It’s official: Tracy Bonham knows how to masterfully rock a NoiseTrade One-on-One like few else. We had an in-depth and engaging chat with the inspiring frontwoman about her debut album (The Burdens of Being Upright) turning 20, how its themes are still relevant for women in today’s political climate, and how she’s celebrating the album by re-recording it with a superstar cast of like-minded female artists (which includes members of Letters to Cleo, Belly, Frente, and much more!).
You can also hear Tracy’s exclusive Live at Levon Helm’s Studios featuring exciting live versions of some catalog favorites and “Tell It To The Sky” from Modern Burdens HERE.
NoiseTrade: First off, how has it been to revisit The Burdens of Being Upright in its entirety 20 years after its initial release?
Tracy Bonham: This was something I had been meaning to do for a while and I had set the calendar for 2016 for the 20th anniversary release, but there are so many other things I have been doing: releasing Wax & Gold and finishing my Topsy Bonsai (working title TBA) children’s/young music enthusiasts album (due out fall 2017), so I kept pushing it back. I realized that it was the official anniversary in March of 1996 but, I wasn’t quite ready. I figured as long as I started working on it in the year 2016 my fans would be ok with that.
As I began to dust off these songs, all crusted with angst from another time in my life, I had a really hard time finding relevant meaning for the lyrics. These songs were 90% about a horrible, I mean horrible, ex-boyfriend who treated me very badly in my twenties. I held a lot of anger and refused to forgive him for the longest time. I carried a lot of scars from that relationship. And I hate to say it wasn’t that my heart was broken. I am not even sure I was in love with him. That is the weird part. I stayed with him and allowed him to treat me disrespectfully. I allowed him to, quite literally, abuse me. This is because I had no self esteem and no voice of my own. He was the epitome of a misogynist. He was a jailor and I allowed him to hold me captive.
I know this may be hard to believe when you know my music because my music is so strong and powerful. But now as my fans (and friends and family for that matter) get to know me over these decades, they know that I use my writing and my music as my voice, the voice that is extremely hard for me to use in my daily life. This is something I continue to struggle with. I am actually afraid of conflict. This is how I ended up in this destructive relationship in my early twenties.
So back to the plot: as I was trying to find new meaning for these old lyrics, I was hearing a lot of talk about misogyny in a social context. Trump was running for president against Hillary Clinton (what a circus that was!). Trump and his awful comments would often remind me of this ex-boyfriend (who is now departed from this world, from a drug overdose and I am not surprised) and a lot of my lyrics struck me again: “You’re the one that froze the sun”… “Who’s got the bulldog down below?”… Shaving cream is thicker than it seems/Shave them off and don’t ask what it means.” Needless to say, the project took on a whole new meaning. Since this realization, the album has turned into something even more exciting than a typical twentieth anniversary release. As we watched the elections turn from what we thought would catapult us into the year of the woman, it quickly became an effort to reach out to other women for help in the making of the album. It has now become a collaboration with other female artists to share our strong and powerful voices in a time of betrayal, in a time of confusion as to where the strong female voice currently stands in this mixed up country.
NT: What do you hear when you listen back to your younger self singing these songs?
Bonham: I hear a very angry and immature woman who hasn’t yet found her power. I hear a young woman who was scared to use her power but thankfully had music as her platform and expression.
NT: What do you remember about the time these songs were written and recorded, in both your personal life and in the music industry at large?
Bonham: I remember being propped up by the music business as the next big thing, but then Alanis hit and I was the next second best thing. It was clear that there was only a small space for all the strong female artists to fit. This is why I wrote songs like “One Hit Wonder.” I could feel the machine gather me up and I just knew in my heart that it would spit me out.
While contemplating the fickle music business I was also exploring my own inability to commit to relationships in songs like “Sharks Can’t Sleep” and “30 Seconds.” Once I started touring it became even harder to hold down relationships and friendships and it bothered me that I had a revolving door for people in my life.
NT: To celebrate the milestone, you’re re-recording the album as Modern Burdens with a variety of kindred spirits, including Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses/Belly), Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo), Angie Hart (Frente), Nicole Atkins, Rachael Yamagata, and more. What first sparked this approach and how have the recording sessions gone?
