Tracy Bonham – Part One – A Special Xperience Interview
Written by Staff on November 27, 2023
Tracy Bonham – Part Two – A Special Xperience Interview – by Niki Kaos.
Tracy Bonham knows a thing or two about writing catchy songs with smart lyrics that make you feel like you’re in on the joke with her: the kind of sarcasm tinged with an authentic examination of self and relationship that the best alt-rockers wear proudly on their sleeve.
Her 1996 debut studio release, The Burdens of Being Upright went Gold within a year. The full-throated anthem “Mother Mother” topped the Billboard Alt-Rock charts and captured the hearts of those ready to blaze trails and embrace the trial and error of independence.
But Tracy Bonham’s desire to create music dives waaaay deeper than her debut album. She has a lot of things to say. Her classical training and multi-instrumental talent produce richly textured arrangements. Exploring music styles on her later albums, you hear the well-rounded ear of a seasoned musician. Jazz, blues, Americana, pop – the mood fits the song, and the lyrics drive the mood.
Capital Region music lovers are in for a treat because Tracy Bonham is one of the headliners for the Saratoga New Year’s Fest lineup. This fangirl got to ask her about what life has been like since that first hit single. I was amply rewarded with real talk about the music scene and insider info on some exciting new projects!
RRX: You’re a big inspiration for me! What got you started writing Alt-rock songs? You began on classical violin, which requires rigorous training to master. But it seems your rebellious streak got the better of you and the pull of the rock-n-roll world was irresistible?
TB: So yeah, the training, the pressure. I also was very self-motivated. I really wanted to do well. I’d practice four hours a day. I loved all my experiences with really intensive summer camps like Interlochen. I started playing in semi-professional symphonies and loved it! Loved the music, loved everything about it.
But, I also had this rebellious streak. And for me, music was more about expression, and I started to become discouraged when I went to University of Southern California. I got the full scholarship, which really saved me because my SAT scores and my other academics were not so great.
So luckily, I got into a really good conservatory type school because I played so well. However, when I would do “juries”, you practice your piece, and you’d get up there and play for the head of the string department and the dean of the school and whoever was there to grade you.
My grades for techniques were meh, but then really high scores on the emotional component. And, it was discouraging, to say the least, because I practiced a lot. And I wasn’t amazing, and I wasn’t bad. There were clearly other players there that were better.
And I was hanging on because my work ethic was high, especially the last few years of high school. And I had a nemesis because I wanted to get first chair. And I always got second because Pilar Bradshaw always got the first chair. But she inspired me to get second place in the state solo competitions.
Anyway, the fact was that I knew I was never going to be “it” on the violin. I knew I was never going to have a life of real success. I was going to sit in the back of the second violin section. My dream would have been the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And the more I looked at that world… I actually went to an open rehearsal at the BSO one time when I was visiting Boston, and I saw the faces on these people. (laughs)
I probably projected it, and I made a big ole judgement. And they were probably playing something they played 18,000 times before, like the “1812 Overture”. But I saw these violinists and their faces were just like, drooping. They looked so miserable. And I was like, nope. Why am I gonna kill myself to have this end up being my life?
I had also been an actor in musical theatre, I was like, that is way more fun, and I can reach more people. I can actually move people if I just do my own thing. So, I transferred to Berklee College of Music because that was the only thing I could think of. I wanted to sing jazz, actually.
RRX: That doesn’t surprise me. You have a very jazzy voice.
TB: Oh, well, thank you. And now I can really accept that. Maybe in the nineties I would have been like, no, I don’t. (laughs)
RRX: It’s funny how we learn about ourselves. Some people accept it, and some people don’t.
People mature in different ways. When I think about what you achieved at such a young age, maybe you didn’t realize how mature you really were at the time?
TB: I did not.
RRX: What was it like? You get to Boston. You’re training, singing. You get involved in the music industry out there. And your hit “Mother, Mother” resonated with a LOT of people. But now you’re trapped in this music industry at kind of a young age. You’ve got this single and you’re in the middle of this craziness?
TB: Sometimes I look back like, What? Was? That? Because it was like a tornado just came through town and, whoop! I got swooped up, and now I’m not in Kansas. I don’t even know where I am anymore.
I had literally only started writing songs. I was in a wedding band and singing jingles, and I dropped out of Berkeley because I was already gigging. And of course, I was 21 and really doing some stupid s**t as well… which, that’s my first album. It was about all that stupid s**t, and that stupid dude who made me do all this stupid s**t.
I had only written maybe three songs, which is so wild, because I barely played guitar. But I started writing songs that were gonna kind of deconstruct my classical upbringing, too. Songs that only had a barre cord up and down the neck, that would be “Mother, Mother”, basically. Or songs that only had three chords, A, E, D, whatever, because I was thumbing my nose… Or not thumbing, because I always loved my classical upbringing and always brought it around with me, but I was challenging it. I was really rebelling against it.
And I bought that Rat pedal for my guitar, and I screamed, or whatever, because I was like, really trying to shed the skin of the classical strictness that I was always bumping up against. You know, it was always kind of bringing me down, and I loved it so much. It was like this real feeling, not of betrayal. But, you know, I’ve always been one to question authority.
So, I’d only written a handful of songs, and they were all just an attempt to do something different with my musical abilities. And then, BOOM! I got swept away by this tsunami of music industry people who were flying up to Boston from New York and taking me out and sending me flowers and champagne and limos.
I even found some old photos the other day of the person who ended up being my A&R guy. He flew to Spain because I was performing in some weird show in Spain in 1994 and he brought me to Barcelona. I was, okay…? But I’m not really a songwriter yet. I mean, it was really harrowing, and they all gravitated towards another song, not just “Mother, Mother”. It was the song called “The One” thinking that was gonna be THE one, right?
TB: Yeah! And they had this demo of “The One” that still is better than what was on the album. But everybody loved that. And it was all over WFNX radio alternative station, and that was this big buzz. And I was like, OK, then… we’re doing this.
It was like an about face, and I was immature, actually. I was not prepared for that stuff like fame and pressure. I was still discovering who I was, and probably trying to keep myself in a box – at the same time fighting against that box that other people put around me. Like, you’re an angry woman now, so you must write angry songs. Why are you so angry? What does it feel like to be a woman in music art?
It was really hard. Actually, it was not freeing…
RRX: I want to hear more of this story, but we’re out of space! Pick up an Xperience Monthly December issue to find out how Tracy manifested her shift away from the trappings of the music industry, and toward a life surrounded by music that she loves!
Tracy is bringing her amazing new trio of musicians with her to Saratoga New Year’s Fest December 31st! For tickets and more information, visit their website at: https://www.saratoga.org/tourism/saratoga-new-years-fest/