* photographed by Brandon Eversole
Diva-rific tall drink of water and classically trained singer/songwriter Sophia Santulli is the founder of Prize, a new electro-rock band with an operatic flair. Years of vocal study enable Santulli to slip easily between soaring coloratura and powerful, full bore, rock and roll. With a backing band of classically trained musicians, including Justin Riberio on guitar and Liujing Liu on keys, Prize’s emotional urgency makes for a thrilling live show, including their recent gig at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco.
No stranger to the music scene in San Francisco, Santulli has performed as a back-up singer for such indie luminaries as Third Eye Blind, John Vanderslice, The Dodos and Two Foot Yard. She has also performed widely as an opera singer.
Prize’s recently released debut EP, The Split, is currently available digitally on iTunes and will be released as a CD in August.
MVRemix: As a classically trained opera singer, your vocal range is really amazing. Is your transition away from classical music something you planned on?
Sophia Santulli: I came to San Francisco to get my Masters in Vocal Performance- and I did- but I unexpectedly had an overwhelming desire to create my own music. In the world of opera, at best I feel like a vessel for an exalted art form, and at worst I feel like a very elegant puppet. I wanted to create a musical sphere that, while it is much more humble, is fully my own. But immaculate vocal technique is my Mount Everest and I continue to pursue the art form by taking on classical projects.
MVRemix: How much of your vocal technique was something you learned at the San Francisco Conservatory?
Sophia Santulli: I came to the Conservatory to study with Catherine Cook, who teaches all of the great up-and-coming opera singers in the area but also singers like Joan Baez! She is truly my master teacher and the strides I’ve taken in classical singing are all due to her teaching. But the kind of singing I do as Prize is not classical. It’s just me. I make it up as I go along. Sometimes it’s not “correct”- it’s passionate.
MVRemix: On your EP “Split” you mentioned you did a lot of the work yourself. Did this include making the beats and doing the keyboard work?
Sophia Santulli: The title “The Split” came in part from the split between my electro and rock influences. I had been teaching myself production and had some demos that I made using Reason composition software, two of which ultimately became the first half of the EP. But I am not a professional producer, so I enlisted the help of Matt Gaspari of Ladder, who I’d done some collaboration with in the past. On the EP tracks you hear some of my synth work and I did work very closely with Matt to get the tracks exactly how I wanted them to sound, down to details like the weight of the kick drum and the timbre of the synth organ. Of course, for the live show they are completely different because I re-arranged them for an all-live setup.
MVRemix: Are you planning on making a full length album?
Sophia Santulli: I am definitely making a full length album in the near future, but right now is a growth period of playing out, finding the sound, and working with my band members. After we do a mini-tour or two in the next several months, I want to get back in the studio with the best material and record something that actually gets the energy of the live show across.
MVRemix: Do you think you’ll compile the tracks your musicians make to form the songs, or will you record together in a studio?
Sophia Santulli: I hope to record in the studio with my drummer, guitarist, synth player, cellist, and violinist all together like one big happy family. Of course there will be some tracking separately, but I aim for a collaborative studio experience.
MVRemix: Can you tell me about the alter ego, if she is one that you adopt on stage?
Sophia Santulli: A lot of female singers out right now mention alter egos. I don’t have an alter ego. What you see onstage is all me. Sure, it’s amplified by music and costumes, but all I’m doing up there is connecting to my passion, and I do that offstage too. I am messy and exposed and honest. I am ethereal grit. I’m not playing it cool or trying to act sexy. You could catch me dancing around my apartment or in a mosh pit or at a party and you’d see the same person.
MVRemix: Where did you get the inspiration for the costumes?
Sophia Santulli: The inspiration for my costumes began with the idea of deconstructed Victorianism. Let’s unlace the binding corset, mess up the perfectly powdered wig, and expose what’s underneath. And I’m not talking about body parts, I’m talking about our culture of fear and repression. I designed the exposed hoop skirt with that in mind. Making my wig, I felt like it might look like Marie Antoinette after an acid trip. Alongside of this idea is a punk element. I grew up moshing at rock shows- I don’t wear heels, I wear flat boots so I can stomp and jump. I maintain a DIY aesthetic– use what you have and make it unique. I tore up some cheap satin opera gloves and scribbled on them with permanent marker, I made a knee bandage out of the collar of a discarded wedding dress, that sort of thing. And my use of feathers is simply because, for me, they represent freedom.
MVRemix: Prize is an interesting name. Where did it come from?
Sophia Santulli: I feel like a lot of people walk around like they are a burden, when in reality they are a gift, a prize. On the same token, I feel like people treat others like obstacles, when really we all have something special to offer one another. It’s nothing grandiose; the image I had in my mind was a child eagerly rooting around a crackerjack box. That’s the level of excitement and curiosity with which we should approach each other and the world. So what if human beings are small? We can be bright. We have worth. Become your Prize, who you would want to meet on the street, who you could fall in love with. I am Prize, but so is the world I see.
MVRemix: Where did you meet the other members of the band?
Sophia Santulli: Lisa, my drummer, came to me for voice lessons (that’s how I pay my bills) and I knew immediately that I would play music with her someday. Lo and behold, we started jamming together, so when I was putting together my band there was no one else I wanted. Her drumming is what I love about live music. Simple and catchy and raw and energetic. My guitarist Justin and I actually had a trade going on where I would teach him voice and he would teach me guitar. We were ultimately lazy students but I asked him to record the second half of The Split with me and he agreed. He went to the Conservatory for his Masters as well, so his understanding of the guitar is far beyond most, and I wanted someone who could take my simple writing to the next level. Lujing is a newer member, but I am so excited about his playing because he also has classical training and a real passion for the electro side of things. He’s an arpeggioholic like me and really loves to perform. My violin player Matt was also a voice student and friend, and I found my cellist Leo through a friend. They are both awesome because they can read the string parts I write but they are more alternative than classical, so they can improvise as well.
MVRemix: Can you tell me about where you get the inspiration for you lyrics?
Sophia Santulli: I get the inspiration for my lyrics from my actual emotional life. If I’m writing about it, it means I am living it right then. If I am not in love then I’m not going to write a love song. Some songwriters are more literary; they can make up a story and will paint you a beautiful picture, but what I’m trying to capture is usually a feeling. For instance, Terror Machine came out of this horrible feeling of numbness, wanting to jump out of my skin, needing to push and control. I know everyone feels that way sometimes, but how do I put this feeling to music? I like to take a simple sentiment, like “I have a crush on you” and open it up. What does that sentiment actually feel like, and how can I direct you to it using words and music so you can feel it too?