When sisters Sonia Rutstein and Cindy Frank formed the band disappear fear back in the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan was president, “trickle down economics” was the buzzword, gay couples were not allowed to marry anywhere in the United States, and there were no out pop music stars.
“On one side there was ‘Women’s Music’ (which we felt was sweet but boring) and there was rock and dance,” recalls SONiA, a Jewish lesbian who prefers to go by just her first name, complete with creative capitalization.
“Today countless singer songwriters and fans approach me and say, thank you — your strength and courage gave me the courage to be true to myself and my life,” she says, while adding, “I am glad to be the medium for such light and healing. It is not me — it just comes through me.”
Quirky and smart, a poet with a guitar, SONiA is a master of crafting songs that make you want to simultaneously dance, sing and change the world.
“Many people term my songs ‘protest’ songs, where actually what I write about is love and moments of inspiration and stories,” she says.
Founded in 1987, disappear fear featured SONiA and Cindy singing powerful, socially conscious songs backed by SONiA’s guitar and harmonica. Cindy left the band in 1996 to focus on her family and kids, though she occasionally contributed backing vocals on some recordings. Now, the sisters are back together and on tour for disappear fear’s new tribute album to folk legend Phil Ochs — a tour that brings them to Decatur’s Eddie’s Attic on Nov. 20.
Asked what it is like to tour with Cindy again after so many years, SONiA answers like a typical sister.
“Cindy stays up late watching TV and doesn’t turn the TV off —that drives me crazy. And she reads magazines all the time when she is not texting her friends. So, we are really different,” she says.
“And yet, still after raising two boys she loves my songs and singing with me, so it works out. Politically we agree and that is a strong connection. We have not really done the tour yet, so there may be a meltdown,” SONiA says. “We were in our late 20s when we started disappear fear.”
More than two decades since the band formed, their songs continue to resonate, from the ongoing struggle for LGBT equality to the current Occupy Wall Street movement.
SONiA married her partner, former Atlantan Terry Irons, in California before Proposition 8 repealed marriage equality there, and praises the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York as “as big and great as walking on the moon.”
“One vote for New York equals one gigantic message to the country. … The more we as gays are just honest about ourselves, sharing ourselves and not segregating ourselves, the more we will lose the archaic stereotypes and with it the shrouds of misconception fade and fall and then the fear is disappeared,” SONiA says.
She also expresses solidarity with the “Occupy” movements that are highlighting the disproportionate wealth and resources of the country’s richest one percent.
“We are calling this mini disappear fear tour the ‘we are the 99 percent tour,’” SONiA says. “I am thrilled to see folks around this country and abroad speaking out for fairness … we really ARE the world.”
Tribute to a folk legend
The timing of disappear fear’s Phil Ochs cover album, titled “Get Your Phil,” may be particularly apt. Ochs died in 1976.
“Most of the songs on the ‘Get Your Phil’ CD were written by Phil Ochs between 1963 and 1967, at that time he was speaking to the effect of the Vietnam War and war in general as the choice for our government’s survival,” she says. “While most of what Phil Ochs wrote is perfectly and sadly still true, there have happily been some great advancements.”
These days, SONiA describes herself as “against war” but “pro soldier,” citing the Ochs song “Is There Anybody Here,” which she covers on the new album and on the 1994 self-titled album, “disappear fear.”
“To give your life to what you believe in, there is nothing I respect more than that. However, it is good to look inside and see what drives us too,” she says. “We all reach out to survive … some by gun, some by guitar … and that defines us and that is the road we walk.”
SONiA says she has always been drawn to Ochs’ music, which inspired her own career.
“His songs make you think and touch your heart, make you realize you have a heart and that makes this planet a better place to be,” she says. “My religion says I am supposed to leave where I have been better than how I found it so, that’s what and why we are doing the 99% Tour.”
‘Moments of magic’ in Atlanta
As for what Atlanta fans can expect from the rare SONiA and Cindy show, SONiA promises “a beautiful night” and quotes from the Ochs song “Changes,” included on the new album: “Moments of magic will glow in the dark all fears of the forest are gone.”
The show will include songs from “Get Your Phil,” as well as other disappear fear songs including “Who I Am,” which won an Out Media award for Best Out Single. SONiA also promises beloved older songs like “Box of Tissues,” “Washington Work Song,” “Me, Too,” “Postcard from Texas,” “Who’s So Scared,” and “Sink the Censorship.”
SONiA’s ties to Atlanta go beyond simply performing here through the years. Irons, who is also her manager, lived in Atlanta and served as entertainment coordinator for Atlanta Pride back in the 1990s. The two have now been together for almost 15 years.
She fondly recalls previous Atlanta shows — “My gigs in Atlanta at Eddie’s, at the Variety Playhouse, at Pride…there have been so many really awesome moments!” — and also other places she loves to visit.
“I used to also like Stone Mountain for nice walks and shopping around Little 5 Points— got some cool stuff there, a sequin cardigan and a wild belt,” she says. “Makes me smile.”
Top photo: SONiA, a Jewish lesbian who prefers to go by just her first name, formed the band disappear fear with her sister Cindy in 1987. Cindy left the duo to focus on her family, but the two are back together for a new album and tour, which comes to Decatur on Nov. 20. (Courtesy photo)