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SONiA - Helping Heal Hearts
An interview with visiting US performer SONiA - Feb 2008

By Sue Barrett
Posted Tuesday, February 12, 2008

no matter the hemisphere/
everybody got to disappear fear/
disappear fear
(SONiA Rutstein — 'Opinion #33')
SONiA was born and raised in Baltimore, USA. In the late 1980s, she and her sister Cindy formed the folk-pop band, disappear fear. Since then, SONiA has both performed solo and with disappear fear; toured around the world; and been nominated for a Grammy award. During her current tour of Australia, SONiA shared some time with The Cornstalk Gazette. [There was no room for it in the March 2008 issue, but it may still appear in a future issue of Cornstalk.]

You've been a frequent visitor to Australia over the last decade. Does this mean that you continue to feel appreciated and understood by Australian audiences?

Yes. I love performing in Oz. I feel that my music really connects with people here. And my state of being here is very positive for the most part.

As a performer, to what extent and in what ways do you see your music as a tool for political/social change and as a source of empowerment/affirmation for individuals and communities?

Well it is hard to measure the LOVE in someone's heart but in a recent conversation I had with a former classmate at my high school reunion ... everybody was asking each other what we did professionally now. I asked Scott what he did and he responded that he is a cardiologist. I said, "me, too" and he said , "really!" and I said, "yes I am a musician and I help heal people's hearts". He smiled. I think music with the direct intention of changing someone's mind ... doesn't. But if you can get into a sound and find your own place in the song then maybe you can step into a light where others will want to follow.

Your album, no bomb is smart, was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. How did you feel about that experience?

It was a nice thrill. There are literally thousands of submissions and it gets narrowed down as it goes to the final draw. I hope to actually win it next time. It is really not in my hands — I just make music. The awards are nice and recognition but that has never been what has driven me — I think if it was, I would not be making music ... I certainly know it would be different.

It's been around 35 years since American singer-songwriter Phil Ochs visited Australia. What has been Phil's influence on you? And do you still perform his songs?

I love the music of Phil Ochs

I love the music of Phil Ochs. Yes I usually include at least one of his songs at my gigs and sometimes more than one. I have recorded two of his songs. And I was part of many many many Phil Ochs nights, with Sonny Ochs (who is Phil's older surviving sister and who lives in upstate New York not far from Pete Seeger) in the USA, Vancouver and here in Oz. Sonny joined up with my tour here in Australia in 2001.

When I was in high school, a young man I was dating was a big fan of Phil's music. He knew I played political songs and was surprised that I had not heard of Phil. I actually was familiar with the song, 'Changes', though I did not know it was Phil who wrote it. Anyway my friend gave me the double album, Chords of Fame, and that was all it took. So many teenagers feel alone and worry about how they will ever fit into the real world. When I discovered Phil, I felt like it was OK to feel alone and lonely. That what was important was that you sang a song that was true to your own heart, even if no one was listening or agreed. He gave me a tremendous amount of light and soul food. There is hardly a concert I give that I am not approached by the presence of his soul.

You've toured the Middle East (and will be performing in Israel again shortly). What has taken you to that part of the world?

Judaism and Buddhism work very nicely together

Being Jewish I was taught it was the birthright of my people to live in and to visit Israel. Being there is very special to me. Since I was very young it was always a dream to go to the Kotel (Western Wall) to walk/float on the water in the Dead Sea, to visit the many places that are discussed throughout history. My first visit there was in 1975, my father funded the expensive trip because he was concerned I was becoming Buddhist. Truthfully Judaism and Buddhism work very nicely together. Now as an adult and an advocate for Peace I am interested in the well being of all of the Middle East. The West Bank of Palestinian Villages as well as the Settlements Old and New. I love Israel and while I don't support every political/military decision that she has made, life there is quite different than here in Oz or America and I welcome either country the opportunity to do it better. That said, the songs from my current CD, t a n g o, and the reason the CD is in four languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English) is because of my last tour there, which was during the Second Lebanon War. disappear fear (my band) was invited to perform and then the war broke out. All of the international talent except for me pulled out. I went armed with my acoustic guitar and performed up north in a bomb shelter. I am proud of my decision, I will do it again regardless of the risk or consequences.

