It seems like ages ago when Sonya Tomlinson, aka Sontiago, would step on stage at the now-defunct Stone Coast Brewery in Portland (where, ironically, she works in the basement of the same building for the Portland Phoenix). About eight years – to be somewhat exact – but since she debuted her rapping style and made the boys move over (nicely), she’s crafted a hot n heavy name for herself within the music and art community.
Being new to town from North Carolina and hesitant to really work with anybody, she got her feet wet with the encouragement of Portlander and Stone Coast open mic night organizer, Bread. It seems some sort of cosmic energy was in the air: Sontiago was doing some arts n crafts volunteer work at the West End Community Policing Center and Bread was friends with the guy who ran the place. One thing led to another and bam! Sontiago’s got a mic in her hand among a sea of impressed rapper dudes.
“The response was so overwhelming,” she said of that time, adding they were all very welcoming to her presence. “The guys were super nice, I certainly wasn’t the only girl, but I think I was the only girl that was consistently going. A lot of the guys were interested in working together more than anything else.”
Ever since old college buddy, Sean Carroll, manager of Newbury Comics in South Portland, urged me to go see Sontiago perform way back when I have been a supporter. And it’s easy to see why: her rhymes have depth and are contagious, she pairs with the most cutting edge beat makers in the area and she’s just a genuine inspiration to watch on stage. Not to mention, fucking fashion forward and refreshingly unpretentious.
On Sept. 28, Sontiago held a CD release party in Portland for Steel Yourself, her second album which is being released by Endemik Music, based in Montreal. Her show, held at the alternative artist venue and gallery Space, (where she also bartends), was a kicking success bringing in roughly 300 people. This is not surprising. I was among many in front of The White Heart on Congress Street vying to get in one night to get a glimpse of the performer because her show was full to capacity. Portland loves Sontiago and Sontiago returns the love by holding live shows worth waiting in line for.
This new album, a follow-up just in sequence to Abuse My Adoration released in 2004 is much more serious in content and “sonically better” Sontiago said. The name, Steel Yourself comes from this idea of bracing yourself for unexpected situations.
“It sort of happened simultaneously,” Sontiago said about the choice of album name, during a recent telephone call, adding at that point three songs had already been written when she read the phrase being used in reference to the hostage situation of Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll. “‘Mrs. Carroll, steel yourself, your daughter has been kidnapped.’ I had heard that expression but had never seen it written out … ‘Oh, I get it, you have to fucking brace yourself and prepare. Prop yourself right now in this instant and here’s what’s coming after.’ I felt like that title made so much sense.”
Included in those three initial songs is “Faith Not Fear,” which illustrates a post-wedding anxiety attack (she’s married to fellow rapper JD Walker). “Hide and Seek,” a song about Johnny Lomba, a fixture of the Portland art scene after The Skinny, a staple performance venue downtown, closed and a partnership dissolved. And “Force It,” describes a friend’s relationship that went from good to bad. The 48-minute disc, which is available in major music stores across the US, Canada and Japan Nov. 20, ends with Sontiago playing a Casio keyboard in a song about Meg Perry, a Portland activist who drove the People’s Free Space Frida bus around and who died in it during an accident while doing relief work in New Orleans.
“All the subject matter on the album is something that affected me emotionally,” Sontiago said. “To me, a friend. Something that felt emotion. All the subject matter is pretty serious.”
She samples from Babe Ruth’s version of Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who are Darker Than Blue” and she’s got beats from indie hip hop Anticon family members DJ Mayonnaise and Alias, while also working with Chicago-based DJ and producer Maker. DJ Gabe FM known for his involvement in Mainehiphop.com and a variety of hip hop projects around town and beyond, is in her corner, too, manning the wheels of steel.
“Gabe is cutting and he’s pretty amazing at formulating ideas,” Sontiago said. “He truly thinks about presentation and flow and the set list. He has a strong consideration for a live set and what that means and he’s been making little medleys. He just thinks of all these things to do to make it different. He’s a believer that you should get something from the live show that you don’t get from the CD.”
Sontiago gives dilly dilly (aka Erin Davidson) of Cerberus Shoal fame credit for getting her out there on the multiple week tour (as well as Space Founder Todd Bernard) because of their combined experience touring and choosing appropriate performance spots: “dilly dilly is awesome and she’s pretty much the reason I’m going on tour because she’s such a strong musical individual.”
Of the spot in Williamsburg, Sontiago said, “Erin did a solo tour and she had just recently played there. She said it’s a fantastic place to play … pass the hat kind of thing… all donation-based. Erin said it’s one of the more fruitful stops.”
dilly dilly, who just completed a tour with Sage Francis, will break out multiple instruments such as the melodica, a banjo and violin, and her infamous saw. On the CD, she only sings, but live she’s playing with the toys.
Though Abuse My Adoration is well-loved among many Sontiago enthusiasts, like many artists who find themselves evolving, the mistress of the mic says she’s most excited about this new project.
“Holy improvement from one album to the next,” she said. “Sonically, it’s so much better. I personally never listen to the old album anymore. I probably should. I’m really psyched. I’m proud of this album through and through.”
Sontiago fans will notice, however, someone is missing from the mix: Moshe, Sontiago’s long time DJ and musical collaborator. Why? Her answer: They were going in different musical directions.
“He basically stopped cutting or no longer scratches and that’s what we first came together as,” she said. “So I really felt something was lost without that aspect in my live show.”
For all her work, Sontiago, has been getting nods. Recently, she was picked as one of URB Magazine‘s “Up and Up” Top 1,000, a title she described as a “fucking fluke.”
Seems Sontiago asked Scott Da Ros the founder of Endemik, who was trying to get fellow labelmate Bleubird included (he was), when the cut off date was to apply. Da Ros told her he thought she had a week. So Sontiago thought, “God damn it, I always miss it.” She decided to call the magazine during work, got a friendly (and helpful) receptionist on the phone who put her right through to Senior Editor Brandon Perkins. The right guy to talk to, apparently.
“Rarely do you get put right through to the source,” she said.
Turns out Perkins has heard of those from Anticon, her old Maine hip hop buddies, now dwelling West Coast style, because he’s from Connecticut. He’s pretty sure he’s heard of her.
“I lucked out, my timing was beautiful,” she said. “He was the one that personally advanced me there. [He says] ‘it goes in front of a panel. We all judge. My vote is for you.’ Seeing myself in URB I was like, fuck, I gotta get this album done. I have a label backing me, an influential magazine. I better walk the walk and talk the talk.”