Listen Up: Sonny Smith (and the Sunsets too)

It was late 2000. I was soon to leave San Francisco, where I had lived seven years. Carrie Bradley’s band 100 Watt Smile was playing at Café du Nord. Someone by the name of Sonny Smith, who I had never heard of, was also playing. I was tired and didn’t want to hear two shows; I just wanted to hear Carrie and her band. But since I didn’t know who was playing first, I showed up early, awkwardly early. Then someone started playing who flung all the gloom and exhaustion out of me. The music had a languorous funk-rap feel (which he soon departed from), and his mordant, playful words spilled out like relaxed magic.

After his set and before 100 Watt Smile, I ran up to Carrie and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left, and there he was. I felt so awkward I couldn’t say anything more. But that was okay. I have never met a musician who doesn’t understand awkwardness at all. Later we collaborated on a project. But more about that later.

The songs he sang that night are mostly on his early album who’s the monster… you or me? which isn’t available online. I have it on CD but wouldn’t upload it; I think he would have done so if he wanted to. He has so many albums and projects at this point that it’s hard to do them any kind of justice. Others have written about him well, though, so I’ll take a little of their help. For instance, in a San Francisco Weekly article from January 2001, David Cook writes about the song “Pass the Wine” (one of my favorites to this day) and others. The article begins:

“The secret of writing is in the rhythm of urgency,” noted Jack Kerouac. No Bay Area songwriter understands that principle better than Sonny Smith. His peculiar lyrics pour out in a cascade of images, conjuring crazy characters such as Officer Scalletti, who was “killed by an iron hurled by the lover of his wife/ Who bleached her hair and pierced her tongue for the funeral”; darling, dipsomaniac Molly, “swinging a neon series Louisville Slugger/ Bat chin just a little bit higher than a rave rat’s/ Chance of pulling up his pants”; and Frank, who chased Molly to Dublin but preached “this whole boy meets girl/ Boy gets girl/ Boy loses girl/ Boy spends all his money chasing girl around the world is overrated.”

The amazing thing is that Smith writes the songs almost as quickly as he raps them at local clubs and bars. “It’s like having to tell somebody about these things that happened,” he says of his songs. “You’re just telling somebody really fast, like a little kid telling his mom, and you can’t even get it all out, you can’t possibly do it all justice.” Combining these urgent raps with an authentic funk/blues beat, Smith’s music is as natural sounding as it is unique.

Sonny’s creative energy and bounty breaks norms. By 2000, some of my favorite bands were slowing down or breaking up. Some had been disappointed by the false (or at least contradictory) promises of the 1990s, when indie music seemed to be catching on and so many musicians seemed within a few inches of “making it.” Many musicians reject the conditions for such success: the excessive focus on publicity, the grueling (and sometimes poorly matched) tours, the record deals that fall through or turn out to be ripoffs, the big career breaks that carry some embarrassment along with them.

But Sonny was on his own roll. Playing, writing, mischief-making. Taking new directions and new projects. I’ll get to those in a minute. But first, it would be wrong to go any further without giving you one of his early songs. Here is “Way to Go,” from his beautiful, low-key album This Is My Story, This Is My Song (2002). Just listen to what happens at each stage of this song. The guitar, the backing vocals, the piano, the humming, the way the lyrics go into your own life and out to the lives of others.

there was a red bird flying
above a black-top road
there was a pinto trying
to pass a motor home
there was a woman singing
on the radio
there was a long, long way to go

Yes, so when I was living briefly in Tucson, I contacted Sonny, imagining he might have some stories to contribute to my new literary journal, Sí Señor. He replied by sending me ten or so. (There were many more to come.) They needed some touching up, so I offered to edit them. He accepted (and liked the edits). So there we were. Sí Señor had catapulted into near-existence. While the first issue was still underway, I moved to NYC, gathered more writing and art, put it all together, sent it off to the printer, and planned the inaugural event, which would consist of a reading and a music performance. Sonny came out to NYC to play. Jack Rabid’s band played too. It was terrific fun.

The music part of the event was at a tiny club with a tiny stage and a long bar. People at the bar were talking loudly, and at one point Sonny (in the middle of his set) told them to shut up. A friend grumbled to me that he shouldn’t have done that, that if people aren’t paying attention, it’s the performer’s fault, but I disagreed and still disagree. Sometimes people come to a club to talk, not to listen to the music. That isn’t fair on the musicians or the people who are there to listen. Sonny was right to say something. That reminds me of the one and only time I went to hear Vic Chesnutt (opening for Bob Mould). We were all standing around. He said, “Sit y’all asses down.” No one moved. He said it again, and we sat down, and the room became hushed and focused. It was a gorgeous show. But back to Sonny.

