From ‘The Burdens of Being Upright’ to ‘Modern Burdens’. By: Tracy Bonham
When my debut album was released almost twenty one years ago, I was a novice. There were 12 songs on the album and I’m guessing I had only written 16 songs in my entire life up to that point.
It was an exciting time to start a band in Boston. It was 1993 and many of my friends had started their own bands. A lot of them were enjoying local and national success. Letters To Cleo, Dirt Merchants, Helium, Gigolo Aunts, Cave Dogs, were some of the bands that were in heavy rotation on the Boston radio stations WFNX and WBCN, Some were even touring around the country and beyond.
I had a boyfriend who was an excellent drummer. He and I met while working in a wedding band. I sang songs like “Love Shack” and “Like A Virgin” and he would make me laugh by playing the drum parts deliberately wrong knowing that nobody in the audience, or even the musicians in our band, would notice. We were too good for the wedding band thing, but it was good bread, and steady.
My boyfriend was in several different original bands at the time and I would go to see his gigs often. Boston was teaming with alternative rock bands who were influenced by The Pixies, The Cockteau Twins, Siouxie And The Banshees, Joy Division, The Cure, etc. The radio stations were formatted in such a way where new alternative music meant just that and the radio programmers were free to try new things and actually could break new bands. It was before the consolidation where Clear Channel bought and grouped the stations, forcing them to play the same content, thus began the corporatization of modern rock radio.
I was somewhat of a late-comer to the scene. After watching my drummer boyfriend and his bands, I became inspired to start my own group. I didn’t want to be in a wedding band for the rest of my life. The pay was good, but it was a dead end. I was a classically trained violinist, and pianist, and a versatile singer who could sing soul and R&B as well as rock. I started writing simple rock songs as an experiment. I knew and loved music theory, but challenged myself to write songs with three chords only, making melodies over them that were unique to my style, influenced by my favorite artists at the time like The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Liz Fair, and Nirvana. This quickly resonated with Boston audiences. By the time I had only three songs written, I was playing a three song set in between my boyfriend’s bands’ sets with famous guitar player, Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine) and his other band mates. It sounded incredible.
My three song demo made it into the hands of a local publicist and there began the rise to local stardom. The local newspaper, The Boston Phoenix (affiliated with the radio station WFNX), featured me with a huge photograph, taken with a ginormous Polaroid camera, as winner of the Demo Derby. My shows started to sell out. At that point I had only written about 8 songs so my sets were short and sweet. The demo tape was sent down to some A & R people in New York City by my friend Dave Gibbs in the band Gigolo Aunts. I started getting phone calls and dinner invitations as people were flying up to Boston from NYC and LA to meet me.
I remember the excitement and the hope as I continued to show up for the wedding band gigs, driving my turquoise Toyota Corolla to far reaches of Massachusetts to sing songs like “I Will Always Love You” and “Everybody Dance Now”. One time in particular, I remember a stretch limousine waiting for me outside of a dumpy Chinese restaurant in Braintree, Massachusetts as I performed with wedding band called Starlite. As I got into the limo after the gig my song called “The One” was playing on the radio. It was a surreal moment.
I would write and record my demos on my Tascam 8 track cassette recorder on my days off, feeling the pressure to write as the conversations with the prospective A & R people were about making an album of 12 songs. 12 songs that were album worthy. I had hit the ground running and the song writing was mostly fun, but sometimes it was anxiety provoking. I did not have a lot of experience in writing or performing my original songs — only other people’s music classical music. Now I was under the gun and in the public eye.
In retrospect, I wish I had a bit more time to explore songwriting before having to make it my career. I probably would have taken more chances along the way. Or not. Maybe I would have explored songwriting in a more vulnerable and transparent way. But my first bunch of songs, angst ridden and quirky, hit big in Boston and garnered so much attention in the music business that it made it hard to look beyond and try new things. I felt pressure to stay with what worked.
I was definitely angry at the men who mistreated me in my life and my songwriting reflected this. What I realized later was that this mode of expression was the only way I could work out my insecurities and my challenges in communicating in relationships with people.
I felt a fire within and compared myself with other songwriters. I was frustrated with female singers like Juliana Hatfield and Aimee Mann. I wanted them to have more strength and passion in the way they sang. My sound was a direct reaction to that. I also felt the need to make fun of other female artists such as Courtney Love, who I thought went too far in that realm. I mocked her screaming, which is something most people do not know. I wrote a song called “Kisses,” which was about her attention-getting tactics.
I remember one day, in 1994, after I had signed my recording contract with Island Records, I drove to do a live radio performance in Western Massachusetts. As I was driving home I had that same radio station on in the car hoping to hear some chatter about my performance, when I heard what I thought was an advertisement for something like McDonald’s. It was a female singer and the vocals were incredibly loud over the music bed. The vocal inflections and affectations were totally over the top. I raised the volume to see what it was. It kept going. It wasn’t an advertisement at all. I hated it, but I couldn’t stop listening as I had to know what it was. It was the first time I had ever heard Alanis Morissette. It was her first single “You Oughta Know”. I had no idea that her music would be the reason my album would do so well, and the reason why it could ONLY do so well. I also had no idea that I would be compared to this singer for years to come which definitely made me uneasy.
It was the beginning of the angry female singer craze and I had to constantly field so many questions about how it felt to be a “woman in rock”. I can thank Alanis for breaking down the doors for myself and for other strong female voices, but it was also incredibly frustrating because radio programmers saturated the market with her music and then would compare all other female artists to her, making it incredibly difficult to stand on one’s own. Female artist were constantly being compared to each other in a very marginalizing way. I definitely fell into that trap myself as I struggled with my insecurities.
