Interview: Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos

For most of us, Sonia De Los Santos is probably best known as a musician who's played with Dan Zanes throughout the country and the world since the release of Nuevo York, standing stage right and singing harmony and lead vocals on songs both in Spanish and English.

But last week, with the release of Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island, De Los Santos is taking the next steps in a journey of at least a decade, when she moved to New York City from Monterrey, Mexico to pursue her own musical memories.

De Los Santos certainly gets some help from Zanes and her bandmates on a few tracks, but for the most part she performs the songs with a new set of folks, some of New York's finest Latin musicians.  It's mostly in Spanish, but she's making music for listeners of all languages.

In this interview, De Los Santos remembers the incentives she had to sing all-ages folk music growing up, how she joined Zanes' band, and the album's meaning to her.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Sonia De Los Santos: In my family, it was singing with my mother at home.  Nobody was a professional musician, but there was singing everywhere -- at home, cooking, in the car.  My uncle, my mom's older brother was very musical.  I was the youngest, and my older brothers were closer in age, so I spent time playing by myself.  I'd spend parties with my parents -- my uncle would sing, my mom would sing.  [Thinking back on it] A reason I like family music... I listened to kids music [growing up], but if I sang a kids music at a party, they might not be as happy as if I learned a bolero, or an old song of my grandparents.

Did you take lessons growing up?

Only voice lessons.  Never music, just singing -- I did that in high school and college.  I took one guitar class, but couldn't do it because of my class schedule.  But [subsequently] I've been surrounded by generous musicians [who have taught me].

Why did you move to the United States?

I wanted to do musical theater.  Wanted to study it more, but couldn't do it at that time.  So I went to New York City in 2005.  I did a summer workshop in musical theatre there -- I came back home, and decided to pursue a musical career.  I had no family there, no job, no nothing.

So how did you get involved making music with Dan Zanes?

That happened about 1 1/2 years after that.  I was doing theatre auditions about when Dan was recording his album Nuevo York.  He wanted someone here in New York who could sing and whose primary language was Spanish.  I was in this database of Spanish actors and singers, so Dan's manager got my name as a recommendation and asked me to audition.

The audition was at his home, and I was wondering, "Who is this guy?"  And I looked him up, and... Grammy, TV, played everywhere.  So at the audition I sang "Pay Me My Money Down," "Malti," "Rock Island Line."  After that, he called back, and I came over and met the band.  Then I played a benefit event with them, at the house of a big movie star in Brooklyn.  [And then] I got a contract for 1 1/2 years of touring.  All of this within two weeks.  You hear that album, and I'm in every single track; I was helping Dan with his Spanish.

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje album cover

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje album cover

What drove you to make this album?

The need to to tell my story.  After 8 years, I had lots of stories, and more perspective.  I had the great story of my journey, but also while touring, I've seen the need for this family-oriented music in Spanish, from different cultures -- Mexico, Mexican-Americans, Spain, the Caribbean.  Parents would ask me, "We love Nuevo York, when are you going to do your own album?"

The reason I didn't do it before was that I wasn't ready.  I learned from all of my friends in other countries.  I'm proud of [the album].

"Mi Viaje" means "my trip" or "my journey" -- was that something you thought of before or after recording the album?

I think both.  The general concept was that of the journey, but I didn't know how it would fit together.  Some songs I picked in advance.  But then I did "This Land Is Your Land" in Spanish, and [it has] that phrase, "from the redwood forests... to the New York island."  Then I changed it to "from Nuevo León" -- which is my home state in Mexico -- "to the New York island."  That opened me to the journey.

What takeaways do you hope listeners have from the album?

So many things.  First, I hope they like it and listen to it with an open mind.  [Listeners] know me from singing with Dan, but this is coming from me.

I'm nervous -- I hope they like it.  It's very personal about me, but everybody has their [own] journey, like a parent seeing their own kids taking steps or going to college.

I hope it inspires.  It breaks my heart the conversations we're having [as a country] right now.  Maybe listeners will see, there's another Mexican woman making music for kids.

Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos

What's next for you?

I want to start touring.  I've got a couple shows coming up, and I've got a show in January at Symphony Space [in New York] with Dan as a special guest.  I'm eager to be going out under my own name.  I'd like to make a couple videos, too.

I can't think of another big project -- I'm exhausted, but my level of satisfaction is very high.