Joe Sonza (COL ’19) expects a lot from himself. “I bombed yesterday,” he said of his set for the Voice. “I was not pleased at all with my performance.” The crowd in the Voice office didn’t notice, enthusiastically applauding his alternatingly soft and intense acoustic performance. Sonza’s reaction illustrates his philosophy on performance: He’s laid back, but willing to sacrifice for his art.
Sonza transferred to Georgetown from the University of North Florida before his sophomore year. He doesn’t know what his immediate future holds, but he’s studying American musical culture, considering a minor in English, and hoping things will work out with his music.
Born and raised in Union, New Jersey, Sonza is proud of his hometown. His parents, Susan and Orlando, emigrated with his older siblings from the Philippines before he was born. “We eat rice all the time; that’s our carb,” he said, laughing. He is amazed now by just how many ethnicities were represented in his childhood friends, and how normal that was.
Sonza first got hooked on music when he was about 16 years old. The summer before his junior year of high school, his parents moved to Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He had lived in Union County his entire life, so the move was trying. He had started playing the guitar a couple of years earlier, and following the move to Texas, it became his refuge. “My Friday nights with my friends became my Friday alone in my room with my guitar. I had no choice,” he said. “I’m thankful for that, because if it hadn’t happened, I don’t know where my career interests would lie.”
Sonza sees guitar playing, singing, and songwriting as three distinct crafts. Some people do all three, and some people devote their entire lives to one. Performance is a different skill. “I’m an introverted guy, reserved—I can be outgoing, I love people, but performing is hard for me. Sometimes my shyness or insecurity gets in the way of directly being able to clearly communicate my music.”
He tends to focus on one craft at a time, cycling periodically between the three. Last spring, he was deeply into playing guitar; now, he’s concentrating on his voice, having assembled the Joe Sonza Orchestra, a collection of musicians who accompany him on his songs.
“I’m really fortunate these band members were interested,” he said.
Sonza also has a YouTube channel that he started about six months ago. Focusing on his voice has led him to make sure the videos show just the “barest essentials” in order to communicate the authenticity of the performance and keep the focus on the music itself. His videographer is his close friend, Sam Lee (COL ’18).
“The real dream is to get what’s in [my mind] fully realized in recordings, in an album,” Sonza said.
His parents have been supportive. “They weren’t [sure about me pursuing music] right away though, of course not. When I knew that they were on board for real is after winter break of sophomore year,” Sonza said. “I played some songs for them on the acoustic guitar, and I guess they saw progress. ”
His siblings aren’t always as receptive to his plans. “My siblings love me a lot,” he said, looking away. He knows that any disapproval they have stems from the risk in pursuing a music career while paying off student loans.
What he is struggling with right now is facing that he’s not as ready as he wants to be, and that he needs to practice constantly in order to become better—something that seems simple but requires a serious commitment.
“I don’t have many friends to be honest,” Sonza admitted. “Especially this year. I really wanted to up my work ethic. I try my best to take care of the relationships I’ve made here, but I’m not the best at it at times. I don’t make enough time to do it. I’ve been focused on working hard and getting better.” When he’s not playing music, Sonza is watching or playing pick-up basketball.
Sonza is also a devout Christian. “My Christianity is the most important thing in my life,” he wrote in an email. “I try to give glory to God with whatever I make. And I almost always pray before I start writing songs.”
“He’s a pretty spiritual guy who takes his Christian faith seriously,” said Ezekiel Yu, who became friends with Sonza at Bible study in Plano.
Recently, social media has become an issue, as Sonza has been confronting the reality that most artists just don’t go viral. He and Lee have been producing a few videos, and if online audiences don’t react, it’s disappointing. It doesn’t affect his goal to pursue music as his vocation, but he sometimes doubts whether his opinion of his own music matches what others think. “One good thing about Joe is that he tends to have faith in his own music,” Lee said. “That’s where the doubt might come in, if his viewers don’t respond as much.” She can tell he’s had a rough day if he’s eating Goldfish.
Still, Sonza isn’t cynical, which Lee believes is a rare quality for a Georgetown student. “I think that helps with his drive. Everybody gets disillusioned when social media gets tough. That’s when he puts on his silly face and moves on,” Lee said. “He wants to play music, do it for a living, create, and produce work that matched the vision he has.”
Video Credits: Danielle Hewitt (Executive Producer), Claire Goldberg (video), Kayla Hewitt (audio), Alex Lewontin (audio)