Arts & Culture » Music
Out, loud and proud: an interview with SONiA
by Gregg Shapiro
Wednesday Jun 24, 2020
Baltimore native, out musician, activist, and even a bit of a mystic, Sonia Rutstein, better known to her fans and followers as SONiA of disappear fear, has a musical gift for everyone. The new 12-song CD compilation "Love Out Loud" collects some of her queerest and most uplifting songs resulting in the perfect soundtrack for your 2020 Pride observances.
Drawing on selections spanning almost 25 years, including solo work as well as those recorded with her sister Cindy (from disappear fear's early days), the album is as much a musical history lesson as it is a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community. SONiA was good enough to answer a few questions in advance of the release of "Love Out Loud."
Gregg Shapiro: Because "Love Out Loud" is a journey into the past for you and the listener, I'd like to begin by asking you to say something about the genesis of the name disappear fear.
SONiA: I worked at the Baltimore Center for Victims of Sexual Assault right after college. They were looking for a new name for their center. I came up with disappear fear. They rejected that, but I had written it down on a Post-It on my desk. My band Exibit (sic) A imploded after (my sister) Cindy joined it. There was just me and Cindy, and this name disappear fear. I thought it was cool and we went with it. They went with SARC: Sexual Assault Recovery Center. disappear fear is applicable to when you are sexually assaulted, and you're scared of everything, and how you want to regain your own sense of power. But then disappear fear was applicable to so many things in my life and that I wanted disappear fear to be.
GS: What can you tell the readers about the stylized spelling of your name as SONiA?
S: When I was five and learning how to write my name, that's how I wrote it [laughs]. I love words and I love names and playing with them. My signature is backwards because I won a contest in second or third grade, writing your name backwards on top of your head. It was a good moment in my life [laughs]. That's probably the seed of it and most people are more oblivious to that when they get older, but I'm not. I have PTSD on all kinds of levels [laughs], good and bad.
GS: By my calculations, "Love Out Loud" is your second compilation, with 2008's "Splash" being the first. Why was now the right time to release a new compilation?
S: The "Splash" CD was because I was touring in a completely different market. We had so many CDs at the time, and I wanted something that was of quality and represented the magnitude of the genres that I do. From songs in Hebrew to Spanish to live performances with the band to solo stuff, as well as a couple of newly recorded things. This is who I am. This "Love Out Loud" compilation has been in the works since the beginning of disappear fear because that's my mantra. That's what I want my music to do. To touch people and realize that we're connected. "Love Out Loud" celebrates the LGBT experience of my life. Those songs are the pinnacle song for disappear fear and for gay people moving through their lives.
GS: The 12 songs on "Love Out Loud" span the 24- year period of 1994-2018. How much of a challenge was it to go through so much material and whittle it down to 12 songs?
S: Very hard; that was definitely the hardest part [laughs]. I was saying to Terry (my wife), is the next one going to be "Love Out Louder" or "Love Out Loud Too?" The evolution of the LGBT movement is monumental, it's moved from "no, never" and "what is that?" to "cool!" and almost "so what" [laughs]. Which is awesome! I went through the torment of it and the celebration of it, and that's the purpose of the CD.
GS: "Love Out Loud" opens with "Fix My Life" from disappear fear's eponymous 1994 album. It includes a reference to HIV and "the boy next door/that Ron ignored and George abandoned". More than 25 years later, did you ever think we'd once again be witnessing a Republican POTUS bungling the handling of another killer virus?
S: No, never. No, certainly not. I did not see this coming. As I'm want to do, for lack of a better cliché, I try to find the silver lining [laughs]. The earth is healing, the air is 30-40% cleaner. We're seeing nature, which is nice, and also a building of community. There is some positive stuff, too. In Judaism, every seven years you don't plant anything on the ground. This is the seventh year for that.
GS: You're supposed to let the earth heal.
S: Exactly! Seven times seven is 49, and then you take the next year, which is 50, and all financial debts and burdens are forgiven. That will be in 2021. Isn't that interesting?
GS: That's fascinating.
S: I'm Jewish. I try to follow things like this. As I've aged, I've gotten even more into it. These parallels are so interesting to me, because it's right where we are.
GS: The song "Who's So Scared" features some lyrics by queer Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. Why did you incorporate his words into your song?
