Art breakthroughs and country music with Sonny Smith

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Freewhelin’ Smith and one of his many weapons of choice.
PHOTO BY ANDY DESANTIS

Sonny Smith’s dedicated yet freewhelin’ attitude towards life and art have brought him to his ninth record release this week, Longtime Companion (Polyvinyl Records), with his band the Sonny & the Sunsets. Yes, amid traveling to Central America, undertaking the sprawling “100 Records” art project, writing and performing monologues, and providing scripts for theater and film, Smith found the time to record yet another album.

A longtime San Francisco music scene fixture, Smith is now giving the North Bay a try, specifically San Rafael, with his 8-year-old son. That said, Smith is nowhere near slowing down on his prolific cycle of creativity. His new record has a diverse, country edge. The title track from Longtime Companion features enough flute-work to feel reminiscent of Nick Drake, while the track “Year of the Cock” has a straight-up Johnny Cash vibe.

I spoke to Smith over the phone about his album release, songs as comics, and how having a family has changed his outlook as an artist. Sonny & the Sunsets play Amoeba Music San Francisco tonight:

SFBG How did your time in Central America affect your songwriting and creative influences?

Sonny Smith It was the first time I had my own breakthrough. I wrote a screenplay. I was sitting around playing guitar, trying out songs, and the screenplays became songs. I began writing songs that were linear stories with characters and plots and that stuck with me for years – it started there.

SFBG I read in an interview that after your “100 Records” project ended, you were interested in undertaking another huge project called “Record Plant” – are you still planning to get back to that?

SS Yes I have been thinking about that but it's morphed into a project called “Protest Factory.” People would come make protest signs, like posters, and musicians would make songs to go with the signs. I would like the poster-making to be open to the public, not just artist friends such as musicians.

SFBG Do you visualize your songs in images, like the record covers musicians made for your project? Or is storytelling your main focus?

SS They go together: sometimes I draw comic panels first for a song idea, like a storyboard. It is like making a little mini movie, I draw it out and fit it all together. Sometimes in the end I discover it’s actually not a song, it’s a visual thing. It is a strange, weird process.

SFBG Did the recording process of the new album feel like a breeze compared to the “100 Records” project?

SS It was very casual, with a couple of friends, when we had time. Actually the “100 Records” project was pretty spread out, so it was fairly casual as well. This time around it was definitely beer cans and afternoons, no uptight studios and all that shit.

SFBG Do you make a point of creating theme albums or does a vibe just strike you as you write?

SS It's organic. I don’t set out to make a themed record, but songs do come in groupings. It's natural that you write a few songs and they all share a kind of theme. After around five or six songs, you start to see what it is, and that can inform the rest of the record a little bit.

I didn’t set out to make a country record, but since three or four country songs came out, once I had enough, I said ‘Oh yeah, this is definitely a country record.’ Then I decided to work on more country songs because then I knew I had a record. It was not preconceived – it's midway through that you start to notice a theme.

SFBG How do you decide what will become a script, and what will become a song?

SS You embark on something, and at some point it reveals itself as what it really is and should be – a lot of things change midstream. For example, recently I started out trying to make a novel, and then I realized it just wasn’t meant to be a book; at some point I couldn’t force it, I could see that is what it is.

I did a play-monologue type thing this year. At first it began as comic books, but at some point I realized it was more of a monologue. I try not to deny it too much, and instead let it be what wants to be. My work does change a lot – if a song does not work for whatever reason, for example, then often I realize it is meant to be a poem. On the other hand, if a poem does not translate into a song, then I let it be what it is.

SFBG How did you end up working with Miranda July?

SS I met her when she was making her first movie [Me, You and Everyone We Know] and she read this cool story over music for a project I was working on. We only worked together for an afternoon and sent a few emails back and forth. You can’t really say you know someone or that it was much of an experience from that amount of interaction – well except we did go to Africa together for a brief love affair. [laughs]

SFBG Any other artists you'd love to work with?

SS One person I was thinking of recently is basically an intangible goal: when I was watching Moonrise Kingdom I was thinking that if I met Wes Anderson, I would see if he wanted to make a sci-fi movie with me. It’s unlikely, but you never know!

SFBG What is one really memorable moment of inspiration or just something that really stands out over your career so far?

SS There are great moments where you feel like you have broken through something – a personal breakthrough, where you did something you had in mind. If I happen to be with other people when that happens, it is exciting. When I was in Central America it was a pivotal moment where I said ‘What is being made here? This is really cool!’

The “100 Records” project came about because the visual artists – that ended up making the record covers –  were making covers that were going to be sketches inside a book. Then the art eclipsed the book idea. It was scary, I thought ‘Oh man, I have to do this?!’ Exciting too. I think it’s good to get in over your head, so you have to hike out, as long as it’s not too hard.

SFBG Do you have a particular place where you've enjoyed performing most out of all your travels thus far?

SS
The Make-Out Room feels like home. [Also,] we have played at a grocery store in Portland, right next to the broccoli. There was no sound system or stage, I just know the manager and we enjoyed playing there.

SFBG What made you choose San Francisco as your home base, and what's your take on the current Bay Area music scene?

SS I was born here and left for a while – but when I came back, it was more like coming home. I don’t know if I would be staying for as long if it wasn’t for my 8-year-old girl. I try not to think about it too much. It's an exciting music scene – but I think it has always been exciting and always will be, some years it just gets more attention than others.

SFBG
How has having a family changed your approach to making art?

SS In the earlier years before they go to school, you have to exploit the little bit of time you have to yourself. It can help in a way, because once you have obstacles it actually makes your brain synapses work – you create solutions. If I was rich and lived in some pad and could sleep in until noon every day and lounge around a pool, that would not be conducive to being creative. Maybe that’s why often when people make that much money, they're not as creative anymore. You need a balance. Kids are creative and much more free, so if you let that rub off on you at all then you’ll be effective.

Sonny & the Sunsets
Fri/29, 6pm, free
Amoeba Music SF
1855 Haight St.
(415) 831-1200
www.amoeba.com