Analogue Music | Sonny & The Sunsets

Sonny & The Sunsets

By Matt Conner

The music is just a part of the bigger picture Sonny Smith is painting—sometimes literally.

As the central figure in Sonny & The Sunsets, Smith is known for creating meaningful songs, mostly narrative-based, set to a wide array of influences ranging from country to rock. However, the songs emerge as part of an overarching need to create that also works its way out in ceramics, paintings, screenwriting and more.

We recently spoke with Smith about New Day with New Possibilities, his newest album, and realized it's all part of the creative approach that just wants to make something. Here's our conversation about his various outlets, his love of narrative, and weathering a pandemic.

Analogue: I read this album starting as a painting exercise and turned into an album and I’d love if we can start there. How is the painting life?

Sonny Smith: Well, I’m terrible at it. [Laughs] I’ve been into painting for a few years now, and I’ve also been into ceramics. I’ve been into both visual arts. I mess around with clay and I mess around with paints and I’ve been as serious as I can be about it, but I haven’t ever really made anything that I’ve liked.

Analogue: Ever?

Sonny: Yeah, none of it’s really that great, and many times I’ve realized that it’s just kind of a segue into songwriting anyway. I’ll start painting something and sketch out ideas and then try painting it but then I’ll revert back to songwriting at a certain point. I can’t explain it.

I know I’m pretty good at songwriting. I like songwriting and it feels natural when I do it. But sometimes I need something else to resist it a little and open my mind up to allow me to be confused and then go to songwriting. It sounds mental, but that’s how it’s been happening.

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7Cg Jv X4D

Analogue: How’d you end up learning that was your process?

Sonny: It’s actually been a narrative for a long time. When I was first writing songs when I was 20 or so, I was actually writing screenplays. I wanted to direct movies and I was living in a bit of a fantasy world. I wasn’t in any place where movies were being made; I was in Central America.

But I was in a place with a guitar and I would start singing parts of the screenplays I’d written. I’d sing the dialogue or the songs were very character-based, so trying to write screenplays helped me become more original as a songwriter. I would let the screenplays devolve into songs, and it was a more indirect way to write some songs and end up with cool results. A lot of those early songs were character-driven and had that dialogue.

Then this same idea happened later, too. I was writing plays for the stage, but I ended up writing them into songs, so I made a record called One Act Plays and the songwriting actually had characters and dialogue you might see in a play. I wouldn’t call it a musical because it was still just me singing the whole time. I might even sing stage directions and shit. [Laughs]

So starting with some other idea often has morphed into songwriting at some point and has allowed me to be a bit more interesting and creative.

I did this with comic books a lot. They would exist and everything, but then I would turn them into songs or take the characters and turn them into songs. So a lot of the songs off the first record, like “Death Cream” and “Planet of Women”, were all comic books that I’d written. So it was an instinctual way of coming at songs from a different angle rather than, ‘Now I need to write a verse.’ Songs can end up being boring sometimes if you don’t change shit up, y’know? [Laughs]

Even with this latest record, I was doing some painting before I got to the studio space, but I was intending to do some painting and I had some nice empty canvases. But for whatever reason, I even skipped that process of painting first and was like, ‘Fuck it. I already see what I was intending to do.’ So that was a quicker path than I’ve had in the past.

But it is kind of a thing that has happened over the years. I still make ceramics and give them to people and stuff, but I’m not out there having a ceramics show. It’s just for me. When it morphs into songwriting, I think I’m just a little bit better at songwriting than ceramics.

"So starting with some other idea often has morphed into songwriting at some point and has allowed me to be a bit more interesting and creative."

Analogue: So you were thinking of specific narratives playing out on this album?

Sonny: I certainly don’t do it on every song. I have different kinds of songs, and it would be a bummer if I didn’t. But I think my most natural place is for my songs to be linear little stories with characters and stuff. Even on this record, “The Lonely Man” has a narrative to it. “Ride the Dark Trail” and “Earl and His Girl” have little stories with a chronological timeline to them.

Analogue: Do you relish that challenge of telling a story within the constraints of the vehicle?

Sonny: Oh, yeah. That’s my favorite kind of songwriting when I listen to other people as well. It’s not that common anymore, actually. I would say narrative songwriting… not to say people aren’t doing it out there—but if you think of the sixties and my favorite Ray Davies, or the Kinks, a lot of the British guys were doing it and a lot of those songs are character based. A lot of Ray Davies songs, to me, sounds like Raymond Carver. There are characters who all have a little story.

The Beatles did it, too, with “Rocky Raccoon” or Father McKenzie [“Eleanor Rigby”] or Lovely Rita Meter Maid [“Lovely Rita”]. There are a lot of characters in those early Beatles songs. I like that kind of songwriting. It’s very third-person, and it doesn’t mean they’re not autobiographical in a sense, but when they write and sing them, they’re in the third person.

It’s not that common anymore. Most music today is in the first person. ‘I feel shitty because you left me. I feel alive today because you’re in the world.’ It’s about feeling this way or that way. There’s very little third-person kind of stuff.

It was also kind of popular in hip-hop in the ‘90s. There was a lot of music that was journalistic and might be about a character in the neighborhood. Gang Starr did a lot of that shit. Tribe Called Quest. But that’s not really happening that much in hip-hop either. It’s now about the first person and what you’re experiencing. It’s not really chronological. It’s all about what’s going with you and what you’re feeling at the time.

Analogue: How were you over the last year? Did the pandemic make it hard to focus?

Sonny: No, I had a good year. It’s weird to say, obviously. Not that I was happy that the world was having a problem and people were dying. I just mean that personally, I didn’t mind staying home and not having access to a lot of things. I did a lot of creative work. I recorded friends and I recorded things that will probably never see the light of day. I did a lot of ceramics and a little bit of painting.

It reminded me of being in detention in high school. I remember being there sometimes and I wanted to draw in my notebook and thinking, ‘This isn’t the worst thing that has happened to me.’ [Laughs] Sometimes it’s not bad if I’m forced to just have to do art and not get out in the world and have to fuckin’ hustle and get sidetracked.

I should probably figure out which crime I could do that would just get me house arrest. Something that doesn’t hurt anybody and definitely doesn’t put me in prison. I need to put an order in with a lawyer. [Laughs]

VISIT: Sonny & The Sunsets

Photo: Sarah Moore