Woman to Woman: Erin Harkes chats with Tracy Bonham
When offered the opportunity to interview Tracy Bonham, I jumped at the chance. As I struggled to teach myself how to play guitar in my college dorm room back in the 90s, this powerhouse musician of the Lilith Fair era was an inspiration to me. Thankfully, and not surprisingly, she was an absolute delight to talk with. She was also super patient with the technical difficulties and all the times throughout the discussion where I made it about me.
Me: Obviously you’re best known for “Mother, Mother,” a song I love. The first time I heard it I was in the car with my mother, so it was just perfect. She was like, “Oh, this is a nice song” with a hint of passive aggression. And then you started screaming at her and I thought, “Tracy and I are best friends now.”
Tracy: That’s an awesome story—really cool. No one has ever told me that.
Me: I’m sure you know how moms can be. They’re like, “Oh, maybe you should write a song like this for me.” Then it got to the chorus and I thought, Maybe I will…
Tracy: That’s great. That’s awesome.
Me: But beyond that, which work would you say you’re most proud of?
Tracy: It’s gonna sound so stupid, but I’m really proud of my body of work. I can’t choose one song because they’re all a timestamp of who I was at that moment. When I look back, I see it as a kaleidoscope or a tapestry of who I am. And I like knowing that I have many albums out there—not as many as I should have in my almost 30 years of doing this—but at least I have a nice handful.
Me: I’m sure it’s hard to choose just one. I know that when you’re known for one particular thing, sometimes people tend to overlook your other labors of love.
Tracy: Yeah, that happens all the time.
Me: But I’m glad to hear that you’re proud of all your work because that’s not very common. Sometimes you have a couple of stinkers that you’d rather nobody ever heard.
Tracy: Oh, I went through that. I thought my second album, “Down Here,” was a stinker for a long time. Then it happened to come up on my playlist or my iTunes while I was driving and I forced myself to listen to the whole thing. I was like, Wait a minute. I actually LIKE this. I had to come around. I needed time away from that one.
Me: That makes sense. I also have a song I didn’t like that much, but then my friends would tell me “That’s my favorite song on the album!” Maybe that would be somebody else’s favorite, too.
Tracy: Yes, exactly. You have to give it up at some point. It’s like letting your kids go off to college. You have to let them go.
Me: And I do think of songs as my children, so it’s funny that you said that. When somebody asks me my favorite song, I ask them, “Do you have kids? Which one is your favorite?” Then they get it. Except once in a while, somebody says, “Kyle’s my favorite,” and I’m like, “Okay, you ruined the question.”
Tracy: That’s hilarious.
Me: I know this is an obnoxious question, but do you have any particular process for songwriting?
Tracy: It changes all the time. When I wrote my first album, which “Mother, Mother” is on, I honestly didn’t have a process at all. And strangely, those are some of the first songs I ever really completed. So I was surprised that it did so well. And then I was like, “Oh, crap. I’ve got to be a songwriter now.”
I felt so much pressure about it, but mostly because at that time, I was new to the guitar. I had been playing the violin and piano since I was a young child. I could sing. I had all of this music theory and conservatory/university training, but the guitar was so foreign to me. It has six strings and all the frets are the same and you can’t even look at it from the top down. And so I thought, Okay, I’m gonna do this almost like being without sight. Just feeling around for things in the room. I would just put my fingers somewhere because I didn’t know what note it was.
And I really didn’t want to even learn. I didn’t want to learn tablature. I didn’t want to learn how to read music and frankly, the guitar was just my tool. I’d put a finger there and then I’d find like a cool harmony note, made another finger, and then I’d be like, cool, where do my other fingers go? It was all based on the shapes of my fingers. And then a melody would just kind of fall into the mix, and the movement of my hands would then determine where the melody wanted to go. So that was really fun, really like a “beginner’s mind” kind of experiment. It’s really hard to get back to now that I’ve done it for so long.
Me: So you’re self-taught on guitar?
Me: I had a very similar process. And now somebody will ask, “What is that chord you’re playing?” and I’m like, “I was hoping YOU would tell ME!”
Tracy: Exactly. I really didn’t want to play guitar at all, but my first producers, Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie in Boston told me I had to play all the guitars on the album. It was a time of badass female rockers with guitars. I remember telling them, “You do not want me to do that!” and they were like, “You’re good and you’ve got this “thing” that sounds like no one else. You have to play all the guitars!” I was excited and petrified at the same time.
Erin: But you did it. That’s amazing. I wouldn’t play on my own albums.
Tracy: I don’t want to play on my own anymore. For sure.
Me: Well, I think after a few years, you kind of get to make the rules. You can play live, but recorded? Nah. Let somebody else go through that monotonous process.
Tracy: But the thing is, the style my first producers were referring to… I call it a “dumb” style. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating, I call it dumb because it’s just one finger up and down the neck. It’s not your polished guitar player kind of stuff. So later in my career, when I tried to get other people to come in, they wouldn’t play dumb enough. I’d say, “That’s too good! Give me that thing.”
