Artist Spotlight

Catching up with Tracy Bonham: On PledgeMusic and Her New Album

No Comments 30 November 2014

Catching up with Tracy Bonham: On PledgeMusic and Her New Album

Tracy Bonham is the very definition of a DIY indie artist. But unlike a lot of independent musicians, Tracy has the experience of working with a major label and having been recognized as a Grammy nominee.

Her success in the mid-90s with her breakout hit “Mother Mother” is just one part of her evolution as an artist who was classically trained, cut her teeth touring and has sustained her music career over the span of nearly two decades. And in many ways, it seems she’s just getting started. Or maybe it’s just that she’s more content. And perhaps she’s more confident than she’s ever been after having ditched the label and gone her own way.

Tracy has embarked on a new album, Wax & Gold, and is using the PledgeMusic campaign platform to engage her fans and include them in the recording and production process. This new project is personal, encompasses the charm of her signature wit and warmth as a songwriter, and is made all the more appealing to Bonham because of the freedom this campaign allows…and the control she has over the finished product and how she interacts with her fans. 

Our editor Heidi had a chance to ask Tracy a few questions about her creative process, her advice for other indie artists, her experience using PledgeMusic and how the new album is shaping up. Read the full interview below…


Visit Tracy’s website: http://www.tracybonham.com/

Find out more about Tracy’s PledgeMusic campaign here:
http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/tracybonhamwaxandgold

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Indie-Music: Let’s talk a little bit about your trajectory through the years in the music business. When The Burdens of Being Upright debuted, I was a College Radio Music Director. The impact of the album, and particularly “Mother Mother”, had a big bold start and launched you straight onto the MTV and Grammy track. What was the most surprising (and conversely, most unsurprising) affect that had on both you personally and your music?

Tracy Bonham Burdens of Being UprightTB: I was living in Boston at the time my first major label album was released on Island Records. Things had moved very fast and I was clamoring to get my act together. I was still putting a band together, and hadn’t been writing songs for very long, albeit I had been a musician and performer my entire life. It was very much an overnight success and I wasn’t prepared. I enjoyed the raucous, but I was originally hoping for a mild, somewhat underground success like my heroes on Island records, the artists that made that place desirable: PJ Harvey and Tom Waits. I was conflicted because I knew that I was being positioned as the next big thing and it was pretty fun to be treated as such, but in my scene that would have been called a sell-out. It made me very self conscious. I was completely baffled when my song “Mother Mother” took off and rose to number 1 in the alternative charts. I remember my manager called me one evening, as I was sitting on my kitchen counter eating cornflakes in my pajamas, to tell me that I had sold 20,000 records that week and that the song was rising to number 1 fast. I was confused. I had thought I was going to be a big deal around Boston, and that was going to be good enough. Now I was getting calls, even before I knew about it, with congratulations for my Grammy nominations. I was happy of course, but what started happening with my next batch of songs was a negative reaction to all the attention. I wasn’t a seasoned songwriter yet and I was sensitive to the winds and waves of success and what people thought of me. I wanted folks to know that I was a real musician, a real artist, not some puppet hit machine. Hence, my next album was almost like a hate letter to the industry. Ironically, I let them convince me to pose on the next album cover showing my midriff. It was a very confusing time.

Not surprising was that just after that time, while enduring a lot more tumult and change in the music business, my star had fallen as quickly as it had risen. I believe it was a mixture of self sabotage, as well as elements out of my control when it came to the start of the decline of the industry altogether.


I-M: After the success of that record began to take hold, you toured…a lot. After creating your first record on your own, being immersed in that road warrior world must have been a different experience for you. How did the camaraderie of being on the road with other artists influence your performance style or songwriting process?

TB: I toured extensively throughout 1996 and 1997 for Burdens, and I met a lot of really cool people and artists. I had been a bit of a snob at first. But when I met artists, some who were very standoffish, such as Fiona Apple, and others who were completely open and generous like Bonnie Raitt, I began to realize that we are all out here together, spreading the gospel. We don’t have to compete with each other, especially when it came to other women artists. Believe me, the industry, and especially radio, were pitting us against each other already. It became highly annoying to be put on that stage, mud wrestling for radio programmers delight. It took me another record to get the anger out of my system, but at one point while on tour in the UK, I had made a promise to myself to stop bitching and to leave behind good work that whined less.


I-M: With your last record in particular, Masts of Manhatta, you were able to truly let go of the label. During the era of big radio, when you were starting out, record labels put a lot of pressure on artists to not only get airplay, but to play by a very specific set of rules. It was the goal of most artists to land a record deal. How did it feel to throw that aside, both creatively and from a business standpoint?

