Def Sonic and the unflinching power of the human experience

On “Anthropia,” Def Sonic’s Johan Petty examines life’s hardships through an empathetic lens.
Def Sonic is shown tuning his acoustic guitar at Mother Fool's during Make Music Madison. He's wearing a red Nike baseball cap and a gray shirt with a blue floral print. Next to him is a makeshift table, created by crates and an iron briefcase, holding up pieces of additional audio equipment.
Photo: Def Sonic performing at Mother Fool’s for the 2022 edition of Make Music Madison. Photo by Steven Spoerl.

On “Anthropia” Def Sonic’s Johan Petty examines life’s hardships through an empathetic lens.

Def Sonic’s Johan Petty grew up in Milwaukee’s foster care system, learning some hard lessons in the process. As an upbringing, it continues to color his life in resonant ways—in both a deep appreciation for community and a tenacious self-reliance. Making music provided Petty an outlet for personal catharsis. His love for music deepened over the course of working as a camp counselor, a position that allowed him to acclimate to performing publicly, while providing an opportunity to refine his sound.

Petty’s solo project launched under the moniker All Good Things, and he released his debut album Robotik Folk in 2013. A There Will Be Blood-inspired single, “Plainview, UT,” was released later that year. Then, a gap. Petty moved to Madison around 2016, following his time in Milwaukee and as a student at UW-La Crosse. After taking some time to adjust to life in Madison, Petty reintroduced his solo project as Def Sonic, releasing Somnipathe in 2019. Where Robotik Folk‘s strengths were rooted in modern, bluesy interpretations of traditional folk, Somnipathe opened up an entirely new world. Combining Petty’s love of folk with ethereal, electronic ambient textures and a greater emphasis on vocal manipulation, Somnipathe placed Def Sonic’s sound firmly in league with another musically restless Wisconsinite

Somnipathe wound up unlocking a number of doors for Petty, as both an artist and a Madisonian, easing him into a number of social relationships that he’s still developing in earnest. A trio of engrossing, superlative records followed Somnipathe‘s release: 2020’s Antarctica and Sensitive Sessions, and 2022’s Nocturnal Hymnal. Each of those records are documents of Def Sonic coming further and further into its own, with each successive release offering a new high point. Nocturnal Hymnal, especially, stands out as an album in which there’s a tangible sense that an artist is presenting their craft with significantly greater confidence, control, and understanding.

Fatefully, Nocturnal Hymnal‘s release dovetailed with the reopening of several Madison music venues, laying a path for Petty to play a number of shows with strikingly eclectic lineups. By the end of 2022, it wasn’t uncommon to see Def Sonic play a show at a DIY punk venue, a jazz club, or as a standalone folk act over the course of a few months.

All the time Petty had committed to evolving Def Sonic was starting to resonate for a number of artists and venues in Madison’s music community, as well as some other pockets. He is both surprised by and grateful for their support. “And that’s the thing, there’s so many cool avenues in Madison to explore,” Petty says. “To be supported by the indie community, to be supported by the social justice community. The yoga community. It’s cool, man.”

Anthropia, released in February, is the most assured Def Sonic album to date. A mesmeric cocktail of pointed imperfection and unwavering boldness, the album continues Def Sonic’s penchant for absorbing introspection, pulling listeners into the shadowy corners of self-discovery that are critical to self-understanding and self-acceptance. “Concourse GO3” opens Anthropia with a gentle ambient fade-in, some lightly noise-damaged drum programming, and a wordless melodic intonation, gradually expanding into a hypnotic mesh of folk, dream-pop, blues, and electronic music. “I don’t want to wait so long,” is a memorable line, which becomes the foundation of a theme that runs throughout the record: facing down uncertainty, stasis, and the darker feelings that tend to accompany both.

“Poor Dorothy” takes things even further, with a plaintive, pleading hook of “Find a way out / Find a way” anchoring the track, over instrumentation that, in another recurring thematic move, nimbly bridges lush soundscapes with intentionally rough-hewn production. Anthopia is defined by damage, taking measures to illustrate that unavoidable fact with both its crackling, mid-fi aesthetics and its lyrical narratives. Disintegration is often central to what makes progression feel meaningful, and, over the course of Anthropia, Petty takes stock of both ends. Even in the album’s darkest moments, there’s a prevailing sense that there will be more heartening outcomes if one has the resolve to punch through the clouds that seem impenetrably dense.

