Aaron Hoffman, the singer, songwriter, visual artist and rapper known as SonReal, figured his new album would be something special the day he arrived at the recording studio and was too nervous to perform one of its songs for the record’s producers.
Anyone who knows SonReal’s earliest hits – bangers like “Everywhere We Go” and “Can I Get a Witness” – knows those tracks exude confidence. This is the man who once rapped about nailing it, “first try, no warm up.” But the songs from his recent studio album, The Aaron LP, are imbued with emotional and unblinking reflections on the world around him, a world he knows he can’t conquer solely by boastful self-assurance.
“I wrote all of ‘Voicemail’ mumbling in a corner with two producers in the room and I never said a word of the lyrics because I was nervous,” he said of one of the album’s standout tracks, which addresses the importance of the pivotal women in his life. “And when I went up to the mike to sing the first verse, I was nervous to say that stuff in front of two producers. That, to me, it made me feel like that’s why I do music.
“I think I just found myself, I found what I wanted to say. My music’s really honest and I address a lot of concepts on the new album that I think the world needs to hear,” he continued. “I try to make music to let people know that they aren’t alone. I think it took me the better part of my life to be able to express myself the way I did on this album and to find what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.”
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Fans of the original SonReal vibe and those who are into the new will be able to hear songs from the breadth of his career when he performs at The Secret Group this Saturday. The Vancouver artist, by way of Vernon, British Columbia, is a multiple Juno nominee whose tracks have been streamed more than 100 million times. The oddball music videos he’s starred in have drawn nearly as many views. He provided the thumbnail version of his career for the uninitiated.
“I started doing music when I was in high school, when I was like 15 years old, and I just fell in love with it, man. I fell in love with recording, I fell in love with rapping and singing and I ended up moving out to Vancouver to go to audio engineering school. I graduated from there and honestly I just kept my head down and just tried to get better at music,” Hoffman explained. “My path has been one that I’ve constantly been able to progress and evolve as an artist and I’m lucky enough to have built a fan base that lets me do what I want to do and supports me in what I want to do.”
He built that goodwill with hard work and creativity, particularly through his video work.
“What happened for me is I became successful off of doing these songs that were always kind of turn-up records and then I would shoot the craziest video I could shoot for it. I would do the craziest thing I could do because it was always getting attention, I was doing views. With ‘Everywhere We Go,’ I have 24 million views on YouTube or something like that,” he said.
Over the last couple of years, he began re-thinking his course.
“You know, you almost fall victim to what people want and I was signed to a major label and everyone said, ‘Can I Get a Witness’ is a smash and I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ You start trying to juggle other people’s expectations based off the success your garner off of records like those,” he noted. “I always just wanted to make the best music possible and go where my inspiration would take me. I’m a multi-faceted dude, like I can’t just rap for every song, I get bored, you know what I mean? So, I want to explore my talent and my gifts and I wanted to say more on this album.”
So he did. “Voicemail” is a gentle check-in on the women in his life. “1000 Highways” is about the twisting routes we take to find true love. “Healing,” featuring Canadian songstress Jessie Reyez, is about the importance of taking care of one’s self. The songs are threaded by the universal anxieties we share and the triumphs we experience as they relate to the people we love and the fears we all face. Trevor Muzzy (Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj) co-produced the tracks which lean less on SonReal’s rapping and more on his soulful singing. One track, the brilliant funk and R&B mashup, “Quit,” sounds so much like ‘70s-era Marvin Gaye you might search for the Motown insignia on the record.
“What’s Going On is one of my favorite albums, I love soul music, I love Americana music and like Neil Young and all that old stuff,” Hoffman shared. “I love Stevie Wonder and Al Green, I love all that kind of stuff. I wanted to incorporate my inspirations in my music and do my own thing ‘cause I’ll never be Marvin Gaye or anything like that; but, when I get inspired by that kind of stuff something spews out of me that I can’t control and it turns into something special.”
Another thing he learned from his inspirations is to not be afraid to change course. The safest thing to do is to keep repeating what’s tried and true, but SonReal isn’t interested in what’s safe.
“I just think that honest music wins, real music wins, it’s proven in history and all the greatest artists from fucking the beginning of time have always switched their style,” he said. “You look at somebody like David Bowie, shit, one album sounds nothing like the other, it’s not even the same genre. You know, Bob Dylan, all these people, they were hopping around all over the place and that’s what made them great, and I want to be great, so I’m just putting myself out there and doing some new shit.”
“I have to do a vocal performance that’s scary for me. I’m nervous before I go onstage. I don’t know, man, it feels like I just started doing music again. This is so exciting for me,” he said of playing the new songs live. “We’re breaking records every single week with this (album) and it’s because it’s honest, it’s because it scared me and it’s because when you go after something in your life that scares the shit out of you, it’s generally gonna make you a lot happier and it’s gonna probably get you more success as well.”
He said the change hasn’t kept his old fans from coming to shows. The crowds are different now, and larger.
“With rap I always had to get hella weird to be different because it’s just a crowded genre. What I’m doing now isn’t crowded, there’s a really wide open lane for me to go where I’m going and I’m finding the fan base is evolving.
“These songs are for the world and I’m finding that more people are showing up to the shows because of it. And I think I’m only going to do bigger venues, I’m going to blow out all these venues, I’m going to do another tour that’s going to be twice the people, four times the amount of people, eight times the amount of people and we’re just gonna keep going off of this because I’ve found it, man.”
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How good does Hoffman believe the album is? It released on May 10 and he hasn’t given much thought to upcoming videos for its songs yet, almost unheard of in SonReal’s experience.
“I wanna shoot some videos for it but I wanted people to listen first. I’ve got such a fan base on YouTube that I was like, you know what, I just want people to listen to this album. I don’t want them to listen with their eyes, I want them to listen with their ears for months before I shoot a video.”
“It’s so much deeper than even just music, it’s honesty and people relate to that," he summarized. “This new music I’m making, this is what I want to do. My next album is going to be better than The Aaron LP but it’s going to be on this path. This path is what I love, it’s what my heart ticks for, it’s the type of music I want to make.”
SonReal performs old favorites and songs from The Aaron LP Saturday, June 8 at The Secret Group, 2101 Polk. Doors at 8 p.m., $16-$18.