S: My girlfriend at the time was studying African American female authors at Howard University in DC. She had all these great books. Obviously, Countee Cullen is a male writer, and his book was one of the ones that she had. I love poetry and I opened the book and this poem jumped out at me. I read it and it had the word "Baltimore," and I thought it was so profound. I had this idea of "Who's So Scared" for a long time. For me, it's about facing myself. I really thought when I first came out that I'd have to compromise my life and cut off people because they wouldn't like me or respect me or love me anymore, which was not true, but I was scared about that. The idea of "who's so scared" can be applied to when I have to make a big decision, I ask myself what I would do if I wasn't scared. I usually get my dream answer and sometimes I follow through with it [laughs]. That's a good day [big laugh].
GS: With Pride parades and festivals being canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, the "Love Out Loud" album functions as a kind of stay at home Pride observance.
S: That's awesome!
GS: When did you attend your first Pride parade and what do you remember most about it?
S: I think I was 20 years old. I was in a band called Invasion of Privacy. I was not out yet. We got booked to play DC Pride because my manager was gay. He wanted to put this band together to play songs that he was writing. In fact, he wrote one for Norah Jones, but I don't know if she ever recorded it. We did that festival and we were backstage with the drag queens who were easily twice my height (laughs) and gorgeous. It was so sensational in every way. It was amazing and colorful. I don't think I was ever in a place where there was so much life! It was fantastic.
GS: Finally, Terry, who is your manager and your wife (married 12 years/together 23 years), is featured prominently in the Love out Loud album artwork. Would you please say something about what Terry means to you?
S: Yes! Terry is my world. She has her own history, her own legacy of participation in the gay movement. Starting with the successful move from gay being this fringe of society to it being a successful lighthouse of philosophy and financial influence. So few people know this; Terry should write a book. She took Atlanta's Gay Pride (festival), which was $30k in debt, and only had a couple of drag queens performing for entertainment, and she felt like there was more to gay people than white boys on a dancefloor. The community's a lot bigger than that. They said to her, "You're so sure about this, why don't you do it?" She said, "I'll head this up, but you have to let me do whatever I want." They did and what she was able to do was take it from what I described to the entire community being involved. You had drag queens, but you also had lesbian singer/songwriters and storytellers and political figures. She really opened it up. What happened was the (public) face of a gay person changed and she was able to get corporate sponsorship. The beer and alcohol companies had a huge audience with the gay community.
GS: Right, because the bars were some of the earliest social gathering places.
S: Exactly! That transformed it. That was in the early 1990s. Then she became the gay ambassador under (President) Clinton, as the face of that, and ended up producing the entertainment for 27 Prides in 1997 and that was the year we got together. It was an insane year! I was doing 10 Prides at which she booked me, and then another four or five that my booking agent arranged. It was wonderful! Things were starting to shift, it was making the earth move.
© 2020 Bay Area Reporter
SONiA disappear fear: 'By My Silence' New Music Video
SONiA disappear fear is delighted to share a new version of By My Silence, the title track of her 2019 album, featuring the familiar harmonies of her sister CiNDY – the original sound of disappear fear.
The song, written by Ellen Bukstel and Nick Annis based on the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemöller and first recorded by SONiA for the 2009 compilation Splash, remains relevant today. It asks the listener to reflect their own choices and encourages them to raise their voice for equality and peace, against hate and fear.
© by Curve Magazine June 16, 2020
Veteran Artist Releases Career-spanning Compilation
SONiA disappear fear (born Sonia Rutstein) has been a masterful purveyor of her own brand of politically-conscious alt-folk for decades. The Baltimore native and longtime resident began her career in the late-80s folk-punk scene with her band disappear fear, touring relentlessly with their message of radical inclusion.
As SONiA grew to accept and embrace her sexual orientation, eventually coming out publicly, she documented her journey in her art, and became a fixture in the LGBTQ+ music scene. She has earned accolades from GLAAD, GLAMA, the Grammy’s, and more, and has performed onstage with many of her heroes, including Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger.
We wanted to chat with SONiA about her new album and her musical influences. We caught up with SONiA by phone as she was about to return to Baltimore from a brief stay in North Carolina. We found her to be energetic and positive, a delight to chat with.
CQ: How are you, how are you doing in these times?
SONiA: Oh man. I’m figuring it out, just one day at a time. Actually it’s not completely as weird, I think, for me and Terry because my schedule normally changes every day. So it has enough sameness and enough irregularity that it’s different. It’s sort of interesting. And I’m working on an autobiography. And so I’m up to chapter 18 now on the rewrite, and it’s 20 chapters, so I’m very positive about that.
CQ:Okay. So it’s giving you a little a little space to focus on writing.
SONiA: Exactly. Which is good because I tried to do it over the summer under my terms and it was just all over the place. I really didn’t get anywhere except a lot of scribbles in notebooks.
