Fruitvale's Mayor Emeritus

Sonny Smith pens intriguing tales of his city

Throughout history, greatness has arisen from downright crappy situations. Ludwig von Beethoven was losing his hearing while he composed incredible string quartets. Neil Young's friends overdosed, inspiring his iconic bummer Tonight's the Night. Sonny Smith was rent-exiled from San Francisco, driven to the Fruitvale section of Oakland in search of affordable digs. While some songwriters might spin woe-is-me tales from that latter situation, Smith's rather dysfunctional digs affected him positively. A singular CD arose from the sojourn: Fruitvale. It's Smith's second disc, out on the Belle Sound label founded by Bay Area performer Chuck Prophet. Fruitvaleis an audio novel brimming with sweetly shambling tunes and compassionate perspectives on fractured East Bay humanity.

Sonny Smith comes by these expressive inclinations naturally. He was raised by S.F. beats, intellectual bohemians with an ear for music and an eye for the cutting-edge American literature of Jack Kerouac. Smith is inspired by the printed page, from writer Richard Brautigan to Marvel comics and Robert Crumb. He admits he's a "comic book nerd," but adds, "I always dreamed of being a novelist, doing the all-American novel. I always think of myself as a writer more than a songwriter. I've been writing plays all along and am working on one now."

A playwright's eye for intimate detail makes Fruitvale fascinating. The area's colorful residents — the tall Latino drag queen, a sad waitress, the neighborhood pimp ("he was the nicest guy around, too"), a ruthless enforcer of law and order — populate the tracks. "I'd see all these people and I wondered what their lives might be like," Smith says. "Their stories came out of that." But how does a narrative-oriented writer turn his fictions into song? "I'd be writing, then I'd take a break, pick up my guitar and play, go back to typing, and found myself singing while writing," explains Smith. "After a while, I found I had [the basis for] several songs."

Sonny Smith serenades the East Bay.
Tibor Bozi
Sonny Smith serenades the East Bay.

Musically, Sonny Smith has more in common with old-school songwriter iconoclasts Loudon Wainwright III (padre of Rufus) and Randy Newman (hear his magnificent album Good Old Boys, a favorite of Smith's) than most indie rock, although "Private Dick" features a bit of bracing dissonance. While his voice can take on a gauzy quality, Smith projects a rough-hewn, quirky intonation.

Fruitvale was recorded in S.F. and Chicago, the sessions produced by Leroy Bach (Wilco), who was smitten with Smith's songs after seeing him live. Some of Chicago's indie-scene finest also assisted Smith in realizing his opus: singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor, and Edith Frost, bassist Matthew Lux, and drummer/engineer Graeme Gibson. Commenting on the Fruitvale sessions, Lux opines, "I think the record is a masterpiece. He is also a very stylish dresser."

Smith's own musical faves impact his music, albeit rather covertly. He mentions affection for R&B vocal groups circa late 1950s/early '60s (raving about the Falcons' "I Found a Love," featuring Wilson Pickett), the Minutemen, Thelonious Monk, and Thee Headcoats. These disparate performers share a common element, namely, compactness in conveying a message. Smith's songs underscore his sharpness as a storyteller. Instead of offering tunes that simply rattle through your head for a couple of spins, Fruitvale vividly introduces characters. Maybe they're not ones you'd want over for dinner, but damn, they're memorable. Finishing this Sonny Smith record feels like setting down a good book.

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