Bonham: In October, my producer and friend John Wlaysewski, and I were talking about how exciting the new year would be since we were convinced that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and it would be an amazing celebration for our country and for women everywhere. We thought it might be cool to invite a female singer to sing one song. I had been listening to Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz (Sadie DuPuis) and reached out to her via Twitter complementing her, saying I liked her music. Within seconds she responded enthusiastically saying how trippy it is that a role model such as myself would tweet at her just as she was listening to my album while driving on tour. That is when I just asked her, on a whim, if she would sing on my album. She immediately said yes. She told me later that my first album, The Burdens Of Being Upright, had influenced her greatly and that it was one of the reasons she became a songwriter.
So then, we started thinking about other artists we could reach out to. i personally know Nicole Atkins, and she is one of my favorite singers of today, and when I asked her she gave an enthusiastic yes stating that my first album was an inspiration for her as well. This was fun….. my favorite singers are telling me that I influenced them. How cool is that? Then…. Nov 9th, 2016 happened. We all woke up (those of us who could actually go to sleep the night before) to a different outcome than we had expected. Trump had won the presidential election and I and everyone I know was baffled.We were stunned. We were depressed. We were horrified. This is when John and I got the idea to make this album a girl power album. This album became our protest to what was going on in the country. We were dismayed by all the women in this country who had voted for Trump. I started thinking about all the young girls and young women out there who were destroyed by this turn of events. So we started asking more artists to join and we were pleasantly surprised by the responses. I was flattered to know that my music was a part of these women’s lives. It had been a long time and it is easy to forget what an impact my first album made. These beautiful and strong women reminded me that it mattered back then, and are now propping me up in a wonderfully collaborative way.
So far we have Nicole Atkins, Sadie DuPuis (Sad13/Speedy Ortiz), Rachael Yamagata, Tanya Donelly, (Throwing Muses/Belly), Angie Hart (Frente), Kay Hanley (Letters To Cleo), Kathryn Calder (New Pornographers), and we’re currently getting a track together for Veruca Salt. I will be singing background vocals with all of the singers on their featured tracks and I have reserved three songs that are my personal favorites to sing lead. John and I are also writing an original song for everyone to join in and Pledge Music fans are also invited to sing as part of the process. Everyone can view the offer (among other things) here: http://bit.ly/tracybonhampledge
NT: You’ve stated that the album’s 20-year old lyrics have once again found relevancy and are finding their way into present-day conversations about misogyny. Two decades on, what do you hope men and women will find (or rediscover) in your songs?
Bonham: I hope that the message will be clear that everyone has the power to heal and grow and stand up and be heard. If anyone finds themselves in a marginalized position and fears standing up for themselves they are not alone. But it is important to self advocate. It took, and is taking me, decades to finally learn this. It is never too late. With the help of these seven amazing female we are going to spread a message of solidarity, of courage, of healing, of grace, of empowerment.
NT: How did the idea for your hilarious “audition” video (featuring Fred Armisen) come together and how much fun did you have shooting it?
Bonham: I was inspired by Nicole Atkins’ PledgeMusic intro video and how funny it was. I decided I wanted my video to be funny too, like a parody. Every other video I had watched was mediocre and most artists were pitching themselves, which is the most uncomfortable part of the equation. I wanted humor to break the ice. I called Fred, who has been a dear friend since 2003, to ask if he would help. He immediately said yes. Then it became all about scheduling, as he is a very busy person.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I had an idea of an interview or an audition. But we didn’t actually come up with the idea of ME auditioning for my own project until we were in the rehearsal studios in NYC waiting for Fred to arrive (2 hours late). When it hit me that I should be auditioning for my own rerecording of my original album, everything fell into place. Fred showed up and I gave him the plot and a clipboard. John Wlaysewski put up the “Modern Burdens Auditions, Please take a seat” sign on the door and the camera started rolling. Fred did all of that in one take and I felt like I was in a passenger seat of a race car. It was a total blast. I was laughing most of the time. In about an hour we were done. Fred is a genius.
NT: Finally, if you were asked to contribute as a guest on another artist’s reimaginged album, which album would you like to see get this same treatment and which song would you want to cover with them?
Bonham: I would love it if Supergrass would ask me to guest on their reimagined album I Should Coco to sing songs like “I’d Like To Know” or “We’re Not Supposed To.” I would probably giggle the whole time because I have crushes on them. But that album, and all of their albums, set a soundtrack for that time in my life and it would be fun to revisit.
When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t hungry, dirty, and losing his mind (everything’s fine!), you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack