“Being a strong woman, especially a small strong woman, is weird to people”
There’s a deliberate timelessness to Vera Sola’ songwriting. Full of gothic imagery, Morricone-esque guitar and lingering vocals, there’s a sense that the songs on the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s debut album, ‘Shades’, could have been written anytime between the first wagon arriving in the west and Trump’s election.
Half American, half-Canadian, Sola – known to her friends as Danielle Aykroyd – grew up in a world not dissimilar to that of her songs. As a child she attended rodeos, read tomes of great American literature and played the piano, refusing to learn anything but the hardest pieces. Her family home in Canada – a building that’s been passed down through her father’s family for generations – has a history of spiritualism, thanks in a large part to the work of her paternal great-great-grandfather. “[He] was a full trance medium. He would hold seances in our family home in Canada,” Aykroyd, explains, sat on a bench in London’s Old Truman Brewery, ahead of a show at Rough Trade East this evening. “He was a forebearer of the spiritualist movement in Canada, he studied Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and all these folks over here who were doing that, but he was also a theologian and a researcher.”
That sense of spirituality “went down through the generations” she continues, where it merged with a love of writing, theatre and later film (Aykroyd’s father is Dan Aykroyd, the actor and writer best known for Ghost Busters and The Blues Brothers, who is also a renown spiritualist himself), creating a legacy of actors, performers and writers whose work balances the spiritual and ruminations on modern society. “My grandfather is a theologian and historian and an engineer, but he’s a writer really. He’s 97 and finishing his tenth book. He’s completely blind but dictating it from his bed.”
Her mother’s side is just as unique. While Aykroyd describes her lineage as mostly “cowboys and Indians” (her ancestors are equal parts Cherokee and buffalo hunter), she also reveals over the course of our conversation that she’s a direct descendant of Bat Masterson, the sheriff of Dodge City and Wyatt Earp’s co-deputy. A renown gun-slinger, buffalo hunter and, as she puts it, frankly, “a killer”, Masterson was an associate of Buffalo Bill and the basis for the main character, Sky Masterson, in the short story collection and musical Guys and Dolls. As if that wasn’t cowboy enough, a few minutes later she reveals, “Dolly Parton’s my third cousin.”
Suffice to say then that Aykroyd’s work as Vera Sola is as authentic as an album of near-paranormal poetry and saloon tunes can be in 2018. While many musicians have flirted with cowboy imagery and dark spirituality, few could lay as valid a claim to the cultures of both worlds than Aykroyd. “I felt a lot of things coming through me and a lot of energies coming through me recording the album,” she tells me later. “It makes me sound totally crazy, but I felt like I just opened myself up and let be.” The themes and atmosphere of the record are so tied to her life that Aykroyd decided to record and produce every note of ‘Shades’ herself. “I just wanted to funnel the energy of this time in my life without any outside influences,” she says of the decision.
The result is a record that’s equal parts terrifying and beautiful. Recorded in St Louis, a city vital to the westward expansion of the United States, ‘Shades’ reimagines the Southern Gothic literary tradition through a spiritual and feminist lens, weaving tales of neglected women and hateful men while leaving enough space for the ghosts of both Aykroyd’s and North America’s past to coalesce. In places, such as the opening funeral march of ‘Circles’, it is utterly chilling. “I’ve always been a scary woman,” smiles Aykroyd, who is anything but scary in conversation. “Being a strong woman, especially a small strong woman, is weird to people,” she laughs, explaining how her unconventional background and general demeanour have conspired to leave her somewhat outcast in the modern world. “A small woman with a deep voice is confusing, and people don’t know what to do with things they’re confused by.
“I know that it’s scary, but I like that,” she says. “I’ve always liked things that are scary, things that are on the edge and that provoke.”