Sonja Horbelt: ‘Everyone in Kennedy Snow inspires me’

Sonja Horbelt is busy. Her multiple roles include those of drummer, educator, bandleader, songwriter, composer – and head of Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival; a true superhero for the city’s jazz community. Now she’s getting ready to present her new material, with her neo-soul-jazz outfit, Kennedy Snow (plus strings), at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Here is what she had to say about it.

Sonja Horbelt

What are you going to present at the Melbourne Recital Centre?

I’m presenting a new body of songs and a couple of tunes off the album ‘Follow’ arranged for the acoustic line up (Nina Ferro, Kellie Santin, Bob Sedergreen, Kim May) with string quartet and backing vocals from Janine Maunder and special guest Steve Sedergreen on Keyboard.

Every so often you’re part of a gig where the excitement amongst the musicians makes you feel that you’re about to hear something special. Many of us have wanted to play in the Salon, but never have, so to have the opportunity to perform there with this line up, in this context is a blessing. I think the repertoire will take everyone (audience and musicians alike) on a broad journey that will remind them what is so amazing about being part of live music making.

What’s the Kennedy Snow backstory?

I decided to work under a different name because I knew that many people would have certain expectations of a band that was under my name, based on the work I do in jazz. Most people are totally surprised when they hear a completely vocal album that is very neo-soul-influenced and all about songwriting.

The name is designed to allow me to do different things with different projects, all under the moniker of Kennedy Snow. I’m a big fan of electronic music and electronic pop, and I feel the Kennedy music is headed in a very textural direction, with improvisation being probably the strongest jazz element present, rather than traditional jazz harmony or the swing aspect. But then again, jazz these days can be so many things that I struggle to label it as ‘jazz’, just that all the members have a jazz background.

I can already see a side project developing that is completely electronic and vocal based.

How did you form the band?

This line up evolved out of a group I had called Caramel, which Nina was originally in, however she moved to London for a decade and that made it difficult to maintain momentum. She would periodically visit and we would do the odd gig, and as I revisited some of the tunes, I started writing more vocal songs again.

Where do you hope to see it go?

I’ve loved working with the strings – a textural and harmonic component that has been a luxury, given that it’s financially so hard to put an 11-piece group together. I’m hoping we can get some festival gigs; the band is really keen to perform the repertoire on a long term basis. And Janine Maunder just brings another level to the songs with the second vocal line.

How is having your songs sung by Nina Ferro?

Working with Nina is like a gift. She is one of the most extraordinary vocalists – here and internationally – just completely world class. She has an incredible ability to shape and phrase the melody in a way that takes the song to the next level. I often have to pinch myself to remember that I’m actually hearing my song sound like that, and for that matter to hear the whole band playing the songs like that. Nina has the innate ability to make any melody and lyric sound extraordinary – as a songwriter it’s pure joy to be able to entrust the songs and lyrics to someone who has such a great instrument, and who can pinpoint the feel and sense of the song with such a range of emotions – fragility, joy, power, intensity – it’s just riveting to listen to her craft a song.

If you could have anyone come and play with Kennedy Snow, who would that be?

Ah, that’s a tough one! I love playing with everyone who has played in Kennedy so far! Many will think this is an odd choice but I guess I’m thinking about this current body of work – I have been listening a lot to my Canadian friend (singer/pianist) Laila Biali’s new album which she’s touring through the States and Canada and is rocketing up the iTunes charts there – I’d love to have her collaborate with the band.

As someone long associated with bringing attention to women in jazz, what’s your take on the issue, within the current context?

I think the jazz industry is the same as other industries – a reflection of our society in general – and just like elsewhere, women are often invisible, discriminated against or viewed not on a level playing field. I have heard so many awful and unbelievable stories from women in jazz – many would be sackable (or at least warning) offences in any other workplace. Katie Noonan has been mentoring in a program in Queensland that uses the mantra “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Wouldn’t it be great if jazz became like AFLW – women visible everywhere and encouraging young girls to thrive? But also, as in other industries, there are some fantastic men championing women; ideally we want a music community that represents all voices equally. It’s significant that the balance of men vs women in our industry has not changed substantially; when I think of Sandy Evans in 10 Part Invention and the Catholics to where we are now, the number of established female players has not changed as quickly as you would hope. I think this largely needs to be addressed at firstly secondary level, and in doing so, changing the attitudes and skill set of the next generation (male and female) about to enter tertiary level. The change at tertiary level is also paramount – I would love to see a subject dedicated to key industry issues in all our tertiary music degrees: equality, sexual harassment, contract obligations, OHS, public liability, superannuation, tax, copyright etc. I feel so many young musicians enter the industry with not a clue about so many key issues, gender being one of them. Women can’t develop their skills and their networks if they’re not getting booked to do gigs, or to get into tertiary courses, and then when they actually do, they’re faced with a myriad of issues that men never encounter.

What has been the greatest challenge that you’ve had to face yourself, as a woman in music?

Being a drummer and female I constantly get the double take. Just last week I started to take a new class at tertiary level; I introduced myself with a bit of background and had one of the students double check that I had indeed said I was a drummer. Or when I’m actually carrying the drums I still get asked if I’m the drummer – even by other women. Is it so far off the radar in this day and age that I actually could be the drummer rather than the girlfriend of the drummer, or (respectfully) the singer? I can’t speak for whether I don’t get booked because I’m female, because I don’t know, but I suspect that most females aren’t on the radar of certain circles of musicians, and breaking into those circles is difficult if you’re not visible and getting booked in those circles – it’s catch 22, really.

I think the other challenge is being a songwriter and the drummer; people sometimes assume that drummers can’t have harmonic and melodic skill sets and that changes their expectation of what contribution you make to your own band! I’ve been asked who writes my lyrics, my melodies, my chord charts, my string arrangements – when they’re all mine! At that rate, there’s nothing left for me to put my name to except the drum tracks!

Which has been the highlight of your career so far?

There have been some really key events – supporting amazing internationals and touring overseas, watching the development of our industry for women in particular, playing some gigs that have been a complete rush in terms of audience hype and repertoire, but I guess probably it’s actually this gig; nothing feels more significant than having my original music performed by such incredible musicians, in such a beautiful and prestigious room.

How did you get into jazz?

I got into the jazz industry by accident; I learnt drums at high school from the flute teacher, and played in the big band, but never imagined a career in music, I stopped class music at year 9. Then I got roped into a jazz class at the Melbourne Conservatorium whilst doing an Arts degree, by a friend who was studying piano there – Bob Sedergreen took the class. The first song we ever played together was Stevie Wonder’s ‘You Are The Sunshine of My Life’! Kind of sums it up! Then in fourth year at Melbourne Uni Arts I accidentally fell into an audition at the VCA. Brian Brown took a chance on signing me up (speaking of two men who are/were great champions of women in music) and I’ve never looked back.

Who are your heroes?

Of course there are amazing internationals that I’ve listened to a lot over the years but I get equally inspired by the amazing musicians we have here in Australia!

Andrea Keller, Sandy Evans, Luke Howard, Shannon Barnett, Darryn Farrugia, Simon Barker, Danny Farrugia, Katie Noonan, Michelle Nicolle, Paul Williamson, Nadje Noordhuis – and everyone in Kennedy inspires me!

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

Ha! How ironic, the song that is the title of the Salon show – ‘Everything It Could Be’. I think as you get older and have established pathways, change can be a confronting thing, but its all about being brave enough to explore the possibilities!

If you want to listen to ‘Everything it Could Be’, go see Kennedy Snow perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday 9 March.