Sonny Smith, Sonny and the Sunsets
It would be a gross understatement to say that Sonny Smith of Sonny and the Sunsets is merely a songwriter. The man writes everything: novels, short stories, poems, plays, songs. Even comic books and illustrations. And what's interesting is that all these genres are linked. He might start writing a short story, and that eventually becomes a song. Or a song might become a comic book. Regardless, it's obvious that his many different creative outlets impact each other, and he is good precisely because of his talents bleed all over each other.
And we can be thankful for that. I saw Sonny and the Sunsets recently when they opened for Best Coast, and they were great. The band has been showered with love by critics everywhere. Read my interview with Smith about his creative process after the video.
You had a different start as a writer. You started writing screenplays.
That’s the first thing I tried to do. I was twenty-one and I had a couple of scripts. The way that I look at it, I was always interested in just being a writer and was trying my hand at everything. I was writing poetry and short stories and screenplays and also trying songs. And I still do. What usually happened was that most of the other avenues I tried would always end up as songs. It still holds true today. I took a crack at writing a novel a couple of years back, and it broke apart into a bunch of songs.
Why do you think that happened?
In the end, I am more natural at writing songs. But it hasn’t stopped me from trying.
When you say they broke down into songs, do you think that might be because your words had a musical cadence? Was it that the words were better suited as songs, or was it that the message you wanted to convey was better suited for a songwriter medium?
I don’t think it’s either of those. It’s not like an analytical process, where I’m in the middle of a play and I think, “Ah ha. This will be better as a song. It’s obviously got the proper cadence.” It’s just that somewhere, in the middle of what I am attempting, usually there’s a dark tunnel where I don't know what is going on, and often I’ve gotten started in the wrong direction. That’s why sometimes I’ll start to write songs and they have turned into comic books, and comic books become one act plays.
Somehow it just reveals itself as something else. Like I might be writing something, and I’ll grab my guitar and start playing, and what started as a short story becomes a song. Or I’ll be working on a song and really need lyrics for the verse, and in my notebook I see that I have a couple of comic book window panes that I was writing, and I can see that those words are perfect for the verse. There are all these different projects in my notebook that need to be fit somewhere, like pieces in a puzzle.
I have also noticed that some songs never had the magic they needed to be a good song, and a couple of years later I’ll need lines for a play, and the lyrics will be perfect, with their meaning, for what I need. So I take the song and break it apart and use. It’s like my brain is a big auto-salvage yard.
Do you find that certain themes are better suited to certain genres?
I have noticed that there is a recurring theme in my songs and in a lot of my writing across genres. It’s about transformation in some form. I noticed that about a year ago and found it interesting because the art is also going through transformation to become realized. A lot of the things I was writing was about someone crossing a river or crossing a border, or somebody is on the verge of crossing a sea, or going through tunnels a lot. There’s also a lot of drag queens, and I always thinking of drag queens having to do with shifting identities.
Since my PhD is in English lit with a specialty in 20th century dramatic literature, of course I have to ask you about your favorite playwrights.
Sam Shepard has been a favorite for a long time. Also Tennessee Williams. I devoured everything they did.
Both of them were subjects of my dissertation.
Then you have great taste! I’ve written three plays, two were on small stages here in the Bay Area, and the other one became a record of songs, to such an extent that the lyrics included stage directions.
When you talk about Williams, one of his big themes was transformation and disguises, so it’s no surprise that that theme shows up in your writing. Same with Shepard.
My favorite play is Williams' Night of the Iguana, but really that’s a popular theme in 20th century drama, where you have to go through a dark portal to realize a transformation or some kind of revelation. Plays like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and a lot of Shepard's plays, of course, though his plays contained more surreal elements.
Take me through you songwriting process. Do you start with the lyrics or the music first?
Both. They are kind of married to each other. I’ll write lyrics down, or what I think is a songwriter’s version of poetry, then tinker with it musically. If you were to look at my notebook, it’s all brainstorming: little sentences and fractured words. Nothing too cohesive. At the same time, I’ll strum chords around the house or just try to copy some great song. I might ape it a little and find some direction rhythmically. Once I get that direction, I look at my notes and see if any of those words leap out.
So do you mix and match lyrics with music?
Usually, but there is always room for exceptions. Sometimes I write it out before I am even concerned about the music, and there are times that I have a song structure completely realized before any words see it.
When you sit down to write, do you have a firm idea of what the song is going to be about?
You do yourself an injustice if you will a song to happen before you even tinker, like if you say, “I want to make this kind of song and I want it have this message.” You'll sit down to build it, and it will sound horrible. With most good songs, there has to be some mystery in the process. You can’t know where you are going, so that your self-conscious can be opened to whatever you are trying to say. The greatest songs don’t come from the surface, but from a place where they really need to get out.
How do you think being active in so many other genres helps you as a songwriter?
My songs are narrative based, so there is typically a linear storyline. And most other songwriters are expressionistic, like, “This happened to me, and I feel this way.” Since mine are narrative, it makes sense that I write stories first.
How much poetry do you read?
Lately Jack Micheline has been a favorite. I’ve literally stolen lines from his poems and used them for song titles. I read him every day. I’ve always had Whitman's Leaves of Grass around, and it’s been one of my go-to books when I’ve been directionless.
I’ve never heard anyone call Leaves of Grass their “go to” book!
It’s one of those poems that you can open up anywhere and be amazed by it.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I don’t have a “routine” like some writers do. But I question songwriters who don’t want to call it work. It’s work. And you have to work hard. Once you are inspired and you have something that you know is good and has meaning, it’s more work because it takes effort to do it justice, to record it correctly, to make sure the melody is good and the lyrics are right.
How much do you revise your lyrics during the process?
It depends on the song. I have a wide variety of songs. Some are eight minutes and lyrically intense, where I’ve spend a lot of time on phrasing to make the words right. And then I’ve had songs that are fast and loose, where the lyrics are kind of dumb and raw and you’d be doing it an injustice if you got too precious about it.
It sounds like lyrics are pretty important to you, though.
I am in the camp that lyrics are important. But they don’t have to be difficult.
What's your preferred method of composing?
I write longhand. Then I take it to the computer and use that as one opportunity to fine tune it. Usually I’ll print it out, almost like a teacher, and red mark it, scratch stuff out. Then I’ll retype that into the computer, and that becomes another way to fine tune it.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
Writers block is complicated. What creates it is when you have something in mind that you want to articulate and you haven't written anything yet. So when you start writing you aren't free; instead, you are beholden to some master plan that is supposed to be conveyed. And it never works like that. You aren't supposed to be able to just will what your piece is supposed to be about. And that can block you.
Like if you say, “I really want to write a power ballad. I want people to sing along." And you set out to write it, and it’s going to suck. But if you move on and just start writing without purpose, you may find yourself eventually strumming a ballad.You can’t map out what it is you want to do before you’ve done some exploring first.
And before you go, watch this video about Smith's amazing 100 Records project: