Sonny Apollo: How Homelessness led to A Music Residency in River North

The first time I met Sonny Apollo, he peered through the window of UIC Radio’s studio, wearing a pair of sunglasses (although we were indoors) and probably a hat. I had listened to Sonny for the first time just a few days or a week prior, when we scheduled our interview. That was during my DJ Elif days. Now, I write to tell you about Sonny’s journey since that first radio interview between us in 2013. And now, I come to you with secrets that Sonny was reluctant to reveal to 20-year-old me, and to my listeners, divulged on November 9th, 2016, a day that was, and remains to be, one of the hardest days Americans have lived thus far. Sonny has traveled on foot from suburb to city, just to get a performance in. He’s lived in a homeless shelter so as to prevent his parents’ intervention in his pursuit. He’s taken a pseudonym to hide from that family in Frederick, Maryland. And it seems that Sonny identifies as a “freak.” In between small bouts of laughter, Sonny tells me that, “Pretty much, I’m famous for pushing back my own projects,” an action caused merely by Sonny’s perfectionism. And it is completely logical when one looks at Sonny’s adventures, both in music, and in spirituality. “I’m famous on my own admission of being impulsive,” Sonny said. More specifically, in search of the right wording and sounds, Sonny visited Kenosha, Wisconsin to compile his EP, Adventures in Paradise, to be released March 10. Though the release of this EP has been the slowest process since Sonny began his songwriting career, he’s proud to say that it hasn’t been a frustrating one. In fact, it sounds like the absolute opposite. And the song, “Zoo,” is what held up the EP for longer than what was planned – Sonny called it the centerpiece of the project. Zoo (Photo Courtesy: Sasha Stevens) Zoo (Photo Courtesy: Sasha Stevens) But what’s ironic about that particular song is the audience it targets, and the message it wants to convey. When I asked Sonny whom he is speaking to in his single, “Zoo,” he told me that he was most interested in “the freaks.” With Sonny being unafraid to take necessary steps to create a music career, he’s been spontaneous since his high school years. The term, “freak” is one that society has linked to being gay, bisexual or transgender, most notably. And though the ethos behind being a “freak,” is to be open and free and to express oneself, society has been slow and stubborn to accept people who carry traits like these. As a result, most of the encouraging stories about people coming out or changing sexes have involved delay and fear. Sonny spoke a verse of his “Zoo” lyrics to me, and followed them with a definition. “It wasn’t until I went to Boystown. I went to a club in Boystown and the music that was pumping through the speakers – I was like, this is exactly what ‘Zoo’ is and what it’s about. It’s about night life, it’s about the underground culture, it’s about the freaks, it’s about the degenerates, it’s about…every outsider that wants to have a good time in their own way and feel free doing that.” Writing this piece today and listening to our conversation from the day that immediately followed the election of Donald Trump into presidency is eye-opening to say the least. Sonny went on to describe the sequence of national events that inspired production of “Zoo:” “It’s about the police brutality attacks, the Pulse night club attack and then we had this election. So, I was initially talking about experimentation and erasing any identity that anyone back at my hometown knew of me. And coming into my young adulthood. That’s exactly what Adventures in Paradise is for me – it’s a coming of age record. And then all these events happened.” The message behind “Zoo” is going to be far more meaningful with this release, considering a new emphasis on the LGBTQ community since Trump’s election. “My guys were Bowie and Prince. My lady is Lady Gaga,” Sonny added, highlighting the eccentrics in the music world, who some might also refer to as “freaks.” Full disclosure: I don’t know Sonny’s birth name. I feel close and friendly with Sonny because of those fond memories of our college sit downs, but he still wouldn’t tell me what his name is – and I respect his professional secrecy. As mentioned earlier, Sonny did reveal a few important chapters of his musical journey during this meeting. Most recently, those include a long stay in Kenosha with his engineer, Chris. He described demolishing a wall between himself and Chris: “You have to be naked and raw with that person you choose to be your engineer – some artists work with two or three of them. I chose to work with just one.” On initial collaboration, Sonny said, “We did some preliminary sessions over at Observatory Studios in Lakeview, and then we took the rest of it out into the woods of Kenosha – a lot of just sitting there, and just listening to the music, listening to the words…” He described his getaway to the woods from the city life he’s led since childhood as a cause to find tranquility. In all fairness, though, he emphasized the agency of Chris’s comfortable couch in that choice. “It was very therapeutic on the back and on the legs,” he laughed. But he added that the silence of Kenosha factored strongly into that choice, the mere sounds of the birds chirping and natural light beaming through Chris’s wide windows. Sonny preferred nature and calmness to the hustle and bustle of city life, the darkness and view of the brick wall out his window. But most importantly, “Anything I create, I’ve created in isolation,” he said. Needless to say, he wanted something new and quiet. “When I was 19, I was kicked out of my house. But after that, everything was by choice. I went off to live with my uncle for a bit. But then after that, I went back to Philly to try to figure myself out. I decided to go back to New York and try to make this work. I spent some time with my friend at her apartment in Brooklyn,” which happened to be a standing room only apartment, therefore only lasting Sonny a week and a half before his friend offered him money for a move elsewhere. He chose the Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter in the South Loop of Chicago. “It was a bit of a rude awakening; I wasn’t spoiled growing up, but at the same time, I had never experienced anything like that. It was definitely a wake-up call, to say the least. And I knew that that was not the situation that I wanted to exist in for much longer than I needed to.” He embarked on a journey of odd jobs to get by until he made a connection that would benefit his career – basketball legend Jimmy Butler. He started a piano residency at Jellyfish Chicago, an Asian fusion bar, where he earned a good lump of weekly funds to start recording “White Diamonds and Calvin Klein,” the single that drew my attention as a UIC Radio DJ. Sonny celebrated his mother’s impact on his decision to become completely independent. “She said, ‘You can’t drop out of college and just exist here and do nothing.” So he took his career and his life completely into his own hands. And made some music that is sometimes dissonant, and that correlates with his unpredictable life.  
Picture of the author
Elif Geris