Artist Spotlight: Sour Widows

    Sour Widows is a Bay Area band formed in 2017 by singers and guitarists Maia Sinaiko and Susanna Thomson, who met as teenagers at the long-running circus and performing arts camp Camp Winnarainbow. They became friends and wrote their first song together in a songwriting workshop, though it wasn’t until they started living near each other, becoming on-again, off-again roommates, that they took the collaboration seriously, eventually enlisting drummer Max Edelman to flesh out their sound. The year the band began, Sinaiko lost a partner to an accidental overdose, and Thomson’s mother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, which she lived with for four years before passing away in June 2021. Sour Widows provided grounding and a vehicle for catharsis, which shone through their pair of early EPs, 2020’s self-titled and 2021’s Crossing OverRevival of a Friend, the band’s just-released debut LP, is revelatory and tangled in its emotionality; the arrangements fluid yet perfectly airtight, Sinaiko and Thomson’s harmonies radiant and deeply entwined, Edelman’s drumming deftly responding to tricky dynamics. Through it all, the songs revel in the belief that every moment of pain, excruciating as it may be, can be a portal to something beautiful.

    We caught up with Sour Widows’ Maia Sinaiko and Susanna Thomson for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about their friendship, the process behind Revival of a Friend, writing about grief, and more.

    You met as teenagers at a performing arts camp in California. Do you mind sharing your memories of that time and your early friendship?

    Susanna Thomson: The first time I really noticed Maia was during a talent show at the summer camp, where any kid could go up and do anything they wanted. We were probably around 12 or 13, and Maia went up and played a song. I was floored. I was like, “That’s the best song I’ve ever heard someone write.” [laughs] I wasn’t even sure if I had started playing guitar yet, maybe I had just started. But Maia was, like, really good. I just remember being so struck by their lyricism. I had never heard someone write like that before. We were just kids at this point, and I just remember being like, “I want to be friends with that person. I want to work on music with them.” Whatever that meant at that age – maybe I hadn’t even written a song yet myself, but I know that I was starting to feel interested in it at that time. Even at that age, they’ve always had it. I think the following year is when we really started to become friends.

    Maia Sinaiko: Yeah, Susanna initiated collabing on a song in a songwriting class. She was like, “We should write a song together,” and I was almost a little like, “Why do you want to write a song so bad?” I didn’t get the urgency, kind of. And then we wrote a song together, and it was really fun. We ended up recording it. It’s called ‘Ocean Dream’. [laughs] It’s not bad for 13-year-olds, I feel like it’s pretty poetic. Lots of harmonies. Susanna was really motivated to practice and work on the song often, and I was a little more like, “I just want to chill at summer camp.” But we wrote the song, recorded it, and it was really fun. We had really good writing chemistry, even as kids, which is so funny to think about.

    After that, we would play music together all the time. We have another friend who was at camp with us, and the three of us would do three-part harmonies, and we got really into – this was the early to mid-2000s, so indie rock and folk indie stuff was really popular, and we all really liked that kind of thing, which lends itself well to harmony. We would be singing and covering songs all the time. There were a few years where we mostly just saw each other in the summer at camp. We lived in different towns, and then Susanna started coming around a lot more on weekends or school breaks, and we’d all hang out. We were really close after that summer.

    When did you start to feel equally motivated about sharing songs and writing together?

    ST: That song, ‘Ocean Dream’, I think was the only song we wrote together for a long time. After that, whenever we spent time together, we were always playing music, but not necessarily writing new songs. It was a lot of singing together and showing each other things we’d been working on. I was really motivated to get that first song done because we were going to perform it, and I was very nervous about nailing it. [laughs] But we didn’t live in the same place until we were about 21, turning 22. I was living in the East Bay, and then Maia graduated from college and moved back home, which is like 30 minutes away from where I was living. Then they kind of moved in with me at the same time. We were both working service jobs and were like, “We’re in the same place for the first time, and neither of us really knows what we’re doing with our lives, but we know we really want to play music. We should just start a band.” And from that moment, literally the first moment we decided to be in a band together–

    MS: We were like, “We’re going to be the biggest band.” Not even in an ego way, we were just like, “We will achieve our dreams. This is our lives now, and we’re going to figure it out.”

