'90s - Tracy Bonham (2014)
'No Longer Burdened - The Tracy Bonham Story'
A native of Eugene, OR, Tracy Bonham began singing at age five, playing the violin at nine and piano at age 14. After earning a violin scholarship at University of Southern California, she transferred to Berklee College of Music to study voice and began writing and recording her own material.
On her 1996 debut The Burdens of Being Upright, Bonham established herself as a brash rocker with ironic nods to the emerging music of punk grrrrl bands. With blunt, direct observations on love and loss, the album went gold and earned the singer Grammy nominations for Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Female Vocalist. Indeed, 'Mother Mother', her first single, became a nationwide anthem and earned the singer an MTV Video Music Awards nomination.
From the late 1990s to the mid 2000s, Bonham steadily recorded and performed both individually and with numerous groups, appearing with everyone from Blue Man Group and Aerosmith and to Ron Sexsmith and Juliana Hatfield. Following 2005's Blink the Brightest and the 2006 EP In the City + In the Woods, the singer took some time to focus on other things. In 2010, she came back with Masts of Manhatta, which was produced by Bonham and mixed by Tchad Blake, and was released under the New York City indie label Engine Room Recordings in the United States.
Now back in the recording business via a Pledge Music campaign -
www.pledgemusic.com/projects/tracybonhamwaxandgold - Bonham's fans all came together to enable her to bring forth her brand new album, Wax & Gold. Fans who pledged their money won unique things such as a Custom Birthday Song on Answer Machine, Signed Vinyl LP, Handwritten Lyric Sheet, Skype Piano Lesson, and even win a Full Band House Concert!
Chatting recently with the lovely lady herself, Tracy Bonham, a classically trained violinist and pianist, and who began singing at age just five; the violin at nine, I first wondered if music had always been her career choice? "My youth was filled with music. My mother started out as a singer for the Shakespearian Festival in Ashland Oregon and later got her degree in music education. I was a music teachers daughter. She also performed in Eugene with various musical theater productions so I saw her on stage a lot. I got the bug from watching her and being surrounded by her friends who were performers."
"My stepfather became involved in the productions and eventually the three of us were in shows together. My grandfather was also very musical. He was a self taught clarinetist and trumpet player. He had a huge influence on me. It was in the cards that I would be a musician."
What were you listening to growing up? "In our household we listened to a lot of jazz. I loved Charlie Parker a lot. I also loved vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, and so on. The list is long. We also listened to the Beatles. My first favorite album was Rubber Soul. I had my own turntable and would listen to the song 'Girl' over and over again in my bedroom. It was the first time I realized a song could be sexy ... the Beatles, sexy? ... when they would audibly breathe in after singing "Ahhh, girrrrl"."
You received two (2) Grammy nominations in 1997 - for Best Alternative Album (The Burdens of Being Upright) and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance ('Mother Mother' ) - so what was it like for you around that time; as a performer and a girl constantly touring just out of her twenties? "1997 was a very busy year for me. I had been touring consistently since 1995 supporting my first EP called Liverpool Sessions and creating a buzz. In 1996 my debut album was released and my dream of being big in Boston - where I had relocated - was turning into something much bigger. I was wined and dined by the business folks in New York city. I used that air shuttle from Logan airport to LaGuardia quite a bit. I enjoyed it a lot. It was exciting."
"I found out I had been nominated for two Grammys from other people calling and leaving me messages. I wasn't really looking for any of this, it just came to me, and I gladly accepted. But as the months rolled by and I was, indeed, on the road more times than not it started to take it's toll. My romantic relationship ended. Friendships changed. Boston didn't feel friendly to me anymore and I found myself with my head spinning out of control. It was too much. I counted ten months of being on the road with no end in sight. I, regrettably cancelled a tour to South America, thinking I would get there eventually, because I was losing it. I had no time for myself. The label and my management didn't understand when I would cry in their office."
