Venuszine Aug 2004

The singer-rocker makes a passionately calm return with plans for an upcoming indie release
by Colleen Maree Quill

During the rise of Alanis Morrisette, record labels were eager to find their own strong female artists. When Tracy Bonham released her The Liverpool Sessions EP in 1995, she garnered honors as Best New Artist, Best Female Vocalist, and Best Indie Single at the Boston Music Awards, and a major-label bidding war ensued.

After signing with Island Records to release The Burdens of Being Upright in 1996, Bonham found herself inside the publicity machine. In 1997, Bonham was nominated for two Grammy awards for Best Alternative Performance for Burdens and Best Female Vocal for her performance on the hit single “Mother Mother.”

Alas, during the recording of her second full-length album, Down Here, the vision at Island Records changed, leaving no room for the introspective direction her music was taking. She found herself dropped in the middle of recording her third album. It was another four years before Bonham even wanted to make music again.

But a great musician will find a way. Going back to her roots as an independent artist, Bonham accepted the offer of touring with the Blue Man Group. Newly inspired, she released her Bee EP and wound up selling 12,000 copies — much more than the 1,000 she'd anticipated.

Encouraged by that success, Bonham is on the verge of completing a self-funded full-length album. She’s had stops and starts because her producer had to go off to Ireland to finish work for U2’s upcoming November 2004 release. Bonham is in talks with a Boston indie label for distribution and finding there are still rules she has to abide by, possibly delaying the new release to the post-holiday season.

Now in her 30s and post-divorce, Bonham seems almost serene. Her clear eyes are intoxicating, and while her voice is soft, she speaks with a hard-earned passion and strength.

Here, Bonham talks about the demise of the record industry, her own musical growth, and surviving Los Angeles.

You were one of the first artists to embrace keeping a journal on your Web site. How important is the Internet as a medium for your fans?

Now more than ever! It’s like the only way to connect with the fans. They can find you and you can find them. I think it makes it more personal. They can see into my world through the journal. It’s not filtered through a business point of view.

Is the demise of the record industry a fortunate thing for artists?

Absolutely. For a long time I thought major record labels were a necessary evil. But now, because of the shaky atmosphere, its forcing artists like myself to find other avenues, so the Internet is the key right now. There’s music that is coming from this, inspired by it, and people are learning how to do it by themselves, which is always a good thing.

When you first got signed, would you say all the extra elements apart from making music — such as appearances and press junkets — that are part of the machine took over?

In retrospect, yeah, but at the time I wouldn’t have said so. I would have said, ‘This is fun, I’m going with it, and I’m taking the opportunity and running." There are a lot of people involved. People don’t even know. Creative decisions are being made, and the artistic control is not totally yours.

If a smaller boutique label, like J Records or Casablanca, came to you now saying that you would have artistic freedom, would you be interested?

I wouldn’t believe it. I’ve been through it. They can say anything to me. I’m like, "Kiss my ass." Especially now, everyone is afraid of losing their jobs, so I’m not going to take that chance. The labels don’t know where they will be in two years. Plus I’ve gotten used to being on my own and making my own decisions. I don’t want to give up that power.

How much do you think imagery is necessary for music to get attention? Do you think sometimes music gets attention just because of strong imagery, whether through videos or live shows?

I never really thought of my music as that visual. So when I hooked up with the Blue Man Group, I just thought that was a really cool and very interesting, different kind of experience with theatrical elements. I never thought my music fits perfectly with this kind of vibe. Usually the bands that have a lot of visuals, that can create who they are, but that hasn’t been what it’s been like for me.

How have the cities you've live in — Boston, New York, Los Angeles — influenced your music?

I am definitely a coast person. I think it’s important, living in Brooklyn post 9-11. Remembering your friends and how important it is to see them. "Dumbo Sun," one of the songs on the new record, is all about that time. Living in L.A., which has more of a singer-songwriter atmosphere, I find my new songs are being influenced by that now. I will go out and just play with an acoustic guitar instead of putting together a band. I find my lyrics changing a little bit to more storytelling instead of using textures and soundscapes on the record.

In your online journal, you talk about how your upcoming release has been delayed again. Would you rather put out another EP like "Bee," or do you just want to take your time and finish a full album?

My manager Peter [Rauh] and I have thought about putting out an EP in the interim. The most frustrating thing for me right now and has been for the last eight years is waiting in between records. As an artist, you want to make the record and move on. Right now I’m in this weird place because my record is done but I can’t put it out. I’m about to possibly sign with an indie label. Even they say it’s not smart to put a record out in the fall or winter. There is an unspoken rule that you don’t want to compete with the big bands and Christmas albums. I would love to maybe put out an EP in the fall, maybe on my Web site.

The new song, "I Was Born Without You," talks about not having to suffer more pain for a love than the pain you go through when you are born into this world. Do you think pain is necessary for creativity and for the songwriting process?

Absolutely. Suffering inspires change. Change is creative. So you create out of it. It’s from needing and not being happy with where I am.

When you first started out as an artist, you said you weren’t as able to be as open in person as you were in your songs. Has that changed?

