Q&A: SONJA’s Melissa Moore on the Journey To ‘Loud Arriver’

Sonja is poised for a breakthrough in 2023. The band’s debut Loud Arriver made every consequential best-of list last year (including #3 in Decibel’s Top 40 of 2022). A cross-section of metalheads widely embraced Sonja’s feral take on classic metal/glam/sleaze. But the road to their breakout debut was not easy. Sonja frontwoman and songwriter Melissa Moore was once the guitarist of U.S. black metal staples Absu. When Moore disclosed that she was trans, she was fired from the band. She later said Absu founder Russ Givens (Proscriptor McGovern) told her “there was no place for a woman in the band.”

The story doesn’t end there – it culminates with an album that blows any Absu music off the map. Moore formed Sonja (also featuring the ample talents of Grzesiek Czapla on drums and Ben Brand on bass) while in Absu. After leaving Absu, she transferred her energy and vision to her new band. Loud Arriver is packed with addictive and superbly crafted songs that radiate subversive energy and is badass on musical merits alone. The confessional lyrics and autobiographical transparency elevate it to another level. Moore shared her story of determination with Decibel to kick start the New Year.

Loud Arriver has been very well received. Are you surprised by the attention?

It’s kind of odd. We’ve been working on this band for a long time and I still feel like there are many obstacles. Even though there is enthusiasm, it doesn’t seem real. If we were touring all the time, which we’re trying to do, I might feel different. I can’t tell if [the attention] is bullshit or not. It does seem like people across the world like it. But until I’m on tour and playing shows with people, I won’t be able to tell. I hope we can turn all this into being very active. It just took us a long time to get to this point. We need to step into a more intense level of being in a band. There hasn’t been any opportunity to take stock or take it in; just keep moving forward.

What kinds of things have people said to you about this album? Have people emailed you or reached out to you?

There has been lots of positive feedback. It’s hard for me to absorb all of it. Many people seem to be connecting with it deeply, and I’m happy about it. When other trans or queer people reach out and tell me their impressions, that is so meaningful. I also like seeing people who have zero concern with that take the music for what it is. I can’t share specifically what people have said. But I always felt like this had to be done. We had to cross a bridge and blast through a gate and I hope it’s the beginning of a process. This is rock and roll in its most pure form.

I imagine it’s interesting to put out a piece of who you are — this album is specific to your lived experience — and have so many people say they get it.

I expected that what we were doing musically would affect people. I’m glad people are admiring what we have created. I’ve been immersed in heavy metal my entire life. I was making a living from music before. Then that was ripped away from me. I had to start from the bottom with obstacles. This band existed, but no one was begging us to play. I just said let’s make something good and authentic, and I’ll write songs about what’s happening inside me. We did everything we could to make this a powerful piece of rock and roll. We put a lot into it so it would have been surprising and disappointing if people didn’t react.

I’ve seen Sonja compared to Ratt and Mötley Crüe — music tied to a macho worldview. Your music is compared to that and also subverts it.

Absolutely, and its subversion makes it even purer. Riff-wise and music-wise we like stuff from those bands. I don’t see the Crüe comparison, but there are one or two “RATT riffs.” I grew up around hyper-masculinity — was surrounded by it. It was imposed everywhere, and I had to be part of it. The arc of my life isn’t denying that but trying to reconcile that with who I am. For the music to do the same thing made a lot of sense. What is happening in the music is similar to my life.

“My Coping Mechanisms Start To Fail”

What were the last few years in Absu like? At what point did you know you had to change and come out?

I always thought the part of me we’ll call the “trans part” for the sake of conversation would be suppressed. I’ve dealt with it since I was like 10 or 12. There were no words to describe it. It was more like “what is wrong with me?” I had to suppress it, and one of the ways I did that was a hyper-fixation on guitar and playing in bands. The other ways I dealt with it were secretive but as many trans people will tell you they don’t work. Some people suppress it, but in many ways, you can’t control it. My coping mechanisms started to fail and that started to come into play at the end of the Absu. I didn’t know anyone else going through the same things. I fought this every step of the way and had to take action to make myself OK.

It’s tough to explain this experience to cis people. But I try to talk about it in case someone hears something that resonates and helps them figure things out. I read other [trans] people’s anecdotes and saw my experience [in the stories]. But the fear and terror were immense. I expected the worst and many of the worst things did happen, especially with the band. I dreaded acknowledging this every step of the way.

Did you have a conversation with Proscriptor about transitioning?

I told very few people. We were so intertwined and would stay at each other’s places for like a month. I told Grzesiek, who was handling live drums for Absu. We were about to go on tour. I live in Philly and they live in Texas. The tour was the last time we’d be together in the summer of 2017. Before the first show, we were at a hotel having drinks, and I told them. I don’t want to go into the details of the conversation. All I said was that this is going on with me and we don’t even need to talk about it now. The energy on tour was bad after that. Shortly after the tour, I got the text message I showed on social media [dismissing Moore from Absu]. It was a difficult process.

