Aja Volkman, formerly of L.A. rock band Nico Vega, released a solo project, Sandy, in May. While Sandy is a bit of a departure from some of the heavier tunes she delivered with Nico Vega (“Beast,” “Fury Oh Fury”), Volkman’s voice is one of those thumbprint rock voices that comes through as distinctly hers no matter what genre she ventures into. Sandy is part rock, part bluegrass, with songs like, “My Man,” and “Nobody” delivering old-school vibes fitting for a Brenda Lee record. This new album comes a year after Nico Vega announced their indefinite hiatus. Volkman, who is married to Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds, is also keeping busy with two brand new twin girls, Gia and Coco, and the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Arrow.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Aja, who talked about her new music, Nico Vega, and her discontent with the big machine ideology in the music industry.
I’m sure I’m not alone in that I was introduced to you and your music during your time with Nico Vega.
We were around for a long time. We took an indefinite hiatus, and I have no idea what will ever happen again. We love each other, the three of us, but everyone’s life changed so much, and it just became really difficult to keep things the same. So, we went our ways in that regard, but we’re close still. We’ll always be close.
What’s it like venturing into solo work after all this time?
My life changed so much because I had kids. I was really desiring something that was really harmonious with my lifestyle, and Nico Vega fulfilled a huge part of me that I can’t get anywhere else – like that wild energy of letting go and being free and loose on stage – I don’t experience that in my life, so that has its own space, but in terms of what my life looks like right now, I needed something that was harmonious with that because I can’t just be getting up and leaving all the time. Touring constantly – Nico Vega toured constantly. Those shows take so much out of you. There’s nothing left when you walk off that stage, and you can’t do anything less because you feel like you’re gypping people, and you know there’s so much more you can do. It’s just this thing – this release. But you develop a love/hate relationship with it because it does take so much out of you, or at least I do. You need the downtime. You need the break.
Were you at all worried about going in the more acoustic realm?
I wasn’t worried because even in Nico Vega’s catalog, there are songs like “Iron Man” and “Medicine Man” that you can find on my record now, you know? I knew that people knew that was a big part of me, and that – there were so many people all the time saying, “I would love an album where there’s not so much instrumentation, where there’s more voice. My parents, especially [laughs]. For me, it felt like a safer bet. The harder one was the electronic stuff. I just felt like –people don’t want to release their electronic stuff with rock. Nico Vega’s second album Lead to Light has so much more of that pop, electronic thing. There have been times that were scarier in the past [with releasing new music]. I knew the more acoustic sound has always come through in who I am as a singer. I’ve always had that derivative way of writing. I knew [the fans] wouldn’t have an issue with that, but the electronic stuff, I thought people might have more of an issue with it.
In terms of my new stuff, I think it’s what people expected. I mean, some people are like, “It’s not Nico Vega, so don’t expect Nico Vega,” but I don’t think a lot of people were expecting Nico Vega. There’s so much of Rich and Dan in that band. Each of us had our own voice in that band. I think if you strip away them, and you just leave me, it’s not too different from what I released.
You have one of those signature voices — not unlike Janis Joplin or Melissa Etheridge — those rock and roll women whose voices you immediately know.
That’s what I’m attracted to in music. I’m so attracted to vocalist and the kind of vocalist that are so, kind of, character driven. You know, poet kind of vocalists. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner – they’re unmistakable, and I think that’s something in music that I’m always missing lately. In terms of popular music, I’m always looking for that new voice that’s so gritty and so recognizable. There’s been a few people like that, for sure, but lately it’s almost like bubblegum pop again with electronic beats behind it. I have an appreciation for it. I understand – I can be like “this is so catchy and cool,” and I can get into it, but what I love about music is that individual, earthier, rip-your-guts-out voice.
I think I’m probably a little guilty of associating grit with authenticity.