CQ: Yeah, I hear that. Okay, so you’ve got a compilation album coming out, right? What is it called and where can we find it?
SONiA: It is called “Love Out Loud.” And you can find it on all the streaming services and at soniadisappearfear.com.
CQ: So SONiA, what made you decide that now was the right time to put out a collection like this?
SONiA: It’s really been a long time coming. My perspective from when I came out, which was in the early eighties, to the past 30-something years has been very, very interesting. And my songs really document that whole arc of from “No, never,” or “What is that?” to “Yes, it’s okay!” And sure, go for it, you know, to the total embracing, and then also seeing some of the backlash of that now with with our current administration. So the songs talk about that. They talk about me personally, what I’m experiencing at the time. Coming out to myself, coming out to my circle, and then to the world.
CQ: Good. So let me ask you this. When you went to put this collection together, what were the biggest challenges that you ran into?
SONiA: The hardest part was what not to include. Because there are so many other songs that that could go on a CD. In fact, originally the first group of songs was bigger than that. And then I had to dial it back for what would actually sit on the vinyl without making it two vinyl records. So did a compromise there, nine songs on the final record with three download tracks. And then of course in the CD it’s all 12 songs. So these songs are some that have resonated, information that I’ve gotten back from my audience through time, after shows and emails, all these, you know, that sort of infinity, figurative communication back and forth. “You gotta do this, you gotta do that one.” There’s a lot of other songs that certainly could be there. So there may be a “Love Out Louder” in the future.
CQ: So obviously touring is not really an option right now. All the venues are closed. So what are your plans to promote “Love Out Loud”?
SONiA: So what we did do was this: I had a tour in Germany – 20 concerts – scheduled for the spring. My manager and my publicist, they said, well, why don’t you do a concert for every show that you missed? And we’ll just call it “19 Plus One Digital Acts of Kindness” concert. And I did. So every concert that was scheduled, which was for 8:00 PM in Germany, ended up being 2:00 PM on the East Coast. And that was actually really convenient because I had fans in Abu Dhabi and in Tel Aviv and all the way over into Honolulu as well – first thing in the morning or rather late, you know, club time, at night. Which was really cool.
And the hearts were just going off on my Facebook Live concert and I loved it. It was so amazing to be singing to people that I know in quite different circles, and all at the same time. I had a real good time with that. And yes, I was also able to promote that this album was coming out. We also worked with an animation artist named Jessica McLeod-Yu from Australia, and she put together a really cool little video using six of the songs from the compilation CD and an animation. I think it’s just called “The Love Out Loud Trailer”. And that’s on my YouTube channel.
And that’s gotten a little bit of buzz. I’m going to do a CD release concert on June 1st, which is the date that the record comes out. And I’m thinking about doing an every Tuesday “Tuesday at Two” concert thing to keep it going, because people were like, we’re really gonna miss this. You know, cause there were lots of people that tuned in every single time I got on – and that’s a lot of concerts! I mean, it’s probably more than they’ve ever seen of me ever. For someone to hang in there for 20 freaking shows, over like basically a six week period – that’s a lot! So we’ll just keep it going as much as we can. I can do all the songs solo. I love doing it with the band live as well. I’ve been at it a little over 30 years, so I’ll just keep on plugging.
CQ: Good. So I’ve got a a question about your influences. So obviously, you know, the name of our our website is country queer and we’re focused on country and Americana where there is a dearth of representation for LGBTQ artists. I hear definite rock and folk influences in your music and I’m wondering if there were any country artists that also influenced you
SONiA: Yeah, I would say more of the writers. I liked Glen Campbell a lot. And so that writer was Jimmy Webb. And Kris Kristofferson, too. I didn’t listen to the really cool stuff that much. My dad liked jazz and Charlie Parker, that kind of thing. And then some classical guitar – Segovia and that sort of thing. My mom liked total classical stuff and opera. So I didn’t hear as much country, but I did hear a whole lot of folk music and folk music is really right out of that anyway. The Limelighters, Odetta, those harmonies, that’s right out of country. And I loved it. I mean, I sort of got turned onto country later, but there was also a whole lot of feminism awakening in me too, so I would listen to it until I couldn’t, you know.
CQ: Yeah. To me, it’s very interesting, the relationship between folk and country. There was a time when country was first being put out on records where they labeled it Folk. That was before they called it Hillbilly and then they called it Country and Western. And the Carter family, not only was a massive influence on Hank Williams for instance, but also on Woody Guthrie. Half of his songs are Carter Family tunes and obviously he’s sort of ground zero for American folk music. So you know, it, it all comes from the same place.
