When Tracy Bonham set out to make her fourth full-length record, a lot had changed. She’d move back to Brooklyn, after spending three years in Los Angeles, had fallen in love and gotten married, and watched as the record industry cease to exist. “I had no idea how or when I was going to make my next record, let alone release one,” says Bonham. “I started writing and it took shape organically.” Bonham got together with guitarist Smokey Hormel (Tom Waits, Beck, Rufus Wainwright) and his “Roundup” trio in a Brooklyn studio and began cutting tracks that reflected the changes in her life in an honest, open way. “It was the most fun I have ever had making a record because I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder,” admits Bonham. “It was so liberating to do this totally on my own, without the pressure of a record label. I didn’t care about things like radio anymore. These rules were so far behind me and, in a way, I felt like I was pushing myself to tread new ground.”
That freedom comes across on Masts of Manhatta (Engine Room Recordings, July 13), Bonham’s best and most personal record to date. Recorded both in Brooklyn and Woodstock, NY (where the singer alternates between residencies), Masts suggests the dichotomy surrounding the two environments, the singer’s own personal journey as well as the changing rules of the music industry. “The city versus country theme threads through the record,” says Bonham. “This is my life at the moment: the balance of nature and the big city. Longing to be surrounded by nature, to get back to a quiet and balanced life, but also loving life in the city and being inspired by it.”
The title is taken from the Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which she’d read on vacation in Mexico while taking a break from recording. The author is in a state of wonder, feeling connected to all things as he crosses the East River on a crowded commuter ferryboat. He looks back at the lower Manhattan skyline as if they were masts on a ship, commanding them to stand tall in celebration of their beauty. “This poem summed up these new songs for me,” says Bonham. “It’s about maintaining a sense of peace and stillness, of connectedness to all in nature, while living in a bustling New York City.”
Masts reflects the singer’s peripatetic lifestyle, moving between tango-influenced rhythms (“Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend”), Tom Waits-inspired Klezmer folk-punk (“Josephine”) and pastoral country (“We Moved Our City to the Country”) with multiple pit stops in between. On the latter, Bonham recalls the initial feelings that come with moving from an urban area to a rural setting. “It’s about transposing that city mentality into country life and finding the humor inherent in that,” says the singer. “Musically, it’s a little schizophrenic and reflects my attempt to piece together disparate feelings while still maintaining a sense of balance with the duality.”
Bonham retains her unique ability to make the prosaic poetic and on Masts, has worried less about how her lyrics may be perceived. “From a writing point of view, there are certain lyrics on Masts that probably don’t make sense to anybody else. The old me might have said, ‘That’s too specific. It’s going to shut everybody out.’ But now, this is who I am now. Take it or leave it.”
As on past efforts, romance, love and heartache make their appearance, but where Bonham’s early vocal efforts displayed a rebellious snarl, the singer nowadays takes a softer, if no less direct, approach. Her wry wit, however, remains, conjuring up a mix of humor and despair on “Reciprocal Feelings”: “I’d like to be my own best friend/Turns out there’s no reciprocal feelings/What a total snob.”
A native of Eugene, OR, 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.
Critics took notice as well. Rolling Stone noted “this classically trained Boston singer-songwriter sets meandering Aimee Mann-like melodies over bright electro-pop folk with string-laden atmospherics.” “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, earning a yoga teaching certification while learning to live a more balanced life, not realizing initially that her non-musical experiences would be fodder for what would eventually become Masts.
“Making music is what I will always do,” says Bonham. “I realized I didn’t have to divide it into ‘career’ and ‘not career’. I make music. I needed the music business machine for a minute. Now I realize I don’t. Every record before this, I had some expectation for how the record should do commercially. But now, it’s a wide open slate and I’m okay with that, as long as I can create new opportunities and grow from them. Life is so good right now; how could I go wrong?”
Photos © 2005 by: Beth Shandles