Sonny Smith: Rock 'n' Roll Poet, with Qualms

It's an immaculate summer day, and we are interrupting Sonny Smith. He's sitting under an umbrella at Dolores Park Cafe, eating a cup of yogurt he'd been carrying in his pocket, trying to answer a question about whether being signed to the respected indie label Fat Possum makes his life and work any easier. "I would assume so, but I don't really know," he says, somewhat unhelpfully. A fire engine suddenly dumps a huge quantity of water nearby on 18th Street, and Smith is fully wowed for a moment by the deluge. Behind his thick-rimmed sunglasses and olive-drab Army blouse, he is polite and thoughtful, but reserved. He's been preparing to go on tour, which means budgeting and booking flights and renting vans. He doesn't like doing that kind of stuff. He seems to like sitting down for interviews only a smidgen more. "Maybe the irony of success — it's a big plot to keep you from being creative," he muses. "I can kind of see why people who get successful get less and less prolific. Maybe it's because they're on book tours and television shows and they're in airports and they're on airplanes and they're doing that all day rather than just grinding it out."

Indeed, if there is one thing Smith does like, it's grinding it out. He is amazingly prolific, even by contemporary standards: Last year, he completed his 100 Records project, which consisted of creating 100 fictional singles by fictional bands with matching fictional artwork. He then gathered compatriots from the local music scene to record and release two collections of those no-longer-fictional songs. Simultaneously, he wrote and recorded the material for Hit After Hit, a new album with his longtime band, the Sunsets. This kind of always-on creativity, and the Sunsets' bare rock 'n' roll sound, have helped make the 38-year-old Smith a deeply respected oddity in San Francisco. Rather than adventuring with sonics, his focus is crafting songs. And while many of his works wield the jaunty, carefree energy of early rock, the strange stories in their lyrics carry themes of loss, regret, and the anticipation and fear of death.

Like his idol, Jonathan Richman, Smith is a poet at heart. You get the feeling that he writes songs like "I Wanna Do It," the first single off of Hit After Hit, as a compulsion: The tune unfolds into a comfortable major-key strut, like some oldie about teenage love. But listening to the lyrics reveals that the "it" in the song's title is a self-inflicted end. "I'm going to walk to the sea/I'm going to jump right in," Smith sings, and you can just barely hear pangs of heartache in his dry, deflated-sounding vocals. "Reflections on Youth" feels upbeat, too, but as the title hints, it's a meditation on losing touch with your childhood. The darkness in these songs is rendered biting and clever, hinting at the void all around rather than reveling in it. When Smith titles a brief instrumental song "The Bad Energy from L.A. Is Killing Me," you want to chuckle at first — but then wonder if there's some way he could be serious.

Smith loves the cheap guitar he's had since he was 18.
Smith loves the cheap guitar he's had since he was 18.

At the cafe, our conversation veers toward Smith's current project: recording a country album. His songs have long shown country influences — his dad played banjo in an old-timey string band — but this new record, Smith says, will be full-on country with pedal steel. Why do that now? "Heartbreak," he responds curtly. "You know, female trouble." We wait a few seconds to see if he will elaborate. He doesn't.

Musicwise, Smith has a lot to be happy about. But although he's careful not to complain, he seems deeply ambivalent about his success. He's quick to note that he was booked at the high-profile Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago before he got signed to Fat Possum. He is revolted by the intersection of commerce and art in music, and resentful of the time that business concerns take away from creative projects. Sonny and the Sunsets are touring in Europe and, for the first time, Australia — but when Smith quips that he may have to find a day job when he returns, he isn't kidding. One bright spot: His upcoming show at Great American Music Hall will be his biggest so far in his hometown, and he has invited some of his favorite bands from up and down the West Coast to fill out the bill. "It's make or break," he jokes darkly. "If we don't do well, maybe they'll send us back down to the opening slot."

The weather on this gorgeous day seems to be lifting the singer's spirits a bit. Smith finally has some free time ahead of him, and we can guess how he'll spend it. A perfect morning, he says, is spent waking up, sitting at his desk in his pajamas, and putting a song together with the cheap Kalamazoo guitar he's owned since he was 18. "You can lose just a couple of hours — nothing huge, nothing crazy or mythical — just lose yourself writing a song," he says, brightening visibly at the thought. "I like that process more than anything else." At that, we bring our interruption to an end.

 
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