When Sonia Tetlow started playing around town, doing raw and nervy songs with an acoustic guitar, she got told she was too rock for folk and too folk for rock. To some extent that’s been the story of her career. Her current album Now is a full-fledged rock set, but the songs remain raw and nervy, with a personal detail snuck into every catchy chorus hook.
“I don’t know any other way of doing it,” she says. “That’s the kind of writer I am. I’d say that 90 percent of the time it’s from my personal experience, but sometimes I’m an observer—as long as there is a true emotional anchor in the song, it doesn’t have to be my story per se. It has to be something that I can feel so if I’m expressing it, it feels like truth to me. Even if you’re sharing something specific to yourself, if you write a good song and make good art, then people aren’t seeing you—hopefully they’re seeing themselves in it. That’s always been my goal.”
After playing the Neutral Ground and other acoustic clubs in the ’90s, she formed a power trio, the Sonia Tetlow Band. Given the songs she was writing, it’s no surprise that she gravitated toward a band sound. What may be surprising is that she wound up as Cowboy Mouth’s bassist for three years, playing on their creative-comeback album Voodoo Shoppe and getting three co-writing credits on it (including “Home” and “The Avenue,” the post-Katrina songs that were the album’s emotional core). The connection was Mary Lasseigne, the Mouth’s then-bassist who knew Tetlow from the club circuit and was about to leave due to family illness.
“In hindsight I got lucky, because I came in at a time when they were intentionally trying to collaborate more and work on songs together. And I thought that was how they were always going to work.” Leaving the Mouth was also the cue to pick up the acoustic guitar again. “I was still writing songs on the road but they were getting a lot quieter, a contrast to playing those big revival rock shows every night. I began to think of the songs more as watercolors. And I really wanted to play these songs I’d written, so that was a big part of the reason I stepped away.”
In the past she’s written about specific circumstances in her life—her last album, A Place for Everyone, opened with “Mardi Gras Morning,” about trying to experience the day when you’re away from New Orleans (she now resides in Atlanta), newly sober and studying for midterms to boot. Nothing on Now is quite that specific, though the best songs—the title track, the ominous swamp-rocker “Tripline” and the country-rock finale “Grains of Sand”—all allude to major life shakeups. She says there indeed were some, including her father’s illness, but that the songs were more about change itself. “Time is probably the theme. To some extent I was thinking about life from my father’s perspective as a parent. And about reconciling the past in order to be okay with the moment, grateful for it and embracing it.”
One of the changes was more tangible: For the second time in her career she left a reasonably successful band—the Atlanta acoustic group Roxie Watson, with which she made three albums—again due to the need to get her own songs out. She’s also ramped down appearances with Paul Sanchez’s Rolling Road Show, a continuing friendship from Mouth days. “In the past year I’ve made some changes because I was spread really thin, so I let go of my place in New Orleans and got a job in Atlanta. With Roxie Watson, it was getting to be more of a creative contortion to fit my songs into that band—and in hindsight they put out a record this year, and it’s way more classic country than anything we had done before. All the other gals grew up with that kind of music, but I really didn’t.”
Now’s one political song says a lot about Tetlow’s perspective: “Hard Fought Year” isn’t so much about the last election but what it did to tear everyone apart. “What upset me was the way we were treating each other on both sides of the aisle. I thought that in the fight we were all becoming our lesser selves. And it felt like we were all in Ghostbusters II, covered with pink slime that feeds off your negativity—I think we all have friends and family who are Republican and Democratic, but that doesn’t mean we have to tear each other down as being human. On the flipside there’s been a need for connection, and my shows seem to be feeling different. Maybe it’s easier to be kind to each other when you’re in the same room looking each other in the eye.”
For all that, she points to a sense of optimism, both on the album and in real life. “I did some of the writing out in the desert, and that can remind you that when everything looks desolate, there’s still abundant life and things can change so quickly. That can be a good thing to remember.”