Even just a little unpolished here and there, you know? I love Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. I love those voices that aren’t polished. It’s not that it needs to have a lot of grit and gravel in it, it’s just human. It’s like a human being, you can see the person, you feel like you’re connecting with their voice, and that’s so important to me.
When you’re writing, do lyrics or music come first?
It’s always music and lyrics coming together at the same time. My husband would probably say the same thing. The syncopation of a song – how it feels as it’s coming out – determines what you’re saying. One of the hardest things to do is to finish a song later. Because it’s like this channel opens up, and you’re really in it, and you’re in this emotional state of putting it all together for the first time. It all flows out really fast. I’ll write stuff in just 45 minutes, and it will be done. If I just write one verse and a chorus and walk away, it never quite has the same feeling behind it. My husband writes the same way. He would rather write a new song than go back – like if someone says, “This is a great song, but the second verse could be better” – he would rather throw it away and write a whole new song. It’s one day, one vibe, one thought process. You’re living that emotional journey in your head as you’re writing it, so tapping back into that is nearly impossible.
Is the writing process different now with your solo work?
I’m so much pickier with my material now, but it’s also easier because it’s kind of got this traditional format and traditional melody. Some of the melodies –I can’t tell after I’ve written song, and I’ll be like, “Did I steal this? Did I take this from somewhere?” I have that all the time, so I’ll be like, “Babe, come over here,” and Dan will come in and I’ll ask if he’s heard it before. Sometimes with him, I’m like, “This is so good, it’s definitely a song already.” I’m just like, “Honey, we need to really think about this one, because, I swear…” But sometimes that’s also the sign of something that just feels so write. Songs like “My Man” have been written a million other times, in a million other ways, but that’s what comforts me as a writer. I’m not trying to do something brand new that no one has ever heard. It’s what I want to listen to.
Songs like that, that have that nostalgic undertone, it’s not that they haven’t been done before, it’s that they aren’t being done as often now — at least not in mainstream.
Honestly, ‘70s music feels that way. Even when I listen to like, Cat Stevens – anybody from that era. I’ll put on Hall and Oates, and I’ll be like, “This feels so good.” I don’t understand why I can’t pick an artist’s channel from now, and just listen to it. Why is every channel I pick from an artist from like 30 years ago?
You know, I find those artists now, thought, they just aren’t in the Top 40 too often. You have to go out and find them, and then we take it upon ourselves to be, like, torchbearers.
Totally! You’re like, “Why doesn’t anybody care about this?” But you know what it is? The record industry is all money now. It’s just a really interesting thing – this whole topic. The whole record industry right now and what they put money into. I go to the award shows with my husband, and as much as I have an appreciation for the performances, I’m like, “Why is my husband’s band the only rock band?” And they don’t even really consider themselves just rock. Or they have that, then Aerosmith, or a rock band from decades ago come out and play.
Rock and roll is still alive and kickin’. It exists outside of dusty record crates.
Yes! And I don’t feel like there are that many people who really want to shine a light on it. Maybe it’s not what people want to listen to, and that’s why it’s not popularized. It bothers me so much. Do you think it’s just what people put money into?
I don’t know, I’m on social media all the time, and I see so many kids — young kids — worshipping these rock and roll bands whose members are in their sixties and seventies. It’s not that the interest isn’t there, it’s just not —
Being showcased. Oh my gosh.
I think they’re beginning to get tired of certain things being pushed on them.
I would think so. You can smell it when – I don’t know – I’m so tired of the way, even the way women are portrayed. It’s all about what this person is wearing, or how she looks. I don’t want to say, “You can just be a singer,” but there’s a part of me that just wants to see a person be more vulnerable or exposed, or have that honesty. I think that’s something – it’s a trap we’re in right now. There’s bound to be a backlash.
Did you see Julia Michaels at the Billboards? That was one of my favorite performances.
