Disappear Fear’s SONiA to Release "Broken Film"
After 25 years as a folksy lesbian rocker, SONiA Rutstein of disappear fear has hit her stride, releasing "Broken Film," which may be her best album yet. This Baltimore-based performer will release her seventeenth album on September 17, with a world release concert at Creative Alliance at The Patterson Theatre. And these roots go deep.
"My sounds is folk-rock, Americana alternative, and even some sugar pop thrown in," Rutstein told EDGE in a recent interview. "And from my CD of music that is well-known outside the U.S., there is even a Bob Dylan protest song vibe."
Growing up in the '60s, she was influenced by Dylan, who is a distant cousin. She admits that while her "harmonica playing is a lot like his," her music is more akin to the spirit of his intention than his style.
Rutstein said that these types of songs go over big when she tours in Germany, Holland and Israel. While rockers brand her as too folksy, and folkies brand her a rocker, her new album is very much in line with the kick-and-snare, rock guitar sound and rich vocal harmonies she created in the '80s with her sister Cindy Frank as the band disappear fear.
"I think people really connect with me on the energy that happens during a disappear fear show," said Rutstein. "Although my sister moved to Seattle and is doing environmental work now, disappear fear is still really my mantra, for all of my songs."
Although she views "SONiA" as a brand -- "me with a guitar" -- she sees disappear fear as a full ensemble, with her and five piece band. As she tours the U.S., she will be accompanied by the guitarists who recorded the CD with her, the lesbian drummer Katy Murray from London, lesbian Larin Snyder from Austin on backup vocals and Jason Luckett of L.A. on bass. According to Rutstein, "they are all very Aquarian-minded."
She counts among her inspirations the music of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Phil Oaks, the Grateful Dead and Gershwin. Philosophically, she was influenced by Vincent Van Gogh and Charlie Chaplin. But she is very much a product of her environment.
Rutstein was influenced by growing up Jewish in Baltimore, being bat mitzvahed and attending public school, and coming into the "wonderful, scary recognition of my sexual identity as a lesbian."
"That definitely blew things up," she said. "It challenged my brain and my heart, and falling in love definitely clenched my soul. It’s been working out amazing well!"
Rutstein started playing guitar when she was five, and later started writing songs. When she first began performing, she wasn’t out, and admitted, "I feel like I lost 10 years of my life being scared of who I am and was, who I was meant to be. I never want anyone to be ashamed or diminished by any society or person that would let them be less than that brilliant unique individual inside of them."
She recently married her longtime partner Terry Irons, who also serves as her manager. A trip with her partner from Amsterdam to Leiden inspired her new track "Farmland and the Sky."
"I was looking out on the horizon, at the things that were there before I was there and will still be there way after I’m gone, and the whole cycle of it," said Rutstein. "Before Terry and I got married, my half-sister Jane gave birth to her first child, and said to us, ’Stay awake, it all goes by so fast.’ That became the chorus of the song."
The new album "Broken Film" can be viewed as the "movie soundtrack of my life," said Rustein, as the songs in it move from personal to political in poetic fashion, as is pretty standard for her. There is angst, heartbreak, a lot of promise, hope and inspiration.
The album’s first song, "Start," was inspired by the heroism of her nephew’s feat in saving the life of a fellow Marine as a bomb sweeper in Afghanistan.
"The chorus of the song is, ’I don’t need hands to hold someone’s heart,’" she said. "He saved the life of a fellow Marine who has one arm and no legs. And Corp. Kearns asked Terry to dance at our wedding. She said that her knees were bothering her, and he said, ’Well, I don’t have any legs.’ So of course she got up and danced with that beautiful man."
Her tune "American Artist" meshes harmonica over guitar, and deals with, "this thing called the music business and success." "Be Like You" is an agitated pop tune that is fast and free, like early disappear fear material. She wrote "Princess and The Honey Bee" at a swimming pool in Nashville, with motorcycles and planes going by, and a dog barking in the distance. And her track "Ari Ari" is a reggae-influenced tune that equates Athena with the presence of God, who is always there. As Rutstein said, "Awareness brings new depth and light to the surface, and every moment of my life, I remember that."
Most high profile right now, however, is the track "Love Out Loud." Rutstein said she first came up with the credo in 1998, and put it on T-shirts that she sold at concert venues where she played. But it was only a line in a song until the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, and she penned it as a gay anthem.
"It is kicking up some energy, actually," she said. "Folks are starting to sizzle with that one. Terry and I got married before Prop 8 went through in 2008 in Oakland, when I was on tour. Then two years later on the same date, we got married in Maryland with a rabbi there. It was beautiful."
With 17 albums under her belt, one would imagine that Rutstein has seen and done it all. But she admitted that what she has learned throughout the years is "that I know very little." She can never really peg what will be people’s favorite song, a phenom she said has not changed since her first breakthrough album, "Deep Soul Diver."
"I guess I’m still deep soul diving," said Rutstein. "I think it’s a lot more fun now, but I still stress out a lot. I have a whole lot of support, and I’m grounded now. I think I can actually do this, which is a very good feeling."
In addition to making music, Rutstein has been busy of late, making art. She has had several murals commissioned in Europe and the U.S., about which she said, "It is very cathartic, and very fun. I love doing it, and it’s another way of getting color and expression out there." She said she created cover arts for her first CD, "Defying Gravity" as well as her release "Sahara."
"I have two and a half months to do a painting for a Kickstarter-commissioned program," said Rutstein. "We are on our way to Paris now, but I did a painting in Germany two years ago, and my friend there still has my brushes and paints ready for when I come back."
She is also producing the work of other talented musicians, including Sara Pinkser and Sam Weiser. Rutstein said she liked to seize the life in all its incarnations.
"I think it’s important to breathe in life deeply, and I’m breathing in mine deeply and exhaling songs and artwork," she said. "The music biz is clear about who they want to hear. If they do, you’ll be able to work, and if not, you’re not going to be able to survive. That tells you what’s working and what’s not. Thank God the industry likes me; I would still be making music anyway, but I’d be folding clothes at the Gap."