Catching up with San Francisco’s Sunset man
While the pandemic shutdown of 2020 stifled the creativity of many artists, San Francisco’s Sonny Smith stayed busy writing and recording his own music, as well as producing albums for the artists on his Rocks In Your Head label.
His new album, Self-Awareness Through Macrame, started coming together at the Headlands Art Center in Marin, the same place he made his first pandemic album, New Day with New Possibilities. He set up a small studio, turned on his 8-track and let the creative process unfold.
“I went up there with [bass player] Josiah Flores and [drummer] Ava Lynch to start playing around with no agenda,” Smith explained. “We were wearing masks when we recorded, but the momentum got a bit sidetracked by COVID. As people slowly went back to normal life, we got overwhelmed by a backlog of work, so it took longer to complete the project then in past years. My plate was full with [Rocks In Your Head] label stuff and building a house. It took a while to get things finished, but it was more about psychic bandwidth, then the actual physical time. When you have too much going on in your mind, you can’t make much progress.
“I didn’t have a dedicated studio, but in this day and age, you can do so much with a tape machine. We recorded on 8-track tape first. When we exhausted all the tracks on the tape, I dumped it onto a computer to add overdubs. I’ve been trying to make all the songs eight tracks or under. It’s a mysterious process for me. What kinds of songs will come out, rock’n’roll or country? I tend to oscillate between those two traditions.
“I write the songs, but we create the arrangements together. I don’t delegate what I want them to play, we just see what comes out and shape it from there. We’re all fairly free about things. Josiah and Ava organically bringing their own sound to the sessions and a lot of their outlook is contained in the songs. I seek out musicians who have a lot of personality in their playing. I don’t see the value in musicians that make perfect music, like the session players in Nashville. I never enjoyed that. If I map things out, and hire guys to lay what I map out, it would be like coloring by numbers. There wouldn’t be much surprise or excitement. I like the discovery and magic that happens in music. I like people that sound like real imperfect humans, not always perfectly in tune, or on time, but executing things with feeling. My music is handmade, a warts and all kind of music.”
Most of the songs on Self-Awareness Through Macrame are delivered in short two-minute bursts of rhythmic and lyrical exhilaration.
“I try to trim the fat and get to the heart of the matter,” Smith said. “The music I love the most is short and to the point, with no extended endings and short, if any, guitar solos. I love old 60s songs, so I aspire to make songs like that, when I can.”
Smith succeeds in that goal, with eight pop gems that explore his usual subjects of heartache, mortality and the quest for happiness. Flores provides a rolling bassline to compliment Smith’s despondent organ fills on “Waiting.” Smith sings lead in a voice full of yeaning, as he describes his dreams of deliverance, perhaps from the pandemic or the normal stasis of ordinary life. “Shadows” is a quiet mid-tempo rocker that contemplates death, with an ironic grace. The catchy chorus ends with uplifting harmony vocals supplied by Tahlia Harbour, who recorded her parts in Australia and sent them along via email. Smith starts “Pink Cake” on an ambivalent note, happily eating a birthday cake his mother gave him in the back of a cab, knowing that he’s going home to an empty apartment. A strummed acoustic and an uplifting bass line help to mitigate the resignation of the chorus: “I know I’m a burden, I’m so uncertain…” Harbour’s wordless vocal ornamentations supply a bit of light to the proceedings.
The album closer, “How To Make a Ceramic Dog,” is more elevating, a talking blues about making gifts for friends during the COVID shutdown. “That song had a long journey. I had a melody, but no words or rhythm to go with it. Ava came up with a new drum beat and it took on a new personality. I started making ceramic dogs for friends during the pandemic. They were a big hit, so I was thinking about making a how-to manual about making them. I was looking over the notes I made about the process and they rose up from my subconscious in the recording process and became the lyrics of the song.”
Self-Awareness Through Macrame will be released on Smith’s Rocks in Your Head label, via his Bandcamp page. He just got back from his album release tour with WITCH (We Intend To Cause Havoc), a Zambian Afro-psychedelic band that was big in the 70s and recently reformed.
AUDIO: WITCH “Lazy Bones”
“They’ve been touring the U.S. again, so I jumped on their ship for five dates, to play a record release tour,” he explains. “I also play anonymously in dive bars with my country band, but a lot of time is taken up with Rocks in Your Head. I run the label with my wife. She’s the board of directors. I was attracted by a DIY ethos. I’ve been on small labels and major labels, but it was a mystery how labels worked. I also wanted to champion other artists, not just put out my own music. I’ve accomplished that. We put out the self-titled album by Fake Fruit and they’ve thrived. We also produced the debut album for Country Risqué. They bill themselves as the Queerest country band in San Francisco and we just released The New Country Sounds of Ryan Wong. Ryan’s Chinese-American and this is his first country record. It’s exciting to have country music performed in voices other than the voices of white men from the South.”
Self-Awareness Through Macrame can be found on Smith’s Bandcamp page.
You can see Sonny and his band at the OFF Beat Music Festival in Reno, NV on October 6th, the Lytton Plaza in Palo Alto on October 7th, the U.C. Botanical Garden Redwood Grove Amphitheater in Berkeley on October 8th and the Shit Art Club, 130 East 4th St, Los Angeles, on October 28th.
AUDIO: Sonny Smith Self-Awareness Through Macrame (full album)