Out singer-songwriter has the blues in her blood

After more than 20 years, 500,000 albums sold and numerous world tours as both a bandleader and solo act, you can’t blame out singer-songwriter SONiA (aka Sonia Rutstein) and her folk/pop band disappear fear, for wanting to do things a little different with her new album. Especially when the result sounds like “Blood, Bones & Baltimore.”

“I named my band disappear fear 20 years ago and that’s the essence of everything,” she said. “Every song I do really comes from that place, but when you ‘disappear fear’ from people what you have is love. However, this album is much more personal in places. ‘Call Me Sonia’ is not anybody’s national anthem except my own. In that sense, it’s coming more from my heart.”

Previous albums saw the band dabbling in styles ranging from folk to reggae and lyrics sung in Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish. But for “Blood, Bones & Baltimore,” SONiA stuck to a more traditional blues sound and recorded the album quickly.

“It actually comes from a song that I had written several years ago,” SONiA said about the album title. “I’m from Baltimore and it just seemed to cut to the root of things. It’s a very rootsy CD in that the musicians, the attitude and the feeling just seemed to be Baltimore or what I associate to be Baltimore. We recorded 80 percent of the CD in one day. We started at about 10:30 in the morning and, about 12 hours later, I drove home from the studio to my house in Baltimore with a mix of the tracks. And I was like, OK, cool. This is it. We got a CD.”

She added that she wanted this album to capture the band’s performance as is instead of crafting something that was super-polished.

“Normally, we just go in and try and get it perfect,” she said. “And with all the digital stuff, you can see where everything is, so if something is a breath too soon, you can go in and clean it up. Generally, there’s enough preproduction so that everybody is on the same song and in the same place. On a lot of our previous CDs, I haven’t produced so I’m not really involved in that part of it. I’m just listening to it and going, ‘Yep, sounds good. Let’s go with it.’ If there was that sort of tweaking to do, I wasn’t necessarily breathing down anyone’s back to do it. But I guess about half of my CDs I’ve produced and half of them I’ve had other producers on. But on this one I was very aware of wanting it to be as it is: raw, ready and rough. It’s just very, very real. That was the idea. So if something did come in early or late, we’re just going to be like, ‘OK. This is it. This is what this ensemble sounds like in this moment.’ We wanted to make it a snapshot of that. There’s probably a little bit of blood, bones and Baltimore in every track, given that that’s where I’m from and that’s where the people on it are out of. It’s an organic CD.”

Some of the latter tracks on “Blood, Bones & Baltimore” have more of a bluegrass influence than the rest of the album — something we assumed SONiA and company picked up from their experiences recording in Nashville. But SONiA said that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“My influences from Nashville are more country and singer-songwriter-based,” she said. “For me, [my music] is just a blues blend. It’s something that’s fun and I like. It makes people feel good. The blues generally are really kind of like, ‘This is my tale.’ Not that someone else couldn’t hear it and feel that way too. And I can sing a song by Robert Johnson or Billie Holiday — I could have done any number of covers of people’s stories — but when I sat down, I was just like, I want to figure out what my stories are as opposed to commenting on the economy, the world needing to be more environmentally aware or equality among the masses. It’s the next step on that scale. The thing that is so cool about blues and bluegrass is that you can basically go into a song like that in Germany or Israel or Fiji and people start to move in the same directions. You don’t have to say a word. Even if you are singing in a different language, it’s that beat and that place that talk to people if you nail it. It just immediately brings the room together.”

SONiA’s world travels have not only inspired her music, but also her charitable efforts. She supports a number of charities, but said a 2006 tour of the Middle East inspired her to start the nonprofit organization Guitars for Peace.

“That one is incredibly special and dear to my heart,” she said. “It’s the one nonprofit I belong to that is totally mine. I’m the president and founder. What happened was I was performing on the West Bank in Israel, which is technically Palestine. I performed for about 150 young girls at a summer camp. I did a couple songs in English and a couple in Spanish. When I was leaving they asked if they could keep my guitar. I said, ‘No, you can’t keep this guitar.’ But I promised I would get a guitar to them either by me or by somebody else. So I was able to do that and, six months later, we got a steel-stringed guitar delivered to them. It just got me thinking that it would be cool to get guitars and other instruments into the hands of children who are in impoverished but also war-torn places where there’s a lot of violence and a lot of need for musical instruments. So we started Guitars For Peace out of Massachusetts. We’ve been able to deliver a couple of guitars and I’m picking up eight more next week. So we’ll have plenty for the next go-round. And we’re not just going to be focusing on getting them to children in the Middle East, but also South America and probably the U.S. too — Not so much that it’s a war-torn country, but just in places where they might not have access to it.”

Whether it’s through her music or her charitable efforts, SONiA will have plenty of opportunities to bring rooms together in 2010 when disappear fear hits the read in support of “Blood, Bones & Baltimore.” The band will visit Germany and Holland, as well as perform at festivals and Pride celebrations all over the U.S. and Canada.

Luckily for Philadelphia, SONiA is performing an intimate CD-release show at Tin Angel May 21. So intimate, she can’t bring her whole band with her.

“The Tin Angel stage is really small and I don’t want to overpower the room,” SONiA explained. “So I’m going to make it so I can get the best of both worlds and bring everybody that I can. I won’t have the whole disappear fear orchestra, but I will be having some members of the band.”

She added that fans of her older material and the new album alike won’t be disappointed with the show.

“Usually it ends up being around a two-hour show,” she said. “Usually I’ll take half of that [for the new material]. If it’s a really jammy kind of thing, we can stretch the new songs out some and go to a different place. Or if I have guest musicians, they can take a lead or a solo on it. Every night is different. But I’ll get into the oldies and favorites from the past CDs as well. It’ll be a full night.”

SONiA performs a CD-release show with members of disappear fear at 7:30 p.m. May 21 at Tin Angel, 20 N. Second St. For more information, visit www.soniadf.com or www.guitarsforpeace.org, or call (215) 928-0770.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].