When Lilith fair happened it was a blessing and a curse. Women enjoyed sharing the stage with other female artists, and there was a great sense of community. However, the press further lumped women into categories that did not celebrate the diversity, but just the fact that we were women.
Immediately after this, the music industry’s pendulum changed directions. Female artists had a hard time finding love on radio stations in general. This is when the same stations that were playing female artists were now mostly playing bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. The recording contract signing frenzy had stopped. Nobody was talking about the strong female voice at this time.
Little did I know, and this is something I found out only three years ago, my song “Mother Mother” would be the last #1 hit single on modern rock radio performed by a female artist until Lorde came along with her song “Royals”.
“Mother Mother” was one of the first songs I had ever written. I started writing the verses in my mid twenties, futzing around with the new chord I had learned on the guitar. I was a novice. It was a bar chord. The bar chord is fantastic because you can play it on any fret. I played the bar chord down the neck, fret by fret, until a melody came to mind. I had the pre-chorus chords and melody written, but I did not have the lyrics or a chorus that I liked yet. The original chorus was more melancholy and the old lyrics repeated “Our little girl….” in a melismatic fashion. Once the lyrics started to flow in the verses I knew what the song was about. It was about how difficult it was for me to admit to my own mother that life, after moving away from home, was really hard and that I needed help.
I had a very difficult time in my early twenties, with deciding where to go to college and what to do with my life — would it be staying the course, following my parents wish — attending the University of Southern California with the full scholarship to play violin and ending up miserable playing in the back of the second violin section of a symphony orchestra somewhere, or would I move to the East Coast to become a singer? I had trouble with boyfriends and many problems with self confidence. I was reluctant to ask for help and hated confrontation of any kind. This got me into so much trouble with relationships. This song became my platform to say the things I was dying to say but didn’t know how.
The chorus, screaming “everything’s fine” came later when I was playing the song with my ex boyfriend at the time, who was the drummer, and we just started jamming on the verse into the pre-chorus and we agreed to go anywhere inspiration took us once we got to where a chorus should be. It was like going to the edge of a cliff and jumping off. At the time, loads of female singers were screaming, especially singers like Courtney Love. I didn’t love that style, but heard irony in it when I started screaming “everything’s fine” as I jumped off the cliff. I immediately stopped playing and started laughing. I said out loud “OH MY GOD I CAN NOT WRITE THAT”. That is when I knew I had to write that. I believe that when you write something that gives you such a reaction, you definitely have touched upon something important.
When the song came out, it definitely resonated with a lot of folks. I was told that it would be the second single on my record as it wasn’t the “strongest song” according to my record label. But it soon became obvious that it was the song that everyone related to and wanted to hear.
Things happened very quickly after this. Within about two years, I was nominated for two Grammy Awards and an MTV video award, and I had a hit song on Modern Rock Radio. My video featured my real mother (and step father as cameo) and that video was played all around the world. It was the strangest thing when my mother was approached at the grocery store in our home town of Eugene, OR for autographs. She loved the attention. Phone interviews from places like Chile or Germany would ask “Is that your real mother in the video?” and it would feel slightly odd to have sold my mother out to the world. But it made me feel better to know that she enjoyed it. It was a wild ride.
These days the music business is almost unrecognizable, for better or worse. I’d say mostly better. From what I see, the major label is basically out. Unless you’re of the Bieber or Selena Gomez persuasion. It is a DIY affair and we need each other- artists need the support of other artists, and artists definitely need the support of their fan base.
In the 1990s female artists were unknowingly pitted against each other and I bought into it. Now days, as I look up and dust myself off, once again to embark on a new album, I see female artists supporting each other, collaborating, complementing each other and generally celebrating each other’s successes. It is refreshing and I am experiencing it and enjoying it firsthand.
Presently, I am re-recording and re-imagining my debut album, The Burdens Of Being Upright, as a 20th anniversary celebration. I have teamed up with my fans via Pledge Music to fund the album. With their help I am able to meet the costs of making an album completely on my own, which means paying a producer, for studio time, musicians, and for all of the manufacturing costs entailed. It is an empowering thing. It is also quite humbling and necessarily. Gone are the days where the artist feels above it all. Today, artists have different challenges, yet one of the perks is that they can be closer to their fans. Artists are more able to interact with their fans. There may not be the old comforts of having a budget, or a team around you to support you, but the fans and the artists can now create the team to produce and promote a new album. The new album is appropriately called Modern Burdens.
During pre-production for Modern Burdens, I had a difficult time making the lyrics relevant for my life today. Once the conversation in the political world became about misogyny and women’s rights, I found new inspiration. My producer, John Wlaysewski, and I were talking about giving the album more of a purpose. It had always felt bizarre — the idea of recording an album that already exists in the world. I would often ask myself — why am I doing this? Then, when Trump won the election, we felt so deeply frustrated and angry about what was happening. We realized we could make a statement. This is when we started asking other female artists to sing on the album as a celebration and a message of girl power.
As it stands, we have seven amazing artists ranging from present day popularity to 90’s popularity who are still kicking ass. I am truly honored to be working with these women — Rachael Yamagata, Nicole Atkins, Sadie DuPuis (Sad13), Tanya Donelly (Belly/Throwing Muses), Angie Hart (Frente), Kay Hanley (Letters To Cleo), and Katheryn Calder (New Pornographers). We chose a charity to give part of the proceeds at the end of the pledge campaign to — a foundation called Girl Up. Girl Up is a United Nations affiliated foundation that raises awareness and funds programs that foster female empowerment.
It is been really fun reconnecting with some of these friends as well as making new friends and collaborators along the way. It really is giving me a chance to heal these songs, find a community and a chance to heal myself.
*Catch Tracy Bonham on tour now for info visit: TracyBonham.com/Shows
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Feature in collaboration with/produced by: Jeff Gorra