Orion Sun Shines Bright

“Hold on, you gotta see this,” Philly-born, Los Angeles-based singer Orion Sun tells me. We had been chatting for a long while over Zoom about life, music and weed, and I was politely moving our conversation to a close before she jetted away to grab something. She wanted to show me the artwork for her forthcoming self-titled album, Orion, a hand-painted portrait of her head, colorfully rendered, floating in the water, with a small city landscape jutting out of her scalp and hair. She pointed out its intricate details: the city’s buildings are her thoughts, she tells me. The hair encroaching upon it resembles fog. She pauses for a moment to laugh. “I’m just so excited,” she says. She’s giddy like a child showing their teacher a new collage. “I just love analog.”

That earnest embrace of creation — as defined by all of its joys and challenges — could be felt throughout our conversation, which centered on Orion’s next chapter. Since her self-titled debut, 2017’s self-released A Collection of Fleeting Moments and Daydreams, Orion Sun has helped define a strain of genre-fluid indie music that has one foot in the internet and the other in the dusty sunlit interior of a bedroom studio. Marked by a charming DIY quality, there’s a lovable tactility to her music, the strong sense that the singer and producer you’re listening to is giving you something straight from their hands and heart.

That’s all helped Orion maintain an exceptionally close relationship with her many fans around the world and grow a listenership that is uniquely large for an indie artist. Songs like the pleading “Dirty Dancer” off her 2022 EP, Getaway, or the punchy “Antidote” from her debut have streams in the tens of millions. Her tours sell out rapidly. All of these career milestones are flashy and fun, but they’re only important in the sense that they genuinely allow her to sustain a life in the arts, a life that is, miraculously, rarely, dictated on her own terms. “I never want to conform,” she tells PAPER. “I never want to get into a position where I’m making TikTok songs or making stuff that doesn’t serve me first, selfishly.”

Today, she continues on that self-directed path. She’s announcing her headlining US Rising Sun Tour (dates here), which will bring her around the country, and allow her to finally perform an album that she’s been honing for years. Orion, out September 20th on Mom+Pop, is a continuation of all that’s connected fans to her world thus far. But with the benefit of time and space, Orion is a clear expansion, a chance to reflect on this past stretch of her life, which has been marked by a move across the country, a breakup and a dream-like ascent into becoming a globally known musician.

“Mary Jane,” the second single off that album, released today, ruminates on the push and pull between the desire to express oneself and the strain of being watched. An aching rumination on her long-term relationship with marijuana and its attendant feelings of solace and paranoia, “Mary Jane” is an introvert’s ode to the things we do to feel whole and human.

PAPER caught up with the busy musician to talk about nature, this epic album process, and the joys and challenges of touring the world.

Hey! Thanks so much for taking the time. I’m excited to chat.

I’m very hyped for this. I don’t really like talking on social media, so I really value interviews.

To be honest, that’s quite rare with musicians.

Maybe it’s because I’m such a geek about being an artist. Watching other interviews with my favorite artists has become very valuable not only to my artistry but also to how I shape myself as a human. This is such a moment right now: us trying to figure out social media and the internet landscape. It’s kind of similar to the first person ever to try a dragon fruit. They had to have been so brave because it looks so wild when you think about it. “Like, no, you try it first. Are you gonna die?” You know what I mean? There are a lot of things right now, but blogs, PAPER, just the written language … it’s not going anywhere.

You’re right in the thick of it right now because you’re entering album release mode. How are you thinking about that if you have this trepidation with social media?

It just excites me cause I love learning new shit, and I like to grow. I told myself, I could either get left behind or just try to figure it out in my own way. I don’t think getting left behind is bad per se, but with the goals that I have, it’s not really conducive to what I want to accomplish in terms of creating as much shit as possible before I die. So you gotta get up and be like, Okay, this is weird, but how can I do what I wanna do and feel good about it? Hopefully it works.

It’s very much just like, if this works, cool. But I’m more focused on what feels good and what I want to leave behind. I’m the kind of artist who [believes] everything in time. I’m not planning on going anywhere. I want to do this forever. So let me just figure it out and see where I can take it.

It helps that you have fans who are really committed to your work and have been for a while. People have a really deep relationship with your music and have been for years now.

