The sun casts honey-colored hues across White Hall’s stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains as Gina Sobel plays a gold Stratocaster at Restoration’s summer concert series. It’s too hot to play inside the restaurant, she says, as muddied jazz and rock ‘n’ roll reverberate across the restaurant’s patio.
A native of Northern Virginia and a William & Mary alumna, Sobel started on the flute and credits her dad, a guitarist in a jazz trio, as her major musical inspiration.
“From a really young age, I was interested in music, and music was everywhere, all the time,” she says.
She started reading charts and sitting in with her dad’s trio until she was told, “You can’t play with us anymore unless you start improvising.” And that was the push that Sobel needed. “I started playing and [discovered] I love improvisation—it’s such a huge part of my musical experience,” she says.
Sobel stuck with the flute and later picked up saxophone and guitar. She performs in more than a dozen bands, including rock group The Mighty Fine, a new jazz improv, funk-based project called Choose Your Own Adventure that Sobel calls a collective, and Wytold, an ensemble featuring electric cello and live looping.
“I write a lot of jazz, which has in the past been very separate,” she says. “But with Choose Your Own Adventure and The Mighty Fine and these duo gigs, I’m slowly starting to bring those together and get the improvising in and get the interesting chord changes in and blend it all. I’m really focusing on grooving and making cool musical experiences.”
On her new album, World’s Getting Loud, Sobel draws inspiration from touring and traveling. Just 30 minutes long, Sobel kept the album short to drive home her travel theme, calling it a “sonic realm” that expresses the subjective feelings her travels evoked, rather than the objective sounds of places she visited.
It’s about loneliness and separation, excitement and curiosity, and in the song “Natchitoches,” for example, the weariness and beauty in driving 10 hours across California. Sobel recalls catching the flu in India and writing the album’s title track between fever dreams, fitful naps in her sleeping bag, unsteady walks in the Himalayan town of McLeod Ganj and eating bowls of Tibetan noodle soup.
“It’s the idea—and this happens for everyone—that we travel because we’re unsatisfied or we’re searching or trying to figure something out—and [traveling] helps to a certain extent,” she says. “But we still bring ourselves with it. …Sometimes it’s the realization that when you’re going to new places, you still have the same things going on.”
Translating the experience of travel into the language of music didn’t happen immediately for Sobel. “I had been dreaming of this,” she says. “I got back and had this electric [guitar] that I bought and was scared to perform on. I was like, ‘I’m not Jimi Hendrix.’ It’s gold. It’s a gold Stratocaster.”
In the end, Sobel’s confidence emerged through the artistic vision she’d founded. “I’m primarily a rhythm player on guitar, but I knew I really wanted to do this,” she says. “I had this image, or, I don’t know what you’d call it, I guess a soundscape in my head that I really wanted to put out there.”
Helping create those soundscapes is Lance Koehler, owner of Richmond-based Minimum Wage Recording. They produced the album in two and a half days, collaging layer upon layer of Sobel’s melodic instrumental and vocal tracks. “He’s the drummer for No BS! Brass Band, really cool,” says Sobel. “Huge ears. He hears amazing things, not technically, not physically, but you know, he just hears stuff.”
Sobel is no stranger to the studio. “This is my 11th or 12th album. I’ve done a lot of studio time, but this was something that was new and really exciting,” she says. “I knew what I wanted it to sound like and [Lance] helped me put it out there.”
Catch Sobel’s new sounds at her Tea Bazaar release show this Friday at 9pm, where she shares the bill with Marian McLaughlin’s folk trio. Fresh off her West Coast tour, Sobel plans to stick around in her home state to promote the new album.
“I left thinking that there are all these amazing places and I’ve been in Virginia almost all my life, you know, it would be cool to be out there and I fell in love with a lot of places,” Sobel says. “But, I came back and was like, ‘Oh wow. This place is one of the most amazing places in the world.’ I love Charlottesville. It’s really good to be back.”