In the spring of 1996, the music world was introduced to an alt-rock powerhouse whose work would go on to inspire and influence even today’s artists — thanks in part to her spirited hit debut, The Burdens of Being Upright, and her tireless appetite for self-reinvention in the years since with highly-acclaimed records like Blink The Brightest (2005), Masts of Manhatta (2010), and 2015’s Wax & Gold. In support of the 20 year re-release of her first album, a stripped-down re-imagining of classics like “Mother Mother” and “Navy Bean” on the retitled Modern Burdens, Tracy Bonham is set to kick off a seven-state U.S. tour with artist and producer Blake Morgan — starting April 5th in Seattle before finishing off June 21st at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City.
Ahead of the tour, we spoke with Tracy about her feelings revisiting that first record on Modern Burdens — one of Rolling Stone’s 50 best albums of 2017, her upcoming projects, and brief thoughts about the music industry today.
TYF: You’re going on this extensive tour in April [with producer Blake Morgan]. What made you guys decide on doing this tour together?
Tracy: He ended up reaching out to me through his booking agent. He’s been playing this residency for two years in New York City at this really cool vibey place called Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan, and selling it out consistently. I guess he has a guest artist for every time he plays there, so he approached me and was like “I’ve loved your work. I’ve been a fan.” I haven’t been playing out much so I went ahead and said yes, and we just became fast friends — immediately kindred spirits. Turns out he had a whole 90s record deal story as well and so we bonded over that.
TYF: I think I read somewhere that you guys both went to the Berklee [School of Music].
Tracy: We both went to Berklee. We both have our scars from all of it. Berklee and the music business. And, so we just kind of connected in that way. We decided to put up my back catalog on his record label (ECR Music Group) — he introduced me to a booking agent, and like all of a sudden I’ve got this energy behind me. I’m playing shows and I’m feeling like very feng shui about it all.
TYF: Your most recent output, Modern Burdens, involves an amazing list of artists – among them being Sadie Dupuis (Speedy Ortiz), Nicole Atkins and Rachael Yamagata — to name a few. What was it like working with all of them, and do you ever think about future collaborations?
Tracy: When Modern Burdens became a collaborative effort, it became so much fun because some of these girls I knew already and some I didn’t know at all, and not only was it an ego boost because they all were like “oh, I love that album. It made me want to write songs”. “I remember the first time I heard “Mother Mother””, so my ego was totally, you know, boosted. But it also became this love fest! I remember in the 90s, this would’ve never happened for me because I was super competitive and I always felt pitted against all the other women in the music business, because in the music business that’s what they did. And so for me to be like 20 years later becoming friends and saying I love you to someone like Tanya or Nicole — that, to me, feels like another way of growing up. So now I love collaborating! And I would collaborate with, of course, those people again and again. I’ve also got this violinist friend in LA named Lili Haydn who is like a phenomenal musician, and we’re kind of toying with the idea of doing some violin stuff — so, yeah, I love it!
TYF: In those re-recording sessions, what tactics did you create for yourself to help counter some of the nostalgia of tracks like “Mother Mother” so you would be able to even see and perform these songs in a fresh way?
Tracy: Well, it really helped that I had this guy named John [Wlaysewski]. He’s the guy who produced it. He’s this really great musician who I’d met over the course of the last five years. Super young spirit with a kind of don’t-give-a-fuck way of producing in his own band [Late Cambrian]. He and I would talk about ways of producing Modern Burdens, and his attitude is “you know, let’s just fuck it up with something that nobody’s expecting” and I was like yea, let’s do that! He was working with this computer program called Logic, which I had never worked with before. It actually helped me get me out of my own head. It helped me think oh, this isn’t gonna be like a typical rock band going into the studio. We’re gonna do it mostly in the computer — where [John] would play guitar/bass, we’d have mostly fake drums, and then I’d play violins and sing — so just kind of from the ground up, it already seemed like we were going to make a different kind of record. Not a typical go in and cut the basics/studio kind of record.
TYF: I imagine those skills of being multi-instrumental helped you to quickly jump on the bandwagon of going in a more alternate/digital route — other than what you were used to.
