Singer/Songwriter SONiA sparks a fusion of post-Sept. 11 art and activism in No Bomb Is Smart
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In her first studio album since 2000’s Me, Too, local singer/songwriter SONiA (born Sonia Rutstein) maps out the political landscape of post-Sept.-11 America—and the psychologically complex terrain of peace activism after “violence has blown off my door.” Recorded in Nashville, Tenn., and released overseas in conjunction with SONiA’s performance at Australia’s six-day Woodford Folk Festival at the end of 2003, No Bomb Is Smart marries its progressive, peacenik stance with catchy folk/pop arrangements, terrific vocal harmonies, and plenty of country.
“Being an American and singing the message that I’m singing, it’s important to be able to reach people in other countries directly, to show them the true heart of America,” SONiA says, speaking by phone from her home in North Baltimore.
The Pikesville native spent the first three months of 2004 on tour in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. On her return to the United States, SONiA hit the festival circuit to promote the domestic spring release of No Bomb, with stops at the High Sierra Festival, the Peace Action Folk Music fund raiser, and the Women’s International Music Festival. She performed at April’s National Organization for Women’s March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., and headed to Las Vegas to play the 2004 National Organization of Women (NOW) Conference in July.
“NOW is something that’s really close to my heart and soul,” says SONiA, a longtime feminist and gay-rights activist. “I believe in the platforms that NOW has fought for and I’ve performed for them on many occasions over the years—sometimes at the drop of a hat.”
Although No Bomb sports SONiA’s moniker, the title bears less resemblance to her most recent solo efforts (2001’s Live at the Down Home and Me, Too) than to the mid-’90s albums by disappear fear, the acoustic folk/pop duo of SONiA and her sister Cindy Frank (who left the sister act in 1997 to focus on full-time motherhood). Cindy’s backup vocals grace 10 of No Bomb’s 12 songs. “It’s got a lot of disappear fear harmonies, and a lot of twang, and a lot of soul,” SONiA says.
Like disappear fear’s self-titled 1994 release, No Bomb was produced by Nashville-based drummer Craig Krampf, who also plays percussion on both albums. Best known for producing Melissa Etheridge’s 1988 self-titled debut, Krampf has a knack for pairing singer/songwriters with a winning mix of studio musicians—in this case a group that includes Hank Singer on fiddle and violin, Bill Cuomo on keyboards and strings, and Ed Snodderly on dobro.
“We had Mark Knopfler’s bass player and two members from the Dixie Chicks band and the fiddle player from O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” SONiA says. “They’re the kind of musicians that have played on platinum albums or have Grammys in their living rooms—or both. I hadn’t really worked with most of them before, so it was kind of scary and thrilling, like making your first CD.”
SONiA is a devotee of ’60s-era folkie Phil Ochs, and No Bomb gets underway with her haunting cover of Ochs’ “No More Songs.” It feels like a eulogy for the late folk singer, who committed suicide in 1976. The song’s lush orchestral intro gives way to SONiA’s acoustic guitar and then her throaty lament for “a saint who sang upon the stage/ and told about the world, his lover.”
The half-spoken, half-sung “Sugarcane” is a catchy recounting of a heartwarming event that took place in the wake of Sept. 11. The foot-tapping ode celebrates an elderly woman who hears a news report about an injured firefighter at ground zero, and then treks from the Bronx to Lower Manhattan to give the man her cane.
“I wrote it back when everyone was glued to the radio and TV, and things hadn’t returned to the normal,” SONiA says. “I heard about this act of human kindness on the radio and I went home and wrote the whole song right then. And just like it says in the song, the DJ never said her name.”
The album’s title track is a fast-paced indictment of the George W. Bush presidency, with its ties to the oil industry and the military-industrial complex: “Have you noticed that America’s on fire/ Fueled by the high-octane Bush bang-bang empire.” The song’s lyrics begin with an ironic nod to “This Land Is Your Land,” then channel-surf their way across the Florida “coup,” the “happy 50th birthday” of the B-52 bomber, and the glorification of war by CNN. All this in slightly less than four minutes, as SONiA’s passionate, rapid-fire delivery and Hank Singer’s fiddle line propel the song toward its inescapable conclusion that “no bomb is smart.”
Over the years, SONiA has written plenty of songs to combat hatred against women, gays and lesbians, and people of color. “I Am the Enemy” is her first song to examine the hatred that the United States has evoked abroad, along with her conflicting feelings as a progressive who loves and critiques her native land: “And I don’t want to go to war/ But it seems that violence has blown off my door/ And I think of my little ones in bed asleep/ And how I’d do anything to keep them safe and free.”
“Right after 9/11, all I could see was red,” SONiA says. “And then all I could see was red, white, and blue—and then all of the colors came back, along with a few new ones, like ‘Oprah’ and ‘ohm.’”
No album recorded in Nashville would be complete without a few twangy tales of love gone wrong, like the mournful “A Different Star” or the breakup song “Obviously,” about the soon-to-be-ex-lover who “can keep online for hours” but “can’t keep me.” But the standout amour track is the alt-country ballad “Gangsters of Love,” which affirms same-sex love with its warm refrain: “I just want to say/ I break the law every day/ To love you completely/ We must be/ Gangsters of love/ Loud and proud and little.”
“It started out with lyrics that were personal, but as the song developed it took on the situation of the U.S. government and its treatment of gay people over the years,” SONiA says.
Next up for the Baltimore folkie is the release of her first DVD, Happy Birthday, SONiA, a 12-song title that also incorporates home-video clips from her childhood. “Some of it is from my early birthday parties when I was a little girl, and some of it is from concerts when I happened to be performing on my birthday,” she says. “It’s a journey through the past 20 years of my musical heritage.”
The DVD is slated to include footage of disappear fear’s performance at the 1995 NOW Rally for Women’s Lives in Washington along with video clips of SONiA’s first band, the new-wave trio Girl Friday, shot at Baltimore’s legendary and long-gone Marble Bar. “We’re wearing spandex,” she marvels.