Sonny Casey is an Irish songwriter residing in Berlin, who releases her new EP, Phoebe, next Friday the 26th of November. Sonny plays her first headline show show tonight at Prachtwerk, Neukölln. Doors from 19:30, show at 20:00 (ticket link at end of interview). Sonny took some time out beforehand to talk about her journey and the new EP.
Sonny, great to chat to you! Tell us, we hear you’re from Galway?
Hi! Great to chat to you too! Yeah, so I’m from Connemara, a beautiful but lonely place along the Ocean, about a forty minute drive from Galway city.
So did you used to hit up Shop Street in Galway busking?
When I was sixteen I started jumping on the bus to the city and busking on Shop Street. There I discovered this magical world of wandering free spirits, independent artists and travelling musicians. I started busking every moment I could get, going to open mics, playing small gigs. This whole world of freedom and music just opened up to me. Inspired by that and having already travelled around Ireland busking, I quit my college course at nineteen and flew to Edinburgh to begin busking and travelling my way around Europe.
Inspiring! How is the busking scene in Berlin in comparison?
In Galway the busking scene feels like a family. All the buskers know each other and play with each other and if a new busker appears in town, they’re soon welcomed into the community. Most days you can’t walk down the main street without meeting other buskers or musicians.
There’s definitely a busking scene in Berlin too, it can just take a bit longer to feel like a part of it. Because the city’s so huge, all the spots are spread out so often you can go a whole day of busking without meeting other buskers. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one doing it, which can feel a bit isolating but can also be beneficial because you’re more likely to be noticed.
I’ve met some lovely buskers here though and most people react really positively to street music. And because it is a lot less common than back home, it feels like people sometimes appreciate it more here because they’re not expecting to hear you.
Your music has taken you throughout Europe – why stop so in Berlin?
That’s actually thanks to Katie O’ Connor, a fellow busker and singer-songwriter from Galway! She took me under her wing in 2019 and I opened for her shows around Europe. We came to Berlin somewhere along the way and because she used to live and busk here she showed me all the best places to play.
The first time I walked out of Warschauer strasse station, the sun was setting orange and purple, silhouetting two street musicians in front of me. I felt this tingling energy in the air. I remember feeling something that no other place had made me feel before.
During my travels around Europe, I kept coming back to Berlin. I’d busk all over the city and go to all the open mics. People’s reactions to my music here made me feel like this was the right place for me to be. It felt like a lot was happening, musical opportunities were coming my way and I also just felt this sense of independence, freedom and this buzz of possibility that just drew me in and made me move here.
What can we expect tonight from your first headline show tonight?
I can’t wait. I’m also terrified. Nothing scares me yet thrills me more than being on stage. I feel like I’m ready to have my own show now though. I’ve grown a lot over the past few years and have slowly started believing in myself. I’ve put so much time and energy into this EP and I’ve been busking and performing these songs for so long I feel like they deserve some sort of a stage and send off into the world!
I’ve been rehearsing with a band of four musicians, so it’s also going to be my first time playing a show with a band. I’ll be joined by another guest musician and an amazing singer-songwriter called Fedbo will open the night.
I just want to create a night where everyone feels connected and moved, in a cosy, safe intimate space where we can all feel things and release them.
Your show stealing performance of Danny Boy on ARD won you a lot of fans here in Germany. How did that come about?
Yeah I’m very grateful for that opportunity! It was someone I’d met at an open mic called Dan Eckhart who put me in touch with his friend who was looking for an Irish singer-songwriter for the show. I actually didn’t realise at the time that it was for such a big tv station! I’m glad I didn’t know though, otherwise I would have been even more nervous…
You avoided the pit traps of cliché and gave that song a real personal feel. This aspect of feeling personal runs through your own music. But how do you tackle a cover like that, to get that insight almost?
It’s funny because I didn’t want my roommates to hear me practising that song as I really wasn’t sure of it. I went out looking for quiet parks with no people around and ended up rehearsing it in the freezing cold of Winter in Hasenheide park. When it got too cold outside I shut myself inside my wardrobe in my bedroom and tried to practise it there.
I listened to all the covers I could find online but none of them really struck me, except for Sinead O’Connor’s acapella version but there was no way I could sing it like that. I realised I’d have to just make it my own so I just played it in a way that I knew worked with my voice.
