TRACY BONHAM’S RIOT GIRL-SPURRED BOSSTOWN SOUND
FOREWORD: Boston-based singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham received major alt-rock airplay in ’96 thanks to frantically foreboding frolic, “Mother Mother,” the lead single from dazzling debut, The Burdens Of Being Upright. Her one-hit-wonder radio success outperformed more popular indie female artists of the day (Ani Di Franco, Indigo Girls, Sarah Mc Lachlan). Though she never again attained such riot girl-informed aboveground success, 00’s Down Here and ‘05s Blink The Brightest secured her status as a slightly idiosyncratic damsel whose partial reliance on violin is oddly deviant. In ’09, Bonham was preparing a new album. This article originally appeared in HITS magazine.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Tracy Bonham grew up in Eugene, Oregon, where she learned piano and Classical violin. While performing in the Boston area after a spell at Berklee College of Music, Bonham developed an uncanny ability to convey poignant emotions with sharp-eyed relevance and demanding assuredness.
Live in front of a capacity Irving Plaza crowd, her spunky, vibrant personality shines through as her band opens for Spacehog. Dressed in a puffy recycled ostrich silk blouse and light blue slacks, Bonham’s pigtailed girl-next-door looks make her appear half her age.
Her powerful debut, The Burdens Of Being Upright, delivers sharp indictments in an effervescently upbeat manner, deceptively hiding venomously sarcastic characterizations under well-focused melodic-harmonic awareness. Frenzied anthem, “Mother Mother,” subconsciously explores Gen X concerns such as paranoia, social confinement, and instability, screaming the mock-hopeful refrain ‘everything’s fine.’
On “Navy Bean,” a rumbling rhythmic undercurrent intercepts Bonham’s rubbery guitar. The reserved “Tell It To The Sky” builds to a psychedelicized choral climax, but her major breakthrough may be “The One,” an undeniably catchy tune with bright vocals, riveting instrumentation, and a snazzy ‘70s-styled ring radio should snatch up in a heartbeat. “every Breath” and “Kisses” faintly recall the hypnotic imagery of Liz Phair and the playful “Bulldog” gets a loud power pop treatment.
Seasoned by years of small-level touring perfecting her craft – she played violin on a few Page/ Plant dates – the peppy 5’3″ sparkplug has become the unexpected chart topping starlet of ’96.
(Heavy breathing and panting)
Don’t try that phone sex with me, Tracy. It doesn’t work.
Oh come on, you love it. (laughter)
Why’d you sign with Island Records?
They were down to earth and had enthusiasm from top to bottom. I didn’t always get that sense from other labels. Island has loads of great artists like Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, and William Burroughs. I feel they won’t try to drop me if I choose to be different or if I don’t sell millions of records. (editors note: guess again, within a year she was looking for a new label)
What pressures did you face recording The Burdens Of Being Upright?
It’s stupid, but I put pressure on myself. I’m already worried about the next album. What If it sucks? I really have no idea what I want to do. Probably, I’ll just do something different and whack. Maybe I’ll have more violin, but not in the Classical sense.
Are you comfortable in the recording studio?
It depends on the situation. The studio is a weird mind trip. I try to make sure I know what I’m doing every step of the way. But it’s difficult. I’ve finally learned to speak up and say what I want done. I want to be free to create in the studio. I have an eight-track at home. I got a little demo-it is. (laughter) I fell in love with the messed up parts.
What does the title of the album mean? Couldn’t it just as easily be called The Burdens Of Being Uptight?
There are so many burdens being human. But you can’t just whine and complain. When I write in my journals, I don’t write about things I enjoy, but instead about things that bug me. Actually, the album is vengeful towards one specific person who’s bound to run across me saying this in an article soon.
What did producers Sam Slade and Paul Kolderie add to the recording process?
Wonderful guitar sounds. They had already produced Radiohead, Hole, and Morphine with success. I ran into them numerous times while performing in Boston, so I felt comfortable. They had seen me play live and I almost felt I had a history with them.
Do you feel confined when compared to fellow Bostonians Jennifer Trynin or Julianna Hatfield?
It’s bizarre. We’re all different. I feel great when compared to someone I like. But when it’s someone I don’t like, it swims in my head. Last night, I was in Ottawa, home of Alanis Morissette. I felt like everything I did onstage was getting compared to her. I just don’t want to be part of this angry female thing I read about in New York newspapers. If it’s just the next phase, I’ll eventually flop.
Why was your previous Cherrydisc EP named Liverpool Sessions?
The title was a big joke about playing clubs for a long time. We finally got a buzz going around Boston and received lots of attention. One prospective title was “Live At Madison Square Garden.” I thought, “Liverpool Sessions” was a good record, but I’m not as proud of it as I am of the new album. The EP was a rush job and a little immature.
Tell me about the passionate discontent of “Sharks Can’t Sleep”?
It’s about people hurting each other. It’s also a collage about life and death. You know, one day life is over – it’s scary. Life sometimes seems meaningless. And it doesn’t help that there are all these indie rock kids who only like what others don’t like just to seem different. They hate anything that may be a potential commercial fixture on the radio…no matter what group does it.
What did Boston’s Berklee College of Music teach you?
That reputation isn’t everything. Berklee can be great for the right person. But certain people I went to school with were only playing their instrument for six months. Obviously, money had a lot to do with that. Their parents supported them.
Who are the members of your current touring band?
The bass player, Drew Parsons, who is the only touring member to record with me on the album. He’s been with me two years. Shayne Phillips is our drummer and Phil Hurley plays guitar. The January show at Irving Plaza was either his first or second night with us. He’s real enthusiastic and has a great ear for music.
What do you think of Liz Phair’s music? She led a small female empowerment rebellion a few years back.
I really enjoy her a lot. I used to listen to Exile In Guyville day and night when it first came out.
There were a lot of people backstage after the Irving Plaza show. In the frenzy, you unknowingly prevented Sean Lennon from coming in.
I was told to keep some people out. The first person I kicked out was Sean Lennon. I didn’t know it was him. My guitar player told me who it was and then asked me if I was crazy.