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Character Crazy 

Singer/songwriter Sonny Smith has a lot to say about the odd twists of life -- and an interesting way to say it

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
"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.

"I grew up around old-time music," says Smith, who was raised in Fairfax, 20 miles north of San Francisco. "That's what my dad and all his friends played. It's what bluegrass and country came out of -- fiddle, mandolin, banjo, sort of Irish jigs. ... I think that old-time music has a boom-chick-boom rhythm that I sort of inherited."

Yet in high school Smith eschewed that inherited music for Rush and AC/DC cover bands. It wasn't until he went to college that his musical taste began to come full circle. "I was living in Colorado in this little town and didn't really know what to do. I just sort of gravitated towards ... playing this piano in this church, just started learning songs like blues -- blues is the easiest thing to play, right?

"Up till then I had noodled on guitar, like high school noodling, but it's not the same," he continues. "To learn to play a song all the way through for people: That I learned on piano."

Smith eventually landed his first gig at a coffee shop, accompanying a woman who sang hits by Jackson Browne and the Eagles. After he moved to a ranch outside Denver at age 20, he began writing simple country tunes, some of which he still plays today. He then moved to downtown Denver in 1994 and met many of the characters who inspired his songs.

"Officer Scalletti was based on this guy named Officer Dave," he says. "Molly was a real girl that I knew who was always going to the bar and had this wild social life. Frank was a guy I knew from those times. [He] had a '65 Chevy, liked to drive like a madman through the alleys and crash into trash cans and keep a bottle of whiskey in the glove box."

But Smith didn't start writing songs about these people right away; first he took off to Central America with romantic notions of traveling and writing plays. "I had this big vision that I would go to Panama and hike through the Darien Gap, go down to Ecuador like some Indiana Jones thing," he says. "But I got to the Caribbean, [and] there were hammocks, beaches, and people not doing anything, and I ended up staying there for almost a year."

While he lived on a communal farm, occasionally playing guitar for what he says were "pagan orgy" parties, Smith tried to turn his Denver experiences into plays. But then one day he heard a song by South Central L.A. hip hop group Pharcyde called "Other Fishes." "Some guy had it on a mix tape," he says, "and I was sitting there listening to it in the middle of the jungle, and I liked it, it worked, so I tried to write all these songs." In combining fast-talking, rhapsodic lyrics informed by his experiences with the bluesy rhythms he'd been honing for years, Smith stumbled upon a fresh musical path.

"A lot of the songs were actually failed screenplays," he says. "That's why they have so many characters in them. They are like screenplays I couldn't make come alive in a way. ... For example, "Pass the Wine' has so many characters and you could almost say that first verse is like the synopsis of the play. But it works way better as a poem than I ever could've written it as a play." Even with all the details he fits into his songs, Smith says he's still exasperated with those he must forsake: "It's frustrating because you want to be able to explain to someone what happened, and you can't do it justice all in one piece, so it just trickles out in these moments here and there."

Virgil Shaw, lead singer of the band Dieselhed and fellow Fairfax native, says it's Smith's uncanny ability to know what to omit that makes him such a great songwriter.

"The funny thing is that he has more lyrics in one song than I've probably ever written," says Shaw, whose recent solo album (Quad Cities) echoes Smith's interest in traditional music and whose father plays with Smith's father. Even so, Shaw says, "I don't think he's like a shotgun shooting out into space and hitting a couple things here and there. ... I think he definitely knows what to leave in and what to leave out. He's almost like a beat poet -- even his name, he's almost like some kind of blues guy.

"Maybe songs come really easy to him, maybe he just sits down and cranks a song out and has a great musical memory," says Shaw. "I'm not quite sure how he does it."

"They come in flurries," Smith says of his tunes. "I end up writing 10 or 11 songs, trying to make that perfect one. None of them are that perfect one. If I could write that perfect one, in an ideal world, there'd be 10 or 11 [perfect] songs, one from each batch."

After moving back to San Francisco in 1996 to pursue a career as a musician, the flurries continued to come, each one different than the last. There were "terse, melodic songs" that he wrote while living on 21st and Lexington; personal, country-ish tunes that came during a trip to Idaho; and folkier songs about Denver that sprung out while he was editing a movie he made about those times.

Many of his earlier storytelling songs can be heard on Smith's first CD, the self-produced Who's the Monster ... You or Me?, which helped him land gigs around town beyond the biweekly slot he held for years at the Rite Spot. Although Smith hired professional musicians and recorded tracks for the album in a studio in Oregon, he wasn't entirely happy with the results; in the end, he included several live cuts along with the studio numbers. Indeed, while the full-band tracks are fine for showcasing Smith's incredible lyrics, they often lack the subtle energy he generates in a live setting, in which he seems to feed off both the scattered noise and attention of bar crowds.

Smith can always tell when someone in the audience is meeting his characters for the first time. "Usually I end up singing just to them. ... I try to just tell them the story. That's why I liked the Rite Spot a lot, because there was always one or two people that were actually listening. It was always a treat when there was somebody sitting there who didn't expect it."

As for what comes next, Smith isn't sure. While he's going into the studio later this month to record some new songs, he admits he sometimes wonders if playing solo has limited his progress in terms of visibility. Shaw, for one, doesn't think so. "I think Sonny's a lot more focused than [my] band. I think the way he's true to his music, at least how it appears when he plays live, that something's definitely going to happen with him. If he keeps going the way he's going, he'll be great."

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David Cook


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