A family of spiritualists, writers and performers generations deep; a home haunted by legends of literature and music; personal upheaval and a sense of being unseated in time: these are the origins of singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vera Sola.
As a child she played classical piano, later guitar and bass, learning more by instinct than instruction. An obsessive reader and writer, she’d forever written poetry and been fascinated by wordplay, falling in love at a young age with Russian literature and the work of Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. All this, along with a career as a stage and voice actor—combined with years of touring in Elvis Perkins’ band—would serve as a launching point for Vera Sola.
But it wasn’t until early 2017, when she booked time at Native Sound Studio in St. Louis, that she began to experiment with the idea of recording her own material. What emerged from the sessions was her debut album, SHADES, a collection of ten finely-honed and immaculately-rendered ballads. Poems and stories delivered in a mannered but casually dismissive style—full of sorrow, yet arch and wry. Songs of the present that conjure the past. Accounts of women and their ghosts: echoes of memories that just won’t quit; of relationships over or current but fleeting; of the extinction of species; the violent capture of a feminine landscape and the spirits that stick around long after; messengers from the other side.
(Photo Credit: Pola Esther)
Before I sang or really committed myself to guitar, I played the bass. Though it’s my favorite, it’s no longer my primary instrument: The bassist I work with now far surpasses me in talent and taste. But when I made my record, the bulk of the arrangements could be distilled to the reckoning of two instruments: my voice and my bass. Both in their current form entered my life as if from another world. The story of my voice is for another time. This one’s about the other, the Reaper.
The airline broke my Harmony on the way back from touring in Europe. They wouldn’t let me carry it on the plane. I fought hard but the gate agent took it anyway and left it to baggage handlers who were merciless with her soft hollow form.
Soon after that I’d break my nose following a second red-eye flight and three-days-straight awake. When I finally stumbled home I was so exhausted I lost all depth perception. Dropped something, came up hard and hit the steel lip of my kitchen table. I was too tired to feel pain, so I went to sleep and woke nearly 20 hours later covered in blood, my face crushed. Doctors tried to help but couldn’t do much by then, so I just taped myself up.
That was in early summer. In winter the Harmony was still in the shop, so bashed around it had been by that transatlantic passage that they had to set it and clamp it and leave it for a while. I was still wearing the bandage on my nose when I went to look for a replacement ahead of a recording session.
I grew up working with horses and I’ve always found instruments to be similar. No two are the same and most are disagreeable. Even those with the best of pedigrees. They buck and they bite.
Now, I can handle most anything with four feet, but it’s not the same when it comes to four strings. For me, the bass itself has to feel like an extension of my own body, the meter of my blood. In this situation I didn’t want to risk borrowing from a friend or using what the studio had on hand, so I went looking for something to approximate my sweet semi-hollow Harmony. I must have tried 10 or 12. I hated all of them.
I remember exactly how and where I was sitting, swearing over a violin-bodied beast, when I gave up.
I was listless, resentful, plucking at the Hofner, staring off into space, when I caught a flash of dark red and rust sitting in a coffer on the counter. I put down the Beatle bass and, before the shop owner could pull it back down to the dark at his feet, asked him what he had in there.
“A ‘66 Mustang. We just got it in. Haven’t taken a proper look at it yet. It’s in terrible condition.”
He opened the case. The polar opposite of my Harmony. Solid-body and beaten, it looked more like a battering ram than any music-maker. Deep gouges all through the clotting of dark red paint. A sandy ditch below the strings where so many picks had been. Divots in the fretboard, little graves. And all of the hardware, once silver, covered in a murk of rust. It looked impossible and unplayable. There wasn’t any logical reason why it should be in such condition and still be capable of making sound.
“May I try it out?”
“Sure. Like I said we haven’t taken a look at it yet, it came in a few minutes before you, we don’t know the story behind it and don’t know whether it’ll even make a sound.”
Despite the grime-thick of its round-wound strings, that my fingers stuck to its sweat, and that by all logic it should have sounded terrible, it was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. It responded to my softest breath. Honestly, I’d never even considered myself to be all that good but I got that thing in my hands and I was god damn Bootsy Collins. It was madness.
I paid in cash. Next to nothing. Really. They told me they’d look at it and call me in a couple of days. Far sooner than I expected, I got the message that it was ready. To come in when I could and ask for a luthier with the name of an Egyptian king. He was a formidable man in a small back room.
“That thing’s yours?”
“You know at first I couldn’t believe anyone would have paid money for her, but her guts are perfect. Untouched. It’s hard to believe when you take a look at her body. But I didn’t have to do a thing to her wiring, pickups are in mint condition. Everything’s original. You got an insane deal on her. Oh, but there’s one thing.”
“We have to tell you about this. I guess for legal reasons. I don’t know. Or it’s just something you should know about.”
He pulled her up and opened the case.
“You’ll see all her hardware is shiny again. All that gunk is gone.”
“Woah. That’s awesome. Great job. Thanks.”
“Full disclosure. We can tell from the solvent we use to clean it, and the color it turns when it comes off. All of that was blood…and did you see what’s on the case?”
He closed her up. I hadn’t really looked at it until now. Stenciled on the top in faded Old English font was her name: The Reaper.
As for the Harmony, it healed up fine, but I don’t play it much anymore. When I entered the studio to record what would become my album, I didn’t take anything with me except for my acoustic guitar. I didn’t intend to make anything other than a couple of sparse recordings for my own personal satisfaction. I figured if it turned out to be more than that I’d hire real musicians. But very quickly after my arrival I realized I’d gotten into something much deeper, and whatever it was I needed to do alone.
Unprepared for that reality, when it came to over-dubbing the bass, I did what I usually avoid and borrowed from the studio. A Hofner. Not the violin kind, but a softer hollow body in blonde. It was actually pretty cool. It’s a beautiful bass. I’ve got a lovely photo of me tracking those first takes. The sound was just fine.
But on my second trip to St. Louis, for the doubling down on my commitment to this new sprawl, I brought the Reaper.
From the very first note, the difference in tone and feeling and fire was remarkable. I re-tracked everything I’d already done. The Reaper is deep and round and complex in overtone. At once capable of light and dark, a blithe spirited punch and the heaviest of rumble. But it’s not just the sound of the thing. Listening back to those stems it’s as if they’d been played by two different people. With the Reaper in my hands so many harmonies and countermelodies and unborn ideas came out of me like so much blood.
And I’ll tell you something funny. Take it for what you will.
My friends in St. Louis fell in love with her. When I left to return home for a minute, I knew they had some sessions on the books so I offered to leave her at the studio. Upon return for round three I asked how they liked her, who played her, all of that.
“We tried,” they said. “We tried it on a number of things. At first we just couldn’t get a good tone out of it. After a few goes it just quit. It wouldn’t even make a sound.”
“I’m not usually superstitious or anything,” my friend David chimed in, “but I think it only likes to work with you.”
During that round of recording, I tracked what I consider to be the strange, unsettling scaffold of the whole album—what became, to me, the real body of the music. Many of those lines I haven’t been able to properly replicate since. My current bass player and I are still trying to figure out what’s going on with some of that stuff. I can’t really account for it, it was pure expression. Channeling more than anything. I chock it up to some ineffable bond we’ve got, me and the Reaper.
I guess it’s because we’re very similar, she and I. Rough around the edges but kind inside, stubborn with a sense of humor, battered but somehow thriving, hard to figure out and even more impossible to explain.
Anyway, I play her whenever I have the chance. I keep her close. She’s with me right now in fact. I’m on an airplane, a transatlantic flight. But she’s not like the Harmony. I let her travel below in the hold. I’m not all that worried about anyone breaking her.