SONiA: That’s so true. “This Land is Your Land” is basically “You Are my Sunshine.” I was saying that at the Woody festival a couple of years ago, and I got some weird looks. I didn’t say it on stage, I didn’t want to upset anybody. Unless you really research it, like go into that part of it in your brain, unless that’s what you’re really driven to do, then music is more like a blanket, I think, it’s comforting. Or gets you somewhere. But it’s really good to hear you say that.
But I love it. The greatest country performers certainly can just take a guitar and get in front of a microphone and do the same thing that a whole group with a great arrangement does, too, which is a great parallel between folk and country. In Europe they say country music a whole lot. If you’ve got an acoustic guitar, it’s kind of considered country.
CQ: I don’t want to keep you much longer, but I do have one last question for you. It is Bob Dylan’s birthday. So if he was reading this right now, this is a silly question, but I’ll give you a chance to give a silly answer if you want it to. What would you say to Bob?
SONiA: Happy birthday, Bob. You know that he’s a distant cousin, right? Yeah. His his mother’s sister married a man named Rutstein. And that is my last name. And he owned a radio station, and his aunt is the one who gave him piano lessons. Her last name was Rutstein too.
CQ: Super. Cool. I want to mention, I had heard of disappear fear but really hadn’t been familiar with your music. I’ve been checking it out in preparation for this interview and I’m a fan at this point. Definitely big on some influences that I love. You can hear some Patti Smith, some Springsteen. Good stuff. Thank you for making it.
SONiA: Well thank you. And likewise, I just, I was just looking at your website and love it. I’m definitely going to keep checking in. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing.
CQ: We see a need, right? You know, there’s a culture that needs to get changed, and so we’re trying to try to move that conversation forward just like you’re doing.
SONiA: Absolutely. Every day a little bit more.
CQ: Keep going. Thank you so much, SONiA.
SONiA: Thank you. You too.
Find “Love Out Loud” on all streaming services and on http://soniadisappearfear.com
© by Country Queer, June 1, 2020
For the last few months I’ve been working on a music video for a folk musician called SONiA disappear fear, and I am happy to be able to share it now.
I first met Terry, SONiA’s wife and manager, serendipitously last year at Sydney airport when I went to pick up my boyfriend, Edu, who came to visit me for Christmas. We chatted a bit in the arrival lounge about flights and arrival times, and learnt that she and SONiA were in Sydney to perform for some music festivals. I said that I was an animator and we exchanged details. A month or so later, I met up with SONiA and Terry again and we agreed to make some music videos together.
The first one being a trailer for SONiA’s new retrospective album, Love Out Loud, celebrating 30 years of her career. From our conversations and listening to her musics, I learnt that SONiA was the first openly gay folk pop musician, in both her music and her lifestyle, (as opposed to artists who came out later on in their careers). She has been a great advocate for LGBT+ rights and fair treatment of marginalised people. SONiA’s lyrics and songs are quite illustrative and are often drawn from her life experiences of being Jewish and owning and embracing her identity of being gay despite living in a society that doesn’t always approve.
Despite her demure appearance, I could tell that SONiA was a real bad ass, and I was incredibly impressed to meet someone who was so sincere and brave to not only live out her truth, but also be positive and kind enough to share those experiences in order to inspire others and create positive change in the world.
It was a lot of fun creating this album trailer. SONiA was supportive of my art style, and very generous about giving me free rein to experiment and design creative cuts, which was aided a lot by her colourful and illustrative lyrics. While it was important for it to look good cohesively, I also had to navigate a delicate balance of highlighting each song’s message, while keeping the snippets short and fluid. Over all, I’m proud and pretty happy with the overall video.
Please check out the animation & making of videos below =)
© Jessica McLeod-Yu
Music Saves Lives
Interview: Christine Stonat (3/2020)
The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, composer and guitarist SONiA Rutstein aka SONiA disappear fear from Baltimore will release her new single "Ghost Of A Kangoroo" on April 22nd. A new compilation is planned for June 2020. In April and May 2020 SONiA disappear fear should have been on a tour of Germany. Due to the current corona pandemic, she, like so many other artists, had to postpone the tour until autumn 2020 and 2021. As of April 2, 2020, SONiA disappear fear has planned an online concert tour on Facebook. There will be an online concert for each postponed concert of the German tour (all online concert dates see below).
SONiA Rutstein is Jewish and has been openly lesbian since the beginning of her musical career. Her identity is an important part of her music and her lyrics and is also expressed in her political activism since the beginning of her career on and off the musical stage. In 1987 she founded SONiA disappear fear together with her sister Cindy. In 1996 Cindy officially left the band project, but was still at SONiAs side here and there live or in the studio until 2012.
