Yoga, The Universe, And Everything: A Q&A With Tracy Bonham

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For those not following closely, Tracy Bonham may be best known for her scorching 1996 single “Mother, Mother,” an intense post-grunge MTV hit that created enough of an impact that, 14 years and several records later, the classically-trained artist can still pack a house and smoothly navigate the music world without much label support.

In the intervening years since her debut album, she has released three more carefully-crafted full-length records and a couple of EPs which showcase her gift for melody and vibrant lyrics. She has also toured and recorded with the Blue Man Group (and taught music at their Blue School) and has undertaken yoga teacher training.

On her latest album, Masts of Manhatta, she takes a decidedly more acoustic route than ever before, without losing the characteristic bite of her previous work.

The dual citizen of Brooklyn and Woodstock recently shared some thoughts on songwriting, yoga, and her dream collaborator.

I want to compliment you on the new album–I think it’s great. Are you happy with it?

I am super happy. Maybe I’ve said this before, but I am the happiest I’ve been with a record. Everything from start to finish was so positive and so fun.

That must be gratifying!

It’s so nice. It actually can be done! You can actually have fun with all that.

One thing I’ve noticed about your songs, especially on the last two albums, is that they often follow a classic, structured pop form. How formal is your composition training? Or is it something you just picked up from listening to records as a kid… ?

Well, my training in classical music and theory was formal, and then as far as composition–I worked on composition on college in a classical sense. But when it came to writing more pop-oriented stuff, it came from listening, and also this desire to break the rules a little bit–a rebellion against the structure of my upbringing with classical music. So yeah, the pop songwriting is self-taught.

Your songs tend to have this insistent rhythmic quality to them–that’s something that comes through even on the new album where the instrumentation is a little more organic than your previous rock stuff. I’m wondering, first of all, are you a frustrated drummer?

(Laughs) Well it’s funny–I can’t play drums for shit. I love rhythm. I think it’s not that I want to sit behind the drum kit, but I think this record in particular started with rhythm ideas as the basis for song ideas, more than other records.

So you started with a rhythmic inspiration and then you added to that?

Yeah, like, the first song on the record, “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend,” that came from a goofy little drum pattern. We kept the demo and we just added to that pattern for the record.

When you say drum pattern, do you mean you were messing around on Garageband or something?

No, I have an ancient drum machine–a Boss Dr. Rhythm DR660–and with its limitations you just go with what you’ve got, and add to it. And at first I thought this was a goofy song I was just playin’ around with–I didn’t think I was gonna really complete it –but then it worked its way into my heart.

You’re a multi-instrumentalist–what do you tend to write on: guitar, piano, violin?

For the most part it’s guitar, but after my first and second record I hit a wall and wanted to change it up. I’m really not a good guitar player. Actually, it’s intentional–I don’t really want to know too much about what I’m doing, because I think I can trick myself into coming up with fresh things. If you know something too well you tend to stick with your little tricks. So I wanted to keep the guitar as mysterious as possible so that I can just put my fingers down, and have no idea what this note is gonna be, or what it’s gonna sound like. Then it triggers an idea, and I can follow that thread instead of like, “Oh, I’m gonna play an E and G pattern…”

So I then started gravitating towards the piano. I also think in my mind I opened up to the piano again because I used to think it was uncool to have piano in my music (laughs) ‘cause it wasn’t rock enough, or something. And it’s so nice growing up because you realize–that was really stupid!

So I started going to piano to write and then I realized, I can try to write on the violin, even though it definitely has its limitations–you’re not playing chords, you have to use your inner ear. I love that. I have this ear training that I did years ago that I just love. You have to make up the chords around the single notes on the violin, in your mind first.

There’s a song on the new album, “You’re My Isness,” that sounds like it was written on the bass.

Yeah! Exactly right. That was written on the bass.

So you really have an advantage, knowing so many different instruments, because it opens up different approaches, different sounds…

Yeah, that’s it. I wouldn’t say I’m really good at any one of these instruments–I feel like a jack of all trades–but I do have them at my disposal. And possibly, it’s better that I don’t play them too well.

Do you have any particular songwriting rituals? Do you need to be in a certain place?

That’s a mystery, still. I have to be in a good place in my mind where I’m not too cluttered–and that’s hard for me! I’ve got a lot of stuff going on up there, and if I can just stop for a while, and just open to things, that’s when the inspiration comes. And that’s a challenge right now, because there’s so much stuff coming at me. It helps for me to be up in Woodstock where it’s quieter, but that’s not always true, because I can find just as much inspiration when I’m in the city.

I read that you’ve done Iyengar yoga training. How’s that going? Are you teaching right now?

Well, I started teaching after my training. I actually was assisting, and I was starting to teach. And yoga started to become something, kind of similar to music, where the idea of teaching started to become something that was pressuring me: “I should do this, I’m supposed to be doing this.” And when I was in a yoga class, I would think, “What would I do if I was the teacher?” It took me away from the real essence of yoga.

