Tracy Bonham on Motherhood and Simplifying Her Approach, Plus a Song Premiere
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.
SntMag: “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.
SntMag: 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.
SntMag: 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.”