Inside “The Exhibitionist,” the New Song by Sotto Voce

Noah Evan Wilson and Ryan Gabos, a.k.a., Sotto Voce, discussing his new song, “The Exhibitionist,” on Zoom (June 20, 2022)

The New York City chapter of The Acoustic Guitar Project kicked off its tenth season this June with a new original song by Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Ryan Gabos, known for his genre-bending music under the name Sotto Voce.

The Acoustic Guitar Project (TAGP) is a global music platform and concert series that inspires musicians to write an original song and record it live in one week. TAGP was created by Dave Adams in 2012. He launched the first season in New York City and Detroit, and the project has since expanded to more than 50 cities worldwide with songs from over 1,000 artists. Every year, in each city, curators select five local artists to participate, using the same recorder and guitar, which they then sign. The NYC guitar alone had 78 signatures at the end of last season, and Sotto Voce makes 79.

I began curating the project in Denver in 2017 and in NYC in 2018. This year, I have teamed up with Soundshop founder Akpanoluo Etteh to curate our first season since the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the city.

Accompanying the songs will be introduction videos on The Acoustic Guitar Project website in which each artist discusses their week with the guitar and the inspiration behind their new original song. As we gear up for the coming releases and the salon and concert at The City Reliquary on September 16, Akpanoluo and I wanted to delve deeper into the conversation with the artists to learn more about their songwriting process and the unique experience of writing for TAGP, beginning with Ryan and his new song, “The Exhibitionist.”

N: “Sotto voce” means in a quiet voice; how did it come to be your moniker as an artist?

SV: I started [the project] in late high school. I didn’t have any friends that played music, so I knew it was going to be a solo project, and I didn’t feel that my name was stark enough. It doesn’t sound as good as Elliott Smith or Bruce Springsteen, so I knew I needed a moniker. I don’t distinctly remember where I first saw it, but I think it was a play that we were assigned to read. “Sotto voce” is often in playbooks as a reading description for the actor. So, I looked it up and found that “under one’s breath” is roughly what it translates to, and I felt that it meant something cool, and sounded good enough.

N: How did it feel to complete a song, recording and all, in one week?

SV: It’s typical for me, even [to write a song] in one sitting. The process when I go to write and record — it happens all at once. I usually spend a day [on it] and I don’t stop until it’s done. So, the week parameter wasn’t daunting.

N: What else did you do that week?

SV: What was going on that week? (Looks at calendar.) Okay, okay… Saturday, May 28…not much was going on. I was struggling coming up with something to sing about, and a kind of interesting thing in my life at that time was that my friend had a co-worker who kept coming into work drunk. And so, we toyed with this idea that — because I work nights — I was like, “Well, I could be this mole for you.” You know, go to the bar he goes out to and hide there one day, like, reading a book or something and photograph him —

N: Did you?

SV: No. (Laughs.) But I was stumped for topics, and that was the only interesting kernel of something going on in my life.

N: In your introduction video, you spoke about the way different guitars influence your writing style; how did the TAGP guitar influence the creation of your song, “The Exhibitionist?”

SV: It’s like how they say, “No pair of jeans are the same”; anytime I’m killing time in a Guitar Center and I pick up a new guitar, the neck, in small idiosyncratic ways, is different from the neck of my guitars which I play every day. My hands almost feel guided to do something that feels immediately comfortable. Like “this chord feels comfortable….” The action on that Takamine [the TAGP-NYC guitar] is very low. I found it very easy to fret. I was just playing the song on my usual acoustic guitar and there’s some minor chords where I do some hammer-ons and pull-offs, and it wasn’t the same. There are songs that fit certain guitars. I’m hardly a tech, but differences in the wood and shape; [guitars] are like snowflakes. It’s inspiring to pick up a new guitar and see “how can I make this one sound?”

N: You described the intro to the song as “aimless.” I also found it to be circular, poignantly supporting the content of the song; was this planned, or did it evolve organically?

SV: It does come around. And yes, it was organic. Thinking of it in terms of audio-visual — like, if I had to match a visual component to it: the beginning is flighty and blissfully unaware, [the character] bipping and bopping around the workplace, and then the lyrics come in and it’s like, “I’m at this bar, and I’m gonna down this beer.” I had these three images that I needed to tie together with the chord progression: the flighty beginning, the bar — which gets jazzier and more somber — and then the title-section (where SV sings “the exhibitionist”) is all doom and gloom, the reality, the [character’s] cry for help. [The song] peels back layers until it reveals that.

N: I was struck by the fact that the song is not about you; how did you approach writing as this character in “The Exhibitionist”?

SV: I tried to be very empathetic. To be in their headspace. Nobody wants to be ducking out of the workplace a couple times a day to keep themselves lubricated. Without having been there, I feel like I get it. It’s a sad song, and I wanted to give his cry for help whatever level of poetic justice I could.

N: I was also struck by the lack of conventional form (i.e., verse, chorus, repeat, etc.); what informed your decision to structure the song in this unique way?

SV: I like writing outside of conventional forms. I’m big into — and not that this is employed on this song — but I like writing a song in an unconventional time signature and making it work. I like pop and rock conventions, too, but I like a very dissonant, almost, like, a song with chapters. I look up to a lot of songwriters that write that way, and I’m impressed by being able to write outside of conventions but make it something that is very palatable. I like to see where an idea leads me, whether it’s a time signature, a new tuning or — in this case — a new guitar. Part of it is that guitar that adds to the unconventionality.

N: What’s next for Sotto Voce?

SV: My 11th album is coming out July 1. It’s called Ecce Loverboy. It’s going to be on Bandcamp and all streaming services. It’s now available for pre-order, and you can listen to two songs in advance. It’s got 10 new songs, and I feel very good about it. And the band’s playing around. July 7, we’ve got a record release show at Gold Sounds in Bushwick.

N: You were recommended by a TAGP alum, Kristen Estelle, and since this project is centered on our songwriting community: is there a local artist that you’d recommend we check out?

SV: Kristen is great! Shout out to her! I saw a show recently of Naeemah Maddox. She plays with this band that is lights out. They’re crazy. She’s a very interesting artist. Talk about outside of conventions. It’s a good sign that I can’t describe it. It was irreverent. I saw her show two months ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. I would especially love to see her solo with the guitar.

— Noah Evan Wilson

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The Soundshop Music Blog

The Soundshop Music Blog

This is the blog of The Soundshop music salon and community of New York City. This blog aims to analyze music in a way that enhances general music knowledge.