Petty’s aware that there is likely to be a divide among interpretation when it comes to Anthropia, reflecting on some of his friends’ early reactions. “They’re surprised it’s so warm. And I’m like ‘Whoa, I’m surprised you hear it in a warm way, because I was thinking some really, really dark thoughts while writing it,'” Petty muses. And he’s right: Anthropia is an extraordinarily dark record, even if the music feels airy and playful at first blush. But his friends are right, too. There’s a warmth embedded into the tones and into Antrhopia‘s thematic probing. It’s a natural extension of Petty’s own humanism, which simultaneously allows for the maximal depths of pessimism and optimism, with each honoring the possibility of the other. “Anthropia,” the record’s penultimate track and namesake, drives this home with astounding grace. A devastating meditation on what—and who—operates as joy’s driving force in our lives, “Anthropia” binds the record with love. Moving, profound, and delivered with both an abundance of feeling and precision, “Anthropia” is a perfect distillation of what makes Def Sonic so effective.

In early February, the ambient-indie/folk songwriter talked to us about Anthropia, his past work, finding and fostering community, writing cinematically, and the importance of process. Def Sonic’s upcoming local shows include stops at Bierock on March 18, Cafe Coda on March 25, and Harmony Bar on April 21. A Mickey’s show is scheduled for July 14. Any of those opportunities are worth seizing.


Tone Madison: Can you take us through how you began making music and how you developed your sound?

Johan Petty:
I kind of always played music. I really got going when I started working at summer camps. I used to be a camp counselor, and I used to play at the opening and closing fires. I really wasn’t aware that I knew what I was doing until I started getting people’s feedback. A lot of people gave me encouragement. Around my freshman year in school—I went to La Crosse—it overlapped with being a counselor. As soon as I got to La Crosse, I started signing up for open mics. The trajectory built up from there. I started playing at the Popcorn Tavern. I played there for a long time. Had a residency there. La Crosse had a lot of really good open mics, so it was a good place to develop and incubate. 

Tone Madison: You’ve been booking shows at a pretty steady rate over the past year or so and the bills you’ve been on have been consistently varied. Was cultivating that level of stylistic diversity something that was intentional, or has that variety happened naturally?

Johan Petty:
You hit it right on the nose [with it being] intentionally diverse. Do you know [booker] Liz [Granby] from Mickey’s? She was just saying that—I was billing something for this July—she was saying how my lineups were all over the place. In a good way! In a good way. The intention is like a playlist, if you will. The point is variety. The point is also to help other artists and help create opportunity for other people. I’m not really trying to be like a shaman or anything of that sort. I just know the struggle. How the hustle works. I know how I would want to be included, so I’m just trying to pay that forward.

Tone Madison: Over your past few releases, you’ve started incorporating more of a lo-fi aesthetic. Is there something specific that has been pulling you toward that as a production mode?

Johan Petty:
Yeah. It’s interesting exploring your sound. I wrote a song a while back called “Indigo Boy” on my first record, and I noticed that [the song had] a consistent tonality that I enjoyed. I wrote it literally, I don’t want to say by accident, but I used to have a lot of issues with sleep and dealing with insomnia. And I started writing music when I couldn’t sleep to get me sleepy, if that makes any sense. Overworking myself [to] naturally make myself tired rather than just laying there and not being able to sleep. So I wouldn’t listen to the music right away, I was just doing it as a means to get to sleep. So I wrote that record, listened to it a little while later, and was really, really surprised at how good it sounded. I didn’t know it had a nuance to it because of the format I was writing in.

I started playing that song out and about, and I could see the reactions it was getting. I just had more than enough artists hearing that kind of music saying, “You’re really in your own lane with that sound.” I just pursued it at that point. Finding your own tone, and it being signature to you… I know that we borrow from the people we look up to, but finding something that sticks is not the easiest thing to do. You end up doing a lot of mimicry for a really, really long time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, I don’t know, you can feel yourself doing a bad impression of yourself after a while when you listen back to yourself.

So it is very intentional, and I enjoy writing in that style too. And I like lo-fi, because I produce my own stuff. I’m totally open to error. I’ll hear a pedal-click in the background, or an off tone for a second, but I like those errors. As long as they’re not overtaking the recording, because it just makes it more unique and adds to the sound.

Tone Madison: I’ve been fortunate enough to catch a few of your sets at this point, and every time I’ve tried to clock what all goes into your setup. Do you have a preferred rig for live shows?

