For years, Sonny Smith has built his own brand of indie-folk and rock & roll, growing into a cult favorite along the way. To those who know his work, he's an incredibly prolific creator, with a dozen albums to his name and a handful of related projects — including multiple stage plays, a full-length musical and his nationally-recognized art installation, "100 Bands" — under his belt. A longtime fixture of San Francisco's arts scene, he's managed to fly just beneath the mainstream's radar for decades, while still releasing a string of acclaimed records with labels like Fat Possum and Polyvinyl.
On his newest record, Rod For Your Love, he gets back to basics. Produced by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach and recorded in Nashville, Rod For Your Love roots itself in old-school, guitar-fueled rock & roll. These are love songs built for the garage and the dance floor, with big-hearted melodies and thick harmonies. It's the stuff you might've heard in the 1960s, back when groups like the Kinks and the Velvet Underground were making left-field pop songs that celebrated the form while still bending the rules. With stacked vocal harmonies that sweep their way throughout the track list, Rod For Your Love nods to the past while still moving forward. It's a classic-sounding album that still belongs to the 21st century.
Released on Auerbach's new label, Easy Eye Sound, Rod For Your Love was recorded at the end of a cross-country tour. Smith and his band were firing on all cylinders, their rough edges sanded down by weeks of nightly shows. Meanwhile, 10 new songs had been written. Smith, who'd fallen in love all over again with his roles as a bandleader and frontman, didn't want to produce the tunes himself in a home studio. He wanted to focus on the music. Having heard that the Arcs, Auerbach's side-project, had covered one of his own songs during their own tour, Smith reached out to the Black Keys singer. Connections were made, studio time was booked, and Smith wound up finishing that countrywide tour in Nashville, where he and his road band tracked the album at Auerbach's studio.
The goal? To shine a light on the songs and the band, without many overdubs or assorted clutter.
"I think a lot of albums are made in reaction to the one that came directly before," says Smith. "My last record, Moods Baby Moods, was very layered and used a lot of drum machines. I was making weird sounds with synths. By the time we got to Nashville and began working with Dan, I was thinking 'Let's just make a fun, guitar-driven record. I don't want to have any extracurricular stuff here. I just want it to be really pure.'"
The lyrics follow suit. A personal album filled with heart-of-sleeve songwriting, Rod For Your Love looks inward. It's autobiographical. Fittingly, it's also Sonny Smith's first solo album in years, following a string of records billed under his band's name, Sonny and the Sunsets. "I'm writing about myself now, and not the people around me," he explains. "It felt right to make it a solo record."
Even so, it's hard not to identify with songs like the title track — a sunny, simple declaration of Smith's affection for a girl — and "Pictures of You," which find him remembering a former flame by sifting through her photographs. On "Burnin' Up," he swaps harmonies with songwriter Angel Olsen, turning the love song into a conversation between partners. This might be Smith's story, but the story is still universal.
Maybe that's why Rod For Your Love feels both fresh and familiar at once. Multiple generations grew up with this kind of music. It's the sound of the FM dial during the golden years of radio, full of Stonesy swagger, Beach Boys beauty and Lou Reed's punky sneer. With songs that spin stories about loving, losing, and living in the modern world, Rod For Your Love finds Sonny Smith hitting another high mark, adding a new milestone to a career that's made him a cult favorite for decades.