Tracy: Yeah, definitely – because I knew that I could handle a lot of the instruments, and it was still sound so much like me. One other thing that was probably the biggest key was that I decided from the start that I was not going to be precious. I think the fact that the album had already existed in the world just gave me some freedom. And I was like yeah, let’s just make a disco version of “Bulldog”. It was so wonderful to let these songs expand in a completely different outfit.
TYF: Those familiar with your earlier music love expressing their adoration for songs off The Burdens Of Being Upright – rightly so! From your vantage point, what do you think it is about that record specifically that makes it so timeless and in tune with contemporary culture?
Tracy: Oh, that’s so nice to hear. Well, I never thought it would be timeless ‘cause it does sound very 90s to me, and I always would kind of grumble that “Mother Mother” or any of the other songs really didn’t get much consistent radio play over the 20 years and my theory was because it was such a 90’s capsule. I would hear other female artists or 90’s artists being played and I would always be like kind of pissed off, but I don’t know if that’s just because I just didn’t get the radio support or any kind of support after the fact. Though, now that they’re re-recorded and the songs are kind of standing on their own — 20 years later — now I do kind of feel the timelessness of it. I do feel a lot better about it all — less grumbly.
TYF: A bit about your personal backstory — it always seems that a person’s ability to question authority whether in art or politics is a byproduct of being exposed to culture and feeling encouraged to speak one’s truth growing up. Was there something about your upbringing that gave you the tools and mindset to speak yours in music?
Tracy: Well, I feel as though in my life I had to trap it. Growing up in a family where the women generally didn’t make waves, like my grandma didn’t really complain much. My mom kind of didn’t really know how to confront or really honestly speak her truth where, you know, it might create conflict, so I grew up with that. Like I was afraid and still work at that at my age now.
I grew up playing classical music and you’re supposed to be perfect — I had all of these limitations in my daily life — so when I started to write songs when I was in my 20s, that’s where I found my voice, and that’s why all my songs especially the first two albums are like pissed off and angry about boyfriends, or managers, or people who wouldn’t let me say what I wanted to say. In a way, I’m really thankful I had that outlet. I think songwriting kind of saved me and helped me realize how limited I really was in expressing myself in my life.
TYF: What are your thoughts about the industry as it functions today – the present relationship between artists and the commerce side of putting out music? Have things changed for the better, do you think?
Tracy: I think it’s way better for young artists with new ideas. I think there’s less confining ideals coming down from dudes with cigars and town cars and limos. That kind of role doesn’t really exist anymore. I mean it’s probably still out there, but a lot of people don’t have to deal with these mogul types telling them how to write a song, so that’s liberating. People are making albums in their bedrooms, and putting it up on social media, and it’s taking off — which I feel is really, really exciting. There’s more opportunities to have real freedom of expression.
Now, of course, on the flip side, there isn’t the kind of budget or money or support like I enjoyed briefly back in the nineties. You didn’t have to crowdfund. You just had your bank. I’m not totally dogging the industry as it was, because it definitely helped me get my foothold. But as far as like musically and artistically, I think it’s way more exciting these days.
TYF: On a sort of side note, beyond putting out Modern Burdens and doing this tour, you’re also in the middle of developing/workshopping this musical storybook for kids called As The Crow Flies — What is this project exactly?
Tracy: So I’ve started writing these songs — over the last seven-ish years — that were inspired by my years of being a music teacher here and there. Since I’ve got my classical background. I started teaching violin and piano — and I just love the fundamentals of music. I love music theory. I love ear training. And so I started writing these songs that had a very Schoolhouse Rock approach to the fundamentals of music. Instead of, you know, songs about grammar or politics, I was writing songs that taught the difference between major and minor chords…but enveloped in a story that was kind of funny and musical. It felt like all of these songs were just dropping from the sky. I still have maybe two albums worth of these songs. [For a while] I got kind of grappled with [feeling] like “what am I know a kid’s artist?”, and that didn’t feel right, but some of these songs started to stand out. I’ve always loved Peter and the Wolf — the storyline there is based on classical music — so I started being inspired by things like Peter and the Wolf and other stories like Tubby the Tuba – stuff that has like this educational story line within the confines of being musical. My mom is a music educator, so she’s you know happy as a clam right now because I’m exploring all this stuff. I’ve also been living in Woodstock — so being surrounded by nature elements, the animals [in the story] started to speak to me as well. I’ve always loved the sound of a crow for some reason. It reminds me of my childhood — I don’t know, it just seemed to happen so organically. I just started coming up with these characters.
