Warts and all. That's how Sonny Smith likes his music.
"I struggle with perfectionism," says Smith, on the phone from his home in the Sunset District. "If you are going to make art like that, putting it out there warts and all, there are going to be some things that you regret, which has happened. But as far as creativity goes, I think it's totally worth it."
Lately, Smith's been listening to Sun Ra, gleaning inspiration from the eccentric jazz master's willingness to let art flow without much anxiety about how polished it was.
"You have to dig through his music to find these weird cosmic doo-wop songs and these gems that would never have been made if he wasn't just letting it all out," Smith adds.
Smith started releasing records as Sonny and the Sunsets in 2009, little gems populated with messed-up characters on the fringes of society. Talent Night at the Ashram, the newest album from Smith's casual collective Sonny and the Sunsets, continues the tradition; there are health-food store workers, ashram-loving meditators, a man who hears messages from God, robots who want to be human. In "The Secluded Estate," a man discovers a mansion that's home to every woman he's ever known, and ends up living in a tent in the nearby woods until the song's final verse, when he steels up the courage to enter the house.
Talent Night at the Ashram is full of these strange vignettes, set to jaunty, sixties-drenched melodies overlaid with weepy keyboards and awkwardly sweet vocal phrasings. Sonny and the Sunsets play a record release show at the Chapel on March 21.
"The recording process was kind of guerilla-style," says Smith, who recorded the album at friends' home studios and garages over the past two years. "For me that's a good recipe. It makes the record have a certain kind of human touch, instead of saving up your songs for three years and going to a proper studio for a week."
Originally planned as a series of short films, the album took on a life of its own, something that's happened before in Smith's life as a multifaceted artist. Novels become ambitious record and visual art projects. Songs become stories. Stories become comics. Films become songs. "Much of the art I make starts off as the wrong medium, or I think it's going to be something and it reveals itself to be another," he says. "If I get out of the way and just be a servant to it, it'll probably live and be interesting -- and if I try to impose my will on it too much, it will probably just wither and die."
Smith's organic attitude towards songwriting is in full glory on Talent Night at the Ashram. Take the origin myth behind the title song: a friend who lived in an ashram in India was relaying stories of her experience to Smith, when she mentioned "talent night at the ashram."
"It was like a gift from God," says Smith. "I was like, tell me more. A lot of the lines in the song were directly from things she told me. There was a guy and his name was Terry, and he had blue eyes and he sang a song by Leonard Cohen. And I was like, keep going! I took her anecdotes and barely had to change them to turn them into lyrics."
Smith himself has never lived on an ashram, but he did spend two memorable years in his twenties living on a commune in Central America. It was all very free and loose, he says: "There was a crazy Italian who ran it and the rest of us were just kind of stoners."
Like one of the fantastical locales in Smith's songs -- planets populated by women where men are slaves, for example -- the Central American jungle was a place where the boundaries and trappings of normal society didn't apply. "It was like this big blank canvas where you could restart society itself," Smith says, with "lots of conversations about anarchy and democracy and communism." And though the commune no longer exists and the Italian is long gone, Smith found another community in an unexpected place in 2006 when he completed a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, the former Army barracks-turned-artistic haven west of Sausalito. To this day, he talks enthusiastically of his time there and calls himself a "poster child" for the place.
"The Headlands was huge for me," says Smith. After his initial residency, a stint that culminated in his theatrical play called The Dangerous Stranger, he was given a studio for two years. His second residency birthed the ambitious 100 Records project, which gave him a running start as an artist.
"That was the first time I wasn't treated like a loser for being an artist," he says. "Unless you're wildly successful, you are still kind of treated like a dope and a beggar. They treated me with respect and trust, like I was going to make something worthwhile. It helped me to do what I do now."
He's channeled that confidence into performances and albums that draw on creativity's raw edges. A Woody-Guthrie-in-his-hospital-bed-writing-songs-and-drawing type of raw. With that edge having served him well, Smith doesn't worry much about being polished or professional, a pursuit that's hobbled other artists.
"The trappings of art are infinite," he says. "You have to be careful."