San Francisco singer-songwriter Sonny Smith has always taken a character-driven approach to his music. In fact, he began his music career while working on a screenplay for a movie, turning dialogue and plot structure into songs. He often assumes the persona of a fictional character, or features guest singers as characters in his songs.
So it wasn’t a huge stretch when Smith was attempting to write a novel last year that incorporated fictionalized musicians that then tempted him to think about what their album covers might look like, and songs might sound like. He thought it’d be cool to write fictional songs for the fictional characters, and applied for and received a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts to pursue the idea. He assigned a couple of the covers to artists who were also at the Headlands at the time, but soon realized his sketches weren’t sufficient. “I can’t have rough sketches and one really incredible piece,” he recalled. Likewise, the songs couldn’t be rough either. “So that’s where it quickly went to the next level from my original idea, what I was thinking it was going to be,” he said. “The novel got shelved immediately because once I got artists to work on the record cover it wasn’t hard to see that this was the project.”
Fitting with Smith’s ambitious nature, he decided to commission 100 different record covers and write 200 songs (two per record). A little more than a year after starting the project, Smith will celebrate the finished 100 Records project with a show at Gallery 16 (501 3rd St., San Francisco), which displays the art until May 31. The opening reception happens Friday, April 9, from 6 to 9 p.m. A jukebox will spin all 200 songs and Smith will perform with his band, the Sunsets.
Smith says that, for the most part, he kept the art-making and songwriting processes separate. He supplied the artists a list of the fictional bands he created and the names of their albums. After the artists chose their album title to illustrate, Smith would simultaneously go about writing the songs on his own. “More often than not, they really work well together.”
Contrary to what one might envision, Smith said he didn’t come up with band names based upon genres. “I tried to not fall into some sort of cliché where it’s, like, here’s my reggae band, here’s my country band. … I would come up with a band name like the Fuckaroos — they kinda sound like some sort of janky Sir Douglas Quintet band — a little rough around the edges.” In tandem, he’d also write short bios for them. (The Fuckaroos started in 1968 in Cincinnati.) Then when he started recording songs, it would become obvious which band it was for.
Naturally, some bands were more inspiring than others. For example, Smith said he wrote a whole album’s worth of material for Zig Speck and the Specktones — but had a harder time writing for Connie’s Superette Crew. None of the bands were extreme deviations from Smith’s “safe zone,” except for Walter “the Goat” — a “Jamaican dude” he imagined once part of Lee Scratch Perry‘s Black Ark, who relocated to Cambodia. “I was trying to come up with the freakiest weird music that would fit this guy’s storyline,” said Smith. “I won’t reveal what I did, but I think I pulled it off.”
Smith wrote all of the material, and enlisted musicians to help him record, including Rusty Miller, James Finch, Kelley Stoltz, and others; guests included Tim Cohen from the Fresh and Onlys, Ty Segall, the Sandwitches, and (still to be recorded) Bart Davenport. At least three box sets are planned to be released in the next four or five months, said Smith, but not all songs will be available. After all, “they’re not all hits.”
Despite the ambitiousness of 100 Records, Smith says he already has another project in mind. He wants to do an installation of the album-making process called “Record Plant,” which would include everything from initial songwriting to a trip to the lawyer’s office. Patrons would order a song, an artist would make the record cover, Smith would write the song, and the end product would be purchasable. “That could be fun,” he surmised. “If I get through this, I’ll do that.”
Benefit Show for MRR’s Bruce Roehrs
Some local punk bands are helping to raise funds for the memorial of longtime Maximum Rock N Roll columnist Bruce Roehrs, who passed away on March 13. Texas Thieves, Sharp Objects, Ruleta Rusa, and Bad Tickers will play a show on Friday, April 2, at Thee Parkside. Roehrs’ memorial service will be held Friday, April 9, at the Columbarium (1 Loraine Ct., San Francisco) from 1 to 4 p.m. A show at Thee Parkside will follow.
1320 Records, the label founded by STS9, will hold its first showcase event called 1320.SF, on Thursday, April 1, at Temple. The event aims to highlight local electronic artists like the Flying Skulls and Savage Henry. … California Americana musicians will gather for the First California Telecaster Summit at Cafe du Nord on Friday, April 2. Celebrating the twangy sound of the Fender guitar will be Jesse Jay Harris, 77 El Deora, Merle Jagger, and East Bay Grease.