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Bright Stars, Car Wrecks, Churches and an Imaginary Woody Guthrie: An interview with Haley Bonar

by dave heaton

One thing that's brightened my life in the last year was discovering the Chairkicker's Union label. Run by the members of Low (their first release was Low's Christmas CD, their second was the first CD by Black-Eyed Snakes, an offshoot of Low), the Duluth, Minnesota label has recently released a series of beautiful, strange, inspiring CDs by groups like Rivulets, Kid Dakota, If Thousands (see interview last issue), The Winter Blanket, and Haley Bonar. Bonar's Chairkicker's debut, her second album, is called The Size of Planets and it's absolutely captivating. A singer-songwriter whose music is ostensibly in the realm of folk-country-blues-pop, Bonar has both an amazing voice and a knack at writing moving and poetic songs about life and death and all the things in between. It's one of those albums I like listening to so much that I have trouble saying anything coherent about it. For proof of that, see my gushing review last issue. Or better yet, don't; just find your way to a copy of the music yourself and let it do its magic on you. An unforgettable song will do more for you than a 400-word review ever will. In June, Haley kindly answered my questions over e-mail.

First off, you have an amazing singing voice; what is your singing background like? Have you been singing for much of your life? Have you had formal voice lessons or anything like that?

Well, my mom said I've always been singing. I was involved with public school choir from 6-12 grade, so I guess that counts as training, but never any formal training.

How long have you been writing songs? What first lead you to start?

I think I started writing songs when I was like 8 just because we rented this keyboard in order for me to take piano lessons, and I had this cheap little sony tape player with which I would hit play and record. I wrote songs about horses and things, really silly (ha ha). And when I was like 14, I borrowed a friend's acoustic guitar. My mom taught me "puff the magic dragon" to learn some chords, and one of my friend's taught me some Nirvana songs. I was sort of in and out of guitar lessons, but was consistent at writing lyrics and poems, which sometimes became songs.

With your style of music-meaning basically a person singing/playing songs that she writes-people often assume that the songs come out of personal experiences. How true is that for you? What is your method of songwriting like?

I think most people base at least some of their stuff on their own personal experiences. I mean, it takes emotion just to write about a fictional character in your head. Most of the songs on the record are at least half and half (personal and not). For instance, "Save a Horse, Ride a cowboy", is fairly personal (except for the part about 12 kids), where as songs like "Am I Allowed", "Billy", and "Car Wreck" are based on my dreams or fictional women in my head, sort of alter-egos. My method of songwriting is a little spur-of-the-moment. Usually, I have a zygote of an idea in my head, then pick up a guitar, or sit at the piano, and find a melody. Then the lyrics sort of fill themselves in.

Recently you've been touring a fair amount. How has that been? How would you describe the approach you take to performing live?

Yes, I've been touring a lot lately. It has been amazing, though it is completely tiring at times, it's such a great experience to go so many places and perform to different people every night. I met some very kind people, which makes me think the world isn't so bad. As far as an approach to performing live, I don't know, I just sort of throw a set list together with my drummer Dave at the last minute and get up there and sing. But touring really helps your performance, probably because you spend most of the day in the car and can't wait to do something stimulating- I found myself getting into my music a lot more than I usually do.

When you're on tour, singing many of the same songs for different people, I'm wondering if in any ways your relationship to your songs changes the more you perform them. Are there songs you like more or less after you sing them to people a bunch of times?

Definitely, I think most people would agree. You can only sing a song so many nights in a row before you want to kill it. So I usually pick a few songs which are only for some nights, the ones that are more vocally strenuous or very personal, like "Razor That Wins", and then when I play them I don't get quite so sick. However, I also think the more I play certain songs, the more I build a relationship with them, it becomes more of a tattoo on your body, something that is wholly a part of you.

One of your first major tours was opening for Low, is that right? What was that like, to open for a band with such a devoted following when you were fairly new to making albums yourself?

Opening for Low for my first big tour was an experience I will always hold very dear. Before I even moved to Duluth, I was a huge fan of their music, I respect what they do in the highest regard. So when Alan asked me to open for them, I about melted. The crowds were amazing- because Low's music is so quiet, people were there to listen, meaning they also listened to my set. It was all anyone could ask for. Plus, being able to watch Low perform every night was great- and observing the crowds watching them was also mind-blowing, because they affect people in a way that's hard to describe.

A related question to that: how did you end up on Chairkicker's, meet Low, etc.? It seems like Duluth has a pretty vibrant music scene- is that accurate, would you say?