Today SONiA disappear fear is SONiA Rutstein's own musical project. weird spoke to SONiA about the postponed tour, about her current album and future projects, about her collaboration with the Indigo Girls, about her lesbian musical, about her sister Cindy, about the connection between music and political activism and much more.
Name: SONiA disappear fear (SONiA Rutstein)
Place Of Living: now Baltimore
My weirdeste Characteristic: I assume people understand my sense of humor.
in own words
weird: You have always been an outspoken LGBTIQ rights and political activist with your music since starting your career in the early 1980s. As a musician you have always been out as being lesbian, also in your lyrics. Being Jewish is another important part of your music. Why was and is combining music and political activism important for you?
SONiA disappear fear: It is just natural for me. When I first began writing songs with my feelings, my friends laughed at me. So I started putting melodies and arrangements to poems from magazines. Then I started writing very obtuse lyrics myself. Finally I got the courage to write my own thoughts and feelings again, and it was THIS time that when I performed and recorded these songs, they started to have some real impact. I think I was looking for someone to say how I felt. But no one did, so I did. If there had been out lesbian singer-songwriters on the radio I might not have felt so strongly about it. It gives and gave me unlimited possibility of freedom. It also gave me a vehicle to find and touch my own truth. Turns out a whole lotta people can relate to that truth.
weird: You are a Grammy nominated musician. Have you ever felt that being openly lesbian, being a woman and/or being Jewish has hindered your career in any way?
SONiA disappear fear: Well yes and no (know). For me to just write songs means nothing. It is easy to paint by numbers in a safe and proven formula. But that is boring. I know music is important – it saves lives, it creates hope for the hopeless and love for the lonely and food for the soul. To waste my time – which would be my life – for cheap cliches is a sin. I could not face myself in the mirror. So did it inhibit my rise to stardom?! Damn straight! But it is a lot more fun to live in the moment, to carve paths with not so many rules beside gravity. This is extreme songwriting not for sale of the soul. Not that it is not great to have big machines of gasoline throwing oceans of petroleum on those sparks to make a big big flaming splash. It is quite possible to write great songs even with a lot of success. One is not prohibitive of the other. But for me, I think I was scared of too much success. I was good at that, too. At the peak of my success my sister, singing partner and business partner jumped ship. We changed management and record labels and it was pretty messy. I didn’t get my feet or wings back for probably 10 years. Most people I think would have given up, but for me music is life. It is my oxygen, so I will play and write songs no matter what.
weird: You started more or less with punk music and your band exibit A. What does punk mean to you and do you still feel a bit of punk in you today?
SONiA disappear fear: Hell yeah! Punk music attracted me because I was a teenager in angst and I disliked all the fake big hair, stupid guitar macho masturbation with nothing really musical to say. Punk music began in England because so many young people could not find work on the “account of the economy.” It was raw and real and accessible. It yelled the truth in simple terms, it was just like folk music only with a lot more energy and color. What’s not to love?
weird: The folk/pop orientated band project disappear fear you started at the end of the 1980s, together with your younger sister Cindy aka Cindy Frank. She officially left the band in 1996 but has joined you onstage and in the studio here and there ever after until 2012. What do you think was the unique thing Cindy had contributed to disappear fear – on the records and live?
SONiA disappear fear: Cindy and I started disappear fear on 10-9-87 in Baltimore, the town we were born and raised in. She is a year and 9 months younger than me. We sang harmonies since we were taking baths together at 4 and 6 years old. We loved singing in the bathroom because it had hard surfaces and bounce back acoustics and a big mirror so we could carve out our characters’ personalities. Cindy would know my notes before I did. She loved and loves my songs. So it was not an act of routine as a daily job might be, but an opportunity to hone our craft and talent. She could not have been more dedicated and committed to the success of disappear fear. I knew people would love us – it was a no brainer. But I think since I was her older sister she needed to break out on her own. There are additional factors, but that is certainly a tangible, plausible one. Because we have the same parents, we have a whole bunch of the same DNA and life experiences, so the sound that is created only happens with me and Cindy is so special. We also know each other very well, which fortunately has matured into a lot of respect for one another. That was not always the case, as sisters can be quite cruel if not appreciated. See interview on PBS youtube (Q37 Disappear Fear Interview (1994))
weird: You have kept on with disappear fear, with different band members but mostly as a solo artist, to this day. All in all you – as a band and solo – recorded over a dozen albums. Among others your ‘94 album “disappear fear” together with the lesbian acts Indigo Girls and Janis Ian. How did you get together for this album?
