By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Josh Rothstein.
So Brown of Brooklyn, NY makes the kind of music that could only come from having lived in a certain place, being the kind of person that she is, and quite possibly having the kind of name she has.
So originally hails from Houston but relocated to Mobile, Ala. later on in life. Five years ago, she made the move to Brooklyn and has been enjoying living in the New York borough’s version of “the country.” Or rather, Carroll Gardens. So’s name came from the shortening of Sonya, as she grew up with a more fluid gender identity (so I use “she” loosely as So also goes by “he” and vice-versa). This is not meant to be easy to understand, as So is still trying to figure it all out as well. BTR had a chance to speak with Brown in person unpacking the ways her transgender/androgynous upbringing influenced the music as well as the inspiration behind her debut LP Point Legere.
Now, about the name. As mentioned before, Brown was given the name Sonya at birth and right off the bat divulged that she grew up “transgender and androgynous,” prompting people to ask why she was named Sonya if she was a boy. When Brown finally started with her music career she said, “Let’s just go gender neutral, let’s try the So thing out.” In the same way that it throws people hearing the name So because they don’t know which gender to ascribe to it, saying the name casually in a sentence proves to be quite tricky: “So, So…”
He seems pretty pleased with confusing people as they try to address her but it’s really a name you won’t soon forget. A bigger reason for sticking with So is that he is “really influenced by the blues” of which artists have names like “Slim” and “Tampa Red” so Brown decided to pick out his own blues name.
Brown started playing music “before I could talk,” with her mother being a piano teacher, and accordingly, So grew up playing classical piano. Brown developed the persona of the “rebellious piano student” as she was studying piano but also wanted to “play rock ‘n’ roll, I wanted to be in the Beatles…” This urge to rock prompted Brown to learn her way around the drums and then later, the guitar. Brown claims he’s done “a million things” from “classical piano” to “punk bands in Miami” but this current project is the “incarnation that feels the most authentic.”
With Brown’s move to Mobile, Ala. in 2004, a lot of the Delta Blues were finding its way into the music. Interestingly enough, the inspiration that always remained was John Lennon and at one point, Brown thought he literally was Lennon reincarnated. The reason for this goes back to the gender confusion Brown felt as a younger kid:
“John Lennon was one of the early influences and later on, Kurt Cobain in my early teens. They were always men but sort of sensitive men, not like macho men. Men that embraced their androgyny. I definitely thought it was cool. I just gravitated towards and related to guys and that’s what I felt like I was. I did boy things; I played out in the woods and caught fish with my hands, collected comic books and wanted to be Wolverine when I grew up. All those guys that I was influenced by just seemed to be okay with that feminine side without really flaunting it. Even when Kurt Cobain was wearing dresses, he was just exploring his thing. He wasn’t making a huge show about, ‘Oh, the day I put on a dress,’ it’s like ‘Oh, I’m gonna rock out and I’m gonna have a dress on.’”
Growing up in Houston, Brown was exposed to a world that did not readily accept those who did not fit in with the gender spectrum that was so strictly enforced. Brown describes this world as “very black or white” where the “boys played football or baseball and the girls that I saw, it was a lot of wearing pink and My Little Pony and cheerleading.” In such a “polarizing” climate, Brown always leaned more to the masculine side with how he presented himself but wonders what it would have been like if he had grown up in a place like New York where there are “more colors of the rainbow.” Perhaps he would have “hung out in the grey area a little more.”
If one thing is for sure, the music Brown makes would be completely different had he grown up in a more welcoming environment.
“The first track on the album ‘Lonesome George’ is about, literally, that tortoise in the Galapagos Islands who’s the last one of his species. They’re going extinct and he’s the last one, when he’s gone that’s it. I relate to that, feeling like I’m the only one of whatever I am and living with that burden of loneliness and ‘Where do I go?’ and ‘Why is it like this? How do I connect?’ so I feel like the album starts in that lonely place which is so well-suited to the blues too, it’s a very natural fit. It branches out from there but that’s the starting point,” says Brown on some of Point Legere’s themes.
One interesting aspect of Point Legere is how Brown plays with the dichotomy of male/female, whereas he spent a lot of his life wanting to be a boy but also the music itself has a sultry, feminine side to it. Brown says that he used to “fight that femininity” but has since learned to incorporate that side and let it coexist with the masculine side. To Brown, this is what being trans is all about–exploring the grey area while letting both sides shine through.
Brown’s debut album Point Legere is, quite literally, about a place that she used to go to get away from the struggles of growing up in a closed-minded environment. Brown’s family has deep roots in the area, four generations deep, and full of the kind of natural wonders a kid needs.
“That was one place where I could just sort of be and not have to worry about getting stared at or causing a scene if I walked in a bathroom or people freaking out all the time and wondering what I was. There I could just exist and find snakes and listen to the owls and all these miracles of nature that I got to interact with,” says Brown.
Now living in Brooklyn, Brown doesn’t quite have the solitude she once had in Point Legere but it seems that she has acquired something that she never had growing up or on the Dog River—a sense of inner peace.
Explore Point Legere and the grey areas in between with So Brown by clicking here.
Check out So Brown’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.