By Grant Golden
Photo: David Nichols
October 8, 2020
“Timeless” gets tossed around a lot when it comes to describing good music. The word becomes a catch-all for anything vaguely nostalgic leaning into funk and soul. But what about music that fuses the classic with the contemporary? Music that serves as an aural representation of a specific moment in time while paying homage to the foundation that makes it possible? That’s the plane of existence that Sonny Miles’ music operates in.
While many artists are touted as “genre-bending” these days, Sonny Miles embodies the ethos in a way that few others can. From the age of five, Miles, born Jordan Williams, was playing drums. By ten he was performing at church alongside his father, who would gracefully and charismatically lead the congregation. Though he was soaking in the complex rhythms and rich melodies of gospel sounds, Miles didn’t experience much contemporary music until his early teens, and even then it was mostly because it existed within the soundtrack of the video games he was allowed to play.
“I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap or hip-hop at all,” Miles said. “Before 12 I could only listen to gospel music or like…oldies. It was Stevie Wonder, jazz, and maybe a little R&B. But thanks to Tony Hawk and shit like that, I was able to learn more about rock and rap to the highest extent. They kinda let me get away with [the games] but I don’t think they knew I was listening to like Nas and Madlib.”
Young Miles was the kid that played drums in church on Sunday, but had Avenged Sevenfold in his headphones. This foundation of musical diversity helped breed the singular sounds produced by Winston-Salem’s prolific songwriter, which lands somewhere between hip-hop, rock, soul and funk. And, despite his exposure to different music during childhood, Miles didn’t start writing his own music until 19. He released his explorative EP, The Beta Project, in 2015.
“I just decided…I’m gonna do this,” Miles said. “I got some studio time, got my drums and just kept it moving. Pops helped me get a guitar from a pawn shop, then push came to shove and that was it. I just started playing and performing.”
Listening to that 2015 project is akin to seeing a car’s parts scattered across assembly lines– there are bits and pieces of the larger puzzle that come together in a natural progression of a young, talented and driven artist– one that’s literally in the process of finding his voice. Beta is a no-frills, sparsely arranged piece of music that, if nothing else, showcases Miles’ knack for earworm hooks and ornate melodies.
Over the next few years, Miles continued honing his craft working for the University Activities Board at NC State, garnering lucrative opening slots for acts like T.I at State’s homecoming concerts. But most importantly, he began to learn how to operate within the music industry: What’s proper show etiquette? How do you get paid? How do you even get booked?
This knowledge helped Miles flourish as a budding artist in a variety of ways, especially as he joined Dotwav Media, a Raleigh-based alternative rap band. What originated as a hip-hop group with lofty goals of performing shows on cruise ships morphed into an impressive amalgamation of hip-hop, pop, and rock with Miles’ driving rhythms propelling a high-energy live show. While he was still churning out singles and EPs of his own throughout the years, they seemed to take a backseat to the work of Dotwav.
In September 2019, the collective dropped their debut album, Rather Die Than 9-5, a sprawling ode to subverting societal expectations. Thanks to the regional success of …9 to 5, the group had pulled together two tours across North Carolina and began to gather acclaim among the local scene. But a post-show discussion with a high school friend from their school’s acapella group sparked a resurgence in Miles’ solo aspirations.
“He just asked me like…what’s going on with you? And I didn’t know,” Miles remembered. “We had just finished this record, we toured on it, we were just chillin’…and then ‘Raleighwood’ happened.”
“Raleighwood” was Miles’ breakout collaboration with Raleigh-based artist LesTheGenius. “Raleighwood Hills” dropped in the fall of 2019, but took on a new life after President Barack Obama included it in his “Favorite Music of 2019” playlist. As the former President’s plug reached his 100 million followers, the plays and the attention for Miles’ work began to skyrocket.
“We got this Obama exposure [for “Raleighwood”] and people were just like, ‘When are you gonna go solo?’ I hadn’t really thought about leaving Dotwav, but people were ready for it. My family wanted it, my friends wanted it, so when ‘Raleighwood’ took off it was like…it’s time,” he said.
Shortly after that decision was made, he released “Bedroom Hollywood,” which is currently set to be the lead single for his forthcoming full-length record Gamma. Much like the rest of his solo work, “Bedroom Hollywood” is built around a seamless blend of samples and organic instrumentation that mesh with ease. The track’s vocal flourishes and airy keys harken back to his days in gospel, while his vocal cadence displays an unabashed swagger that nods to his hip-hop and funk roots.
Ever since the presidential love for “Raleighwood,” Miles has been in a constant state of go. Flexing his artistic muscles with literally everyone that asks, he yearns for artistic output and collaboration. Miles jokingly attributes that to the fact that he grew up as an only child but, rather, it’s more that he’s got a voice and a message that demands to be heard, despite any pitfalls or obstacles that stand in the way.
“I’m working on letting go, on exposing myself and putting myself out there completely. Y’know, this is what I truly feel. I can tell that people get the sense that I’m gifted and talented, but they don’t feel me yet,” he said. “After a while it’s about more than just having bars or a good meter and such.”
It’s that excitement and vision that make Gamma one of most anticipated releases for many local fans. Miles’ music blends the personal with the political in a way that feels universal; it’s a new manifestation of that musical duality that we’ve seen throughout his entire life. While many may rightfully make the claim that his art is “timeless,” it’s equally important to acknowledge it as a reflection of the times: he’s a young black man battling with the ever-present pull between social unrest and personal distress, while somehow finding love and light along the way. In short, Sonny Miles illuminates the universality of the highs and lows of everyday life.
Listen to Catallabs, and the latest from Sonny Miles.