Sonny Smith comes by these expressive inclinations naturally. He was raised by S.F. beats, intellectual bohemians with an ear for music and an eye for the cutting-edge American literature of Jack Kerouac. Smith is inspired by the printed page, from writer Richard Brautigan to Marvel comics and Robert Crumb. He admits he's a "comic book nerd," but adds, "I always dreamed of being a novelist, doing the all-American novel. I always think of myself as a writer more than a songwriter. I've been writing plays all along and am working on one now."
A playwright's eye for intimate detail makes Fruitvale fascinating. The area's colorful residents the tall Latino drag queen, a sad waitress, the neighborhood pimp ("he was the nicest guy around, too"), a ruthless enforcer of law and order populate the tracks. "I'd see all these people and I wondered what their lives might be like," Smith says. "Their stories came out of that." But how does a narrative-oriented writer turn his fictions into song? "I'd be writing, then I'd take a break, pick up my guitar and play, go back to typing, and found myself singing while writing," explains Smith. "After a while, I found I had [the basis for] several songs."
Musically, Sonny Smith has more in common with old-school songwriter iconoclasts Loudon Wainwright III (padre of Rufus) and Randy Newman (hear his magnificent album Good Old Boys, a favorite of Smith's) than most indie rock, although "Private Dick" features a bit of bracing dissonance. While his voice can take on a gauzy quality, Smith projects a rough-hewn, quirky intonation.
Fruitvale was recorded in S.F. and Chicago, the sessions produced by Leroy Bach (Wilco), who was smitten with Smith's songs after seeing him live. Some of Chicago's indie-scene finest also assisted Smith in realizing his opus: singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor, and Edith Frost, bassist Matthew Lux, and drummer/engineer Graeme Gibson. Commenting on the Fruitvale sessions, Lux opines, "I think the record is a masterpiece. He is also a very stylish dresser."
Smith's own musical faves impact his music, albeit rather covertly. He mentions affection for R&B vocal groups circa late 1950s/early '60s (raving about the Falcons' "I Found a Love," featuring Wilson Pickett), the Minutemen, Thelonious Monk, and Thee Headcoats. These disparate performers share a common element, namely, compactness in conveying a message. Smith's songs underscore his sharpness as a storyteller. Instead of offering tunes that simply rattle through your head for a couple of spins, Fruitvale vividly introduces characters. Maybe they're not ones you'd want over for dinner, but damn, they're memorable. Finishing this Sonny Smith record feels like setting down a good book.