I’ve always just loved this song and felt connected to it. I remember being a child and watching a sad movie, at some point ‘Danny Boy’ started playing and I started crying without really understanding why. I think when you sing a song that’s not yours you really have to put yourself and your own life into the words and the story and the meaning otherwise it doesn’t feel real and other people will feel that too. Like you have to believe every word as though you’d written it yourself.
I also feel like songs are a way to say the things that couldn’t be said otherwise, a way of communicating. When I was singing it for ARD, I suddenly started thinking of a family member who passed away before I was born. For some reason it reminded me of the stories I’d heard about him and it felt like this was a way for me to speak to him, so that’s who I found myself singing it to.
A Saving Grace, for example, feels extremely personal. Is it thus a conscious decision to bare all or (in this case) rather to bring light to the toxicity of abusive relationships?
I don’t think I’m able to write without baring it all! I write songs in my diary so often there’s no line between my lyrics and personal diary entries.
It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision at all to write about that though. I think if it had been, I wouldn’t have been able to write about it. At the time I actually had no idea what I was going through, I just knew that what I was feeling felt wrong and overwhelming and I had to get it out of me. I just wrote with those feelings, without thinking.
In hindsight I realised I’d been writing with that inner voice that I’d been silencing for too long. And as time passed and I healed and processed things I realised the song was describing an unhealthy, toxic relationship that the song itself had helped me escape from.
And congrats on the release of the new EP – Phoebe. Tell us about the title.
For some inexplicable reason ‘Phoebe’ is a synonym for five. There’re five songs on the EP so I thought it was fitting. When I discovered Phoebe also means ‘pure’, ‘bright’ and ‘the moon personified’, it felt like it was meant to be.
The Moon finds her way into a lot of my lyrics. I like thinking of her as this higher power and energy source that can move us creatively, so calling this EP ‘Phoebe’ felt like I was honouring that. Also it’s taken me over a year to finish this and it’s been a tough, challenging process, so I liked how ‘Phoebe’ personifies it and makes me feel like I’ve given birth to something.
How did you come to work with Tom Osander? And what did he bring to the EP?
That’s all thanks to Christian, the owner of Barbobu in Friedrichain. He heard me playing the open mic there and sent Tomo my music.
He brought magic to it. He’s completely connected to the vibe and feeling and knows exactly how to add to the songs without adding too much. I feel comfortable and safe playing with him which is so important. He’s also just a lovely, hilarious human so rehearsing with him is always great craic!
I have to ask about the artwork for Phoebe, again such a striking image – how involved are you in the creation of the artwork and videos?
Haha, that image was actually the lino print I made for my leaving cert art project five years ago! When I was making it for my exam I remember thinking that I’d have to use it as an album cover in the future otherwise it’d feel like wasted time.
I’d completely forgotten about the image until I was trying to come up with something for the cover a few months ago, I kept drawing this woman and I realised I was trying to recreate the image I’d made for my leaving cert so I thought ‘sure why not use that?’
I enjoy being involved with the imagery side of things. I feel like music, especially lyrics, and images go hand in hand, like each one inspires the other. Sometimes when I’m painting, words will pop into my head and often when I’m writing I’ll start drawing around the words.
With my first music video ‘A Saving Grace’ it felt like I got a glimpse into the endless possibilities there are for joining music and images. I sort of took a step back in the directing process with that though as I was unsure of myself, but after that experience I realised it’s something I definitely want to explore more in the future.
I made the lyric video for my second single ‘A Thousand Setting Suns’ myself, because for me the words are the most important part of that song and also because I had a pretty non-existent budget for it!
Finally, what’s next? Any Irish shows planned or back on German telly?
I’ve sort of done things backwards in the way that I’ve been performing these songs for years and now the record is finally out. So apart from the release show, I’m not really planning on gigging nor touring to promote it.
Now I have a whole bunch of new songs written and they feel so much closer to me than the ones from ‘Phoebe’, both emotionally and stylistically. So my goal now is to jump back into the music side of things. I want to continue writing and recording new songs and to take everything I’ve learnt with this EP release and move onwards and upwards from it. I’d love to plan some Irish shows in the future though and German telly can have me back whenever they want!