Sonny Smith has been thinking about hairdressers lately.
“They’re out there saving lives,” he tells me. “Hairdressers are like a mix between a psychiatrist and a guru.”
Smith (who dates a hairdresser) says that people often come into salons in a panic, desperate for professional help. It was this observation that inspired Hairdressers From Heaven, the seventh full length by his psychedelic pop group Sonny and the Sunsets. Smith describes this album as a mixtape that’s “full of weird shit.” On its title track, he dives directly into the experience of a salon customer whose hair is just the start of their problems: “Hairdressers from Heaven / Help me to make sense of myself again,” Smith sings, in a Dylan-lite drawl over piano and drums.
The verses of “Hairdressers” tell its tale of coiffure woe against a breezy piano melody; it’s an airy piece of chamber pop comparable in composition to Belle and Sebastian or Beulah. At its chorus, Smith implores the audience to “watch me as I fall into the air,” tapping out a rising melody on the keys. The song swoons, tripping instantly into dreams as he describes himself falling “like hair onto the checkerboard.”
“If you listen to the lyrics, it’s about somebody looking for a hairdresser to save them. Help them feel good again, be themself again,” Smith explains.
Rather than musings and reflections, Smith’s lyrics often inhabit characters, who on this album come in the form of customers. In addition to the panicked salon customer, there’s the ripped-off stoner of “Ghost Days,” a Parquet Courts-like tune about a kid who got sold parsley instead of weed. On “Another Life, Another Body,” Smith channels a visitor to a psychic, someone who is mostly talked out of speaking with a dead friend by the psychic’s repeated refrain that there’s “no pressure.”
“That kind of storytelling with characters used to be more popular,” Smith says. “Ray Davies wrote so many songs about characters. Beatles had Penny Lane, or Rita the Meter Maid—they were constantly singing about characters from their neighborhood. Most songwriting I hear is usually autobiographical; it’s about how you’re feeling, it’s very anthemic.”
For Smith, this tendency to write characters isn’t about some retro songwriting style, it’s a natural outgrowth of his start as a writer. Many of his early songs emerged directly out of stories he’d written, characters lifted from the page and reanimated in song.
“In the early days of the Sunsets I was playing piano or guitar, but I still thought of myself as a writer, like I was just sort of playing music on the side, so to speak,” he says. “It’s weird looking back and realizing I was so off.”
Despite a career spanning two decades and 15 albums, Smith still doesn’t seem to take his role as singer-songwriter that seriously. Most of the bio page on the band’s website is taken up by a home video of Smith breakdancing as a child.
He continues to explore and take risks. Recently, he parted with longtime label Polyvinyl to start his own, Rock in Your Head Records, which he’ll be using to showcase the work of fellow San Francisco artists. Last year also saw the release of Rod For Your Love, a solo album that Smith recorded in Nashville with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach at the helm. While that experience was a career highlight (and the resulting album a strong bit of classic-rock-inspired indie pop), it was also a contrast from his usual style—a contrast which helped inspire the ramshackle nature of Hairdressers From Heaven.
“I realized that my favorite way of making records is actually kind of patchwork,” he says. “The song you made in your kitchen sounds way better than the song you made at the million-dollar recording studio. What about instead of picking the ones that are the most professionally made, why don’t we just pick the ones that are the coolest? Let that be the record.”
Sonny and the Sunsets perform at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 17, at Michael’s On Main, 2591 Main St., Soquel. $15 adv/$15 door. 479-9777.