At this point I am going to get the chronology a bit mixed up, because various projects overlapped, and each one came in stages. I probably have old emails that could point me to precise dates, but they are stored on old computers, which are locked away in storage in NYC. Anyway, a few years after the Sí Señor event (he played at another one too), Sonny won a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts (in Sausalito) and was staging his project One Act Plays (an album of songs that were just that: one-act plays in the form of songs). It was through this that I first met the voice of Jolie Holland. Here’s one of my favorites, “Donkey Killed the Crow” (featuring Peggy Honeywell, Andy Cabic, and Holland):

I believe Sonny released One-Act Plays at least twice: first on his own, and then through a label. The performance at the Headlands must have happened in between the two. My sister, my friend Igor, and I went to see it. It was terrific and historic, and afterwards Sonny threw a rollerskating party on the premises. (My sister can rollerskate; I can’t, but I enjoyed watching people go round and round. The DJs were skilled too, skating into the DJ booth, spinning a well-chosen record, rejoining the skating flow.)

I’m pretty sure that the 100 Records project also came out of the Headlands residency. (There had been a few other releases in the meantime.) For this project, he made up a hundred band names and two song titles (an A side and a B side) for each band’s 45 record. A hundred artists then created the album covers, which were given an art exhibit, and Sonny then wrote the 200 songs (his goal was to step into the minds of these fictional bands). He and the artists worked more or less independently, yet the combination clicked. Just poke through Volume 3 to get a sense of the versatility here. And watch the video below to see the gallery and hear Sonny talk about the project.

Around this time, Sonny formed the band Sonny & the Sunsets, who have had a “revolving-door cast” of members (or, as Sonny puts it, “a pretty small, flexible group of disparate personalities”) but have kept on going to this day (and will soon be touring Spain). His description of the band: “Sonny & the Sunsets are a beautiful west coast thing. Birthed from the sand, the surf, and twilight campfires down in Ocean Beach, Sonny & the Sunsets’ busted beach-pop songs spark recollections of doo wop’s otherworldly despair, a dose of goofball humor from the Michael Hurley school, and positive possibilities exuded by Jonathan Richman.” I couldn’t have said it better (or as well).

I heard them play live once, in 2015 (I think), in an out-of-the-way Brooklyn warehouse. The first band was terrible (ear-splitting, uninteresting stuff), the second much more interesting, and then when Sonny & the Sunsets came on, the place was packed, people were singing along, and they played one heck of a show.

I’ll introduce just a few of their songs here. Oh, by the way, in 2018 Sonny founded a record label, Rocks in Your Head Records. They have about eleven releases at this point. (They are under no pressure; they put out music when they want to.) One of their recent releases is the 2021 album At the Time I Didn’t Care by Virgil Shaw, one of my favorite musicians from the Bay Area. Listen to “Wish You Had Come.”

But before this gets much too long, let’s hear the Sunsets. First, from their 2010 album Tomorrow Is Alright, here’s their hit song “Too Young to Burn,” in a fantastic live performance by Sonny Smith, Old Light, and others. I love this video because the musicians are having such a great time. Also, the song’s a classic now.

Jumping ahead nine years, here’s “Someday I’d Like to be an Artist” from their Hairdressers from Heaven album. I like the music’s upbeat, dreamy moroseness, the ambiguity of the lyrics (they seem part satirical, part something else). And the instrumentation is rich and sparse (piano, violin, vocals, bass, drums, handclaps, keyboards, background conversations, etc.).

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
write in my notebook in my bed and listen to the rain
think about the way things could be
and how things really are
wake up from my dreamin with a work of art in my arms

give myself away, give myself away, give myself away,
everyday…

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
sit at the bar and talk to the other artists all about art
talk about the world and know that it all falls apart
give myself away, give myself away, give myself away

Now I come to a difficult choice. One more song. (After all, you can browse their repertoire and read more about them whenever you want.) Let it be “The Letter,” the last song on their wonderful 2021 album, New Day with New Possibilities. Dear Sonny & the Sunsets, whoever you may be right now, I hope you keep hearing and playing new possibilities for years to come, and I wish you a great tour in Spain. One day, come to Budapest and play a show with you-know-who! Until then, keep on doing what you do. And diverging from it too. Sincerely, Diana. That’s my letter.

For more posts in the Listen Up series, go here.

Song Series #16: Songs as Experience

This is true about poems too, and other works of literature and art, but today I am focusing on songs. Songs do not give us direct messages about how to live. Or sometimes they do, but those are not usually the best ones. Songs change us by being the experience itself: maybe reminding us of other things we have seen and lived, but also taking their place among them. I will give a few examples of this today.

The first is a song I have mentioned a few times before: Cz.K. Sebő’sLight as the Breeze,” from his 2018 EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze. I return to it again and again, and to the whole EP. The song has to do with those moments, in the midst of getting over someone, when a lightness actually breaks through and you see the world differently. The lightness doesn’t last long; you may go right back to longing for the person, or feeling morose about the situation. But it comes back. And with each return, it brings a brief illumination: you know a different way of living, feeling, and thinking, and you know that it is real. The song does this not only through the lyrics, but through the guitars (which feature Cappuccino Project as guest musician), the rhythms, the textures.

