You'd think that the guy who dreamed up a massive art project, one that involves writing and recording more than 100 songs and organizing a wide swath of artists to design the attendant 7-inch sleeves, would be an intense audiophile. Which is why it's surprising that the Sunset District apartment Sonny Smith shares with his girlfriend and their 6-year-old son contains only roughly 80 records, a number rivaled by the spread of crayons on the pint-sized art table.
"There is an aspect where I was feeling like I was making a big, fake Harry Smith anthology, so that's kind of audiophilelike," Smith says. "I have an appreciation for the details of musical history. You would imagine that I was an avid record collector or something, but I'm really not."
For an undertaking as ambitious as it's turned out to be, Smith's 100 Records — a musical art exhibit that will be at Gallery 16 from April 9 to May 14 — had a fairly humble genesis. The 37-year-old dabbler, whose CV includes writing, filmmaking, playwriting, and, of course, songwriting, had embarked on his second stint at the Headlands Center for the Arts, which offered Smith a five-week residency to work on some music and sketches to accompany a novel that he'd just written. Inspired by friends, jobs, and his various experiences as a musician, the book contained characters whom Smith wanted to summon with songs. He figured he'd also include some of their made-up album covers inside the novel. But almost immediately after getting to Marin, the project began to evolve and expand, with Smith asking fellow residents if they wanted to assist with the artwork.
"One of [the Center's] desires is for artists to be affected by each other, to inform each other, and to possibly collaborate, and that's exactly what happened," Smith says. "Paul Wackers was one of the first ones [to contribute to the project]. It was such a good piece of work, and a real record cover, that it kind of bumped up the whole game. I realized I wanted the songs to be more elaborate."
As the idea for 100 Records came into focus, Smith's interest in the novel itself began to wane, and he shelved it during its second draft. It would be tough for many writers to walk away from 180 pages of blood, sweat, and tears, but the storytelling-becoming-songwriting formula is familiar for Smith. The first songs he wrote in his early 20s came out of noodling on his guitar while writing screenplays. In 2005, he turned a batch of one-act plays into One Act Plays, a celebrated album featuring Mark Eitzel, Miranda July, Neko Case, and other notables. So without regret, Smith closed the original chapter and opened up a more ambitious one.
"When I was writing the novel, I was actually kind of burnt out on music," says Smith, who admits that the two years he devoted to making his 2006 solo album, Fruitvale, took their toll. "I was trying to write the Great American Novel, and little by little it segued into music."
For the past year, Smith has been adding fake band names, singers, songs, and record labels to a spreadsheet that at the time of our interview — a month before the exhibit's opening night — included 102 records. (With a project this big, it's good to have a backup plan. Smith admits that he won't be bothered if 100 Records ends up having, say, only 98 pieces.) Artists such as Rex Ray, Mingering Mike, and Chris Johanson picked a single to design, which sent Smith on his way to breathe life into songs like Transients' "Put Yourself in My Place" and Loud Fast Fools' "Fuck You Leaders."
"If you look at them, they're supposed to read kind of like poetry," Smith says, while skimming over the list of song titles. "'Put Yourself in My Place,' 'Let's Stick Together,' 'The Living Flame,' 'Life Ain't Clear.' A lot of the songs feel like little thoughts to me. A lot of the political titles, I listen to [Democracy Now! cohost] Amy Goodman every morning and I'll just be like, 'Fuck you, leaders.' I really love that show, so I often get ideas from there."
At one point, Smith was gunning for 200 songs to accompany the 100 covers, but he's since scaled back. Now he's just making sure each single is represented by an A- or B-side. (Just to set the, um, record straight, there aren't really 100 little slabs of vinyl being used in the making of 100 Records. It's too costly to actually press up all of those singles. Turn Up Records plans to release a limited-edition set of five split 7-inches, and Empty Cellar has already signed up to release a 7-inch of its own, but for the most part the only "records" people will see are the hand-drawn ones that artists included inside their sleeves.)
The musical styles are all over the map, from the reggae of Walter "The Goat" Riconda to the doo-wop of Little Antoine & the Sparrows, and of course there's plenty of the garage rock that Smith makes these days with Sonny & the Sunsets. Recording assistance came from the Sunsets as well as Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer, and the Sandwitches' Heidi Alexander and Grace Cooper — who represent two different eras of a long-lost singer named Earth Girl Helen Brown.
"We had a blast," says Kelley Stoltz, the local singer-songwriter who also plays drums in the Sunsets. "You just sort of wing it. If you took 20 minutes per song, you wouldn't get enough accomplished, so it was decide on a tempo and record, pretty much. Stuff was out of tune and a couple mistakes were left in, but the spirit of the sessions was so beautiful and so truly about making music."
100 Records is also loaded with humor, as evidenced by the bios that will accompany the artwork at Gallery 16. (For a sneak preview, visit www.turnuprecords.com/100records.) Smith has given all of the musicians a backstory. The Transients, for instance, include a guy who created a religion for a community-college creative-writing class and the three sisters who thought it was real and eventually married their leader. The exhibit will also feature a jukebox designed by Smith that plays all of the corresponding songs. For collectors, the gallery is publishing a limited-edition box of 12 signed prints with a CD, and the original pieces will also be on sale. And just to make sure he's taken this whole fake-band thing as far as he can — as Smith says, he hopes attendees will feel like they're in another world — he's booked a show at the Knockout on opening night for Loud Fast Fools. Never mind that they don't really exist.
With plans already in place to exhibit 100 Records in Austin; Portland, Ore.; and back at the Headlands, 2010 should prove to be one heck of a year for the man who dreams big so we don't have to.