Johan Petty:
There’s a run-down, but it’s very Fisher-Price. It’s audio Legos for sure. I’m not a pro when it comes down to that kind of stuff. I know that I like exploring sounds, so I’m always adding and taking away. For this current rig, I’ve been keeping it the same for a long time. Doing the [Acoustic Happy Hour residency at Garver Feed Mill in 2022] really helped, because I had week after week. I could see the consistency within that sound. It made it stick.

Tone Madison: A lot of your work incorporates a really interesting mix of vocal sampling. How do you identify what might work for a certain piece? Is there an established meaning between the speeches, samples, and songs that you connect?

Johan Petty:
I like to write cinematically, so I can see the song. Not so much [looking at the audio stems of a track] or anything of that sort, but visually, like when I think about a negative space. A frozen lake. Or outer space. I can see the reverb, if that makes any sense.

Tone Madison: Almost like a form of synesthesia.

Johan Petty:
There you go! That’s exactly what some of my friends say when I say that. Or when you see autumn, you can see warmth, as far as sound is concerned. The vocal samples are kind of the same thing, where I’ll be writing a song—I have that song “12a.m.” and it has [the philosopher] Alan Watts at the beginning. I can see the sample when I’m writing a song and I know I’ll add onto it, but then production-wise, I’m also trying to keep the listener engaged. Say, for example, there’s a two-minute song. I feel like every 10 to 20 seconds, I should be introducing something else into the song or taking something away to keep the listener engaged. I know a lot of people are most likely listening on their phone, and I only have their attention for a certain amount of time. Unless they’re someone who really, really supports you already. So, bring some things in, take some things away in order to make it interesting to the listener. [I’m] definitely thinking in a cinematic construct [in relation to] the listening experience.

Tone Madison: You mentioned that you self-produce. What program are you running your work through?

Johan Petty:
I use GarageBand, I use Logic Pro. I also like to do a lot of editing in film software. I’ll use a variety of different film softwares. Most film softwares allow you to import and export audio, and they have excellent mastering tools. I’ve noticed that it brings the quality of the music up to a really high level. You know Kevin Smith? He puts me into that thought process of “be counterintuitive, try other things that you wouldn’t expect.” And also to go with a budget that you can afford. A lot of film softwares will give you 90-day or four-month free trials. That’s more than enough time to master a project, if you’re focused. A lot of the time in writing projects, [why I’ll use] film software is because I’ve got four months until [it] expires, so it’s like, “Let me get on it!” It really works out. I’d definitely suggest trying it sometime, you’d be surprised at what you come up with.

Tone Madison: It seems like for the past several years, you’ve been putting out at least a record every 12 months or so, sometimes more often. How often are you actively writing material?

Johan Petty:
This will be my fifth [record], happening now. Before, with Somnipathe, Antarctica, Sensitive Sessions, and Nocturnal Hymnal, they were all based on seasons. I dropped the first one in spring and then I was just following [a pattern]. Spring, summer, winter, fall. I was following that intentionally. It was a goal [to] drop something every season. That felt important to me. For this one, [it] was to mitigate the post-creative depression that occurs for some artists. 2022 was lit, man. You mentioned all the bookings and things of that sort, it was show after show after show. I knew that once that lull hit, it would hit me eventually. I would miss playing. I intentionally focused on recording, so I could mitigate that feeling. This album, Anthropia, came about as a result of that.

Tone Madison: With this record being released and a succession of shows booked, how long does it take for something like a post-creative depression to really take hold?

Johan Petty:
I think I’m still figuring it out. I noticed the lull after I finished Nocturnal Hymnal. I really missed writing and I didn’t know what to do. And right when that happened, the [Garver Feed Mill] residency kicked in. It was like the universe was taking care of me. I swear, I wasn’t even manifesting it—or maybe I was, in some inadvertent manner—but I swear, I finished recording Nocturnal Hymnal and then I was missing [the creative process]. I was literally hitting people up that I knew, like, “Hey, do you need a producer for any of your work?” I think I’m kind of addicted to being creative, to be honest. I don’t mean that in a nerdy way or anything, I just feel like it’s my thing. And I feel like I’m just bumping into it being my thing.

It’s weird being a musician. It’s like how much of this actually matters to me versus anyone else. I thought this was a difficult town at first. The more and more I’ve been interfacing with other folks, like Free Dirt, The Earthlings, my buddy JF Zastrow, this band called Uncle JIM—all of these folks want to keep me involved with them and then they’re following [me] and their reactions to me playing are just like, “Wow.” I’m really just getting used to that positive feedback.


