SONiA’s Big Year

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After releasing her 19th record in January, SONiA disappear fear tours Germany through most of the spring. (David Stuck)

Last year, Baltimore-based singer-songwriter Sonia Rutstein was on tour in Europe, driving from Germany to Poland, when she got word of a neo-Nazi rally taking place along her route. What was going to be a two-hour drive took six hours, plenty of time for Rutstein to consider the reason for the delay. Although she was shaken by the situation, there was a silver lining.

“There was a huge, enormous, gigantic backlash,” said Rutstein, 59. “Those people were saying to the world that they are not going to slip backwards into hate speech.”


Relieved as she was by the counterprotest, it wasn’t long before there was another brutal display of anti-Semitism. This time in the United States, and this time deadly, as 11 people were killed during Shabbat services at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh on the morning of Oct. 27.

The series of hateful events, coming after Charlottesville, shocked Rutstein. Growing up in Pikesville, she existed in a “wonderful bubble” surrounded by fellow Jews, safe from the insidious prejudices against them, she said.

“I was aware of — but very protected from — anti-Semitism,” said Rutstein. “And now to see the world slipping backwards, with what we saw in Charlottesville and in Pittsburgh and in South Carolina and what I saw firsthand this summer in Europe, it hit me really, really hard, and I had to write about it.”

Inspired by these events, Rutstein, who performs under the name SONiA disappear fear, released her 19th album, “By My Silence,” on Jan. 15. She will also tour Germany for most of the spring, premiere her first musical in March, and begin writing a book about her life and career once she returns home from her tour.

“I’m amazed. It allows me and encourages me to look back,” Rutstein said about her slew of projects. “So many people who have been in my life the last 30 years are still in it, and it’s really cool.”

The “disappear fear” part of Rutstein’s performing name comes from the band of the same name that she started in 1987 with her sister, Cindy, who ultimately gave up music for motherhood. But Rutstein kept the name when she went solo.

“All of my songs come under the mantra of that idea,” Rutstein said. “When you disappear fear between people, what you have is love and respect.”

Regarding the events that inspired her new album, Rutstein says she’s angry, an emotion that’s served as a creative catalyst throughout her career.

Most people, though, would not describe Rutstein as angry. In conversation, the singer is warm, curious, joking and reflective. Whether she’s geeking out about the specs of her signature series Santa Cruz Guitar Company acoustic guitar or comparing the ethos of punk rock and folk musicians, her enthusiasm, humor and confidence are contagious. It’s no surprise she’s doing big things.

‘By My Silence’

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out,

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out,

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out,

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

(David Stuck)

First they came …” a poem displayed in the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., was written by Martin Niemöller, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II. Niemöller, who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in a concentration camp for criticizing Adolf Hitler, wrote the poem to express guilt for not speaking out.

“By My Silence,” the title track from the new SONiA disappear fear album, is a cover of a 2008 folk song written by Ellen Busktel and Nick Annis that was inspired by Niemöller’s poem. In Rutstein’s rendition, the refrain “by my silence, I gave my consent” is delivered with a happy melody over a major chord resolution, making the guilty and heartbreaking sentiment all the more devastating.

The songs on “By My Silence” come across much more like feel-good popular music than the lyrics would suggest. Rutstein’s words, at once gutsy and disquieting, are often delivered through catchy hooks and toe-tapping rhythms. In “Wandering Jew,” the rootsy fourth track on the record, Rutstein sings, “With the rise of anti- Semitism/ not gonna build another wall or prison/ Buck that old, smelly system/ No blisters on my heart, tearing us apart/ The end can’t start, when smart does smart.” In Rutstein’s songs, her injustice-inspired anger is intrinsically attached to optimism for a better world.

In addition to the title track, “By My Silence” features five original songs by Rutstein, two Hebrew folk songs — one sung in Kurdish — the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Rutstein doesn’t only sing about hope for a better world, she acts on it, playing festivals and attending rallies for many causes: LGBTQ rights, refugee rights, women’s equality, combating racism, combating anti-Semitism, accessibility for differently abled people and animal rights.

“The things they taught you in school about democracy, about writing letters to local representatives, those things actually do work,” said Rutstein. “You can get your five minutes in Ben Cardin’s office, or get time with Johnny O or Stephen Lafferty. They can do what you want them to do if you channel you anger and frustration into speaking. It’s satisfying because it does make a difference.”

Rutstein at Beit Tikvah in 2017 (Larry Pinsker)

Rutstein’s ability to channel that determination was even on display in synagogue performances.

Rabbi Larry Pinsker is the former spiritual leader at Congregation Beit Tikvah in Roland Park, where Rutstein was a member for 18 years. During his tenure, Pinsker saw great emotive power in Rutstein as a performer, and asked her to sing during High Holiday services. Rutstein’s cover of “Hallelujah,” which she sang during services, is one of Pinsker’s favorite versions of the song.

“Sonia is the only one that conveys the anger in that song. ‘Hallelujah’ is not a song about feeling mellow or feeling good. It’s a song about the contradictions of beliefs and the vulnerability of our different moods of anger and relief when things go either for us or against us,” Pinsker said. “I love many different singers’ versions of that song, but I have to say I think hers is extraordinary.”

Pinsker said her music “amplifies the meaning of the High Holidays.”

