Until last week I had never attended a Sofar Sounds show. Despite the prevalence of these live events (they take place in more than 400 cities!), I had never found the right time to make it to a show. The concept is completely brilliant – “Sofar transforms everyday spaces – like a living room or retail shop – and turns it into a captivating venue for secret, live shows, creating an immersive experience that brings guests and artists closer together.”
Each show features three diverse acts who play for the same amount of time, no opener or headliner. Due to the limited space of the small venues, most tickets are done through a lottery. If selected, you confirm your place, purchase your ticket, and receive the address of the event the day before the show. What I love about these shows is that you have no idea who you will be seeing perform, or even what genre, so when you show up, you can be completely surprised. It is such a fantastic way to experience music intimately, to meet new people, and to support local artists.
My best friend Elle hosted one while we were in Chicago, and I enjoyed the music so much that I wanted to introduce you to two of the incredible acts. Read on to meet Ben Mulwana and Tess Clare…
+ Introduce yourself and your music!
My name is Ben Mulwana; I am a Ugandan born and raised singer-songwriter living in Southeastern Wisconsin. I moved to the United States in 2008, when I was 18 years old. Music for me at that point was just a hobby I was deeply in love with but still very much a beginner at. I focused a lot on creating and playing unique covers of songs and artists I loved but didn’t really have the confidence to write or perform my own songs. That period served as an opportunity for me to discover myself as a musician and experiment and challenge myself in creative ways. I would describe my music as Afro/Rock/Soul/Singer-Songwriter.
+ Where does your songwriting inspiration come from? And who/what are your biggest influences?
My music is influenced heavily by my upbringing and cultural background and traditions, as well as by my personal beliefs and the overall social culture of the United States and various parts of the world. My songwriting is inspired by the desire to shed light on matters of the heart, complicated issues that I feel we as citizens of the world need to discuss with one another more often, as well as my own past life experiences. I am also oddly often inspired by video games or tv-shows and the stories that they tell. I love to put myself in the shoes of a character I see and try to feel as they do, find common ground, then tell their story from my perspective.
Some of my biggest musical influences include NeedtoBreathe, XAmbassadors, Jacob Banks, John Mayer, and Hozier.
+ How did you first get involved in Sofar Sounds?
I watched a couple of Sofar Sound videos on Instagram last year, 2018, and was blown away at all of the talent and sort of daydreamed about maybe one day being apart of something like that. At the beginning of this year, I decided to pursue music full-time and figured I should try to apply to be one of the artists. I remember thinking to myself the worst that could happen is that they say no to my material, so why not. Then, I received one of the most exciting emails from Sofar, offering me a show with Sofar Sounds Chicago in November 2019 at the Wondr Museum. It was such an awesome experience – the audience was so respectful and receptive, and I got to connect with the other acts playing that night, all of which were incredible.
+ Why do you think Sofar Sounds shows are so popular?
Sofar breaks down the barrier between artists and audiences, which allows for a natural connection between the artist, their songs, and energy. I think that the level of intimacy is something that we as a human race crave, but don’t always know how to find. Fortunately, it is easily found at Sofar shows in a really organic way. There is also a lot of variety of artists and styles offered at shows, which feels a little bit like a musical buffet; the length and quality of the acts give you just enough of a taste to leave you wanting more. On top of all of that, you get to discover some unique and incredible venues and spaces.
+ My boyfriend teared up during your set (and again when we listened to you the next day!), is this a common occurrence for you? How do people generally react to your music?
I’ve had a lot of people that have come up to me after shows and tell me they have had the same reaction. As weird as it sounds, I am glad my music was able to reach your boyfriend in that way. When you can share that raw emotion and connect with a stranger through a song, I feel like I have achieved my goal. With all the songs I write, my goal is to share with the audience all of the feels I am feeling at that moment. I try really hard not to cry when I sing “Wano Naawe” or smash my guitar when I sing “Lies of the Devil.” The general reaction or comment that I usually get after a set is, “That was an emotional rollercoaster.”
+ What do you have coming up in 2020?
2020 is going to be filled with a lot of songwriting, and new music and a lot more shows further from home, including, hopefully, some international shows as well. I am starting the year playing on the East Coast at Sofar Sounds New York, Boston, and Baltimore. I am hoping to connect with more people and use my music to deal out more hope and positivity and shed light on meaningful issues that we, as a human race, should maybe be thinking more about and trying to change.
+ Introduce yourself & your music!
My name is Tess Clare. I am 21 years old, from Chicago, and currently a junior songwriting major at Belmont University in Nashville. I am a pop r&b artist.
+ Talk me through your songwriting process.
My songwriting process is never the same. It changes for each song I’m writing. In general, though, I am more melody-driven, so I always make a bunch of voice memos of different melody hooks on my phone that I will listen to and then write a song around when I have inspiration for a song or a lyric I want to build on. I usually write on my own, but lately, I’ve been co-writing with other people too. That’s one of the great parts of being in Nashville and at Belmont.
+ What do you do to spur your creativity when you are stuck?
When I don’t know what to write about, I usually try to find something outside of my personal experience to write about. Whether a story, a movie, or a specific person, it’s refreshing to not always write about myself and my life.
+ You are from Chicago, but currently, live in Nashville, how are the music scenes similar and different?
Chicago and Nashville are pretty different in terms of their music scenes, in my opinion. Besides playing Sofar shows, I haven’t played many venues in the city of Chicago, so it’s a little hard to compare. Still, I find that the most significant difference is that Nashville is all about writers’ rounds (where usually 3-4 singer-songwriters will all sit on stools on a stage in a bar/restaurant and tell stories and play their songs sitting down). Chicago shows are usually full bands, and they’re much more about the performance than Nashville shows.
+ What do you like (and dislike) about playing Sofar Sounds shows?
I can name so many things about what I like about playing Sofar Sounds shows. I love the atmosphere, how kind and attentive the audience is, how intimate the shows are so artists can interact and chat with people, and how warm the energy is during every Sofar Sounds show. To be honest, I don’t think there is anything bad I would say about them. These shows are perfect for upcoming artists like myself because I don’t have to stress about how many people I can bring, and I know everyone there actually wants to hear new music and really listen, which is amazing.
+ What are you most excited about in 2020?
I am most excited to release a bunch of new music. Since I was in a label contract the past couple of years, I haven’t had a chance to release a lot of original music, so I have a bunch of songs that I am so excited for people to hear. I am very proud of the music I will be releasing in the new year, so hopefully, people will respond well to it, and my music career will begin to grow more!
Thank you so much, Ben and Tess, for taking the time to speak with me!
Have you ever attended a Sofar Sounds show?