[In As The Crow Flies] there’s this crow who’s not at all a songbird, though the reason he can’t sing is because he had a teacher who told him he couldn’t. I came up with some other characters who all had a similar malady — All the characters in the story have certain inhibiting factors that wouldn’t allow themselves to sing their songs. The protagonist, which is this girl — who I guess is probably me — hears music in everything and so she basically takes these little characters and creatures on a journey to find the music in their hearts.
The music for it is pretty much finished. Now I just need to like really write the story well, figure out how to present it — get the visuals together — which I’m in the process of now.
TYF: That sounds amazing! Are you familiar with what Colin Meloy from The Decemberists — [and illustrator Carson Ellis] — has done recently with their novel series The Wildwood Chronicles? Have you always had that interest in doing [children’s] literature whilst putting out rock albums?
Tracy: Yeah, you know, how somebody like that can still continue to be like Decemberists guy, but then also have [Wildwood]— that’s the kind of stuff I need to look into. I want [As The Crow Flies] to come out into the world — though I guess I get a bit confused as to how to compartmentalize things. And also where do you put your energy? I think I still have a little 90’s mentality in the music business where they always told me to wait and not put multiple things out at once — that you had to wait for the right time — and that never worked for me. So, yeah, I think I’m a bit confused as to how to put more than one thing out into the world.
TYF: So interesting to hear you speak on that — questioning what to multi-task [or prioritize] as an artist is a real and universal dilemma, for sure! The project sounds wonderful by all means, so I’m definitely excited to hear more about it down the road.
Tracy: Thank you.
TYF: What are some takeaways you find yourself giving to younger artists now then?
Tracy: [Laughs] Even after saying what I had just said — I’d say keep putting out music. Keep putting out material. Just let things fly out there and see what takes. So I should follow my own advice. I think the more content you have out there, the more chances you give yourself to kind of find a place to pull yourself up. I mean, there’s so much opportunity out there. And I think the more the better because unfortunately now, it’s not going to be one thing that’s going to pay your way. It’s going to be a lot of little things, I think.
Jennifer: What are some of the things that’s continued to surprise you about playing gigs and being on the road?
Tracy: I really only have retrospect. After I was with the Blue Man Group, I started a family and kind of stopped touring at length — though when I look back, the thing I find interesting was maybe at my highest point in the 90s, I found myself questioning the whole thing and I found myself not really living in the moment — not necessarily appreciating what was happening for me, and I probably assumed it was going to continue so I just took it for granted, and I think all the energy of feeling like everyone wanted a piece of me — I think I kind of questioned the whole thing out the door.
TYF: You’ve played some recent gigs too —
Tracy: Yeah, I’ve been doing some gigs with Rachael Yamagata as well as on my own, and that’s been really nice. I’m playing solo, and it’s really, really nice to play solo because it’s just up to you what happens on that stage. I’ve been practicing a lot more than I really ever have — so that is really getting my passion back.
I’m so excited to dig into these songs and try them on the piano or some other instruments and really kind of help them stand alone. And then when I get out in front of an audience — especially an audience like Rachael Yamagata’s — it’s wonderful. They listen. They care. They buy merch. They talk to me afterwards, and I’m not feeling that whole question machine up in my head. None of that’s happening. I’m just here for the music and connecting with people and it’s really, really enjoyable.
Be sure to check out Tracy Bonham and Blake Morgan’s live shows at the following cities:
April 5 – Seattle, WA – The Rendezvous Theater (Get Tickets)
April 6 – Portland, OR – The White Eagle Saloon (Get Tickets)
April 7 – Eugene, OR – Sam Bond’s Garage (Get Tickets)
April 9 – San Francisco, CA – The Battery (Get Tickets)
April 10 – San Francisco, CA – The Lost Church (On Sale Soon)
April 12 – Los Angeles, CA – The Hotel Cafe (Get Tickets)
June 20 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live Upstairs (Get Tickets)