SONiA disappear fear: We opened for the Indigo Girls in North Carolina and they loved us. In fact the night SONY Records came down to Atlanta in the big white limousines, we were scheduled to open for them in 5 POINTS, but their manager Russel did not want us anywhere near SONY Records, so they put us on stage about an hour before we were scheduled to go on -folks were starting to come into the club to have some dinner and drinks. We became friends with Amy and Emily and they were excited to sing back up harmonies on our songs. Emily’s girlfriend wanted them to cover some of my songs and they were big fans just as we were big fans of their sound. We did shows with them on the West Coast in 1991, and in 1992 on the East Coast. I also did some solo shows with them. DF did incredibly well in front of Indigo fans and I always love performing with them. I think my manager invited them to sing on our first Philo/Rounder Records album. Janis Ian was a client of my producer’s wife’s management company in Nashville. She invited Janis to be on the CD and Janis was all about it. Super nice. At the time none of the major label acts – not Janis, not Joan, not the Indigo Girls, not Melissa and not k.d. – no one was out as a lesbian singer-songwriter before their record deal. Only disappear fear was out from day one. Though still largely under the radar, I’m proud of my career and my choices. Truly this is just who I am; not to brag or be depressed, it is just what it is.
weird: Your latest album “By My Silence” came out in 2019. For the title song “By My Silence” you carried the famous words by German Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) – who actually lived in Bielefeld – into a contemporary context. The self-reflective words say, that staying silent in the face of Fascism and anti-Semitism is giving consent. How do you experience the current threat of rising Fascism personally and how do you try to handle it in and apart from your music?
SONiA disappear fear: In my music I am in it every time I sing the song. When I introduce the song, I frequently mention that one could substitute the word “Muslim” or “Catholic” or “Transgender” for socialist. I try to draw today’s misguided hatreds of stereotyped groups to the forefront in perfect reflection to Niemöller’s poem. Of course I still participate in human rights events around the world. I think also as an out Jewish person loving and being so loved in Germany 75 years after the Holocaust is a great loud example of positive social evolution. I think it is important to live into our freedoms lest we forget them. That is the essence of my mantra Love Out Loud.
weird: You are politically engaged to help freeing the young Kurdish musician Nu dem Durak (more information on your website www.soniadisappearfear.com). She is imprisoned in Turkey since 2015 for singing in Ku rdish. She was sentenced to 19 years. How did you get to know about her – do you know her personally, have you ever met her? –, and how did you get engaged?
SONiA disappear fear: I was told about her innocent crime and it just struck me that that is exactly what I do, and how important it is to be able to express oneself in our ancestral language if we so wish. I love languages. I see how all of humanity is connected through languages and how we misunderstand one another, too. I have not met Nu dem yet, although I fee like I know her. She and I, though 1000s of miles apart, and while she is Sunni Muslim and I am modern Jewish, while I speak English and Spanish and she mostly Turkish and Kurdish, we are sisters sharing our craft to bring joy, peace, love and understanding to humanity. She has paid a very high cost, and I want her to know we hear her, and I want the world to know of her innocence and of Turkey’s crime.
weird: As a composer that you are you premiered with your first musical “Small House, No Secrets” in your hometown Baltimore in March 2019. Music and lyrics are by you. There is an album to it by you also. The musical tells a lesbian coming-out story. How did you get involved in this project with Jody Nusholtz (book and lyrics) and director Miriam Bazensky?
SONiA disappear fear: Jody and I had a dream to write a musical together. We were both paralyzed with sadness when we read about these two young Catholic women ages 19 and 17 that committed suicide by suffocating themselves to death inside a car in Pennsylvania. They left a note that said, “Although we know it is a crime to love each other on Earth, we can not live apart, so maybe in heaven there will be a place for us.” Jody tried to script this story, but it was too depressing. So she wrote a funny play and I loved it and thought, “Yes, it can sing.” So then I wrote the songs. This was over a 10 year period, with a bunch of revisions in the script and the songs. The musical was chosen in Ten Best of Baltimore Playwrights Production for a one scene presentation, and then chosen by the Kennedy Center for Best New Plays in America in September 2018. This was the same place that Hamilton got its start. So Miriam was on the board at Festival Productions and they chose to present a workshop version of “Small House, No Secrets” last spring at Fells Point Community Theatre in Baltimore. Since then it is being considered by Signature Theatre in DC, and in Honolulu and North Carolina.
weird: Bruce Springsteen is one of your huge musical influences. How important is it personally to you today to not only create music but to listen to the music of other musicians yourself and what is it doing to you?
