The magic in not knowing

Sofar Sounds secretive shows are an incubator for diverse talent


There it goes with the wind, there it goes with the wind,” a masked audience of about 20 sings on a snowy January night in Denver. Boulder-based musician Bob Barrick, playing under the stage name Kingdom Jasmine, then repeats the beginning of the chorus: 

“Hold me close my darling / ’Cause I don’t know if this is going to be the end / We worked hard for all we had,” he sings, lightly strumming his acoustic guitar. 

“There it goes with the wind, there it goes with the wind,” the crowd sings together again. 

Playing the song for the first time, Barrick explains it was written in response to the recent Marshall Fire that swept through Superior and Louisville, burning more than 1,000 homes. Encouraging the audience to join in creates a poignant moment as the wind visibly whips snow around outside the foggy windows. Kingdom Jasmine, surrounded by string lights, backed by a variety of tropical potted plants and a living room set-up including a couch, rug and coffee table, is the second act of the night’s Sofar Sounds show, hosted in the backroom of Nurture, a wellness marketplace in northwest Denver. 

Kingdom Jasmine, photo by Angela K. Evans

Short for “sounds from a room,” Sofar shows are secretive, curated and intimate, meant to emulate a listening room experience for both the artists and the viewers. The whole event is somewhat shrouded in mystery: the location announced only to ticket holders and only 24 hours in advance. The night’s three acts remain unannounced until the show begins. 

It’s like a live version of Spotify’s Discover Weekly, says Brandy Sachen, Sofar’s regional crew ops manager for Denver and Boulder. 

“This is a place where you can discover a diverse lineup and discover art within your community,” she says.

To introduce each show, an MC stands up to welcome the crowd and list the Sofar ground rules: no talking while artists are performing, stay the entire show and put away cell phones (unless you are discreetly taking photos or videos of the artist, in which case tag them so more people can discover them). Essentially, attending one of these shows comes with the assumption that you, like everyone else around you, will be present and mindful of one another, something often missing from many live performances. 

It all started circa 2009 in London when Rafe Offer invited friend and musician Dave Alexander to perform in his living room to an attentive crowd of eight. Tired of the commotion and distractions of live shows, along with long beer lines, the pair continued hosting house shows, eventually moving into small and unique venues across the city. Now, Sofar is a music events company that produces live shows in more than 400 cities across the world. 

“It’s really just thinking through those distractions that you traditionally see at the concert, whether you’re getting bumped into, or whether somebody’s talking next to you or recording and disrupting your view, or maybe you’re 5 [feet] 7 [inches], and you can’t always see the stage,” Sachen says. “We create a space where you take those distractions and remove them and invite everyone to come and be present and save the conversations for when the artists aren’t performing.”

The Denver chapter began in 2015, producing one or two shows per month. By March 2020, there were about 30 shows every month around the city. After a brief hiatus until June 2021, Sofar Denver has been slowly rebuilding its schedule to accommodate safety protocols and now hosts roughly 20 shows each month. 

In 2019, Mike Ligon started the Boulder chapter, teaming up with Sachen and the Denver folks to work together across Colorado. Currently, Boulder Sofar is back up to its pre-pandemic show count of two to three shows per month. 

The first time Sachen attended a show in 2016, she had never heard of Sofar. She found herself entering what is traditionally a mechanic shop in Denver, but walking in, she saw blankets laid out on the floor and a pseudo stage set up in front of an old Winnebago.

“It was this environment I had never been exposed to before,” she says. “Once the music started, everybody stopped talking. You could hear a pin drop in there and I remember being overwhelmed. I’ve never experienced music in that form where you’re in a room and everyone is quiet. That, right in that very moment, transformed my whole understanding of how music should be consumed.” 

In general, Sofar artists have a few things in common: the ability to engage well with the audience and a certain caliber of talent. Artists are chosen to perform—either scouted at local open mics, through word of mouth, or they can apply online, submitting live video performances and recorded links, which goes through the artists team for review. Around the world, Sofar has featured a range of talent from independent artists all the way up to well-known performers. 

Tank and the Bangas has performed at Sofar New Orleans, Moses Sumney in New York, Leon Bridges in Fort Worth, and in 2016 Billie Eilish performed at Sofar Los Angeles, accompanied by Finneaus. While maintaining Sofar’s veil of secrecy, Sachen says some of these folks still play the Sofar circuit. 

“It serves as a really great way to stay connected with the audience,” she says. “If you watch an artist in their musical career, they’ll go from playing small 50-person rooms to 200 to 2,000 and then they’re selling out arenas. And when you get to shows that are that large, you really don’t have that intimate connection with the audience or really the opportunity to do that. And so we do see a lot of artists who seek out that environment to solely be able to connect with the audience.” 

Who knows which of the local Sofar artists of today will soon be household names and Grammy winners. After attending multiple shows in Denver and Boulder, it’s easy to imagine a future in the spotlight for some of the performers. 

The night of the Nurture show, Kingdom Jasmine shares the mic with local singer-songwriter Emelise, whose deep, soulful voice and adept guitar picking belie her age. Two of the songs she performs were written as class assignments—for high school. 