    ST: It was so serious.

    MS: I didn’t know if I was going to stay in the Bay Area. I was thinking about maybe moving, and Susanna was really driven about starting a band and insistent that we do it. I was in a weird place in life, but I feel like you pulled that out of me. We are both very goal-oriented people, I think, and we wanted to tour, travel, and play music. We wanted to meet new people and connect with bands. We were like, “How do we do that?” We just started from scratch and figured it out.

    Looking back, Susanna, what made you so determined at the time?

    ST: It’s funny, I think it was really circumstantial. I was really driven with the first song because I’m kind of a perfectionist; I was very anxious and wanted it to be really good when we performed it. When we started the project, that was one of the worst years of both of our lives. There was just a lot of hard stuff going on. Maia had just lost a partner. My mom had been diagnosed with cancer. There was a lot of chaos happening. I think we both felt like we had something with the potential to be special. The first shows we ever played were on a DIY tour – we booked ourselves a tour of the West Coast because we wanted to get out of the Bay Area, travel, try performing live, and see what happens. That first run was really special and also really hard. It put our friendship in this new place of being collaborators, and we had a lot to learn about being collaborators.

    After that run was finished was when Maia was like, “I might want to move to Chicago.” And I just felt really strongly about it. Not having gone to college, I spent that time working and traveling a lot, realizing I wanted to play music but didn’t really have the confidence to start a band. Once Maia and I tried it out and it went well, I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t feel like I wanted to move to a bigger city yet. So, I was like, “Nooo, don’t go, buddy. We’re finally in the same city. I love you.” [both laugh] But Maia was definitely – we’ve been equally motivated since the beginning.

    ST: Yeah, I just think it’s interesting to note how you had more of an intuitive feeling about it than I did. I was a little more scattered for various reasons and not sure what I was supposed to do. It was helpful to have someone be like, “Let’s just do this. Trust me.”

    As intuitive as your music sounds, the songs are often emotionally complicated and carefully arranged. As your sound and lineup has expanded, how has your shared language evolved?

    MS: Because we’re both not very technically trained, I feel like we’ve kind of developed our own terminology and vocab for describing motifs or ways in which we want to play and write a song. I read that in Pink Floyd, Roger Waters and David Gilmour couldn’t read music, so they invented their own notation together. I feel like we’ve kind of done that – not written notation, but just the way we describe what this part should feel like or what will move a song forward. Those little details you’re talking about, I feel like we’ve figured out the language to describe them. But in terms of collaboration and being two band leaders, I feel like it’s taken a lot of us growing up. This band has helped me mature and grow as a person and work through a lot of hardship to become more of the person I want to be. I think there’s certain difficult moments or obstacles that you can only really work through with other people. We’ve both gotten a lot better as guitarists and songwriters, creatively we’ve grown a lot, but also as people. My communication skills have improved a lot. I think we’ve always had a kind of psychic connection, but it’s off the chain now. [laughs] It’s like we say things at the same time.

    ST: To the point that it’s annoying.

    ST: Yeah. Like, if we ever play a guessing game in the car on tour, people won’t play with us because we just instantly know.

    It’s like harmonizing in speech.

    ST: Yeah [laughs].

    MS: Our brains are weirdly connected. I think my growth as a person is so interconnected with Susanna’s growth as a person and artist. I feel like it’s all very tight-knit now.

    ST: I think us being best friends for years before we started the band and agreeing to make this project the biggest priority of our lives, short of family and other things – we’ve really been through everything together since forming the band, everything that has nothing to do with music as well. In many moments, we’ve been each other’s biggest support. It’s inextricable, I think, from the work we do together as musicians and artists. It’s great for the creative process because we have a unique view into each other’s experiences. I mean, Maia was the first person that got to my house the morning my mom passed away and was there for everything after that. We spent a lot of time together around the death of Maia’s partner. And touring in between and after those things – tour will bring everything up. [laughs] It’s a big part of our foundation as people and friends in this life – people put together by the stars is really how I feel.

    Were you both quickly on the same page about focusing on your debut album? Was it just a matter of timing, or was there more of a discussion around that goal?