I imagine there has been no reconciliation.

There is no communication. There’s nothing to be gained from that.

Decades ago you dabbled in pornogrind with XXX Maniak. Was that part of you trying to work out what was going on internally?

No. I worked at Relapse in the mail room when it was largely a mail-order business. I’d answer the phone and people would call to order things like The Meat Shits’ “Sniper At The Fag Parade.” And I’d be like: “yes, we have that in stock and I can send it out right away.” Or they’d want albums with a cover of someone shitting in someone else’s mouth. I was a black and traditional metal fan, but the goregrind stuff sold. We didn’t have the word incel back then, but it would apply to that crowd. I thought [goregrind] was so stupid and made jokes like “I could make something better in my bedroom, and it would sell.” So that’s what we did, try to make something as offensive as possible and sell it to losers. Ask anyone who was involved and they’d tell you the same thing.

I was at Decibel‘s Precious Metal book release show in Brooklyn in 2009 (years after the album was released) and someone tried to sell it to me and said: “This is the most offensive album ever!”

I acknowledge now that it was shitty to do this. The intention was to mock this genre. I have met some nice people who listen to goregrind. I’ve also met psychos who think I am into this stuff or want to talk enthusiastically about snuff. We were trying to mock the scene and make money but it was bad karma. I would never do something like that now. We didn’t think this could upset or trigger someone based on their experience and I acknowledge that. I didn’t even think this would reach them or upset them. The intent was to mock the genre and make money effortlessly.

Did you immediately move on to new music after what happened with Absu?

It was devastating. When that stuff happened, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. The world was also different even five years ago. I went on with Absu when I knew I would transition — the day after Trump was elected. There was just bad energy. When (I came out) it was fucking awkward. I am more comfortable now but for a while it was scary. I didn’t want to talk publicly and thought it was stupid to say something bad about my old band. I had no clue what to do.

The other band members expected I would work things out with Russ and fix it. But there was no turning back. The relationship was ruined. We had this fully recorded album and I had no idea what to do. I felt like there was nothing I could do but withdraw my name and music from this band that meant everything to me and come back with sick music I made. But it’s been a long trek to get to that point.

“We know each other a little bit through rock and roll”

Did Loud Arriver songs or ideas come to you in the period after you left Absu?

Both. Sonja started while Absu was still active. I just needed to have another band. The band started writing in 2015 and we had a four-song demo when Absu was active. All of those songs are on Loud Arriver. Most of the rest was written after 2017. So it’s been written all over the place. There were riffs I made up on tour. I made up  “Wanting Me Dead” in a hotel lobby in Poland. Getting the music wasn’t the issue — it was the vocals and lyrics. They had to resonate and it took a lot to get them right.

You had to work on your singing voice and figure out your register, correct?

Yes, and there were songs I sang in a particular octave, then decided to sing them an octave higher. It’s a “transitioning” album that coincidentally reflects my actual life. The next stuff we do will be based on post-transition experiences.

This is a very autobiographical album record in a lot of ways.

It is, but it’s not literal. Some lines are just in there because they are good lyrics. There are also things based on paranoia and dreams.

Arthur Rizk is Max Cavalera’s go-to guy and recently worked with Kreator. He also helped with Loud Arriver. What did he offer?

Arthur is my old homie from Philly. I’ve known him for a long time. He recorded the demo with us. I remember recording with Arthur earlier and thought he could help me with the vocals. He said he could help if Dan [Kishbaugh, recording engineer] was cool with it. I went into the studio during heavy COVID, after the bulk of the George Floyd protests. There was still the stench of tear gas in the streets. We were both wearing masks.

Arthur is good at helping you get what you are after. He senses what you want and helps you get there musically. I tried the songs in a lot of different ways. Some of them were even fully recorded and I decided to do them a different way. He maintained a space where I could get where I wanted.

Would you say the metal community has changed and become welcoming? Or is there still resistance?

It’s been intensely welcoming. People thought differently even ten years ago. But I’m not asking anyone to change their mind. I am delivering real heavy metal, and you have to acknowledge it. Also, metal geeks are usually in cities and people in cities are usually cool [laughs]. Any time I’ve been in any centralized location I haven’t had any problems.

You could know nothing about the back story and the music still works.

Somebody opposed to me as a trans person could listen to this and think it rules. This isn’t a matter of acceptance. You don’t have to like the band, but it’s not bullshit. We’ve never said accept us – just acknowledge the real shit like you’ve always done.

But there’s a small victory when that person loves the music — it can normalize your perspective.

So much of the strife and resistance to trans people is based on delusion and lies. This cuts through that. We know each other a little bit through rock and roll. Let’s speak that language.