Sonia Rutstein is on the phone from her North Baltimore home, less than 24 hours since her return flight from Germany landed.
"We were away for about five weeks. We were in Germany, Austria, Holland, Switzerland and Italy," the Baltimore-based singer-songwriter said last week. "It's good to be home."
Rutstein, who performs under the moniker SONiA disappear fear, is used to traveling. Since 1994 — when she and her sister, Cindy Frank, formed the indie-folk duo disappear fear — Rutstein has released albums as a group member and even more as a solo artist.
Tonight, Rutstein — who plays guitar, piano and harmonica — performs at Temple Oheb Shalom. It's a release show for her new double live album, "LiVE at MAXiMAL," and also a benefit for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization that fights against housing discrimination. A known humanitarian, Rutstein has found audiences around the world through songs about compassion, love and not allowing fear to dictate her life.
Before the show, the Pikesville native discussed what she's been up to, working on a new musical and more. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
We last checked in with you nearly 10 years ago. For readers who haven't kept up, how would you describe your career in recent years?
A good chunk of my year, I'm in Europe, and then every few years or so I go back to Australia and New Zealand, which I love very much. I'm touring a whole lot more solo now. I think [back when we last talked], it was much more band-based. I love my guys in Baltimore — Baltimore [drummer] Ezell Jones Jr. and also [bassist] Chris Sellman. That's my core band, and those are my first-choice guys to go anywhere with, but mostly I have been doing a whole lot of solo stuff. Maybe I'll take the band over to Germany next spring.
The other thing, too, that's a new development is my first musical is in pre-production right now at Carroll Community College.
What can you tell me about that?
It's called "Small House, No Secrets." Basically, as you can imagine, it is a small house but there really actually are some large secrets that unravel and get explained and shock the characters in the play. It's [about] personal relationships and personal development. There's drama, there's humor. It's really just based on four characters, but the development goes through looking back at what happened 20 years ago to two of the characters and a relationship that they had.
The book was written by another Baltimorean, whose name is Jody Nusholtz. She teaches creative writing and English at Carroll College. So it's being orchestrated, and it's really fun. The play is theirs to do and it's their development. I've been away for the past six weeks but I'm actually going to a rehearsal tonight to check in and see what the development is with the orchestration. The release date is Nov. 16 through 19.
What did this new live album capture that you thought was worth putting out?
The reason I wanted to share it is because it captures a very nice live show. Basically, if you don't know what I sound like live with just a guitar, this is what it is. This is 90 percent of what I'm doing — me and my guitar or me and my piano and harmonica. So it's a sold-out night in Rodgau [Germany] in a club called Maximal. The energy — my energy and the energy of the room — it's a very good feeling. I think music is very healing, and it's very real. So this kind of energy is really good for people. When you hear something that's real and unaltered, I think it makes you more in-tune with and aligned with our own personal energies and potential. That happens at my concerts, and that definitely happened that night.
So distributing that and making that available to people continues the possibility of that good energy. So it's not only fun to listen to and pleasing, but I think it's very organic. It's not fixed. In a studio album, you can play with every single millisecond. Your pitch is off, that can get corrected. Your timing is wrong, that can be changed. Nothing is changed with this CD — it's just cut.
I'm always writing. I'm always taking bits of ideas and jotting down notes and stuff. That's a daily thing for me. Now that I'm back in Baltimore for good, I'll be working on the orchestral arrangements of the musical. I have a whole lot more touring and stuff to do. I'm pretty much in the focus of the new CD, but I am planning on doing some video work for some new songs this summer in New York, but we'll see.
You began your career singing with your sister. What is she up to these days?
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She's doing great. We worked together for about seven years of the 28 I've been doing it. She stopped so she could raise her family. She has two sons. … She's going to join me for a song or two at the concert on Tuesday. At least that's what she says. [laughs]
You've been doing this for decades. What are you most proud of?
Being true to the idea of disappear fear. Living into that for myself, and how it teaches me every day to appreciate the opportunity to be a full-time musician, and all of the blessings that I'm given.