TB: Once I really let go of the self conscious crap, and after having a third album under my belt where I called the shots (blink the brightest -Rounder/ Zoe), I got a taste for freedom and I knew I could never go back to a major label. My fourth album, Masts Of Manhatta was licensed by a tiny NYC label called Engine Room Records and they were uninvolved pretty much the entire way. The creative process was more enjoyable than I had ever imagined. As with my third album, nobody was breathing down my neck. I wasn’t hearing the old chestnut I grew to anticipate every time I was invited to dinner with a CEO: “We don’t hear a first single, but we do hear a third” or “I just don’t get the artistic numbers”. It was liberation. For Masts, I really let go and stopped thinking about radio. I had been fighting those ghosts for some time, wondering about it and comparing my songs to what was popular. Second guessing and trying to predict and live up to expectations. For Masts, radio wasn’t even in my realm of consciousness. I allowed myself to write a 7 minute song with tempo changes. I allowed myself to stretch out and enjoy and celebrate different types of music that had influenced me throughout my life. I explored love. I had never allowed myself to really go there previously. am very proud of that record.

At the time that Masts was released the business had changed so much that I wasn’t sure how it would be received. But I was pleased with how the press finally got me. I finally felt recognized for who I was. An artist. That felt good. It didn’t sell much at all. But I felt validated for once.


I-M: A large portion of our readers are lifelong musicians interested in honing their craft and defining their own success. There’s a really great quote in your bio that bears an important message for other musicians and songwriters, especially from someone who has done their time in this crazy music business. “Making music is what I will always do. I realized I didn’t have to divide it into ‘career’ and ‘not career’. I make music.” What is your advice for artists who are looking to define what it means to be successful in the business?

TB: For artists today, I think it is important to define what it means to be successful in ones own terms. For someone who wants to be the next Lorde, go for it all, and have that kind of energy to make it happen. Do not question yourself. That would be your biggest mistake. Love it and keep moving forward. But for artists who want to do their thing whether they make a living or not - because it is uncertain whether you will make a living, be true to your heart and to what moves you. There are no guarantees, and there is plenty of noise out there, so why not really make something beautiful? My father said something when I was young when I had said that I wanted to be a professional singer. He said “be prepared to starve”. Even though he was wrong for a while, he ended up being right. And so, starving or not, if I don’t love what I do, there is no point.


I-M: You’ve taken even bigger steps to leading a completely DIY musical existence with your new PledgeMusic campaign for Wax & Gold. What is it that appeals to you about using PledgeMusic to fund the recording and release of the record? What are the benefits for other indie artists?

Tracy Bonham PledgeMusicTB: PledgeMusic, for me, has been a savior. It has gotten me back to the essence of why I make music. I never needed to be high on the mountain, making hits where the plebeians below were waiting for the crumbs thrown down to them when the release was ready. I never enjoyed being told “Don’t let your guard down” or “No, you can’t release those demos / that photo” etc. I certainly didn’t love it when the powers that be would tell me to wait until the current trends subsided so I could release my art into the world. PledgeMusic just wants the artist to have fun and be a success on their own terms. It has turned out to be more fun than I could have ever imagined. I can connect with my fans whenever I want, however I want, and as much as I want. It makes me feel like a circle of support is being created, for what I do, and for who I am. People have been so incredibly generous and their enthusiasm has fueled me through the creative process. I admittedly enjoy breaking down the barrier between artist and fan and I truly enjoy sharing the creative process, my creative process.

I-M: How have your songs and arrangements morphed or changed with the new record? What are some of the themes you’re writing about?

TB: My new album, Wax & Gold, is quite possibly my best writing. I finally feel like a seasoned songwriter. There are timeless melodies and the content is a colorful mosaic, mostly about what family means to me now that I am a mother. There are a few oddballs like a song about the rapture that never happened, addiction, and losing the hand-written word. The sound and the playing is ridiculously beautiful and strong. Kevin Salem, my producer, is a world class listener, player, musician and human being. I know my singing is better than ever. I have been given the freedom, or have taken the freedom rather, to make it a very straightforward album. There is freedom in it’s simplicity. I have a song that is only two chords. I would have never let that happen back in the day. But there are so many more intricacies that would have gone unnoticed if I had tried to make it more complicated for the sake of being clever.

I wish I had written and released this album years ago when people were actually buying music.

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