Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
At 14 I worked in a burger joint. I got paid $1.40 an hour and taxes taken out. That spring I got a live gig at my synagogue to perform songs for 30 minutes and my pay was $50.00. I did the math and music was way more fun and much better income.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I almost want to just answer this question by saying “yes.” My life has influenced my career. I know when I was 5 I heard Louis Armstrong singing and playing the trumpet on the song Hello Dolly on the radio. Then my great aunt took me to see him at an outdoor festival in Baltimore City. I was amazed that real people made the songs that I heard coming from a box. And he was a full sized person. I thought very little people sat inside the box on folding chairs and then stood up to perform when it was their turn, just like my kindergarten class. So when Louis Armstrong performed Hello Dolly and he was real, it seemed like the best thing on earth, to make people feel as happy and amazed as I was that bright morning in March 1964.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I always admired the folkies. When I was a child and I would see performers on TV, all that lipstick and eye make-up on the women scared me. It was overdone and it made me think they were hiding something. The performers seemed so fake, like they were saying words that were not really what they felt in that moment of their performance. I never wanted to waste people’s time. I always thought if I could write a very true song and perform it and be on TV, I was quite sure that like me, the TV audience would much prefer a real artist over a fake one. I admired Pete Seeger because he seemed real. I liked Peter, Paul and Mary and Odetta and the Limelighters. Their songs were real and they seemed inspired to perform them. At the same time pop music wants a show – it wants to be entertaining. So to be in that spotlight, there were many visual compromises that I had to make, but I went there kicking and screaming. Sometimes I did not go at all – to my own demise.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I have moments of live performances around the globe that seemed to really make a difference for people. Like the Clear Water Festival, where I was singing a special song request for a love song called Fallin’ so that a fan could deliver a marriage proposal during the instrumental break – and she said “YES!” And I was so proud to perform Me, Too for the mayor in Galway, Ireland for the first LGBT Pride Festival there. I performed at many human rights festivals in support of LGBT communities and women’s rights, and people would tell me and write to me and write about my music about the positivity and inspiration my music catalyzed. Once on a country radio station in Texas I choose the song Me, Too because Texas was known to be so anti-gay politically and culturally on a broad scale. After the live performance that morning of that song I was bid a quick farewell. I was beating myself internally for doing THAT song, because air time is crucial to a songwriter’s career. It turned out the following year I was invited back to same radio show and I was greeted at the door by a warm outstretched arm and the radio host said to me, “Last year I nearly fell off my chair when you sang fell in love with the girl next door, but today I’m happy you are here.
And turns out folks LOVE that song. Welcome back SONiA.” It was a great thrill to perform on the biggest stage at the Sydney Opera House. And it is always a win to be able to be an OUT Jew performing openly and freely in Germany and having great popularity.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I think I do a nice job on some blues songs. I don’t write that many blues, so there are only a few. I also think that when I pop into another language like Hebrew or Spanish or Arabic, I connect with immigrants from those countries and they are happy for the welcome home feeling.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am always writing songs in my head, so I am constantly reflecting my ideas and feelings about the world we live in today. So my repertoire for any live show is in that moment of my life. I will frequently perform songs I am considering for my next musical project – an album or a musical – to see how well it is received.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Hopefully it is exactly where I am on any given night or day. If I focus too much on what is my favorite I would be depressed most of the time. So I try to just give it my very best and make that my favorite. Of course it is always nice to come home, and Baltimore is home. It is where I was born and raised. I also love a venue in Johnson City Tennessee called the Down Home, it just has great folks and a great feeling. My third favorite venue is a place called Maximal in Rodgau, Germany. It was my first real booking as headliner over there, and now it is my regular annual event no matter what else happens, big or small.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
After 33 professional years to narrow it down to one concert, it was not playing for a million people in Central Park NYC on Stonewall 25; it was not playing for 1/2 million at the Women’s March on Washington and on live CNN and National Network TV, nor was it standing next to Peter, Paul and Mary singing Blowin’ in the Wind at the Reflecting Pool the night before President Bush was flying troops over to Afghanistan to start this endless war. The best night was at the Palms Playhouse in Davis, California. The walls were just busting with people dancing and singing and it was 3000 miles from my home and it was just another ordinary sweaty Saturday night at some club in some small town. It was regular. It was just what we did, followed by encore after encore til they had to shut the place down. What was so special was that I realized that night in 1992 that this was just what we did. We came in, we filled the room with my songs, created the arrangements, rehearsed, and in the moment the room filled up with love and we knew we’d be back next year, and somewhere down the road to do it all again the next night somewhere else, and the night after that and after that. Making music was my job and I was proud.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
In a live performance it is a connection with each person in the room til the energy is so powerful it is beyond words.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Practice practice practice, trust your instincts, and give it all away.
What is your most treasured possession?
The appreciation of my extraordinary life.
One of the world’s most successful LGBT singer songwriters, SONiA disappear fear (born Sonia Rutstein) is loved for her beautiful voice and songs that illuminate truth passionately delivered. Born in Baltimore and cruising relentlessly across the USA in the early 90s, SONiA has grown to be loved around the world.