Also, when I immersed myself in yoga, I was walking away from music, just temporarily. So when I stepped a little bit away from teaching yoga, music started to come back full force. I realized that this is my calling, and music was coming back, and I was more inspired.

I realized that there’s not enough time in the day to be a yoga teacher, make a record, teach music. With all of the things I was doing, something had to give, and the thing that gave was the teaching of music, because it was the least enjoyable at that moment.

Do you find that your yoga practice has influenced your writing, directly or indirectly?

I do. Definitely directly. It’s inspired my writing, it’s inspired my whole idea of playing music, for which I’m so grateful. I needed that excursion into yoga to bring me back to a passion for music, so it was instrumental. Yoga has taught me how to listen, it taught me how to be in the moment, it taught me how to quiet the critic, which is such an obstacle when it comes to writing and performing.

Of course, it’s still a challenge, but when you can get to that point where you’re on the stage, or when you’re writing lyrics, where you’re not constantly battling with that critical voice, it’s really enjoyable. I’m enjoying it much more.

That openness to new ideas, without shooting them down right away, is really liberating.

Yeah, really! It’s amazing, you think back about what you used to do to yourself and it’s like, wow, how did I get anything done?! (Laughs)

A lot of musicians get into yoga, and then their music suffers a bit, because it gets a little bit cornball…

Totally cornball, yeah, yeah! I was just talking about this with someone else, about whether it’s harder to write songs when you’re in a good place. I think it’s not. But I still enjoy that edge, I enjoy the fire of rock ‘n roll, and I enjoy the fire of performing. When I see a performance, if that person up there onstage has fire, I love that. With yoga, like with Buddhism, you can accept that life is suffering and you can detach from it, and you can still write about that dark stuff, it doesn’t have to be all butterflies…

On another note, I’m wondering how many songs you actually wrote for the new album that didn’t make it to the final version?

There is one other one that made it all the way to recording, finished. I love it still, but I just felt it was a little inappropriate…

You mean style-wise?

Style-wise, and maybe it was of a time, and I wanted these songs to be more timeless. This song was about election night, when Obama won, and it was a celebration and it’s awesome and I’m still happy and I wanna use it as a b-side, and I love that I wrote a song about it. It was about the night when he made his acceptance speech and people around me in Brooklyn were crying and it was this amazing night. Strangers were hugging each other. It was like New Year’s Eve or something. There were car horns honking, and pots and pans clamoring…

I love the song still, and I was conflicted because I thought, well, I’m still totally in support of that moment, and of him, but I also don’t want to talk about politics on this record. The song was just about that one moment in time, and people now have differing opinions of what’s been going on, and what he’s doing.

I still am supporting him even though it’s been disappointing at times, but I don’t want to get into it. This record is more about Brooklyn, Woodstock, me, my life, my husband.

The new album title is an homage to Walt Whitman. Do you take a lot of inspiration from poetry?

I do. When I’m stuck, or when I’m trying to receive and be open to things, I’ll pull down books–Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Emerson, Patti Smith’s poetry– and I’ll open them all up and I’ll just stare at the words without maybe even really knowing what I’m reading. I just want to be inspired by words, and sounds of words. Or I might even pick up a book about wine and just look for a word that catches my eye. I don’t feel as though it’s plagiarism or borrowing or anything–I feel like your soul is a mirror and if you see a word that lights up, then that’s something that’s in your soul that you need to say.

Like an oracle…

Yeah, right, an oracle! Or tarot cards, or those angel cards. It could mean something else completely for someone else, but if you read into it, that’s your message.

Do you ever collaborate on songs?

I do! I’ve started to more now than I used to. I was scared before, especially with lyrics–they’re so personal and I don’t understand how two people who don’t know each other very well are supposed to sit down and write from their hearts. To me it still is a mystery, and it still scares me, it’s very vulnerable. So it has to be with the right person, somebody you totally trust, who you can say something stupid to and not feel like they’re judging you, and that’s hard to find.

There’s a certain type of person, and I admire them so much, who can do a Nashville songwriting session where you sit down and say “Hi, nice to meet you,” and then write a song. I feel like a lot of times those are well-crafted songs and that’s great–a lot of them are just awesome–but are you really getting down into the mud of your soul? Are you really bringing things out with this other person that you don’t know?

When you write with someone else, you’re making yourself vulnerable.

So vulnerable, oh my God. I get insecure around people, I can be shy, I want people to like me, and I want people to think that I’m good at what I do, so it gets a little scary, I go into a shell. But there are a few people in this life that I have co-written with, and it was amazing, and it was because I was very close with these people and I love them.

However on the other side, if I could just write the music with people, that would be a blast. The chords, the melody, all that stuff. It would be like havin’ a party.

Who would be your dream collaborator?

It would have to be someone I could learn from, someone like Tom Waits. To get inside his head, to just to sit in the room and watch him work would be enough.

OK, we’ll put that request out there in the universe and see what happens.



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