Sonia & Disappear Fear
Sonia Rutstein has never had trouble adapting to her surroundings. She leads the band disappear fear, and also records solo as simply SONiA. She’s gone from operating as a DIY artist to a successful stint with Rounder Records, then back to managing her own independent record label. And even as she has advocated feminism, gay activism and other expressions of social consciousness, she’s always maintained her musical integrity.
“It’s really from my heart,” says SONiA of her social concerns, taking a break between gigs at the recent Folk Alliance conference in Memphis. “Yes, it’s in the sphere of what people might call political. But it’s more about alerting people that they can affect what happens with their government, and to say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’ It’s simply saying there should be equal rights for everyone.”
SONiA—the small “i” is meant to indicate a rejection of the ego—forged a musical bond with sister Cindy while in her early teens. The two first collaborated in a band called Exhibit A in their native Baltimore, then performed as a duo after the group imploded. They chose the name disappear fear, which SONiA had suggested for the name of the abused women’s safe house where she worked.
Determined to get its music out by any means necessary, the group pressed 1,000 copies of its initial album and mailed 400 to radio stations “from Alaska to Florida, and everywhere in between.” They toured relentlessly, crisscrossing the country in their cargo van. “It was a lot of go-go-go,” SONiA recalls. The steady gigging found disappear fear making business connections that helped its music infiltrate some of the nation’s larger retailers.
After recording three albums under its own auspices, the group was courted by Rounder. “It was a very exponential step, because all I wanted to do was just focus on the music,” she says. “My brother Rick was running our record label, and it was a lot to do. We were already in the major chains, so we were just putting another record company label on it.”
Cindy eventually quit to be a full-time parent, leaving SONiA to maintain the disappear fear moniker while simultaneously establishing herself as a solo act. Later, she and the label amicably parted ways. “Rounder was putting out 100 albums a month and I wanted a little more attention,” she says with a chuckle. “I have the needy child syndrome.”
While SONiA won’t rule out another record company affiliation, she’s perfectly content being back at the helm of her own Disappear Records. In addition to the debut from 16-year-old violin prodigy Sam Weiser, Sam I Am, she’s currently celebrating the release of Blood, Bones & Baltimore, a new album credited jointly to SONiA & disappear fear. After the
world-music-tinged Tango, the new set marks a return to her roots with a faithful read of Woody Guthrie’s “Worried Man Blues” and an unapologetic statement of purpose called “I Am SONiA.”
And she continues to merge her musical side with her social consciousness. “I have a vision of a planet that works for everyone,” she says. “In that sense, music is my way of connecting people together.”
– Lee Zimmerman