    MS: We definitely wouldn’t have made the album without Max. Max joining early on helped us form the sound we have now, 100%. But this collection of songs was written over several years, since 2018 I feel like. Various ideas have changed a lot – the versions you hear on the record, like ‘Big Dogs’, for example, were updated a lot for the album to suit the collection of newer songs better and make it flow. We wanted to record the album a lot earlier than we did. We wanted to record it in 2020, but then we had to go into lockdown and couldn’t record in a studio like we had planned. We felt like the songs we had prepared at the time and had imagined to be on the record we wouldn’t be able to record ourselves. We are definitely really detail-oriented and wanted it to sound a certain way and feel a certain way, and we just weren’t confident in our ability to capture that in home recordings. So we pivoted to recording Crossing Over, which is something that wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t been in lockdown,

    So much in our lives happened and changed over the course of 2020, 2021, 2022 that shaped the making of the album. One being Susanna’s mom passing away, which also affected our ability to play together and Susanna’s ability to write. There was a long period of time where we were not really able to do any of that stuff together. It was kind of this protracted process of not really being able to make the album we wanted to make. I mean, it’s been done for two years, right? Or one year.

    ST: A year and a few months, yeah.

    MS: It feels like a long time. But I think a lot had to happen for the record to actually be made, which is weird to think about now because it felt really hard to not be able to make it when we wanted to. But it wouldn’t be like this if we had done it back then. We weren’t good enough to make that album; we weren’t even good enough to play the songs. [Susanna laughs] Even on a technical level, we wouldn’t have been able to play it. So we needed to get better.

    ST: Yeah, some of the hardest songs on the record were finished a couple of months before we recorded, or even a couple of weeks. We had this whole range of songs that have been done for a long time and then songs that were basically finished at the last minute, that we were still learning how to nail when we were going into the studio.

    MS: Because we had barely played them as a full band. Like, ‘Shadow of a Dove’, which is the craziest song on the album – I love that song, but it is batshit insane, it’s really hard. That song we barely played as a full band before we recorded it. God bless Max, who played bass on it from New York – he recorded separately just because we weren’t able to finish it in time for him when he was in town. There were a lot of moving parts that went into the long process of making this album. But I think it’s all instrumental in how it actually came out.

    One of the first moments that stood out to me on the album is on ‘Witness’, where the song sort of springs back to life and you sing, “The moments repeat and feedback into endlessly.” Could you reflect on that sentiment and why you took that direction with the song?

    ST: Yeah, I think that was the first song I wrote lyrics for after losing my mom. It was some handful of months later, and we were like, “Okay, let’s start to try to get this moving again,” the band as a project. I was just having a lot of panic attacks because of being thrown into this new world of grief and trying to navigate that. There had been people in my life that had passed away before, but no one that close to me who was part of my identity. I think that line is about that sense of time becoming distended; this dissociated feeling. I would have this sensation of just watching moments of my life play out in front of me and in a way that it felt like they were happening out of time, not being grounded in the actual present moment. The lyric doesn’t exactly make sense, either. It becomes this more abstract sense of what the words mean, which is kind of how those feelings were. It’s like a resolution, but kind of not – we’ve just had all this loud, wall of sound moment happening, and then you’re opened up into this dreamy field.

    MS: [laughs] Sorry, I’m just remembering that we wrote that riff, that really crazy riff leading into that part. We were like, “This is so crazy. Are we even going to keep this in the song?” And how funny it is that it leads into this really beautiful, reflective part of the track. It’s a really disorienting moment.

    ST: It’s a weird song. We were trying a lot of new things when we wrote that because ‘Witness’ came out of a jam that we played for a while, and we were like, “We should do something with this.” Me and Maia just wrote part after part, and then I wrote some lyrics to go with an instrumental that we’d already created. So we were testing our skills in some ways. It turned into this song, and it’s a great song. But even looking back on it now and seeing the way we’re working on things, I can see clear ways that we have matured and honed our intention as writers.

    That grounding you’re talking about – I hear part of that in ‘Initiation’. It’s a really gorgeous and open-hearted moment that also feels like the spiritual core of the album. How did you reach that point in the writing?