“She is just a great example of some of the mind-blowing performances that you will see at a show,” Sachen says about Emelise. “I have watched people pick up their jaws off the ground after listening to her before and go, ‘Wait, what? She’s 15?’”

Jon Shockness has played a handful of Sofar shows since launching his solo project Kid Astronaut in 2015 (see sidebar). He’s played at a motorcycle shop in Denver and a furniture store in L.A. Recently, he played at Shyft, a wellness center in Sun Valley near Mile High Stadium and the newly opened Meow Wolf. 

 “At Sofar especially, maybe the audience has never heard of me or seen me. So I get to introduce people into my environment. And I think that’s like one of those places where I feel my most vulnerable, but also something transformative happens,” Shockness says. “It’s a community of people who respect the music.”

The uncommercial nature of Sofar is what Shockness loves most about playing these shows. 

“It does feel like people putting a show together that love to do music,” he says. “Sofar is my vibe.

“I think another thing I appreciate is just, like, getting paid,” he adds with a laugh. 

“We are an artist-first community,” Sachen adds. 

On average, artists are paid 70% of profits, which can be as little as $100 depending on the venue size, increasing based on audience numbers, Sachen says. And the shows are produced by a cadre of part- and full-time employees. (That wasn’t always the case, Sachen admits, herself starting as a volunteer. But in early 2020, the company settled a lawsuit with the New York Department of Labor over its use of volunteer labor to produce shows, and have since suspended the practice.) 

A lot of thought goes into curating each show, pairing artists with venues that suit their needs as well as maintaining the priority of a diverse lineup. 

Later in his set at Nurture, Barrick shares he’s been around the country on the Sofar circuit, playing more than 30 shows with the organization. He follows this fact with a quick aside about never before performing for so many white people. There is a certain aesthetic about Sofar that could be described as slightly vanilla—string lights, brick walls, blankets and pillows on the floor, perhaps some large potted plants and macrame wall hangings—it can give off quite the boho chic vibe. 

“I see it as just one network, like these are the type of people that would appreciate this kind of space,” Shockness says, noting that the night he performs as Kid Astronaut, he only sees one person of color in the crowd. “I think as long as they’re inviting these different people to be a part of the space, I don’t feel weird about it.” 

The lineup that night consists of two Black performers and one female-fronted band, all Denver locals. Shockness starts the night, followed by Baker-based rock group Isodora Eden and then the energetic and effervescent queer singer-songwriter N3ptune, along with his accompanist Rusty Steve on electric guitar. Like at all Sofar shows, the lineup isn’t organized around any sort of hierarchy, rather all acts are given equal time: a set of about 25 minutes, enough for the artists to play about five songs each.

“We want everyone to have that equal exposure time and equal time to be on stage,” Sachen says. “While somebody might start the show, it doesn’t mean that they’re the opener, or it doesn’t mean that the closer is the headliner.” 

Most of the venues are small and unequipped with sound systems, requiring stripped-back performances from the artists. This can cater more to the singer-songwriter type, like at Nurture, but not necessarily, as the Shyft lineup exemplifies. There are plenty of other types of musicians among the Sofar fold. 

“There’s the magic of really just not knowing who you’re going to see,” Sachen says. “I commend guests all the time for really putting their faith in Sofar to create a magical night for them.”

Kid Astronaut – Courtesy Angela K. Evans

Sofar artist spotlight: Kid Astronaut

Aliens do exist, at least according to Denver musician Jon Shockness, aka Kid Astronaut. Aliens are what he calls his fans: myriad expressions of self transcending earthly constructs of race and culture. And Shockness is the journeyer, the artist always traveling and exploring other-worldly realms, interpreting them through musical expression. But he doesn’t take himself as seriously as it may seem. He is “Kid” Astronaut afterall. 

Born and raised in Denver, Shockness made a name for himself with the local hip-hop group Air Dubai, which he co-founded in high school. When the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2014, a solo project began calling, asking Shockness to grow as an artist and musician, he says. Kid Astronaut descended to Earth in 2015, an outlet for Shockness to express a certain fearlessness he hopes to embody in his own journey, founded in his personal fascination with space.

This is “a new phase of just enjoying myself and my art and learning and being OK with what I don’t know and going after that,” he says. “I’ve been chasing music for a long time.” 

In 2021, Kid Astronaut released Cosmos, a collection of soulful R&B inspired tracks where synthesized beats and acoustic melodies create empyrean soundscapes, all enhanced by Shockness’ rich vocals. It is deliberate, almost spiritual. 

“As Kid Astronaut, I’ve always wanted to just be honest in the music that I write,” he says. “The authenticity comes out in each moment I’m just expressing this journey and it’s true. . . . I hope that what people get from the Kid Astronaut experience is that it touches something deeper in their soul than just being good music to listen to. It hits your different energies and feelings, memories. That’s what I hope for.”

There’s a certain intentionality that shines through both Kid Astronaut the project, as well as Shockness as a person. It feels like an invitation to join him on a journey of self-discovery, one that doesn’t necessarily come with answers. Rather, it humbly asks the listener to consider a different way of being, a way of moving through the world that requires the need for guidance from other-worldly wisdom, the ability to look beyond the stars.

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