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Sonny Smith Talks His New Record, Multiple Personality Disorder, and Life in Oakland

Sonny Smith

100 Records Vol. 3 is the final installment of Sonny Smith’s art project that has produced nothing but an abundance of creativity over the past three years. The 100 Records Project has lived up to its name as Smith took on the arduous task of assuming aliases of musicians he made up, recording a bunch of songs, and commissioning visual artists to provide the sleeve designs for each release, which were used in his exhibit.


While the results are a product of Smith's uniquely wild imagination, there’s nothing phony about his music or its quality. Many of the songs on Vol. 3 are narrative in tone, and told like folk tales, but set to a variety of musical genres including roots, blues, country, soul and reggae. You can pick up his new record on limited-edition white vinyl, cassette, or MP3 on Tuesday, January 29th (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 limited edition cassettes available that same day).


Meanwhile, his identity remains intact with his excellent band Sonny and the Sunsets, who plan to release a full-length LP in 2013, also on Polyvinyl. We talked to him about his latest record, and here’s what he said:


What was the recording process like for 100 Records Vol. 3? Were there any well-known musical appearances this time around?


Nah, this third volume is different. It’s more varied. I did them all; I didn’t go for guest singers. I wanted it to be a weirder record. Vol. 2 was more of the garage kinda stuff. For this one I wanted instrumentals running into folk songs into a garage thing into a country song into a story thing, etc. It’s a little truer to the original vision, which was to make some kind of fake Harry Smith anthology.


Is this album the official end of the “100 Records Project”? 


I still want to make a book of the project, or at least a paperback of all the fictional bios. So I guess it’s not done yet. It will probably travel to more galleries next year.


Is there a persona or band that you had a particularly good time 'becoming' for this project? Do any of them embody an alter-ego for you? Have you had any experiences with multiple personality disorder?


I liked all the alter egos cause they all allowed me to do something new, to step out of myself, to channel something else. We’re all a little trapped in our identity, and it’s pretty easy to make a song and say to yourself, ‘well that’s not me, that doesn’t sound like me’ and then we drop it. We’re all kinda building this persona for ourselves. This project helped me smash that idea.

As for multiple personality disorder, I don’t have it, unless being free counts. This project was about being free, like a kid again. When I was a kid, I’d be in my karate uniform one morning, then I’d be in my soccer uniform in the afternoon, then I’d put on my break-dance outfit and so on. All in one day! And then over the course of a year, I’d be into new wave and have some new wave haircut, then into thrash and have some sleeveless jean jacket, then into something else—skating or something, and on and on. As grown-ups, we get locked into this one identity bullshit. It’s boring and hard to break.


With the different styles of music on the album, was it hard coming up with a cohesive sound or was variety the goal?


If it’s cohesive, it’s only cause all those characters are just gradations of me. I only have a tiny bit of technical skill. I can’t sing like a soul singer or play incredible piano or anything, so all the music is going to be somewhat tied to me and what comes out of me.


The volume of music written and recorded for this project suggests songwriting and musicianship is second nature to you. What’s your take on how accessible it is for people to make music (home studios) and release it on the internet? Is any of what you do a commentary or knock, saying the process has become too easy and that anyone can do it?
That’s how it should be. Everyone should be able to make recordings and release them. Just like anyone can write poetry or a short story.


You've lived in Oakland before, what did you like about it? What distinguishes it from living in San Francisco?


I wrote a record about a part of Oakland. I called it Fruitvale. Now there is a movie called Fruitvale. I wanna see it! Fruitvale was kinda lawless. It seemed identity-less and random to me. One block would be fairly well-to-do, nicely- trimmed lawns and the next, ramshackle and real poor. I saw a woman with a donkey walking down a street once. I mean… that’s weird. That’s like Third World shit. There was a kind of broken-down main street and a mental health facility around the corner. There was a popular Mexican restaurant, owned and operated by Chinese, with all-black clientele. The murder of Oscar Grant gave it some national recognition, although I believe his death could have happened anywhere in Oakland and most other American cities. It wasn’t centric to Fruitvale.


What are you working on next?


I am working on another monologue right now; a kind of Spalding Grey thing. Like the Sees All, Knows All play I did last year. We’ll see if it comes to life.