Singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham returns this Friday with Wax & Gold, her first new album in five years. She's been working at a fairly similar clip since the release of her Grammy-nominated 1996 debut, The Burdens of Being Upright, while managing to fit in other significant adventures like touring extensively with the Blue Man Group and becoming a mother.
We have the exclusive premiere of Wax & Gold's opening track, the flute, bass and sax-driven "Noonday Demon." We spoke with Bonham about why the track is so different from the rest of the album, how the demands of motherhood affected her songwriting process and what she learned from touring with a bombastic act like the Blue Man Group.
AllMusic: "Noonday Demon" uses significantly different instrumentation than the rest of the record. How did that come about?
Tracy Bonham: First of all, it found its place as the opener of the record mainly because it was the oddest track on the album, and the rest of the album, I’m proud to say, compared to my last albums and my songwriting of the past, it doesn’t take as many left turns or throw as many curveballs. And due to circumstances, mainly that I’m a mother now, so writing and being creative at this point feels like moving through molasses when you’re a parent, and so it’s just more like I’m writing and going straight down the middle, I don’t have time, I just have to get to the end. So the rest of the album is very much down the middle, and then you hear “Noonday Demon,” which is so bizarre that I wanted to open it up mainly because, in my opinion, it’s a bit of a thread from my previous ability to throw a little bit of a curveball.
AllMusic: Did you have the song around for a while or was it a new creation?
Bonham: It was pretty fresh, it was one that was in the toolbox as I was putting together this album. I’m really into upright bass and I love having a groove that’s repetitive. I’ve always loved oddballs and artists like Tom Waits and stuff like that where there’s so much bass in their music and this groove, gritty, whether it’s upright bass or not, things that are repetitive and kind of swampy, I love that word. That’s one of my favorite ways to describe a song when I’m going into pre-production, I use that word many times. So I would categorize that song as a bit swampy, it harkens back to songs I’d written in that vein.
Then the flute and bari sax came in later, the flute was totally unexpected, and it’s my favorite part of the album. Some of the parents at my son’s school are super musical, like Amy Helm, Levon Helm’s daughter, and David Bowie had sent his kids there at one point. My friend, Marco Benevento, had brought his accordion to this Halloween parade at the school, and another guy, Jay Collins, Amy Helm’s ex-husband, who had played in Levon’s Midnight Ramble band for years, was playing a bari sax, and I could hear it across the field, bari sax and accordion. I knew I had this song, “Noonday Demon,” in the works, and I texted my producer and said, “I’m asking Jay Collins to play bari sax on this song, we’ve got to do it.” Then Amy said, “I hope he brings his flute, you won’t believe it,” and when he played I felt I was suddenly in a cool jazz club in the 1970s, it blew all my standards for jazz flute out of the water. He ended up playing both bari sax and the flute on that song.
AllMusic: Now that life is pulling you in so many directions, how do you decide when it's time to make a record?
Bonham: I think I have a compulsion for that, and putting a kid in the mix definitely makes the rub tougher. But then it’s like a “tough get going” thing, “Dammit, nothing’s going to stop me from making a record,” so I just dig in. I think having a kid made me more creative than I’ve ever been, but there’s the rub of not being able to get to it, which is so incredibly frustrating that it fuels this fire in me. “That’s not going to stop me.”
AllMusic: Is your son aware of what mom does yet?
Bonham: I just got the CDs and the test pressings, and he wanted to listen to them and understood that I was listening to myself and trying to figure out of it sounded good. The first really cute moment I had was this morning when a radio station played one of the songs, and the DJ spoke about me before the song, so when he said my name and I looked back at him in the car seat and his eyes lit up and he said, “He’s talking about you!” He got so excited, and then the song came on and he got even more excited, so that was really sweet.
AllMusic: Has he seen you perform live?
Bonham: Yeah, but that’s been tough. From the very beginning, he didn’t want me to play. For the first few months we were having a good time, the three of us, at the piano, just playing around with music and I’d sing to him and he’d repeat and I thought, “This kid’s got a great ear,” and I was thinking about molding him, in a very subtle way, and then all of the sudden I think he caught on, “Wait a minute, when mom makes music that means she’s not paying attention to me,” and so he starts clawing at me and not wanting me to play, and I’ve tried to play shows with him there and it’s been a total disaster, to the point where one time he was up onstage with me and a kid got up onstage with him to comfort him, because he was crying. It was a beautiful memory, but it’s very difficult.
AllMusic: You spent several years touring with the Blue Man Group, what did you learn from their performance style?
Bonham: I learned a lot from them, I learned a lot about what to do and then what not to do. I was very much involved with them for a very long time, I was kind of on the inside, and they had this whole philosophy that went along with it, an ethos, and I loved that, they had a storyline that most people might notice going into the show, but it goes deeper and I realized this is some sort of Jungian philosophy in the characters and the psyche. I was inspired by having a story and what they present onstage as far as levels of the story. They’re showmen and put on a good show, and I love them dearly, but what I also learned not to do was to not do too much, because I feel they have a tendency to do too much.
Lately, especially in my older years, I like simplicity, and I really enjoy watching a singer have a presence that’s compelling and you can’t take your eyes off of them, and that’s the opposite of what was going on around them. Recently my son and I were watching Blue Man videos and he was freaking out, and found a performance of me playing with them, and I was watching it from his perspective all these years later, and I saw that I was doing that, I was kind of standing still, because there was no way I could compete with all that shit going on around me. It was overstimulation, and I knew I couldn’t compete with it, I couldn’t pull a Gwen Stefani and go jumping around. That’s not my style. I tried to just hold court, and I don’t think it worked, so maybe I should have been bouncing around like a stadium rock act. I definitely took a lot from those years.
AllMusic: You said you like simplicity these days, are you looking to apply that to your older material?
Bonham: I did start experimenting with my mindset now and I took some older songs, and this is all thanks to Pledge Music, part of it was giving extra songs to fans, doing things differently, different versions, the veil is completely down, there’s no more rock star on the mountain, it’s like, “Here’s a snippet, here’s me just playing violin on a song that was a bombastic rock song.” So I started doing that, and I have a song called “Jumping Bean” from my second record, which is all rock, it’s a rock arrangement, and when I took it apart, it sounded like it wanted to be on the back porch, like a weird bluesy back porch number, and I had no idea that could even exist like that. It’s been fun, and I hope to do that more with some of my older songs.
AllMusic: It sounds like you're having a lot of fun.
Bonham: Yeah, I was having a blast. When you’re wholly immersed in motherhood and then you book two days in a studio and you have your friends and musicians around and you feel like a musician again, it’s like the clouds are parting, “This is who I am!” and you have a major epiphany about your whole identity, and then two days later you’re back to scrubbing dishes and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Wax & Gold is out Friday, August 21, can be ordered via Amazon