San Francisco singer-songwriter Sonny Smith has only one formal release to his name, and that disc came out back in 2003--he's hardly a star in the Bay Area, and outside it he's practically unknown. But earlier this year he finished what may turn out to be one of the best records of 2007. The forthcoming concept album, Fruitvale, plays like a postmodern barrio version of Our Town set to music, a series of character sketches drawn from the mostly Latino neighborhood in Oakland where he lived for three years. Smith refracts the fragile pop of Daniel Johnston, the cracked bohemian poetry of Tom Waits, and the underdog narratives of Randy Newman through his own skewed kaleidoscope.
Most of Fruitvale was recorded in Chicago with arranger and coproducer Leroy Bach, best known from his time in Wilco, and as a result a handful of CD-R copies have been circulating in town. Smith admits he's a poor self-promoter--he didn't do much to push his 2003 release--but he's the type of artist other musicians gravitate toward, and the Chicago talent on Fruitvale includes bassist Matt Lux, guitarist Emmett Kelly, and singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor, and Edith Frost. Alt-country stars Neko Case and Jolie Holland have handpicked him to open tours for them, and Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet has secured national distribution for his tiny Belle Sound label specifically to put out Fruitvale. "It's great to have people like Chuck or Leroy or Neko supporting me," says Smith. "I feel like they do it 'cause they believe in the records, which feels like a bigger achievement than anything commercial."
Smith, who's also a playwright, began performing his own left-of-center songs in 1996. In 2000 he self-released his first album, a low-budget job called Who's the Monster . . . You or Me? Its follow-up, This Is My Story, This Is
My Song, found a home on the San Francisco label Jackpine Social Club, which technically made it his debut--but its belated release in 2003 meant he'd moved on from those songs by the time the record started attracting positive reviews.
Smith had also moved across the Bay to Oakland, forced out of San Francisco by rising rents, and he ended up in Fruitvale. "It's a very strange and wild place," he says. "I never saw a police car in Fruitvale as long as I was there, but I saw a lot of gang stuff, a lot of gunshots going off, a lot of riots whenever the Raiders would win or lose, and a lot of what they call sideshows--Friday and Saturday nights, people cruising around in their cars, peeling out and doing doughnuts. I always thought of it as a very unruly place. The main drag is a little skid rowish, kind of broken-down--it's like the ghost of a Main Street. I liked Fruitvale a lot as a kind of a study of American fallout."
Smith is back in San Francisco now, living with his girlfriend in the Mission District, but during his years in Fruitvale he wrote a suite of songs that portrayed many of the neighborhood's colorful characters--jealous lovers, angry landlords, dirty cops, young pimps. "Almost every one is about someone I knew or saw from the neighborhood," he says.
Smith's kitchen-sink dramas often capture the grand tragedy and outsize comedy in ordinary lives--the song "Mario," for instance, is about a covert teenage drag queen. "I was living next to a big Mexican family and my living-room window was right next to their driveway," he says. "One night I heard their teenager rocking out in the family minivan and I basically just spied on him through our blinds. He was putting on makeup and a wig and doing this drag thing--then I saw him wrap it all up, take it all off, and go back inside the house. And it made me think about what it might be like not only to be a closet drag queen but also to be one in a bad neighborhood and in a Latino culture that was very macho and to be dealing with that. It was kind of touching."
In late 2002, while he was living in Fruitvale, Smith sent around an e-mail looking for a bass player to round out a trio for the occasional gig. The one person who responded was Leroy Bach--he was staying in Oakland at the time with his girlfriend, who happened to know Smith. "I had no idea who he was or that he was in Wilco or anything like that," says Smith. Bach and Smith struck up a friendship, playing together off and on for the next nine months, and when Bach went back to Chicago, he encouraged Smith to come record at his Humboldt Park home studio. Smith arrived in fall 2004 for a ten-day session--the first of what would turn out to be three visits over the next two years, all devoted to the material that would become Fruitvale.
Smith might have finished the record sooner, but in early 2005 he won a three-month residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts north of San Francisco by pitching a musical stage production based on his songs. With no responsibilities but his music--and indefinite access to a studio at the center even after his residency expired--Smith returned to a pair of albums he'd started a year or so earlier but abandoned: Sweet Lorraine: Sordid Tales of Love and Woe and One Act Plays.
Smith had burned a small CD-R edition of Sweet Lorraine in 2004, and that same year One Act Plays had come out in a limited run accompanying an issue of the literary magazine Watchword, but he wasn't totally happy with either recording. Sweet Lorraine follows the life cycle of a romantic
relationship, and most of the songs are sparse acoustic-guitar duets with Jolie Holland; at Headlands Smith redid some of his tracks and whittled down the number of tunes. One Act Plays, a series of story-songs written in the
spirit of the stage, changed more dramatically, with Smith bringing in new collaborators as well as reworking a handful of tunes. He sings on only a few, yielding the mike for the most part to his "cast" of singers, which includes Holland, Edith Frost, Neko Case, Mark Eitzel of the American Music Club,
the Mekons' Rico Bell, folkie Peggy Honeywell, Andy Cabic from Vetiver, and director-singer Miranda July.
Chicago engineer Graeme Gibson is heading to San Francisco this week to help Smith put the finishing touches on both albums. Smith hopes to put out Sweet Lorraine himself, with help from a family friend, but One Act Plays is still without a home. Fruitvale, tentatively scheduled for January, will be his first proper release in nearly four years. "I admit I haven't been that good at following up that aspect of my career," he says.
This summer Smith's profile got a boost from a two-week west-coast tour opening for Case, with Leroy Bach and Emmett Kelly as his backing band. He's currently a stay-at-home dad to the two-year-old son he has with his girlfriend, but he seems ready to start treating music as more of a job. "I've done a bunch of stuff--written short stories in lit mags, done little plays.
I even directed a little indie film. But I realize I'm better at writing songs than any of the other stuff I've tried," he says. "So I'm really gonna try and focus on that from now on."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.