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Vera Sola Peacemaker
February 02, 2024
In the closing scene of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealist masterpiece The Holy Mountain, the lead character instructs the camera to “zoom back”, opening out the wide horizons of the mountain’s top and revealing the film crew at work. Something similar happens in the transition between Vera Sola’s 2018 debut Shades and its follow-up, Peacemaker.
Shades was created in near-total isolation. When she decided to release it, it was the first time Vera had ever let anyone hear her sing. Its memorable artwork found her crouched in the corner of a derelict building. And like the photograph on its cover, the recording found her voice layered, shrouded in shadow.
Peacemaker zooms back from that room, blowing out its walls and flowing across the grand American landscape it inhabits. No more crouching, Vera now rests in the scorched heart of this landscape with arms open, in full colour. Her voice is unveiled, embracing its remarkable strength.
Recorded predominantly in Nashville over the fall of 2019, Sola opened herself up to the magic of a collaborative effort, calling on co-producer Kenneth Pattengale to bring in dozens of musicians to fill out the sound. “Where on Shades I played everything, on Peacemaker I gave over as much as possible. I’m detail oriented to the point of obsession, so I was still orchestrating the whole thing. But in this case I was the composer and conductor rather than the whole orchestra.” The shift allowed her to focus more creative attention on her strongest suit, her voice. “By this point, I’d really found the location of my voice in my body” she says, “the tone is much deeper, fuller. With Shades I conquered the fear of singing. With Peacemaker I confronted the power of my voice.”
And it is powerful. The combination of that voice with such a sound is unlike anything out there. Heavily influenced by ‘New World Symphony,’ Antonín Dvořák’s exploration of American history and landscapes, the arrangements are bold and orchestral. Strings sweep and twist across ‘Desire Path’, swirl and rise up to meet classical guitar in ‘Bad Idea’ and bring punk-inspired head-banger ‘The Line’ to staggering heights.
The grand horizons of Peacemaker don’t stop Vera from getting some dirt under her fingernails. The grit present in Shades’ use of bones, broken glass and chains is carried forth in Peacemaker’s ‘Get Wise’ – its rattling, driving percussion and distorted guitar more reminiscent of 80s era Tom Waits’ than any symphonic work. Employing upright bass adds yet more weight to the roaming dub of ‘Hands’ or the bowing ‘Instrument Of War’—which plumbs the depths to reach the lowest note audible to human ears, something that is more felt rather than heard.
That sonic breadth is mirrored lyrically, too, in stark vignettes that run the emotional gamut. From the mundane (“At a party for ice cream/me eating, you watching” Get Wise), to the tender and strange (“I feel safe with you on Pillow street” I’m Lying), to the utterly surreal (“Sweat the words that fall like toy pianos” Hands) to the unflinching (“Load me up with landmines/bury me in concubines” Instrument of War). Naturally, there is an inherent and deep understanding of perspective. From a view from far above the tops of trees (Bad Idea) to peering through the distortion made by raindrops on the windshield of a car (I’m Lying), the final result is a widescreen technicolour journey, bold and strange and cinematic, not unlike the surrealist westerns that it draws on for inspiration.
“I see this record as a sort of topography of memory”, she explains, “if one were to unroll the mind, and watch as the moments that coalesce into memories rise from the map into relief. It’s a collection of stories stitched together with that particular dreamlike quality which allows for disparate spaces to converge into a single scarcely knowable vastness.” She continues: “If my last album showed how people (and their ghosts) effect the environment, this one shows how the places we’ve been and lived, shape us. And how our memory shapes it all again.”
Despite the ambition of the project, Peacemaker wasn’t intended to be four years in the making. There is of course one obvious reason for the delay, the years we all lost to the pandemic, but for Sola there was also a startling amount of personal turmoil to reckon with. The sense of crisis closing in began when, in the early days of recording, she got word that California wildfires were threatening her mother’s home. In between takes she’d scroll the LAFD Twitter account, searching for updates that all was relatively ok. On another occasion, while recording background vocals, she felt dizzy and had to quit. It was a barometric pressure shift—the first sign of an oncoming tornado. It destroyed her neighbourhood, stopping literally at the doorstep of her Nashville home, leaving her physically unscathed but galvanised into community aid and climate despair. Ever present among these dramatic markers also came continuing, unprecedented loss and personal illness that seemed to domino over the years of creation.
“There is a lot of death on this record. A lot of dead people represented. And dead places too. Sudden, excruciating loss. So there’s grappling with that—a sense of coming to terms with impermanence.” And with that grief came righteous anger at man’s folly, the damage inflicted on self and other and the Earth. “I’ve since moved through the heart of the rage” she explains “and initially when considering the release of this record so long after its recording I wondered whether it was wise to open that door again. But I’ve come to learn that there is a lot of love in anger.” Continuing, “I heard it said recently that anger is the deepest form of care. It’s important to feel and express and allow for that kind of care. We can’t move beyond anger without expressing it. The only way out is through.”
In the most literal reading of the album’s title, here Vera is the peacemaker, taking all that darkness, and all of this difficulty, the past both personal and collective—and transmuting it through sound. But there are deeper, more complex meanings too.
“I’d grappled with what to name this thing from the very beginning. By the time City Slang came on we’d sort of settled on Instrument of War because, to me, that’s both the climax of the record and its thematic focal point. But it didn’t feel quite right.”
Then the word Peacemaker landed in meditation. “The Colt Single Action Army…the Peacemaker…is the gun that quote-unquote tamed the American West. It’s the original Instrument of War,” Sola says. “So it has this thematic resonance with the thrust of the record, as well as a personal significance to my family lineage of old west gun slingers.”
It’s “the ultimate irony—not only in the sense of peace made violently, but also in that it’s this beautiful word that wraps around something horrible. It really gets to the complexity of the music. That complexity is important to me, that staring down and reintegrating of the shadow is important to me. It’s a reclamation.”