I’m really grateful. As I continue to grow, I’m realizing I’m speaking to myself, but I’m also speaking to who I’m actually connecting with. It really makes me feel good, because I know when I started writing and getting into music, I always felt alone. So whenever I go on tour, or I happen to see a comment or something where it’s just like, “Thank you. I was thinking this too,” it helps me on my worst day. I have it saved in a little mason jar where it’s just like, “Okay. Don’t lose the plot like. This is why I’m here.” It’s very dramatic, but it’s just like, If I’m not doing this, I could not tell you what I’m here for. So that means I gotta roll with the punches. But whenever I do feel that connection it makes it all worth it, you know?

I was suprised that it’s been so long since you put out a full length album, because you’ve been consistently in the mix with your EP and collaborations. What has the process been like of putting together your first full project in a while?

When I put out my first album with a label, Hold Space For Me, there were a lot of “firsts” in that wave of things. It was just so many eyes on me, and that was the turning point for me, because it was just like, “Oh, I’m not putting it on Soundcloud. I’m just giving it to a label.” I had to re-ask myself, like, Okay, do you want to actually do this? Because fame is not something that I got in this for. I actually think that will be one of my biggest battles in terms of it not changing who I am or making me disgusting and weird.

I just want to express myself. There’s something about being able to create songs and then go out and sing those songs. When I hear them back I’m just, Okay, I’m ready to tackle anything, including myself, to make sure that I can do it again. I had a sneak peek of working with other people with my EP, but this album was the first time that I did that with a full-length project. I was meeting so many people, trying to figure out who the right fit may be, finding the right vibe. I’m so sensitive, so it has to be perfect for me. And that just takes time. It was a lot of pushing through doubt. I wanna make good shit. I’m happy with whatever I make. But there is an added pressure that I can’t deny when you get to a certain point in your career where you are thinking, “Where are these things gonna be played? Who’s even listening?”

I was sitting down like, “Okay, all I have to do is show up every day. If I make something cool, cool. If not? Also cool, but at least I showed up.” I was doing that for a couple of years. And I had to sit down too, and be like, Hold on, I can keep making shit forever. I know I have something here. So at the end of last year, I sat down with everything over the course of a couple of years and carved out this story of what I was going through at the time, which was a breakup and finding myself again.

It’s interesting when you break up in your mid-20s. You were dating since you were 21, so there’s a lot of growth that has to happen, because I was just kinda chilling, not experiencing real life in a lot of ways. So it was also dealing with that, and juggling my personal growth with my musical growth. And that’s why I wanted it to call it Orion, because it really feels like my first project. I know who I am more than I ever have before. To the point where I feel like a child. The last time I felt like this, I had to have been like six or seven, just very curious about the world, wanting to try everything. That really is the process. A lot of thinking, a lot of pushing through. And I allowed myself to have a little bit of fun, too. But I did kick myself in the shins, cause I would have been done way earlier.

I’ve only heard the two songs so far, but I’m loving how it still feels connected to your old work, but still definitely like a progression. How are you thinking about shaping the sound of this next chapter?

Going into this, I knew it was important to build upon the world that I already had. I do notice that a lot of artists that are relatively “new” — even though I’ve been doing this for a while — drastically change their sound or direction, kind of like David Bowie, which I love. But I knew that I was in this for a really long time, so I wanted to just kind of stretch that out. My main concern was like, Okay, I want people to know the name. I always joke like I’m on a Key and Peele skit with the substitute teacher, where he’s like, “Hey, A-aaron.” I get people saying my name like “oh-rih-on” and want to make a statement that it’s “oh-rye-on” and just make what feels right.

You were largely in LA while you were making this?

Yeah, I started in New York. “Already Gone” was written in New York, but I was just feeling claustrophobic. I wanted that city to work for me so bad, being from the East Coast and idolizing that city so much. But it just wasn’t conducive to what I needed. I needed to heal. I needed to breathe and grind differently, and New York was just very loud and bustling. I realized I love to visit there, but come home to Los Angeles. And it just felt right. You know, it was really the people. I’m still not used to seeing mountains every day. You are a product of your environment. I really do feel like it’s changed me for the better.

I know that nature was a big part of this album. Did the natural landscape of Los Angeles find its way into the project too?