"But when the Grammy's came around I was prepared to make another push. If I had won, it would have meant more opportunity and more work ahead. I was glad to take it on. But when I lost to Sheryl Crow and Beck, respectively, at that very moment my head began to pound. The pressure that was building up had reached a limit and my body began to react. I remember that night, in my room at the Hotel Regis, I was unable to sleep, crying. Although, I had just met some of my heroes - Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin - I knew things were about to change. I knew it was the beginning of the end. I had already been feeling the winds change with the tumult at Island Records. It was a roller coaster to say the least."
What came next? "In 1998 I began working on my next album with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, two heroes of mine. It was a great pairing but, in retrospect, both Mitchell and I were jaded and spent way too much time dissing the music business. My songs on that album were all about the business and how angry I was at my manager - who I hadn't fired yet. I transferred my anger from old boyfriends to the music industry. Now when I look back, I regret that. There was so much more to life, but I was caught and those ghosts would not be exorcised for a long time."
And then two years later, and retitled as Down Here, the album finally saw the light of day. Not a big success, was it the same album from back in 1998, or was it reworked, perhaps? "The album was delayed as Island Records changed hands multiple times. I would have meetings with the new higher ups and they would each have their own ideas of what the record should be. It was a very dark time. Meanwhile, music started to change. What was being played on the radio in 1998/99 was very different and finally, by the time my record Down Here - originally called Trail of A Dust Devil - came out in 2000, radio stations were playing Korn and Limp Bizkit."
"Leor Cohen, the new president of Island-DefJam, hailed my song 'Behind Every Good Woman' as an anthem for all women. What terrible timing. Little did I know there would not be another female solo artist to top the alternative charts since Mother Mother in 1996. I knew strong women had become a thing of the past, but I had no idea I would hold the title as the last woman singer songwriter to hold that place until Lorde came along 17 years later. It says a lot."
"Over the past 14 years I have released two full length albums, Blink the Brightest (Rounder/Zoe) and Masts of Manhatta (Engine Room Records), both of which were highly acclaimed by the press but could never come close to my debut album as far as sales. The music business had been changing rapidly over the past decade, at least, and it became all about touring and music licensing. I released an independent EP entitled 'Bee' and sold a lot of them while touring with Blue Man Group. We toured extensively from 2003 to 2006 and Blue Man basically supported me during that time. It was my first taste of going completely DIY."
A couple of albums, and even a couple of self-funded EPs later and here we are today, as you are progressing nicely through a Pledge Music funding mission to get your new album released, Wax & Gold. Please tell us more about why you chose to use Pledge Music and what it has already noticeably afforded you? "Today, I am almost finished making an album with the help of my fans. I chose PledgeMusic as my platform. This has turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. I have fully embraced the fan / artist camaraderie and am starting to understand the new business model of crowd funding. I no longer have to wait for a dude in a suit sitting at a desk with a cigar hanging out of his mouth to tell me what he thinks I should do with the chorus of a song, or how I should pose in a picture for my CD art. I am free to be myself and my fans have been there the whole way to support and cheer me on."
"I couldn't do it without them. It is a totally different experience. Sharing my process had become very enjoyable. It doesn't have to be a mystery. In fact, I think I could possibly help other creative types, to see the warts, to hear the demos, to know what goes into making an album start to finish."
Entitled Wax & Gold, your new album OUT NOW, and which has already gotten amazing reviews in Rolling Stone and Huffington Post, is doing so well - but please explain a bit more where that title actually originated? "My new album is called Wax & Gold. I chose the title because it has ties to Ethiopia, where my son was born. It is a term they use in literature and art and it is hard to explain. There is a wonderful essay on the meaning if you CLICK HERE to read it!
"I am still learning about it as we discover more about the beautiful country of Ethiopia and it's people. Basically, from what I have gathered, Wax and Gold is a term used in poetry and literature where there are two meanings in what is said. There is the superficial meaning, the wax, and there is the deeper more spiritual meaning, the gold. It has permeated into their culture beyond the literary use and it is fascinating to me as I research and discover more about their ways of life."