    ST: That song is pretty clearly about loss and spreading my mom’s ashes in the mountains. I think the way that song embodies a lot of the heart of the record is grief, loss, and the kind of magical experiences that come along with grieving and losing someone. The track that marks the very center of the record is ‘Gold Thread’, which comes out of ‘Initiation’. That song is the only one we tracked live in the studio in one take, all together. All of the other songs were multi-tracked because we wanted to be very detailed about the way we recorded. Having the very center of the record come out of this song that is very specifically about an experience of grief, and having that song be one that we played live and was largely pretty improvisational, speaks a lot to the space we’ve all been in together in the wake of big, tough life changes; the way the project has been a touchstone for each of us and a very necessary guiding force in my life after losing the most important person to me and finding meaning in what I’m doing here at this point.

    MS: I love ‘Initiation’. I love playing it live. We just recently started playing ‘Gold Thread’ live, too, because our songs are so long. If we get 40 minutes for a set, it’s hard to play everything, and ‘Gold Thread’ is a tricky song to end because we just want to keep playing it. When we were recording that song, I remember we talked about what we wanted the arc of that improvisation to feel like, and we would end up playing for six minutes – it would feel like two minutes. I think that’s the experience with a lot of our songs. We did a few different takes with different feelings, but the take that’s on the album is very meditative and subtle, and it centers the album in a really beautiful way.

    You both write about grief in different ways on the album. I’d love to hear what you feel you’ve learned from each other about grief through this process – what was similar or different, verbalized or kind of unspoken.

    ST: We’ve each had these massive experiences of grief that have changed our lives, and we’ve been very involved in each other’s lives during those moments, so there’s not much need for conversation. It’s naturally understood. God, we’ve just been through so much together. When I lost my mom, it really put things into perspective for me – what Maia went through, what that time was like when Maia was grieving and I didn’t really know grief yet. Retrospectively, I understood things that I don’t think – that you never can unless you lose someone. Maia, having been through something similar, was there for me in a way no one else could be when I lost my mom. I think us gaining a shared language around what it feels like to grieve made collaborating on these songs a lot easier. We both had this shared understanding of what it feels like to lose your identity and sense of self – it takes a long time to come back. I’d never really been someone who struggled much with mood swings or anger, but after that, it was such a roller coaster. Maia understood that and was there for me. We always process a lot in the moment – that’s a really big part of our friendship, untangling and parsing out our everyday lives and who we are as people. So we would talk a lot about grief and what we were experiencing, which naturally filtered into the stuff we worked on together.

    MS: We didn’t have to explain what the songs were about to each other. We would talk about them, but it never felt like we weren’t understanding what the song meant or why we wrote it or how to play it. I feel like we have an intuitive sense of what a song needs based on what it’s about. Our songs on this record specifically, there’s a lot to focus on and take in. Sometimes I wonder if the lyrics are something people focus on as much as we do, because the lyrics are the heart of every song, in my opinion. They dictate the entire structure and feeling of what we’re playing. It’s nice not to have to explain any of that to each other.

    You obviously wear your hearts on your sleeves in the lyrics, and you also literally use the word “heart” a lot, playing with the language of it in a very tactile way. Maia, this also isn’t the first time you’ve written about grief, and I’m curious if you could identify the biggest shift in how you write about loss and grief on the more recent songs.

    MS: That’s a really good question. ‘I-90’ was written lyrically in 2017 – I think I started working on it a month or two after my partner at the time died. It was a very immediate response to trying to capture the memories we had and the feeling of being together, not wanting that to end. ‘Cherish’ was written that same year, but I worked on it for two years, and it developed and changed. ‘I-90’ and ‘Bathroom Stall’, which is on the Crossing Over EP, were written in the same time period, and that song was also an immediate response to specific events, trying to document them because now that all lives in my memory only. The songs on this album are very immediate reactions to loss – it’s the feeling of being in grief, down to having specific memories of somebody. I don’t think I really write the same way about grief anymore. When I’m writing about grief, it’s a lot more reflective and out of distance, because it’s been seven years since my partner died. A lot has changed, and I feel I’m in a very different place in my life.

    I think I identified really heavily with grief. I was self-defined as: I’m in grief. I’m in loss. I’m on planet my partner is dead. That was my self, and I defined myself by that experience for a long time, because it felt like a way to keep that person closer to me and not have to move on. There was a period of time, too, when I missed that feeling – being overtaken by grief – because it means time is passing, and there’s more space between losing that person and the moments, even the moment before losing them; them being alive and being dead. Some of these songs are the final collection written in that immediate time period.