Nature is definitely a through line in all of my projects, only because I’m very connected. I have to be present to even be tapped into what I’m feeling. It’s almost like magic where I could be having the worst day and go for a walk out here. It’s just different [from New York], too, because you can walk out here and not see anybody. It’s just something about seeing the ultimate creation as a creative.

It gives me inspiration every time, and also grounds me cause I think this is the most pressure I felt with the project because of the long time since the last project. You just never know if people are gonna fuck with you. It only matters to me because I wanna live off of this. I don’t genuinely care if they like the shit. It’s just like: Can I pay my rent? [laughs] I never want to conform. I never want to get into a position where I’m like making TikTok songs or making stuff that doesn’t serve me first, selfishly.

This interview is coming out with “Mary Jane.” And I’m super excited for that song. I’m listening to it at the exact right time, because I used to be a stoner and am thinking a lot about my relationship to marijuana right now. I know it’s also a metaphor, but I’m just curious what you were thinking about when you wrote the song?

I wrote that on tour in 2022, because I had lost my wallet in Toronto, and it really shook me for some reason. I’m just like, I don’t lose that.I don’t really lose things in general, even though everyone was like, “This happens.” But I was just like, We’re on tour. I’m super stressed. It’s my first headline tour, and I lost my wallet. So I was just feeling down, and I was in the band with other stoners too. But all eyes were on me and I was super nervous being on tour. I wasn’t smoking, and I remember looking over, being like, I wish I could [smole] in this moment, because I hate this feeling.

And then I got back from tour, and I was able to sit with it for a little bit. It made me think about my coping mechanisms and just how I get through life. [Weed has] just held me for so long. I remember being really grateful for it, because when I couldn’t talk to anybody, when I didn’t want to talk to anybody, but I knew I had to be here still to see this life through, it got me through. But the more I started having more responsibilities, or just having to socialize more, and not be this hermit that just tinkers away in the studio, it began to betray me, and I was really sad about that, because I was like, Well, what do I do now? I guess I have to talk to my friends about my problems, to step out in the world and be a person, even though it feels safer to just be in my little weed bubble. So when it gets to the bridge of the song, it’s about everything I have to face when I’m not smoking.

So it’s a lot of fear. Even thinking about it moves me, because weed in a lot of ways hyperdrives through that paranoia so I can just get to the other side and be like, I’m exhausted [raises her arms in exasperation and laughs]. It’s that tug and pull, and you’ll see as the album progresses, my relationship with it, because I had to take a break. But when I do take a break: now I have nightmares. It’s just the battle with it being a good thing for me. But I love that song, because it’s like, Please work for me still, because I don’t know how I’m going to navigate this part of my life without it?

You mentioned tour being stressful. This is also gonna come out with the announcement of your next tour. What’s your relationship with tour now? Has it changed?

Thank God for growth, right? I mean, shout out to my fans that continuing to support me, buying my merch, buying these tickets, streaming my music because I’m able to grow my touring team. So my most recent tour was opening for Daniel Caesar and I had tour management. The more you grow, the more you can make it comfortable for yourself by having people looking out for certain things, because things get wild.I’m not the kind of artist that’s like, I don’t want to see my fans. I don’t care if there’s no setup for the meet and greet. If they want to meet me, if they went out of their way to contact my tour manager or one of my bandmates, I’m going to pop out. But that can be dangerous.

And I just don’t want to ever become just a product. I think my fans understand that I’m very human. I post when I wants to, or when something’s coming. I want to be a human first, product, second, like I’m self aware enough to know that I am both things. But on tour, it’s elevated right? They don’t give a shit. If you’re tired, they don’t care if you’re talking to this person. They want a picture. Now, you have to just really learn how to navigate all these different mirrors right?

Like, I don’t see separation between any of us. I look at them, I see myself, and I hope they look at me and see themselves whether they’re black or not, whether they’re a woman or not. I take all of that into consideration, and I think I put that on myself and make touring difficult, because outside of that, it’s really fun.

I see something new almost every day [on tour]. And being the introvert that I am, that’s so important for me. Thank God for my job because I’m still healing from trauma. It’s not really natural for me to be like, “Let me go to Paris today.”

I get to see the world and come back to tell my friends, tell my family, who might be more afraid of the world than I am, you know? and it gives them hope. You’re an inspiration, like, I want to leave my block. I want to leave my hometown. That moves me.

Photography: Eric Johnson

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