Having adopted a baby boy from Ethiopia four years ago, you've said that this new album is your most personal yet. In what instantly noticeable ways are we, the listener, going to be able to hear these changes? "This new album is very personal and direct. It is about family, mostly. There are a couple songs not about family. I have a song about the rapture that never came. Remember the year 2000? Remember 2012? These were auspicious years in the calendar of doom. I remember people talking about what would happen on these certain dates, that the end of the world was coming."
"Well, needless to say we are all still here. I have a song about addiction, and I have no idea where that came from. The rest are about the concept of a family. There are traditional families, and there are non traditional families. I suppose we fall into the non traditional family because we adopted a child from Ethiopia and we are two white people living in America."
"In Brooklyn, where we live most of the time, we do not stand out at all. There are many bi-racial families. I often think about our son's birth mother and what she may be thinking right now. Where is she right now? My songs are inspired by that. I send her love each day. We are not allowed to try and find her. We have no idea if she is alive or not. Our son is too young to grasp any of this, but we are as open as we can be about everything. In my songs, I am working it all out in my mind and in my heart."
And what can you tell us about the artwork, as I know you were very hands on with that also "I had the pleasure to work with a young photographer named Shervin Lainez in Brooklyn. He was one out of two photographers that i had chosen for photos for the new album. I was mostly hoping for promotional shots but Shervin's pictures were so unique and wonderful that I decided to use two of his for the artwork on the album, shot in the Gowanus neighborhood. I love his use of location and space. I didn't want to take up too much room in the portrait. I felt like he really understood me. He let me be me, and I really appreciated that."
Pledge Music definitely seemed to work for you! "Yes, Pledge Music gives artists a chance to connect with fans and engage in a conversation about the art that is being made. It is a truly different experience than what I am used to. But I am fully embracing it. I am having fun with the list of exclusives that are offered. For instance, someone bought a night of Karaoke with myself and my producer / guitarist Kevin Salem. That may be the most intimate of items as whomever purchased this will see me at my silliest. Handwritten lyrics are very personal, as the handwritten word is a very personal expression. In fact, I forgot to mention I have a song about the written word and how it is becoming obsolete. Is that sad? They don't teach cursive / script in public schools anymore. I find that very disheartening."
Please tell us more about your summer days spent at The Paul Green Rock Academy as the Tracy Bonham String Camp. Do you do this event every year there? "I have taught with Paul Green at his Rock Academy in Woodstock, NY and have enjoyed it very much. My favorite experience is teaching the summer camp for rock strings. I feel like that is my niche! I truly enjoy teaching young string players that there is another way to play their instrument that was originally intended to play classical music."
You once said that, being a self-taught guitarist, that you have a certain style that you can't seem to get any guitar player to mimic! OK, so please do tell us more about this "style" of yours! "I am a self taught guitar player. I have been classically trained on the violin and piano and have been trained in many vocal styles, mostly by listening to other vocalists. Guitar is the one instrument where I have a love / hate relationship with."
"I find it very difficult. I always have. But one day when I was about to make my first record with Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade in Boston, the dynamic duo of rock producers at that time, they told me I should play all the guitars on the album. I looked at them like they were insane. But I took the challenge, and I ended up realizing that I had a certain style and whenever I would ask a real guitar player to play something, I would take the guitar back and say "no, play it like this. Play it dumber". I would use one finger up and down the neck, probably because I am a violin player."
"I don't like the frets. I don't like how every fret is a half step. I play the violin where there are no frets. You just know where to put your fingers and you use your ear to determine whether you are in tune or not. I don't like how many strings there are on a guitar. I don't like how you can not see what you are doing with your left hand. However, I was attracted to music by Dinosaur Jr and Lou Barlow and The Pixies and the guitar music they made was a certain style and sound and it was certainly not slick. I hated slick players."
Lastly, and yes, we ask everyone this very same question, we here at Exclusive Magazine love Penguins! So, we were wondering if you did also, perhaps? "My son loves Pingu. Do you know Pingu? I love Pingu. It is a TV show that uses claymation, and the main character is a penguin named Pingu. I suggest anyone with young children watch this show. Pingu is like Curious George with an edge. It is hilarious."
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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