I was playing at this Experimental Tuesday thing that goes on every week at this place called the Norshore Theatre. I brought my Farfisa organ and acoustic guitar and played some newer stuff and covers, and Alan happened to be there, and asked me right afterwards if I'd want to open for Low. My record was done at this point, waiting to be reproduced, and a couple of days later, he came to my house and asked if he could put out my record on Chairkickers. He had been mildly involved with the record (played a guitar track), so he had heard it, etc. Duluth's music scene is unique, one of the major influences for me moving here in the first place. There are all sorts of bands, it seems everyone is in a band or making music. A lot of punk, rock, folk, and experimental groups. It's really great.

You recorded some of the songs on your new album in Sacred Heart Studios. I have to ask the "what was it like?" question, just because I'm sort of amazed by that place, based on how great the sound is on the albums I've heard that were recorded there.

I always like answering that question referring to the studio, because I feel very passionately about it. It's this great big church, over 100 years old, that's been turned into a performance/recording space. The sound in there is amazing. All of the equipment is analog, which gives it that very rich texture. The first time I walked in there to record, something hit me, a good feeling, an inspiring one, and I knew this place was perfect to record in. there's just something about it. And it was great working with Eric Swanson, because he's such a pro, but gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted.

It says on your web site that you're acting in Travis Wilkerson's next film? What can you tell us about that? Have you acted before? What is the film about? (I haven't seen his other films but have read a lot about them.)

Yes, that will be my summer project, I guess. The story is a little vague to me right now, but it's about a girl (based on true story) whose father was killed in a mining accident when she was young, and she makes up this mythological Woody Guthrie-like figure in her head of him. One day she steals some wine and gets caught, has a breakdown, kind of goes a little crazy. She really likes Evil Knievel and carries a guitar on her back which she doesn't know how to play. See, this sounds confusing to you, too. But Travis knows what he's doing, I trust that. No, I've never really acted before. I'm a bit nervous, but it's not going to be your average film. I'm also going to do some of the soundtrack work. Low will be doing that as well, setting up a studio in a mine. His last film, a documentary titled An Injury to One, was fantastic. It was also based in and on Butte, Montana, where this film will be shot. Low, Dirty Three, Shannon Wright, Will Oldham, Richard Buckner and If thousands did the soundtrack work on the last one, which makes it even cooler. So I'm super excited to work with him.

Also on your web site are 2 songs from your first album. Going by those two songs alone, it seems like your first album was sparser, maybe just you and a guitar? In general how would you describe the differences between the two albums (in terms of your approach to recording them, the songs themselves, or whatever)?

Yikes. I don't like my first album very much. I'll have to take those mp3s off soon. Yes, my first album was recorded a few years ago in the attic of a Llama farm in South Dakota. It was just me and guitar (except for a little bit of piano on the last track), very simple. I released a bunch of songs that I had been playing for a long time, and by the time this album came out, I had already begun some of the songs which are on this new album. I felt that I "owed" it to those songs, my first official "batch", to put them on CD. Since then, I have grown a lot as a songwriter; found my niche a bit more. It takes me a while to get up the gumption to go in the studio, I have to truly be ready. So for the second album I was more prepared, more knowledgeable on recording, and finding what I wanted. I'm sort of a minimalist, too, which explains the sparseness. I don't think I could ever release something that was a lot of overproduced tracks. Cause for me, it's mostly just about me singin' my songs or whatever.

Are there recurring themes you find popping up in your songwriting a lot? From my perspective your new album has songs that probe into some of the big questions of life, like religion, life/death, etc., but also songs about very tangible, day-to-day things.

Yes, I find that I often write about the bigger themes like life/death/religion/love a lot, because really, what else is there to write about? I mean, everyone deals with that shit all the time, right? But I'm a little more obsessive about it. Especially religion, because I was really spiritual when I was very young. I don't mean to sound pretentious at all, I just think that everything is based on life/death/love/fear, etc.

Are you influenced by jazz at all? There's songs where something about the way you sing reminds me of some of the great old jazz singers.

Honestly, I'm not really influenced by jazz at all. Sure, I really like some of the old jazz singers like Billy Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone, and perhaps somehow that does enter my system, but mostly I listen to a lot of old pop and rock. But that's a very nice compliment, though, those women really knew how to sing.

One last question: On this past tour with Rivulets, how was the Kirksville, Missouri show? I lived there for 6 years, and nobody at all ever played there then so I'm curious to know how the show went (you can be honest, even if it went badly).

Well, when we first pulled into town, we were all very weary because of some previous bad shows, and didn't really expect anything to come of this. It looked so desolate, empty. However, there were actually some people there, and they listened, and the club owners (the Aquadome) were cool. They made us a curry dinner, which we were stoked about. We stayed with some nice folks and their cats. I bet the show would've been even better had school been going on, but it seemed like the kids there were frequent show-goers.

{http://www.haleybonar.com}

Issue 14, August 2003 | next article


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Note: Photo taken from Haley Bonar's web site. Copyright 2003 by Becky Ekstam and Jamie McCallum.