Can you tell us about Guitars for Peace (

The very first concert I gave during my August of 2006 tour of Israel was in the West Bank in a small village. It was for a summer camp for girls. About a hundred girls between the ages of six thru sixteen gathered to listen to me perform my songs. They LOVED it! And as I was leaving one of the girls asked if they could keep my guitar and while I could not give them my guitar on the spot, I promised to get them a guitar and kept my promise. And it got me thinking that it be wonderful to get guitars into the hands of children in war torn countries in the Middle East. And some like minded friends agreed, so now we have joined together to create Guitars for Peace. Guitars for Peace will also be donating other musical instruments to children in third world nations as well as musical instruction in a multi-lingual book. We look forward to more music lovers around the world such as members of folk alliances world wide joining us in this effort.

On your current tour, you are playing at the Cobargo Folk Festival. Have you played there before? And do you have previous connections with any of the other people performing at that festival, such as Judy Small or Peggy Seeger?

Peggy & Pete Seeger and Judy Small

No, I have never played the Cobargo Folk Festival before. So I am really looking forward to it. I have met Peggy Seeger and performed in the States at many of the same festivals. I have performed with her half brother Pete, as well, on some very memorable (for me) occasions. I also performed with Judy Small a couple of years ago at Susquehanna Music and Arts Festival in the USA.

When you perform at festivals, such as Cobargo, is your festival experience far more than just what happens on stage?

Absolutely. There are usually moments when you meet folks that you just connect with and you have never seen them before. I like talking with the people who pick up my CDs — it gives me a greater sense of what songs are really reaching folks and what they think about the music. Sometimes the jams are surprisingly excellent.

Many people in Australia know of you as a solo performer and/or as part of disappear fear. Can you tell us a bit about some of your other creative endeavours, including your soundtrack work?

The soundtrack for the documentary Autumn's Harvest was really lovely. I went up to Rochester for a few days just after Israel and before the Jeep Tour to record the music for the film. It contains the story of the life of a man who is a migrant farm worker living with Aids. It gives a lot of information about the history of migrant farm workers in the USA and the still deplorable conditions by which they work. The film also details the bleak history of Aids. In each situation, being Black or Latino with very little income, imported from the cities to work on the farms — it is grossly unfair and these folks and their desperate situation are seriously exploited.

Another project is an all Aussie band I am creating called, Echo My Call. To date, the band has Maurie Mulheron on banjo, mandolin, second acoustic guitar with some background vocals and Tara Guiness on cello.

As you've already mentioned, your new album,
t a n g o, includes songs in Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and English. What can people expect from this recording?

t a n g o - my best recording?

Some people have expressed that it is the best recording of mine they have ever heard. I am proud of it. Every track is a gem. We provide complete translations in all four languages for every song, so whatever your language starting point is, we can make the song understood. And if none of these languages are your language, we also provide my paintings in the tones of colours I feel most vividly translate the essence of the song. I think it broadens people's experience of Life to hear music in other languages and that makes Life more worth living.

And, finally, what will be happening in your world over the next year or so?

The future for me is touring in a lot of new countries where Spanish and Hebrew and Arabic are the first language. I am looking forward to folk festivals in Canada, the USA, the Middle East, South America and likely nations on the Continent of Africa. I will be writing songs for my next CD which will probably be a blues CD. I am looking forward to jamming with musicians all over the Earth. I will be shaking lots of hands and hugging lots of folks I hardly know. I am blessed.

Upcoming gigs

Tues 19 February (12-1pm)
University of Queensland
St Lucia Campus (on boardwalk)

Fri 22nd February
The Heritage Hotel
240 Princes Hwy, Bulli NSW
(special guest for Bluehouse)

Sat 23/Sun 24 February
Cobargo Folk Festival

Sat 8 March
Folkus Room, Canberra

Sun 9 March
International Woman's Day Celebration

More info her web site.

SUE BARRETT is an Australian music writer, with a special interest in women in music and a large collection of recordings by Phil Ochs.

Related info:

Disappear Fear
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