“We are not Earthlings / We hail from Sonnymoon.”
Harnessing the otherworldly register where her voice often settles, Anna Wise dispassionately chants this line at the beginning of “Soular” as bandmate Dane Orr spins a low, pulsing beat and electronic bass. From the duo’s first album, the self-produced, self-released Golden Age (2009), it offers a good early lesson about the band: In the course of a seven-year career, they have proven themselves not entirely of this world.
Kids (and grown kids) may know that giggle-inducing game in which players add “…in bed” to the end of fortune cookie fortunes; for Sonnymoon, a useful trick to describe their music is to add “…in space” to the end of an assortment of genres. Particularly on Golden Age, which more freely explores a range of sounds (and contains some of the band’s most dazzling tracks to date), this yields fruitful results. “Run Away” is electro-pop in space; “Soft Shoulders” is Amy-Winehouse soul in space; and “Golden Age” reaches the neighborhood of the universe that Portishead has already colonized. In the course of two other full-lengths, 2012’s Sonnymoon and 2015’s The Courage of Present Times, the classification “trip-hop,” which self-contains the appendage “in space,” comes further into focus. But even with its mashed-up and foregrounded percussion, heavy electronic bass, and experimental vocals, the duo often slips away even from that inclusive label.
It’s no surprise that such evasive-yet-controlled experimentation has a scholarly foundation. Wise and Orr met at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music, where she studied voice and he focused on saxophone. Golden Age came out while the two still attended school, and they started on their second album after Wise dropped out of her program in 2010. Even without a degree to show for it, Wise’s voice exhibits the dexterity and power that comes from training mixed with raw talent. While the music on Sonnymoon’s three albums varies hugely in tone and style, her voice remains the focal point of all of it—sometimes lilting softly, as in the self-titled album’s closer, “Just Before Dawn,” sometimes bellowing euphorically, as in the chorus of The Courage of Present Times’ “SNS,” and sometimes humming with an alien weirdness, as in “Nursery Boys” from Golden Age.
As Wise tells it, it’s that last quality of her voice that attracted her best-known collaborator, Kendrick Lamar. Lamar saw the video for “Nursery Boys” on YouTube (while Sonnymoon didn’t have a huge local following in Boston in 2011, they had amassed fans on the Internet), contacted Wise, and she arranged to stop by Compton during the band’s cross-country road trip. From the ensuing partnership came features on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and two songs from To Pimp A Butterfly, including the Grammy-winning “These Walls.”
Wise rejects the suggestion that Lamar’s hip-hop might have influenced Sonnymoon’s music, though. In an interview with Billboard last year, she said, “I don't really consider the genre—to me art is art, and I want to work with the greats.” Still, it’s difficult not to read something into the progression of the band alongside Wise’s work with such a legend—if not in the embracing of the trip-hop seeds they had at their start than in the move toward clearer messages in their songwriting. In the second album, Sonnymoon leaves behind a bit of the tongue-in-cheek of “Soular” and “Nursery Boys” and the nebulous poetry of “Gills or Wings” and “Soft Shoulders” for more direct—albeit sometimes mystical—language. “Maybe your head works different than these other fools... / What happens when you toe the line of crazy,” she sings in “Greatness,” reflecting on the mental cost of art. And in “Just Before Dawn,” she croons, clearly and achingly, “Any night you should have someone to hold / Tell you that did okay when your mind’s against you.”
Sonnymoon’s third album takes a step back in the direction of abstraction, but Wise, whose solo career is now inextricably linked to the band, has taken off running down the path of straightforwardness and earthly concerns. Her recent EP, The Feminine: Act I, launches itself into a feminist dialogue with songs such as, “How Would You Call a Dog?,” “Decrease My Waist, Increase My Wage,” and “BitchSlut,” which starts, “So they callin’ you a bitch, callin’ you a slut / ‘Cause you dress up, ‘cause you dress down.” Championing a more unambiguous mixture of pop, R&B, and hip-hop, the EP features cover art that re-creates of Klimt’s painting Danaë, with Wise’s pale knees raised to her forehead, her red hair flowing over her shoulders in a way that renders her both erotic and innocently vulnerable.
Meanwhile, with Orr, Wise continues to favor a style more out-of-this-world. If songs such as “Sex for Clicks” and “Transparent Times” off of The Courage of Present Times engage with the timely topics that their titles suggest, they disguise it with the vitality of their weirdness. Even on the former song, one of very few spare piano ballads in their repertoire, Sonnymoon seems isolated from vulnerability by the distant, supernatural quality that persists throughout their music. But while some of the tunes feel alien and distant—mediated by electronics, experimental editing, and eccentricity—their makers do not shy away from a direct relationship with the audience. In the same Billboard interview, Wise says that live performance is where her band’s music “makes the most sense.” Or, as she explains in “Soular”: “Soon you will find Sonnymoon to you is like a drug / You’ll be like ha ha ha ha give me love.”