Sonny Smith is one of the Bay Area’s most creative artists. His innovative approach has produced plays, paintings and 14 albums since he launched his career. His most recent effort, New Day With New Possibilities, is a country record full of insightful lyrics and captivating melodies. The record is credited to Sonny and the Sunsets, although the band is more concept than fact.
“These days, the Sunsets are a pretty small, flexible group of disparate personalities,” Smith said. “The last few years, I’ve had smaller and smaller groups. I’ve enjoyed working with one multi-instrumentalist-type person and maybe an engineer, as opposed to a whole band. I’ll call my friend Rusty Miller and tell him I have songs to work on and promise him a little money. He comes over to whatever studio I have going and helps flesh things out. He can play everything. He listens to the song, and we work it out like a crossword puzzle.”
Smith had planned to put aside music and concentrate on painting, but when he set up a studio space, upbeat country songs started coming to him, despite the Covid lockdown. “I don’t usually choose a style,” Smith said. “Things come out the way they come, when I begin writing. A song comes out country, or a little more post garage-ish, or whatever. After a few songs arrive, I can see that there’s a pattern emerging, or a direction. Then, I embrace that direction and exploit it. After a few country, folkish songs came out, I thought, ‘Okay, yes. I have a country record on my hands.’ Why not take it all a little further and add pedal steel and such, deliberately embellish the record with some country stylings?”
Joe Goldmark played pedal steel on the album. He’s another musician with a singular sound, adding elements of rock, soul, R&B and pop to his steel arrangements. “I went to Joe’s house, practically wearing a Hazmat suit,” Smith said. “It was like going into Chernobyl to get a pedal-steel track. He made up his own pedal-steel parts. He’s an artist. The lines are melodic, and his timing and technique are flawless.”
The songs Smith wrote for New Day pulse with a melancholy magic, perfectly suited for these trying times. “The Lonely Men” opens the record on a somber note. Smith’s quiet vocal and acoustic guitar are steeped in a sadness intensified by Goldmark’s tearful pedal steel and Miller’s subtle percussion accents. “Driftin’ Away” is another heartbreaker. Smith’s downcast delivery and the moaning pedal steel deliver a mid-tempo tune that could be contemplating the end of a relationship, or mortality itself. “I’m a Dog” has a country backbeat, but a twangy electric-guitar lead line providing a musical lift to another tale of a love gone wrong.
Smith released the album on the label he started three years ago, Rocks in Your Head. He hopes to make it a home for the Bay Area’s creative independent rockers. “I’m not totally sure why I created Rocks in Your Head,” he said. “Maybe because I never felt like I had a proper home with the labels I was on. They had their good points, but I didn’t feel like I was part of a family. So I guess I started my own family.
“There’s not a lot of money in music and the arts. It’s hard for people to be in bands and do this night work once the shit hits the fan; as in kids and house payments. San Francisco has never been great for artists. Look at what runs cities, what are the huge buildings in cities doing? They aren’t full of artists. They’re full of capitalists.”
Rocks in Your Head mirrors the eclectic approach Smith takes in his own music. “I have a lot of disparate projects coming up,” he said. “That makes it harder for people to understand the label, because people look for specific definitions in things. That label does jangly pop, that label does country. People want to compartmentalize things, but this label is going to be random and unpredictable.”
In keeping with that ethos, Smith will present a Rocks in Your Head Christmas Bash, on Dec. 12, at the Balboa Theater. The bands on the bill are Fake Fruit, Juice Bumps, Buzzed Lightbeer and Thank You Come Again. Fake Fruit is the only act currently on the label, but Smith said every act is outrageous in its own way. “Juice Bumps does some high-concept shit on stage. Buzzed Lightbeer is let-it-all-hang-out garage rock. Fake Fruit has a stellar post-punk thing going on and Thank You Come Again is pure energy. Three of the bands are fronted by women. Like maybe everyone else, I’m fatigued by bands with four or five white dudes in it. I want to get behind new, stimulating things. We have lots of interesting releases coming up, one is astrologist Jessica Lanyadoo and one from Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s poet laureate.”