She was someone I really wanted to see at the Billboard Awards – her and Celine – and they performed in the middle, so I was behind them. Julia is an incredible writer, and it’s so nice when people are finally shining a light on someone who is writing their own music. It’s just not that common. It’s also – here’s the thing people don’t realize – it’s so competitive now, that even the labels, they’re forcing the people to write with writers. It’s so bizarre. We’re in this really weird time. That’s really what drove me out of wanting to do things the way people want me to. That’s why my album’s not promoted. I hate to say it, but I don’t care to do what everyone is doing right now. I’m not interested in the grind. I don’t care anymore. I’m making these records for me.
And at the end of the day, it’s restricting and exhausting to write to fit something that comes down to an algorithm.
Exactly. The unfortunate part is it’s just the luck of the draw at the point to see who is spread around enough by word of mouth. To be honest, it’s mainly paid for now. That’s how you get an article written up about you. Even the distribution – I released by record through a company called Ditto. They do very little promo, but they were super passionate about it. It’s not like this big campaign where you’re paying them tons of money. They do as much as they can, and they take a small, small percentage. Way better than any label situation, but even they had to send it to publications. It’s not like people just discover it and say, “Oh, I’m going to put this my magazine.”
My dad is like, “What’s going on with your record?” And I’m like, “That’s it. The campaign is over.” This is what we’re dealing with these days. I’m not going to pay someone to shove my music down other people’s throats.
We have to get back to that place where we just love music. Linda Perry has been encouraging me for years to make a record. She’s like, “You know there’s going to be a backlash to what’s going on right now. You have to be one of the people presenting something different.” She’s just like, “People are so done with this.” When Julia Michaels came out with “Issues,” it was the first time in a long time where I was like, “That is insanely creative melody writing.” It’s really great melody writing. That was refreshing. It’s an interesting time – I think of Linda Perry because yea, you’re right — people are going to be done with this, and we’re going to go back to this place where people are going to be like, “Just get on the stage with a guitar and show me who you are. Make me cry. Put a spotlight on you.” I honestly love Ed Sheeran for that reason. Every time I watch him, I just think, “Thank goodness.” He’s got the heart and the charisma.
And Linda Perry is a badass and always following her own heart, and when I’ve been to her studio and heard her writing, it’s pretty take your breath away. Her voice belting out – she’s one of those people that has so much emotion, and she doesn’t need to have this perfect thing; it’s just so perfect in what it is. There’s been a few times when I’ve caught her just writing on the piano, and it was just like, “Wow!” You’re walking by and you’re just like – I could start crying listening to her fool around the piano. But why isn’t someone putting that on a stage.
Favorite song on Sandy?
“Cracked” is probably closest to my heart because I wrote that song when I met my husband, and I was in such a crazy place in my life, and it was such a life transition for me, so that was definitely a really honest song for me. I actually took time to write it. I had never written anything on the piano before. That would probably be closest to my heart. I also love “Nobody.” It has a special place in my heart. What I’ve gone through in the last few years of giving up my rock band and having my kids and kind of just being more of a support for my husband – I took that to a more comical place for myself. That’s where that song was written from, and it’s kind of an endearing song for me.
Advice to emerging artists?
Don’t burn yourself out. It’s an adventure. Live in it and love it, but take care of yourself. I would say for singers, the main thing – almost every singer I know, when they start touring, loses their voice, because they don’t do the proper vocal training they need to do. Myself included, for years. You hear about it – like when Adele cancelled her shows. People are like, “Oh, you’re the hot thing right now,” and your record label makes you do two acoustic shows that day, and a show that night, and then you have to get up and do television the next day. No one is looking out for your voice at all, and then when you have to cancel and you can’t do it, they’re like, “Oh, this is really important because it’s so-and-so, and if you don’t do it, you won’t get this.” It’s just too much at once. If you’re being pushed to do more than you can handle, listen to that, and don’t be afraid to tell people, “Look, we’re all out of a job if this happens, and I don’t want to have surgery on my voice.”