Screen writer, musician and playwright Sonny Smith has recently released a new album, Fruitvale. A beautiful album full of astute observations and immediate characters, Fruitvale is an intimate stage, the scenery and the vehicle to evoke the San Fransisco area of Oakland which the album is loosely based upon. This is his fifth album. Sonny has also written and directed the short films Kid Gus Man and Green Chili Con Suenos. He has written and directed for the stage, as artist in residence for the Headlands Centre for the Arts and the LAB, in San Fransisco. Leroy Bach, of Wilco, worked with Smith on Fruitvale, as did David Hilliard (David Byrne), Matthew Lux (Azita) and singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O`Conner and Edith Frost.
Chuck Prophet heard some of Sonny Smith`s work and liked it so much he released Fruitvale on his (((Belle Sound))) label last month. Chuck said that "the characters in Sonny's songs are so real, don't be surprised if they crawl out of your speakers and bum your last smoke off you. I wouldn't wish running a label on my worst enemy. Sonny is so good I had no choice". I got the chance to quiz Sonny about his album amongst other things last week;
How's things Sonny?
Today I am safe.
When did you first start playing songs and telling stories?
About 18 I guess, I was flunking out of college, ditching class to play piano and write poetry. Horrible poetry.
How did you hook up with (((Belle Sound)))?
I sent Chuck a demo `cause he was asking about me opening at some big gig I can't remember now. He really liked it.
How was the recording process for Fruitvale, it became a long distance affair, didn't it ?
Tedious. With little spurts of magic here and there. I tried to approach it like I was writing a novel such as 'Dreams of Bunker Hill' or 'Tortilla Flat'. I guess there's usually a guitar around, and some kind of character I'm working with. What happens is they all swirl together. My plays are more like big long songs. My songs are sometimes like plays with characters and dialogue. They're all kind of the same medium to me.
Should all drugs be legalised?
Tell me about your short film, Kid Gus Man..............
It was my first and only film so far. It's nothing great but it was a great thing to do. Directors deserve a lot of respect. It's a hard job. Editing was the hardest part though. It was a lonely neurotic job. The actual shooting of the film was much more satisfying. If I could be anything I would be a film director in the '30's. The kind that went from shoot to shoot and had nothing to do with the editing or the post production. That would have been a thrill.
What are your interests outside of music?
I have been going to the ocean a lot. I bought a wetsuit. I like to just swim around. I bought Ed Rickets' ( "Doc" of Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row' ) book of pacific tides. I've been trying to identify stuff in some of the tide pools down south of SF. Mostly I can tell a starfish from a mussel so far. I've re-modeled my little camper for this purpose.
Must be nice to have the ocean close by. Reminds me of living in Brighton. Which artists interest you most?
Novelists seem to the most. I like to read about them. Kerouac, Brautigan, Miller, Bukowski, Jean Genet, Celine, Burroughs. All these guys that lived outside the norm. They were all criminals. Thieves, degenerates, liars, cheaters, junkies or queers (when that was criminal). Or all of these. Or in the case of Kerouac it was just their writing styles that was the most rule breaking aspect of them. Outlaws I guess you might say.
Have you read Chronicles? What did you make of it? I particularly liked the story about making the album in New Orleans, especially that bike ride he took........................
That's the one and only chapter I opened up into and read. Wouldn't it be nice to order a Harley or a Norton or whatever he got and have it sent to your studio whenever you hit a creative wall and go on a ride for a few days. What a lucky prick.
Yeah, looking at it that way, it`s a rare luxury. I have an albino donkey I hit the road on when my well dries up. Tell me some stuff about Packard Jennings?
He's very socially conscious. Some work of his always oriented towards big brother or credit card scams or insurance stuff. He's very specific with his critiques.
What about Dark Hand Lamplight?
Saw her open for Bonnie Billy. She draws while her mate sings southern gothic tales. She draws out the story and it is projected onto a wall with that same gizmo your math teacher probably used in highschool. It's very old fashioned cinematic. It made me think of what it might be like to be at one of the first movies. A silent movie with a live piano player. Storytelling should be simple. People complicate it.
That sounds really interesting, I like the idea a lot. You mentioned Sister Madalene. Does she do transatlantic healing? I could use her worry- soothing touch when my donkey gets stubborn...
She probably does anything for money. She is a palmreader. I'm into dime store mysticism; palmreading, psychic healing, fortune telling, tarot, esp, hypnosis. I've been writing about it a lot. I think they're all onto something, but in varying degrees. Some of them have actual connections but they're crooks before they are spiritualists. Others are complete phony's of course.
Apart from calls of nature, what makes you get up, get dressed and scrape the sleep out of your eyes?
My 3 year old kid.
That's a fine reason, I have to ask this final question Sonny, its becoming a tradition, the Devil, is he all bad?
Yes he's most definitely all bad.
Ok, well thanks Sonny, another tick in the all bad column. I hope to see some film work of yours out on the screen, and, maybe some gigs in the UK or Europe would be cool too. With Dark Hand Lamplight and Sister Madalane on the bill. Its been a real pleasure, my man.............
Chase up Sonny Smith on his website and buy Fruitvale at (((belle sound)). Also available at all good music emporiums, as well as some not so good. Thanks to Sonny Smith and (((Belle Sound))) CEO Chuck Prophet. And the donkey.
Paul Hawkins has been interested in popular culture and music, protest and survival for as long as we can remember. He began writing about things, making music and other noise at an early age. Paul has interviewed musicians, writers, poets, protestors and artists.