“Some of the songs were about social justice, which is now popularly known as tikkun olam. And a lot of it was about learning to see how rich and nurturing the liturgy is,” said Pinsker. “She has a song about her father helping her learn to ride a bicycle. I had her sing it as part of the yizkor service on Yom Kippur. And people were weeping.”

In describing what he called Rutstein’s “profound ethical foundation,” Pinsker explained that there are four levels of tikkun in Judaism.

“The value that I think permeates all of her music is tikkun atzmi — the healing, repairing of fixing of yourself and the wounds you’ve received, the trauma you’ve received,” said Pinsker. “Her coming out as a lesbian to her own family, and the recognition of how difficult, at that time she was growing up, that acknowledgment and coming to grips with her identity was, that’s tikkun atzmi — when you learn that you can help yourself heal and channel those resources in ways that will make a difference.”

‘At Peace with yourself’

Jody Nusholtz, a communications arts professor at Carroll Community College, met Rutstein at one of her shows in the 1980s. Nusholtz was back in Baltimore after finishing graduate school and trying her hand at writing reviews. Although a story never materialized, a long-term friendship did.

Rutstein and Nusholtz hadn’t collaborated until recently when the pair wrote a musical called “Small House, No Secrets.” After several years of revisions and concert readings of the script, the musical, a production of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, debuts at the Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore in March.

The play’s protagonist is Liz, a 30-something advertiser in a heterosexual relationship that, by all appearances, is healthy and stable. When Liz and her boyfriend go to a Thanksgiving dinner, the host invites a friend who happens to be her ex-lesbian lover from college.

SONiA performs in 2010 around the release of her “Blood, Bones & Baltimore” album. ( Daniel Bihn)

Nusholtz and Rutstein are both gay and Jewish, but the play doesn’t necessarily touch on Jewish themes or characters — the protagonist Liz is Catholic — nor does it make specific references the writers’ own coming-out stories. Nusholtz believes the play is more about common characteristics of the human condition.

“This happens to be a gay story, but we all have secrets and they weigh on us until we deal with them,” said Nusholtz. “That’s probably the most universal interpretation of what the play is about.”

Nusholtz is a self-proclaimed genre-hopper who now calls herself “a poet who writes plays.” It’s likely that her expertise working in the rhythmic, metered medium lent itself to writing lines suited for a musical.

“The question you ask yourself when you’re writing songs for a musical is, ‘Does it sing?’” said Rutstein. “We looked at the overall script and said, ‘absolutely, this will sing.’”

To help arrange the songs, Rutstein enlisted the help of Tony Correlli, a musician and recording engineer at Deep End Studio, where Rutstein recorded her album “Blood, Bones & Baltimore” in 2010. Although Rutstein and Correlli are experienced in songwriting and arrangement, preparing the songs for a musical proved to be a new challenge. The songs, mostly written on guitar, needed to work with minimal instrumentation. In the upcoming performances, Correlli will be the only instrumentalist, accompanying the actors on piano.

“Sometimes the tempo or key needed to be changed to make the song work on piano instead of guitar,” Correlli said. “We had to consider which parts would be sung by male vocalists or the younger female vocalist or an older female vocalist. We had to consider their voices rather than just what sounded good for Sonia in the moment.”

(David Stuck)

Whether collaborating for an album or musical, Correlli said working around Rutstein’s lyrics is always a pleasure.

“It’s always fun recording her songs because you never know what she’s going to say. Her lyrics can be unpredictable, playful, surprising, funny, provocative and insightful,” said Correlli. “The same is true in the musical. She’s telling a story and sometimes she’ll surprise you with a line or a phrase that will stick with you for the rest of the song.”

Though the story Nusholtz and Rutstein tell is not autobiographical, it is insightful. Without mentioning tikkun atzmi, Rutstein practically confirmed Pinsker’s assertion that her art is about healing oneself before healing the world.

“It’s a question about being able to be at peace with yourself and move forward. Liz is not at peace with herself about being who she is sexually. It bothers her,” Rutstein said. “There are elements of it that are incredibly personal in that it is a journey to be OK. For me, and for Liz, to make peace with yourself and with God definitely resonates.”

Reflection

While SONiA disappear fear is a solo musical endeavor, Rutstein won’t claim that she could have done this all on her own. Her website features a thank-you page, where she says, “I have tremendous gratitude for the many enormously generous folks who have lifted me out of my wanna be doldrums and onto their stage or their house… PS: At some point I will write a memoir but until then this will suffice, I hope.”

Rutstein hopes that point will be later this year, when she’ll begin interviews with the many musicians and friends who have been a part of her 30-year career. Rutstein doesn’t plan to be the only voice in her memoir.

“It’s going to be a lot of interviews, hearing things from their points of view,” said Rutstein. “There might even be parts of the book that are their personal reflections, which I think would make it a better book, because their perspectives are so different from mine.”

With a busy few months ahead, Rutstein maintains an even keel — not too stressed, nor overly excited. Her description of her mental state is exactly the kind of imagery meant for a memoir.

“What I thought my career would be, crashing into what my career actually is, it’s like when a wave crashes, then recedes and it’s so pretty,” said Rutstein. “It’s just flat on the sand and there’s the reflection, and it’s so smooth and perfect.”

cgraham@midatlanticmedia.com

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