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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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