SONiA disappear fear: Yes, it is true I am a huge Springsteen fan. His struggles are inspiring to so many of us who also are struggling. I think it is paramount to listen to today’s music, but I don’t think it is necessary to copy it. I never copied the music of the day in the past and I don’t intentionally do now either. I enjoy some of it and some of it doesn’t reach out to me. But life keeps moving forward, and to be connected to one another is good. It makes a better quality of life for all of us, and that’s the world I want to live in and want my nieces and nephews to thrive in.
weird: In April 2020 you will be on tour in Germany presenting new and old songs of you. (Update: The Tour is postponed to Fall 2020 and next year!) You have a German fan base here. How and when did that come and what kind of relation do you have to Germany and your German fans?
SONiA disappear fear: I love Germany and my German fans, some of whom now are close friends. I was asked to perform with the SONiA Santa Cruz Guitar signature model at Musikmesse in Frankfurt in 2008, and so I did. People would ask me where they could see me perform and I would try to step out, but I didn’t know German. Then by accident this guy Heinz came to see me perform at the Acoustic Stage at Musikmesse, and then he bought some CDs. The next year he also came to see me play and asked if he could do a video of my concert. We agreed and after the performance he asked where he could see me perform in Germany. I asked him, “Where should I be performing?” So Heinz said, “I think we have a little jazz series in my town. I will see if you can perform there next year.” And so it began. Heinz became the club president and booked me, and then other clubs asked how did he get me to perform at his club. Being so articulate in English and Deutsch, Heinz Haberzettl, the nuclear physicist, has become my booking agent in Germany and a dear friend, too.
But this year because of Covid-19, the tour is completely canceled. I will be inside with my wife for the next weeks until the city, country and world open up again. It is spring and my house has a lot of windows, so I will take long walks in the spring sunshine. We have decided to do a live concert to honor each show that I will miss this spring. There are coincidentally also 19 concerts. We call this non-tour tour 19 Digital Acts of Kindness Concerts starring SONiA disappear fear. It will be available on Facebook live for free. The first one will be on April 2 at 20 hr German time. In the meantime Heinz and the clubs are working to reschedule my concerts in Germany for October and November 2020 and February 2021.
Also coming up are two other big things. I just recorded a song about climate change that will be released on Earth Day, April 22, 2020, called Ghost of the Kangaroo. Also this June disappear records will release a compilation album (CD, vinyl + digital) called Love Out Loud, celebrating love in the LGBT community with songs from various titles over the years of my career.
‘Sonia / Disappear Fear’ at the Gordon Center
International performing artist and Pikesville-native Sonia Rutstein of Sonia Disappear Fear will perform on Thursday, November 7th at 7:30 pm at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills, Maryland. Having just released her 19th CD, By My Silence, in January 2019, Rutstein is very excited about her upcoming performance.
“I’ll be featuring songs from By My Silence,” began Rutstein, “and I’ll also be performing songs from as many past CDs as I can fit in. I have a full band plus a piano player, a violinist, and an oud player from Palestine. So, I have those guests and a mystery guest, as well.”
Rutstein’s latest CD was inspired by a recent 2018 trip. “A year ago, I was travelling from Germany into Poland. We were delayed by some serious Nazi rallies in Germany that day. September 1st was the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s march into Poland and that was an opportunity for supremacists to show their hatred. I thought it was important to show that I’m a wandering Jew in Germany, and I’ve been very loved and successful there. Germany totally welcomed me, and I think it’s important for me to speak out. Not only am I welcomed there to play but also two weeks later there was a rally against the supremacists. The supremacist rally had about 12,000 people but the rally against them had two million people in Germany. Overwhelmingly, there is a compassion for freedom and equality more so than for white-supremacy and hatred.”
Rutstein’s songs are a vivid celebration of the human spirit in all its infinite manifestations. Her music has a singular sound that makes labeling and categorizing a waste of time. A world-class composer and artist who writes in multiple genres and languages, Rutstein often addresses humanitarian causes. Her multiple awards include six GLAMAs including “Female Artist of the Year,” GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian American Anti-Defamation) Award for Best Album (previous recipient Elton John), and the Coin of Honor from a joint coalition of the US military for her humanitarian efforts.
“I am so grateful to my fans in the Baltimore area and the LGBT community, specifically for always supporting me and letting me be the voice they needed to hear.” Rutstein dropped some hints on her next upcoming works. “I’m always working on new songs. The main thing that I’m working on daily is my first novel. It’s an autobiography! The story of ‘disappear fear.’ So, I’m going through that 30-year history but as well as some of my own history and what was happening in the world. It’s the story of how far, and long, we’ve come.”
