression, Sonny Falls is a special kind of timeless indie rock.
(Photo Credit: Emma Bilyeu)
I’d like to start this off by asking you, the reader, a few questions. I’d like you to answer these questions to yourself as you read along, and think about them again when you listen to “Plasma Kids.” It will be a fun little exercise. Ready? OK, here we go.
- Have you ever been drunk?
- Have you ever been drunk under a bridge?
- Have you ever been drunk under a bridge with several bottles of stolen cough syrup that you swiped from the Meijer down the road and are now desperately chugging — one after the other, in the frigid December air of Northwest Indiana — hoping to polish them off and leave the evidence under the overpass before the straight-laced concerned neighbor who watched you and your grimy friends trudge under the bridge calls the cops on you?
- Have you ever sold your plasma at a strip mall to buy weed?
- Have you ever had to run from the police with pot in your pockets and “BALLS” written on your forehead in permanent marker?
- Have you ever dropped out of high school and spent most of your teenage years smoking cigarettes in greasy spoon diners with your friends, ordering nothing but coffee and filling page after page of journals with songs and stories about the depraved Americana you experience on the daily?
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, then you’ve probably grown up in Northwest Indiana. Otherwise dubbed as “the Region” and whose residents are largely known as “Region Rats,” and grew up calling it the New Jersey of Chicago. If you answered “yes” more than twice, you will probably like the new Sonny Falls song “Plasma Kids,” which comes out tomorrow via Plastic Miracles (the new imprint Elise Okusami of Oceanator founded).
While you didn’t necessarily have needed to grow up in “the Region” to enjoy the song — or to get anything out of the music of Ryan “Hoagie Wesley” Ensley — it certainly helps. I say this and I know this because I, too, grew up in Northwest Indiana. I grew up with Hoagie. And I saw everything he writes about in this song, and much more that isn’t there but is implicit, buried between the lines.
“Plasma Kids” is an exemplary Sonny Falls song in that it distills everything that’s great about Hoagie’s project into a four-minute piece of music. It’s a song about growing up, about coming of age, and finding your place in the world. But it’s also simultaneously a song about coming to terms with the way you got to where you are now.
It’s about growing up in reverse, a sort of reverse engineering of a childhood. The song is nostalgic in a way that most modern pop music refuses to touch. It’s certainly a personal song, but less a diary entry and more stream of consciousness, like a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes tied together by the admonition “attempt to befriend the kid that’s within you, they’re still in there wondering what’s to come/holding up the weight of all that could be.” Hoagie seems to recognize that although we all grow up, we never really leave our childhoods behind. The people we once were are all still within us, waiting, wondering, hoping, and watching to see who we will become next.
Trying to reconcile everyone you’ve ever been with who you are now is certainly not an easy process, but luckily Sonny Falls is here to help us through. And as the lush strings by Nora Barton and Macie Stewart (Ohmme) swirl around the plaintive yet confident voice of Hoagie singing “we smoked weed out of foil while your dad, sick, wheezed inside…” you get the sense that the personal really is universal: You may never have smoked weed out of tinfoil as a kid and snuck into a garage to look at old FBI murder photographs, but when you hear this story you can easily picture a thousand other similar memories from your own life.
And you know you don’t have to feel alone navigating the perils of aging, especially in a world that seems to be less and less kind by the day. In times like these, you really can’t put a price on companionship. And Sonny Falls is certainly a worthy companion as you move forward, creating new memories to one day wistfully look back on and wish you could go back to. But maybe there will be a voice in your ear, the voice of Hoagie, whispering that the past never really leaves you, and no matter where you may go in life, you never really leave the past.
— Alex Reindl