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Wednesday, December 13, 2017, 10:33 p.m.

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Sonny Kay

New executive director brings unique perspective to Low Key Arts

By Sam Pierce

This article was published November 5, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

Sonny Kay is the new executive director for Low Key Arts, the organization responsible for the Valley of the Vapors music festival, the Hot Waters Hills festival, Arkansas Shorts: A Night of Short Film, and KUHS 97.9. He was born in England but has spent most of his life in California.

Much like a cactus can lose part of a stem and sprout anew, for the past six years, Sonny Kay has broken away from the hustle of city life and learned to thrive and grow while living in the sticks.

“I’ve been less and less inclined to do all the networking stuff,” said Kay, the new executive director for Low Key Arts in Hot Springs. “Certainly, age is a part of it. I’ve just become disillusioned with the facade of the whole thing — all the secondary stuff that doesn’t matter.

“Living on the edge of the desert, I could drive downhill and go into town or go over the hill and into Arizona, searching for cacti.

“I found myself doing the latter and being more fulfilled by it.”

Kay said he has collected somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 cacti in a span of six years from living in Las Vegas.

“I had a passing interest of it in California because I was always fascinated with being able to break something off and plant it,” he said. “Most plants aren’t that way. It was something that was real intriguing.”

When he first moved to Las Vegas, it was the first time he had ever lived in a house on his own before.

“Having this enormous barren back yard, it was just a blank slate,” Kay said. “I found myself creating an environment back there and discovering this green thumb I never knew I had.”

Now, much like he did with his backyard, Kay has a chance to take Low Key Arts and nurture it to its full potential.

“I’m hoping to grow the two existing festivals and develop more of a circuit through here for national acts. I want to enhance the collective quality that is starting to thrive here,” Kay said.

“I feel as though there is a pretty worldly element to this place,” he said. “People are enthusiastic and welcoming of things and different mediums because to me, the idea of focusing on one specific genre has never interested me.

“To me, what makes things interesting is to be able to mix things up and create unpredictable situations that people find relevance to their own lives. That’s the most exciting part — to turn over new stones for people, myself included.”

Low Key Arts was founded by Bill Solleder and Shea Childs and is responsible for the Valley of the Vapors music festival, the Hot Waters Hills festival, Arkansas Shorts: a Night of Short Film, and KUHS 97.9.

Kay was in town for the Hot Water Hills festival that took place Oct. 6 and 7. He said he wasn’t there in an official capacity, but more to monitor the event and see who does what.

“The first thing on the books once I’m here is Valley of the Vapors in March,” Kay said. “[The Low Key Arts building] is a real amazing asset. And it doesn’t seem that hard to develop the programming there and utilize it more often.

“I’d love to do more with that between now and March. That’s five months from now, but I would think we could expand what’s going on there in the meantime.”

Kay did say he is not there to steamroll anybody.

“I’m certainly not trying to give anybody the impression that I’m the new sheriff in town,” he said. “It is not like that at all. We will see how this festival goes.

“For me, this is like school. I’m here as an observer. I see my task ahead as trying to enhance what happens here, not steamroll it and replace it with something else.”

Kay was born in England but grew up in California.

“From the time I was 7 till I was 15, I lived in Los Angeles, but I moved to Colorado in high school,” Kay said. “I went to [the University of Colorado-Boulder] there, and once that was over, I went back to California as quick as I could.”

Kay said he managed a club on campus and learned how bureaucracy works at the university.

“I kind of was in the school of real life at the same as being in the bubble of college,” Kay said.

After moving back from college, Kay lived in Los Angeles for 10 years before moving to Las Vegas.

“I moved to Las Vegas in the spur of the moment,” he said. “LA is a pretty competitive and cut-throat place and getting more expensive all the time.

“I had been feeling burnt out for a while and looking for an opportunity to switch.”

An old friend had a place in Vegas that he was wanting to rent but was anxious about having bad residents.

“I told him I would move into his place,” Kay said. “I had always loved the desert.

“I moved there thinking I’d be there a year or two, and six years had flown by.”

Comparatively, Las Vegas is still a small town, Kay said, but the music scene is big.

“But I avoided growing roots there,” he said. “There are a lot of great people there, but everything revolves around the strip.

“Even local music to a degree is distracted by that. … When this opportunity came up, it was a no-brainer.”

Kay said his experiences in Los Angeles and Las Vegas have enabled him to give an outside view of what a localized music and art scene should look like.

“I think I have a unique perspective,” he said. “There are nuances to every place, but there are aspects that are the same.

“I think that having been around the block, I might have some different approaches and solutions to issues like that. …

“That situation is always enchanted by outside perspective.”

Kay, who used to own a record label, first heard of Hot Springs when traveling to the city while on tour with his band.

“I got to be friends with Bobby Missile, and a year after that, I put out his band’s record,” Kay said. “He and I have been tight ever since.

“When the position opened up, he reached out to me to gauge my interest.

“I never would have imagined moving here, but I’ve learned that random, unpredictable things in life are what keep it interesting.”

He said Hot Springs is an unearthed gem of a place.

“The opportunity to come back here and spend more time here seemed really appealing,” Kay said.

He said there is a totally vibrant and raw music scene in Hot Springs that’s been doing just fine for decades.

“But I think there is just a huge amount of energy and willingness to jump in with both feet,” Kay said. “Through my experiences, all the most inspiring, motivating, fruitful places that I have been and experiences I have had have benefited from a real exchange of ideas.

“That generally doesn’t happen from a whole bunch of people being in the same place.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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