As nightfall draped Richmond's historic Jackson Ward neighborhood, the enchanting melodies of Soraya Silene, known as IONNA, filled the air at Gallery 5 on a Wednesday evening in mid-October. Her singing echoed through the quiet streets, painting a musical tapestry that wove itself into the art-adorned walls, while about 40 attendees with beers in hand surrounded by art paintings and small cocktail tables swung their bodies to the music.
Silene, 30, is a rising figure in the world of rock and pop music in the city of Richmond. She is known for her distinctive sound, often described as "dreampop." The artist recently unveiled her latest single, "The Seeker."
While she may not have reached mainstream fame yet, her talent for writing lyrics, song and guitar is undeniable. Her track "Deep Sea Diver'' has become something of an underground hit for those who appreciate her dreamy, ethereal melodies.
Gallery 5, though not a prestigious venue on a national scale, holds special significance in the local arts community, making it the perfect setting for Silene.
Richmond, with its rich musical heritage and artistic communities, has been instrumental in IONNA's creative journey. The city's strength lies in its close-knit and supportive music community, where artists are quick to bond and create new sounds and ideas.
"I started learning to read music on the violin at age 7," Silene said. "I first started writing poetry, and then in high school, I learned to start writing songs on the guitar."
During her teenage years, she immersed herself in poetry and experimented in Richmond's thriving music scene. After leaving Virginia to pursue a fashion education in New York, Silene's return to Richmond marked a pivotal moment in her career, giving her the opportunity to continue her music and dream, she said.
Her decision to relocate from the bustling metropolis of New York City to Richmond aligns with the growing recognition of Richmond as the underground music city that deserves a visit, as highlighted in a Forbes article.
"Moving to a smaller city is an excellent decision if you're in a development phase like writing a new album," Silene explained. "IONNA is a newer project for me, and I needed to be in a quieter place and have the financial resources to invest in my music and production."
The Washington Post wrote that Richmond has experienced a revitalization marked by a thriving arts community and a burgeoning music scene. Richmond's smaller size, compared to major metropolises, has made it an inviting place for artists to focus on their craft.
"Richmond offers a unique creative environment,” Silene said. “It's a relatively small city with fewer of the traffic nightmares that bog down bigger cities."
Recent changes in Richmond have ushered in a dynamic transformation. The city has been undergoing a resurgence, with significant investments in its culture and arts scene, making it an attractive destination for artists like Silene, according to Forbes.
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"Since you can get anywhere in 15 minutes here, people are more likely to leap on new music,” Silene said. “Also, we have so many talented musicians here, if you have a solid sound and idea people will be there to support you."
Silene has her sights set on a performance at Browns Island next year, brimming with excitement about the outdoor stage at the venue. Her love for playing in DIY spaces and unconventional Richmond venues is unmistakable. Looking ahead, she's eager to collaborate with several artists that she has in mind and excited that it's no longer essential to be in big cities to engage in collaborations, she said.
“I still go up to New York and to LA to meet other artists, do collaborations and put myself out there,” Silene said, “but with social media, as long as you continue to let people know what you're doing, being in a big city isn't always necessary.”
Even though her decision of moving from New York City to Richmond was influenced by a set of circumstances, it was primarily driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
Her husband, Juan Pablo Patino, described the transition.
"The decision to come to Richmond was a pandemic move. We had a great apartment in Manhattan, the pandemic hit and she lost her job, and my job was remote,” Patino said. "We will always love New York City, but that time has passed. I don't think we will go back.”
One of her new colleagues in Richmond, bass player and photographer Kai Eason, has been a vital part of Silene’s journey. Eason has not only collaborated with her on promotional pictures and music videos but also developed a deep appreciation for Silene, who he describes as "disarming, cool and sweet."
Their collaboration has allowed them to connect on a deeper level, showcasing that Silene is far from being a superficial artist and understands the depth of her connections in Richmond.
"I met Soraya on Cary Street randomly with her brother as they were walking around, and her brother is a photographer, and so am I. I do street photography and I thought they looked cool, so I asked them to take their photograph. That's how we met,” Eason said.
Silene released her latest single, "The Seeker," on Oct. 13. The song, much like her other work, like "Deep Sea Diver,” “Easy Rider" and "Barely Breathing," is an exploration of profound emotions and thought-provoking lyrics. Eason said.
Francesca Lyn, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a good friend of Silene, was in the audience that evening at Gallery 5 and was excited about Silene’s latest single, she said. She had been eagerly waiting for this performance, the first time “The Seeker '' would be performed live. Lyn said the two met through mutual friends and are now each other’s best supporters.
“Soraya is a multi-faceted person, kind-hearted and so talented," Lyn said.
As other artists were performing, the room was steadily filling with a growing audience, and Silene’s friends eagerly awaiting her performance on stage.
As Neal Friedman, Silene's pianist, prepared the stage, he reminisced about the memories of when they first met a year ago. "Now we stick together, like we met a year ago at the Campbell open mic night," Friedman said. "She's releasing some music. I'm excited for her. She wants to take over the world. She's got that star power energy."
Silene offered advice for artists considering a move from major music hubs to smaller cities.
“When you move to a smaller city, make sure you’re a music supporter first. Find artists that you admire and go to their shows. That’s the fastest way to meet your people,” she said. “Don’t wait to be picked for events. Meet venue owners and organize your own,” Silene said.
To stay updated on Silene’s music and upcoming performances in Richmond, fans and readers can follow her on Instagram (@ionna.world) and listen to her music on streaming platforms like Spotify.
Contact contributing writer Claire Le Du at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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