Yeah, thank god. It was such a dichotomy to be so timid around people and non-confrontational. People didn’t get it. They’d meet me and say, "Are you really the Tracy I thought you were? I thought I’d be meeting this bitchy, hard woman." I didn’t get it at first. It’s evened out a bit. I’ve learned from it. I’ve learned from life that it’s important to talk to people. I’m still learning; it’s hard to say things that hurt people and be brutally honest.

In your bio, you said that your mother having cancer kicked your butt to get back to songwriting after a four-year break. What was the effect on you musically?

I kind of have this theory why my mom got breast cancer. She’s a wonderful lady, but kind of uptight and doesn’t speak her mind. She’s held in a lot of grief, a lot of pain and anger. When that happened, I realized I wanted to live my life in a more open way rather than hiding in my music. I realized I didn’t want to be putting so many negative thoughts in the room. Life is short. On my first record I was bitching about my ex-boyfriend. On the second record, bitching about the music industry.

I wanted to leave a message that was a little more positive — at least more heartfelt honest than singing about my record sales. I feel like I asked a lot of my audience. Now I want to get back to being just direct.

How do you pick your set lists? Does it depend on your mood that day?

Lately more so. Now when I play a show some of these songs are really old for me. The last time I played New York, I was so paranoid, I don’t know why. I had to make it fresh for me. I dug up some old songs and some different covers. The last show I did in L.A., I was in a really, really weird mood. I was in a rut. I was uninspired. I talked to my manager Peter about it. I said I didn’t know what to do; I’m not looking forward to this show. He told me, "Use that. Use your blues. Use your sadness in the show. Pick whatever songs reflect your mood at the time." I did and it was fine.

Did it help change your mood?

Yeah, I was actually excited to play and it got me to move forward.

Is songwriting cathartic or spiritual, or are you just driven to get it out?

All of the above — it just depends on what day it is. Sometime the drain is plugged and it’s like forcing something, so you have to stop. Other times things just come to me that are spiritual and the creation is out of my hands, just flowing. Other times it’s just funny little anecdotes, and I just want to express myself.

Are you favoring the guitar over the violin?

Yes, I always have. I use it as my writing tool. I’m trying to get away from the guitar right now. I feel more comfortable on the violin. I’m writing a bit more on the piano as well. I feel more free on the violin.

You started out as more of an instrumentalist. How have you grown as a singer?

I went through a lot of different phases. Singing was my first passion, even though I was studying violin in the conservatory. Singing was like recess to me. When I first went to Boston, I wanted to be a jazz singer, then an R&B singer. Then I got the greatest job as a wedding singer. It got me used to singing in front of people and singing all different kinds of music. I’m the type of person that can’t do the same thing for too long. I vacillate all over with my sound and my style. When I started to write, things were of a completely kind of nature. They were raw and visceral. As I get older I take all these elements and put them back into me and my voice. I’m not holding back. On my first record, I know it sounded so emotive, but I felt like I was holding back. Now I’m just letting go and it sounds like me more than ever.

What would you say to young artists who are starting now? Do you see people and say, "I used to do that, and I’ll never do that again, and maybe I can give you some advice?"

I just found an old People magazine I was in and there is a big full-page picture of me as a snarly lip. It’s not like that was fake, but I thought I had to have this attitude. It was a cover-up. And so now I see Avril Lavinge on every publication doing that. And I think, "C'mon girl, you don’t have to do that. You’re real, you’re deep. You don’t have to try so hard." That’s what I would say to her.

What do you think of the current music scene today?

I don’t really pay attention to the mainstream anymore. I think there is exciting stuff going on underground. There is a cutting new version of punk, which we don’t really even know about because what’s considered "punk" now has changed so much. I love that there’s an indie radio station in L.A., probably owned by Clear Channel, but they are playing newer bands.

Who are some of the newer bands you are listening to?

I am in love with Regina Spektor. She is a singer-songwriter. Her lyrics are really creative. I just saw this band from New York called the Naysayer that I really like. Now when I listen to my iPod, I want to listen to Zero 7 and Sigur Ros. I like ambient music on the subway.

What was is like working with famed producer Mitchell Froom?

It was 1998, which was a weird time for both of us. He was having marital problems, and I was becoming disenchanted with the music industry. He’s always been disenchanted, so it was a good match at the time. It was an us-against-them mentality. It’s really negative when I look back on it. Musically they just let me go. It was so experimental. I was really, really proud of that record. My label was shifting at that time. We have tried over the last three years to work together, mostly due to scheduling.

Which songs from your upcoming album do you think you’ll still want to play 10 years from now?

I hope this doesn’t sound cocky, but I think they’re timeless. It’s about love and relationships. I don’t think that’ll ever stop. It’s about believing in yourself.

On the new song "Something Beautiful," you talk about wanting a beautiful relationship. What is your definition of beauty?

I think it's a little new age. I think it’s being able to be present and see the beauty in everything. I think it’s finding the essence of right now.

What does music mean to you?

It’s a world of individual expression. It’s hard to put into words and apart from words. It’s a world where I live. It’s impossible to translate it into words. A lot of times it’s not about putting a word to it, it’s so much more than the words can express.