Me: What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Tracy: It’s probably a combination of different pieces of advice from different people. But as I’ve gotten older, the best advice that’s really been working for me right now is just “Stop the hamster wheel that’s inside your brain.”
Me: And how do you do that?
Tracy: Well, if it happens when you’re performing on stage, you first have to be aware of it. Awareness is the key to everything, right? I was opening for Blue Man Group back around 2005 in this huge hockey arena and the hamster wheel was like, “Oh my God, that was so out of tune. Oh, Jesus, you missed that!” My classical upbringing was telling me everything has to be perfect. I thought ‘This is miserable. I don’t think I want to perform anymore.’
It was excruciating, but the awareness just kind of made me step back. I decided to meditate more offstage, and I was able to bring that same stillness and mindfulness onto the stage. And then it was amazing.
Me: Now would you say that hamster wheel is code for anxiety?
Tracy: I guess I wouldn’t call it anxiety. I would call it more like “monkey mind.” Anxiety has such a wide range.
Me: It’s so broad, I know. Who are some of your biggest influences?
Tracy: When I was first writing songs in the early 90s, I burned holes in Liz Phair’s “Exile the Guyville” CD. I burned that thing to crisp; it was like a cookie. I loved her songwriting; it was so weird and different from anything else I’d ever heard. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I want to do that.” I even tried to emulate the way her key seems way too low for her voice, which got me into trouble because you can’t really do that live.
Me: You’re doing children’s music. What led you to that?
Tracy: I would like to say it’s really music for young music enthusiasts. I started teaching private lessons—piano, violin, voice whatever—in our apartment and I felt there was not one piano book that I loved. I had all these different books and it was just too disjointed, especially to teach music theory. And I loved music theory. I had a violin teacher who got me so passionate about music theory, and also the joy of practicing.
So one day I was messing around with GarageBand on my iPad and all of a sudden I started writing this song called “I Am A Moveable Do.” It was super nerdy, music theory stuff. I didn’t expect anyone to really know what I was talking about, but I was like, I’m going to teach my students about music theory in songs—kind of like what Schoolhouse Rock did for pronouns or adjectives or conjunctions.
Once I finished that song then all these songs just started dropping and dropping and dropping. And then I went over to the piano and for the really young kids, I was like, “Gosh, don’t the black keys look a lot like little blackbirds sitting on a tree or something?” Then I started playing these black keys that all sounded right together, which is the beauty of that pentatonic scale. Then all of sudden this melody started coming out. I created a song about blackbirds sitting in groups of two groups or three. I realized that approach could help kids learn how to play a song in 30 minutes or less (my infomercial).
It really was happening. I was watching my students learn how to play a song and have that instant gratification that you don’t normally get in piano lessons and in those lesson books. You get “Oh, the drudgery of all of these fingerings and all these things you have to think about.” Why not just learn how to play a song in one lesson, then go home and impress your parents? Then you’ve got that passion or that joy, that feeling of accomplishment.
So I started to write a whole bunch of songs and I was gonna open a brick-and-mortar kind of music school with this as my curriculum. Thank God I didn’t because then Covid hit. So I decided to release those songs because they were just sitting on a hard drive somewhere.
Me: I love how organically that happened for you. That’s how songwriting should be. I’m self-taught, and I did use music theory to help teach myself how to play guitar. I would ask a teacher if could teach myself how to play that way. And they would say “you shouldn’t”. I didn’t ask if I SHOULD I asked if I COULD!. But if I had a teacher like that growing up, I might have stuck with it more. I was the ADD kid who quit piano lessons because lessons couldn’t teach me anything.
Tracy: Sometimes I’d play one of these “music theory songs” for the encore. It’d be so fun. Once I know I’ve got the audience in the palm of my hand. So just talking about the music education part of it folks would come up and they’d say “I was scared away from it. I had a teacher who was mean, I had a teacher who was discouraging, a teacher was boring.” And I wish there would have been something like this for me. I would have stuck with my lessons.
Me: Do you have a least favorite question to be asked?
Tracy: I do and it came during the 90s when I was touring around the world. Some members of the European press, who obviously did not connect with ironic American humor, would ask me, “Why are you so angry?” How do you answer that question? I should have said, “I’m not angry, I’m just a badass.” That would be my answer now that I’ve been doing this for so long. At the time, I probably tried to explain it and, you know, made them fall asleep.
Me: Yeah, I’d always go, “I’m really not.” Or they’d ask, “Who hurt you?” and I’m like, “Nobody! That’s just what’s coming out.”
Tracy: Seriously! And then it really just goes to show you how a strong woman just can’t be strong. They have to be either angry or a psychotic bitch.
Me: Yep, a hundred percent. You’re not powerful; you’re crazy.
Tracy: Yeah, right. You’re hysterical.
I wish there were a school like hers around when I was first starting out. Being a self-taught musician with ADD, I would have really benefitted from a format like this. Tracy is a delight on and off stage. I honestly could have talked to her for hours. I can’t wait to see her perform at Caffé Lena this Saturday at 8 pm. Or bring the kiddos at 3:00 for a free show earlier in the day!