The song has an important role in my life. For a long time I was struggling to get over, or come to terms with, a particular relationship (not a romantic relationship, but a friendship of sorts, or what I hoped would be a friendship), and was discouraged to find the loss and regrets coming back again and again. But these light moments had started happening too, and when I first heard the song, I recognized a light moment like the ones I had already experienced, but new. And every time I listened to the song, it was another light moment, and they built and built and keep on doing so. The song does not describe an end state; none of Sebő’s songs do. As I hear them, they are all songs of seeking and changing. But that is part of why they move me and take up a place in my life.

Before I go on, here is a gorgeous recording of Sebő playing in concert in 2020 on the A38 Hajó. If you want a sense of his performances, this is a place to start. The first two songs are wordless, with guitar only, and from then on he sings.

The next song I want to bring up is “Előszoba” by Kolibri (the stage/project name of Bandi Bognár), whom I got to hear at the KOBUCI last Wednesday, and whom I will hear again at the Kolorádó Fesztivál. It might be my favorite of his songs so far. It describes a quiet evening, when he is all alone in the living room, no one is around, there are dirty dishes in the sink, but only he could have left them there; there is mess in general, everything has fallen down. But it is beautiful:

Nem magány, de nagyon szép
Hogy csendéletté válik a hétköznapi lét
A hétköznapi lét
Sárga fény az előszobámban ég
Olyan szép
Olyan szép

A rough translation:

(It isn’t loneliness, but it’s beautiful
That weekday existence becomes a still life
weekday existence
A yellow light burns in my foyer
So lovely
So lovely)

It’s hard to translate, because “magány” means “solitude,” “loneliness,” “isolation,” which are different things. “Hétköznapi” means “weekday” or “ordinary.” The title word, “előszoba,” means “foyer,” “anteroom,” “antechamber”; it has a specific image in Hungary, where many apartments have them. But the meaning also lies in the melody, the pace, the rhythm, the repeated phrases, and the soaring voice. So here is the song.

In this case, the song not only describes but becomes an evening like many I have known over so many years. I listen to it and am there in the room, taking in this quiet time of evening or night, taking in the light and shadows, even the dishes I have left in the sink.

The next song is one of my favorites by Art of Flying, “What the Magpie Said,” from their album asifyouwerethesea. The lyrics are exceptional and should be read in full. Verses and chorus become one and the same, in a way; the actual chorus is this:

& all the horses of the moon
drag both night & day
& as the clouds of eyes awoke
I heard the magpie say:

but it goes right into what the magpie said, which has several variations. This one is the first:

that “everyone talks of love
ever since yr tale began
why can’t you face the fact
it’s never going to be perfect
little miracle little miracle
tell Annie to come over
I’m like…’the snow is falling
the beautiful is not forgotten.'”

I love how the real and the magical come together here: “Tell Annie to come over” and the colloquial “I’m like” come right from everyday life with all its imperfections, but there’s the falling snow, too. The song proceeds with its reflection and living of beauty and failure.


It is hard to explain what kind of experience this song is, but it is everything at once: “the horses of the moon” dragging “both night and day,” the pool of tears, the moment of telling someone to tell someone to come over to watch the snow, the heartbreak over the world. And it proceeds so slowly and subtly; the music lets you take it in syllable by syllable.

The next one, quite different in pace and mood, is “Ring My Bell,” from New Day With New Possibilities, the latest album by Sonny & the Sunsets (led by Sonny Smith, whose music I have loved for over two decades now, and many of whose stories I published in my erstwhile literary journal Señor). It’s a lighthearted song, but it has something to do with the contradiction of wanting to shut the world out and also hoping someone will just show up and ring the doorbell. That surprise and excitement of hearing the bell, that secret openness to new friendships and relationships. I listen to it and am right in it, hearing the doorbell ring. The video is delightful.

And now finally, a band I haven’t mentioned before except in passing, Galaxisok, whom I will get to hear at the KOBUCI this Saturday and then later this month at the Kolorádó Fesztivál, along with Kolibri, Platon Karataev, and others. Out of their most recent album Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others), there are many songs to choose, but this one, “Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble” (title in French, song in Hungarian), stands out because of the story it tells: of a person who loves music and loves to talk about it, loves film, loves to read, cracks jokes, doesn’t yell when he’s nervous but instead steps out for a cigarette—and one evening, before going to bed, tells his friend that he feels sometimes as though everything were dark inside him. I know that person (not literally, but through the song), I have been with that person, I have been that person too. The music has a bounce to it, with a mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds, but there’s a part that gets suddenly sparse. It’s a cheery-sounding song that brings a lump to my throat.

And that wraps up this installment of the Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Update: Sonny & the Sunsets’ New Day With New Possibilities is Bandcamp’s Album of the Day!

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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