    I also feel that what defines these songs isn’t just the emotion, but your interplay within them. There’s obviously devastation in Maia’s voice on ‘I-90’, but then Susanna’s voice comes in towards the end with a sweetness that creates an interesting juxtaposition. It adds another layer to the song that’s more about the bond between you two.

    MS: I love that perspective. It’s interesting because it’s similar to that part in ‘Witness’ – our voices overlapping with different parts, this sweetness, reflectiveness, melancholy. There are a lot of extra parts in the bridge of ‘I-90’, similar to ‘Witness’.

    What was the thinking behind the pairing of ‘Shadow of a Dove’ and ‘Staring into Heaven/Shining’ to close out the album?

    ST: You know, the songs chose it themselves. There’s a funny thing that happened where we hadn’t discussed the track listing at all until we were mixing the record. The next morning, Maia and I both came up with a list on our own.

    MS: I feel like I asked you, “What’s your list?” She said it, and I was like, “That’s exactly the tracklisting I came up with.”

    Is it the final tracklist?

    MS: I think we changed it a little because we recorded an 11th song that isn’t included on the album, so that affected the order a little bit.

    ST: They just kind of fell into place on their own.

    MS: We think that there’s one right way to do everything – not right way, but…

    ST: Best way.

    MS: Like, you walk into a room and there’s the most Feng Shui way to arrange that room. I feel like our brains work in a similar way. We’re detail-oriented but also have a wide perspective on how the whole body of work is going to sound together.

    ST: I can’t specifically remember why we felt ‘Shadow of a Dove’ belongs there; it just does.

    MS: I feel like it’s this dark, epic track, and ‘Shining’ is an epic, light, bright track.

    ST: You get the most contrast at that point in the record, and we love contrast, clearly.

    Could you share one thing that inspires you about each other, be it on a musical or personal level?

    ST: There’s so many things. There are ways in which we’re very different, and I think our differences are a big part of what inspires each of us.

    MS: I think Susanna is really good at trusting her intuition, and I second-guess myself a lot. I mean, we both second-guess different things, but I feel like you can put aside the doubtful voice sometimes in a way that I really can’t. Having that in a collaboration is so helpful – in any creative practice, you’re constantly questioning what you’re doing. I actually think pursuing music is a lot like pursuing a religious path. You have to have a lot of faith, and people might not always believe in what you’re doing or be kind of confused about why you would dedicate your life to it. Having someone in the actual project who’s like, “Don’t worry about that,” is very helpful for me, as someone who is constantly going back and forth in my mind about the right way to do something.

    ST: Something that Maia really inspires in me, something that I feel like I learn a lot from them all the time…

    MS: Oh god.

    ST: [laughs] No, it’s good. Maia doesn’t let external circumstances or what people want you to do affect what they know is best for themselves. At times, I can fall into people-pleasing or worrying too much about all the different desires or social dynamics that people have that are maybe contributing to a choice we’re making. Maia is really good at being clear and saying, “No, this is our thing. We have to choose ourselves and what’s best for us.” I’ve learned a lot about putting myself out there more, being really clear and direct with communicating, and it has always served us well. The combination of our strengths – and our weaknesses – leads to a beneficial collaboration.

    MS: It’s symbiotic.

    ST: Yeah, we have a good balance of perspectives. We both learn so much from each other, and I think the only way that has happened is because we are both dedicated to self-reflection and self-growth. And we’re both really good listeners.

    MS: To each other.

    ST: Yeah, to each other [laughs]. When you form a project with someone – or a business, honestly, in many ways – there will always be stuff that comes up. It’s forced us, in the interest of our shared goals and dreams, and it’s only going to continue if we create this space for each other to feel vulnerable.

    MS: I mean, that’s why bands break up all the time – there’s such a hilarious trope of bands always fighting and having interpersonal drama. They just can’t stand each other, and that’s definitely not the case with our band. We’re very close friends, but it has been a long journey of figuring out how to balance our personalities and personal growth and maturing. Susanna and I are both lucky to have this natural chemistry as people, and part of that is being really different.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Sour Widows’ Revival of a Friend is out now via Exploding in Sound.

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