Tracy Bonham – Interview

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You first heard of Tracy Bonham when she released The Burdens Of Being Upright, featuring the hit “Mother Mother”. She earned two Grammy nominations for that release and then it seemed like she was gone.

Well, Tracy Bonham is back with an amazing and lofty new release, Down Here. And lest you think she was a one-hit-wonder, you need only read on to realize how far from the truth that is.

I know that you’ve been sitting on this album for a while. Was it because of the merger of Universal and Island with Def Jam?

That was the main reason.

How long has the album been done?

It seems like forever. I finished recording the first part, which I thought was done, two years ago. That was before the takeover. There was a bunch of rotating presidents and vice presidents and nobody knew where they were going. Then the Universal thing happened. So I was like, ‘Wow, what next?’ It was always like, ‘Oh, your record is getting pushed back another few months.’ So I would keep my mind set, and then it keeps getting pushed back, over and over until here we are two years later.

Do you listen to it and go, ‘I’d like to change this’?

Oh, God, yes. There are definite things I’d like to change, but you have to move on.

Since it’s been shelved for two years, how do you feel the musical climate fits it now compared to how it may have been accepted then?

It’s hard for me to say because I’m very motivated and like to do stuff, but I wanted it out then and didn’t care what the climate was. People tell me now, ‘Isn’t it great you waited? It’s just a blessing in disguise.’ I just wanted it out. I wouldn’t have cared whether it sold two records, because I wanted it out and to get on with my life. I was very jealous of the bands that got to move on. I felt like I was being pinned in a corner and the rest of the world was turning without me.

Does it make it tougher because people started to write you off as a one-hit-wonder?

Yes, I totally got written off. Now I have to start from square one, or square one and a half. I do have a little recognition, but the venues aren’t going to be bigger based on where I was before. It’s a big disappointment because I had momentum and it’s gone now, so I just have to suck it up and start over.

I have to say I didn’t know what to expect when I got the album, but when I heard it I was like, ‘Woo.’

In a good way?

Yeah.

Good deal. (laughs)

I really enjoy “Thumbelina”.

Yeah? Well, it’s a very fun song. It’s kinda my Bowie coming out.

How do you write? Do you start with a riff? Do you have a lyric?

It’s kinda all of that. If I only take one way, then it becomes stale. A lot of times I might have a lyrical idea first and then write around it. Like “Behind Every Good Woman” came lyrics first. Some days I just sit down with the guitar and have no idea of what I’m going to write next. Then the melody comes.

Are you always with a tape recorder?

Yeah. I have tapes all over my house. I have a closet full of tapes and DATs. I don’t know how I’m ever going to go through them again. It’s not like you can organize little snippets of songs on tapes.

Does it get to a point where you are writing new things and think to yourself, ‘I’m writing better now than I did six months ago,’ so you just sort of disregard those tapes?

Yeah, and then I don’t go back and look. Then there is that one story about how Keith Richards wrote (Tracy begins to sing out the guitar riff to “Satisfaction”). He taped it on his recorder and fell asleep. I mean, what if he never went back and found that?

I know. Imagine.

So there is always that, ‘I might have something really great in there.’

And there is also the backlog of songs for when you can’t come up with anything.

Oh, yeah. I’ve got a fat catalog.

How involved were you in the studio?

Very. I don’t sit back. I think one of these days I will have to produce myself, because I do have a vision and it’s very frustrating when there are other people involved. But then it can also be great because I might not have a vision. But I think the days of me relying on a producer are over. The first album I did, I kinda was more laid back and I wanna say they bulldozed me. This time I was more vocal and it felt like co-producing to me. As long as you have a good relationship with your producer and you have a mutual respect, it can be really good. And you have to have the same taste too.

Especially when it comes to any sort of dramatic changes.

Right. You just have to be vocal in life. That is one of my most difficult lessons in that I have to stand up and let it be known how I feel. I think I use music as my tool to do that. I can’t always do that in everyday life, but I do it in music. It’s my outlet.

When you are writing something, do you just sit there and go, ‘Wow, this could be really great’?

Yeah, definitely. You know it.

Are there any artists you listen to that influence your style?

For a while I was in this big Blur stage.

I love Blur.

I love the album 13, and that had a big influence on my writing at that time.

And William Orbit is an amazing producer.

Totally.

His new album is great.

The one with the strings?

Yeah.

Oh, is it good?

Amazing.

I want to hear it.

Shifting gears a bit, I was wondering how you feel looking back when the music industry proclaimed the whole ‘year of the woman.’ Why do you think they thought it was such a fluke?

It seems like it was. I thought it was funny when people asked me, ‘Do you think it will swing back to all guys?’ and I was like, ‘No!’ The door is open forever and we are free to walk through the door and do whatever we want. But what happened, at least in rock, is that the door slammed shut.

Went to pop.

It went to the bubble gum factory.

(laughs) I mean, Fiona Apple’s latest album is a really great piece of work.

I know, and you don’t hear about it on MTV or VH1. It’s frightening. Now that it’s been four years since my release, I hear a lot of fear in people’s voices because it’s going to be hard.

It’s hard enough for women, but now it seems there is no rock climate at all.

I know.

I was listening to the album and wondered to myself what is going to happen with it. I mean, it’s really good, it’s something I would listen to, yet it seems it wouldn’t have a chance on Top 40 radio in this musical climate.

I know and it’s really scary. I don’t know where I’m going to fit in.

I hate hearing great albums that no one ever hears about because of radio and MTV deciding what we hear.

I know. It’s all political bullshit.

Are there any songs that really strike you on the album?

“Second Wind” is the ballad and sticks out like a sore thumb. It comes from like left field and it’s like, ‘Where the fuck did this come from?’ I love it for that. It might not fit in, but it’s a beautiful song. Lyrically it’s about asking for strength, and that to me says it all.

I still can’t believe they sat on the album so long. I’m blown away.

It’s so weird. It’s like being in labor for two years.

So are there new songs sitting around?

Definitely. There are so many new songs and they are completely different from this album. I’ve been writing classical music, and I have that side to me since I grew up playing it, so I went to my piano and started writing that. I also have an experimental side and started writing interesting and bizarre little tunes. Then there is this other side that writes little catchy pop songs that sound like they could be for other people.

You went through an album title change too, right?

Yeah. It went from Trail Of A Dust Devil to Down Here. Down Here is a lyric from “Second Wind”. It was more about how I was feeling during that time. I felt like I was keep down under someone’s thumb or a rock. Trail Of A Dust Devil just had no meaning to me anymore. It had meaning at one point, but it’s gone now.

Do you really take a while coming up with a title?

Yes. This one didn’t come so easy to me. Trail Of A Dust Devil I had for a while, but I couldn’t explain to anyone what it meant. I had a vision of it, but I couldn’t put it to words. I knew I had to come up with a new title, but it didn’t come that quick to me. It taught me to jot down ideas no matter what it is because you never know.

You have some really nice bridges on this album. Do you jam with a band to come up with those?

Not really. I’m pretty private in my songwriting. I’m a little weird about it.

So do you have a group or will you just put one together to tour?

I have a band for the road, which is different than those on the record. All these people are in other bands so I had to form my own.

Like the bassist on the album was Sebastian from Soul Coughing.

Yeah.

They are amazing. He’s a great bass player. I saw them live and his standup bass is great.

It’s true.

Do you have tour plans?

We’re putting it together, but for me it’s like the sooner the better. I’m dying to play.

Well, I hope rock makes a big comeback. The world needs it.

They need a rock chick and I’m here for them. (laughs)

+ charlie craine

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