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BWW Interview: Eleri Ward Talks SUF/SOND, Her Music and Theatre Interests, Going Viral on TikTok, & More!

Are Sufjan Stevens and Stephen Sondheim compatible? Eleri Ward's upcoming album SUF/SOND answers that exact question.

BWW Interview: Eleri Ward Talks SUF/SOND, Her Music and Theatre Interests, Going Viral on TikTok, & More! Over the past year of the shutdown, we've seen the rise in popularity of TikTok, especially within the theatre community with the Ratatouille and Bridgerton fan-made musicals.

And we've also started to see the trend of taking musical theatre standards and flipping them into other genres, like A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream and R&H Goes Pop!

Combine these two trends and you'd get SUF/SOND, the pet project of Eleri Ward, who has been sharing her Indie Rock takes on classic Stephen Sondheim numbers on her TikTok account.

The full album, which features numerous Stephen Sondheim songs performed in the style of Indie/Alternative/Folk rock singer Sufjan Stevens, is set to be released on May 21, 2021 on all streaming platforms. The first single from the album, Johanna (Reprise), is available to listen here. Live renditions of her arrangements can also be found on her YouTube channel here.

We spoke with Ward about her upcoming album, her love of music and theatre, and what TikTok is doing for the theatre community during this time.


Share a bit about yourself!

I'm originally from Chicago and have studied music and theater my entire life. I went to The Chicago Academy for the Arts for high school, majoring in musical theater, and from there I went to Berklee College of Music to study songwriting. After a year at Berklee, my love for musical theater called for me to transfer to The Boston Conservatory, wherein I graduated with a BFA in musical theater with an emphasis in songwriting. Since then, I've been auditioning and constantly creating, whether that be writing my own pop music, collaborating with other theater and music makers, or however else my creative voice decides to speak, such as making moody acoustic covers of Sondheim songs!

Where did your love for music come from?

I've loved music since day one. I used to annoy my older sister with my constant humming as a baby and I asked my mother for violin lessons at age 2. She said I could start violin lessons once I learned how to read, so learned how to read I did, and I began violin and piano lessons at age 5. While violin didn't stick with me in the long run, piano always has been a home base for me and my music. And while I dabbled in viola and alto saxophone, I ultimately also landed on guitar having begun teaching myself in 2015. Meanwhile, singing has always been a constant. I started lessons when I was 8 and have never stopped. I love so many different genres of music and finding where those different genres and styles live in my voice has been an ongoing and joyful journey.

In that same vein, how about your love for theatre?

Similarly, my love for theater started quite young, putting on plays with my sister that we would write and produce in our living room, using the pocket doors as curtains. I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be in a "real play," since I was ready for bigger and brighter stages outside of our living room. From there I got involved in a children's theater school that put on musicals and provided acting and voice lessons. My first show was The Sound of Music, and after our first performance, I felt something I had never felt before. A feeling I've continued to chase ever since.

BWW Interview: Eleri Ward Talks SUF/SOND, Her Music and Theatre Interests, Going Viral on TikTok, & More! What made you want to start this project?

SUF/SOND was never something I had a vision for nor was it something I had intentionally set out to do, which makes it all the more special to me. It came from a random Instagram post of an acoustic cover of "Every Day a Little Death" that I had captioned "Sufjan on Sondheim." The reason I chose to cover it was honestly because, having been in the middle of audition season in 2019, friends at auditions would ask me how I was doing and my response was jokingly, "Oh you know...every day a little death!" Therefore, the song itself was just lingering in my mind and I had it stuck in my head from referring to it so often. I had to get it out of my head, so I came up with my little cover and little did I know that that one post would lead to an entire series, multiple videos, and now a 13 track album. I think SUF/SOND found me more than I found SUF/SOND!

What makes Sufjan Stevens and Stephen Sondheim so compatible, in your eyes?

Two artists that couldn't be more different, and yet they share a poeticism that surrounds the sweet juxtaposition of beauty and darkness. They both dive right into the heart of what others might find somber and illuminate it with a sense of elegance and charm that makes that darkness palatable and enchanting. I think putting Sondheim's body of work in Sufjan-like clothes highlights that dynamic in an even more raw and vulnerable way that I believe is at the root of Sondheim's voice.

When did you realize this was something you wanted to turn into an album?

It really wasn't until I had such a positive response on TikTok, with so many people asking for my various arrangements to be made available on Spotify and Apple Music, that I was inspired to make it happen. And when I say "inspired" I mean INSPIRED! Once I decided I was going to do it, I recorded all 13 songs in my closet by myself within one month, with my friend Tom Deis mixing and mastering them for me. When I commit to something, especially when it comes to my art, I go all in. I'm so grateful for those who requested I put these songs out; it's because of those beautiful folks that I was able to find so much creative fulfillment in this music these past couple of months that I didn't even know I needed.

How did you decide to make Johanna (Reprise) the first single?

Johanna was the first real SUF/SOND video I ever did after my snippet of an "Every Day a Little Death" cover, and everyone responded so passionately about it back then in 2019. Fast forward to February, 2021 when I first made a TkTok account and it was that same video that got so much more traction on TikTok than I could have imagined. Cue the people of the interwebs asking me to put the song out on streaming services. They asked and I delivered!

What has the response been like for Johanna and your other songs?

It's been more positive than I thought possible, and I'm beyond thankful for everyone who has supported this project. It's always been a little bit difficult for me to find other musical theater folks who also have the same music tastes as I do or even know who my favorite artists are. To go from mentioning Sufjan's name and people not knowing who he is to posting my SUF/SOND videos and people saying "this is my niche" and "this is my ideal crossover" and "I never knew I needed this, but I feel seen" actually makes ME feel seen in a very specific way I hadn't ever experienced. I feel as if I've found a community of super cool people who love the things I love in the way that I love them. It's also incredible to see people who don't know Sondheim want to learn more because they enjoyed one of my covers. And inversely, seeing someone who doesn't know Sufjan Stevens be inclined to check out his music- music that changed my life. I think I've begun to bridge a gap between two worlds I always felt were so separate; I'm doing it from my own point of view, and people are truly connecting with it. I'm over the moon!

We've seen a lot of great musical theatre projects come from the TikTok app like Ratatouille and Bridgerton. Do you think TikTok helped grow your audience?

100%. Across the board, I wouldn't be where I am with this project or even with my other music without the support of TikTok. It's not only helped me grow my audience, but make friends and new connections I wouldn't have now if it weren't for the app. Big shoutout to my dear friend, Chloe, for pushing me into creating an account because I don't think I would have started one without her persuading me to share my work on the platform.

@eleriward

You came for folky Sondheim, you stayed for my greasy flyaways ? ##beingalive ##sondheim ##sufjanonsondheim ##singer ##musician ##folk ##fyp

a?? original sound - Eleri Ward

What are you most looking forward to when the album is released in May?

I'm most looking forward to simply having this collection of songs, done the way I've envisioned them to be, out there for all to enjoy! I can't wait for people to listen to Sondheim this way, especially those who really connect with this sort of style of music. I'm excited about having my own little corner of the Sondheim world be real and public in the way that its doors will finally be open to all that want to enter.

Where can we find you on social?

You can find me at @eleriward on Instagram and TikTok, I'm Eleri Ward and SUF/SOND on Spotify and Apple Music, and my website is www.eleriward.com


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