Queer As Folk
by Chris Wilson
A prolific folk performer SONiA has recorded multiple albums and frequently tours both in the U.S. and internationally. Earlier this year she toured through Germany to celebrate the release of her 19th CD entitled By My Silence.
She first began performing with her sister CiNDY (Cindy Frank) as “disappear fear,” releasing their first album in 1988. Other members later joined the band but eventually CiNDY gave up touring in favor of family life with her children. SONiA continues to use the recognizable name, and concept, “disappear fear.”
SONiA has always been concerned with social justice and has received numerous awards for her work in this area. Growing up in Baltimore, she became acutely aware of the disparity between the wealthy, powerful Washington elite and the disadvantaged citizens in their midst. Here she is, describing this eloquently in song.
While so much of her music work deals with calling out injustice, her latest release focuses upon her Jewish heritage and the rise of anti-Semitism. While I usually like to post videos of actual performances, this video of the song By My Silence (written by Ellen Bukstel and Nick Annis and inspired by the well know poem written by pastor Martin Niemöller) is particularly powerful and moving so I share it with you here:
Excerpt from Queer As Folk © by Folkworks
Small woman real great!
Sonia Rutsteins Album „By My Silence“
by Thomas Waldherr
At the big Pete Seeger tribute at "Americana im Pädagog," she showed what defines her, and why she is gaining more and more friends in this country [Germany], too. Sonia Rutstein is a great musician and a humble and unpretentious person. She is a team player and quite naturally blended into the big band of musicians. People like her are needed to successfully stage concerts like this.
Sonia sang on "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "We Shall Overcome," and performed solo on "Rainbow Race," with support from Cuppatea on "Wimoweh" and, accompanied by the whole ensemble, "Guantanamera." Naturally, she wanted to be there when the man with whom she sang together at Clearwater Festival, and who is a great role model to her as well, was being honored. Her dedication made you sense this. She naturally combines music with political commitment. And the human being is always at the center of it, not party politics.
Her current album "By My Silence" is an expression of that. The very first song shows how crazy this world is when political systems want to break people who have done something supposedly unrighteous. For example, the young Sunni Muslim Nudem Durak was sentenced to 19 1/2 years' imprisonment in Turkey for singing in Kurdish. "A Voice For Nudem Durak" doesn't need a lot of lyrics to denounce this madness and to call out to Nudem: "We will sing for you, your voice will be heard. We are one family, we are one world. "
Part of Sonia Rutstein's repertoire for quite a while now and finally on record is "By My Silence," a song inspired by the famous words of Martin Niemöller: "When the Nazis came for the Communists, I kept quiet; I was not a communist. When they imprisoned the Social Democrats, I kept quiet; I was not a social democrat. When they got the unionists, I kept quiet; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for me, there was no one left to protest." In her liner notes, she says about the song, which was written by Nick Annis and Ellen Bukstel, that it is an alarm clock: "It's time to wake up and resist!"
In addition to the protest songs on this album, she also deals intensively with her Jewish background. For example, she wrote “Light In You" as a Hanukkah song for the neighbor boy, sings the two Israeli folk songs "Eleh Chamda Libi" and "Oseh Shalom," and even "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem.
And then there is the happy song "Wandering Jew." The song is the expression of a connection with Germany that has grown deep. A connection with the Germany, or those people in Germany, who know about the dark parts of the country's past and want to offer a home to both her as a Jewess, and to refugees in need. Her tours in Germany are getting longer and longer. That's no surprise, as she sings, "Welcome to the new land of the free, I'm a little Jew wandering in Germany, welcome to the new land of the free, I'm a little Jew wondering in Germany". Also herein is a tribute to Pete Seeger: "Seeger said this was a rainbow race, nobody here is out of place." For Sonia Rutstein, there is only one world and all people are one family. And so she sings with verve against "Othering".
That leaves two slow songs still to mention. One, “Hallelujah,” is a tribute by Sonia, cousin of songwriter pope Bob Dylan, to another great songwriter – Leonard Cohen. And at the very end of this beautiful album, she asks herself questions. Old questions, but ones that always return. Why am I a lesbian? Why why why? Even years after coming out, she's moved by that. And she lets us share in her worries and her doubts, goes out of cover, is unprotected. Just to then declare with great certainty, "It's okay that I am who I am." And that too makes this little, petite woman the great artist, singer-songwriter and the great human Sonia Rutstein!