I didn’t grow up with parents. I grew up in foster care in Milwaukee. I didn’t get the feedback growing up, or that positive reinforcement. And not to knock the experience, it just wasn’t part of my reality. I’m just starting to bump into this kind of support, it’s not something I expected. I swear I have, one of my friends said it’s called imposter syndrome. I’ll be [in] tunnel vision and people are helping me, but it completely confuses me for a second. Then they say “Nah dude, that’s the energy you’re putting out and people are giving it back.” I would say it goes along with that. I would really say it’s like an addiction to creativity, which I’ll gladly take.

Tone Madison: I think that makes a lot of sense. Your music is diverse enough to have overlap with those different types of musical terrains. The way Madison, unfortunately, typically operates tends towards insularity and too often becomes a closed feedback loop for a spread-out network of individual cliques. So it’s cool to see you find a lane that spreads wide enough for those types of barriers to be disregarded. It’s something we need more of in Madison.

Johan Petty:
For sure. I did a show [at an underground venue and] I was really surprised when they invited me out to that. I kind of went to indie shows and punk shows prior, it’s not that I wasn’t supportive of it, it’s just that you stay in your lane, like you said. Doing you. And that was a super supportive crowd, and a lot of those people still come out to my shows now. It’s really cool seeing somebody who’s into that type of music be into my kind of music as well.

Tone Madison: Did you have anything planned for what’s going to come after the record’s been out for a bit and you get through your next string of shows?

Johan Petty:
It’d be cool to do some more collaborative stuff. When I wrote Antrhopia, I put together 19 songs and I’m only putting out 10 of the 19 that I wrote. The other nine, there’s no lyrics or anything to them. Just instrumentals, bass and drums. Things of that sort. It’d be cool to collab with some folks, get involved in a different way. In that manner. I’ve been meeting producers in Madison, just happenstantially. Most people are just approaching me, because they saw me at a show or something of that sort. Networking with other folks. Then the next thing you know, they’re at a show, then the next.

I’m naturally inclusive. I’d say that growing up in the system kind of teaches you that, because you need to be malleable. As a child, you’re going into a lot of homes, you’ve got to learn how to deal with that. I would say working at camps, like I mentioned in the beginning, those kinds of environments teach you to be inclusive. The first camp that I worked at, they had a specialty of working with kids who had kidney issues. I can’t remember the exact name of the ailment, but they had to do a lot of dialysis  at the camp. And that camp was super inclusive. Ropes courses for kids in wheelchairs to be able to access, things of that sort. So I think a lot of the feedback that I got inadvertently was to be inclusive from the outside community, taking me in. I just naturally like to involve other folks. It lends itself to itself, community is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a no-brainer if you’re somebody who actually is in with it. It’s a bummer when you aren’t, but that’s another story.

Tone Madison: Definitely. If there was anything else you wanted to get across or something you said earlier that you’d like to expand on, now would be the time.

Johan Petty:
Outside of it being me putting out music, the meaning of [Anthropia] is [centered on] post-depression. It was right after quarantine, or kind of during quarantine? Quarantine-ish, when I started writing it. The meaning of that word, there’s this book called The Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows. It’s a bunch of made-up words for feelings and emotions that don’t have words to ’em. [The meaning of] Anthropia is the space between being depressed and being OK. [An] “I’m not depressed anymore, but I’m still not happy, what’s going on” kind of feeling.

That’s what I wrote the meaning of that [album] around, and it reminded me a lot of post-quarantine. I lost one of my sisters during quarantine. It was exercising a lot of that into [the album]. Trying to figure out how to navigate the world. I think there’s a delay in some folks’ realizing that they need to process [the pandemic]. And there’s no time limit on the processing of it, but I would say that a lot of it I was processing the change in reality that the quarantine brought about. And the sacrifices. So many people passed away during it, and we just kind of breezed past it. It kind of weirds me out how there hasn’t been a national talk about it. I’m not saying that it’s going to happen, but I wish we could figure out as a group—or as a species—a way to align with some kind of processing with those kinds of things, instead of just waiting for the next thing to happen. And just falling face-first into it all over again.

Anthropia means a lot to me in the sense of post-depression and trying to figure out how to re-navigate reality. The calibration… I don’t even think there’s a re-calibration. Everything feels really new in a good way, but in kind of a dark way as well. I hope that it’s helping me navigate reality. 

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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