Haley Bonar is one of the most captivating singer-songwriters in the Twin Cities. With four albums, three EPs, two Minnesota Music Awards, extensive touring and appearances with the likes of Mason Jennings and Andrew Bird, plus a side punk rock project called Gramma’s Boyfriend under her belt, Bonar is experienced well beyond her 28 years.
Bonar’s childlike innocence and wise insight collide on her latest album, “Golder.” The lush vocals and glittering instrumentation lend an almost fairytale-like quality to a collection of songs that are cutthroat in their emotional honesty. Though initially funded through Kickstarter and released in April, “Golder” is being re-issued on vinyl nationally through Graveface Records next month. As for Bonar’s next big project? It isn’t musical; it’s maternal. She welcomes her first baby, a girl, in October.
I sat down with Bonar at one of her fave hangouts, Kopplin’s Coffee in St. Paul, the city she now calls home.
Most interviews about your new album “Golder” begin with the question about why you moved away to Portland for a year.
Haley Bonar: You’re not going to ask me that, are you?
HB: Good. I’ve been back for a year-and-a-half! It doesn’t matter. That must be a Minnesota thing. I understand that people here are proud of their community and their artists, but I’m not from here. I didn’t grow up here. There’s nothing weird about leaving and coming back. The relevance of that time in my life and this record is small.
Aside from the Portland story, though, there isn't much about you "out there." If cyberspace is any indication, you're a very private person. Have you always been that way or is this a result of what you do?
HB: When I’m researching artists I like, I find the less I know about their personal life, the more intriguing they are. I’m not trying to build some mystique about myself but I’m not posting stupid status updates on Facebook, either. I don't do interviews often. There are just some things that people don’t need to know. I think the focus should be my music because I work really hard at it.
What is your songwriting process like? Is there a certain mood you have to be in?
HB: I don’t know how or when it happens. I guess it depends how much inspiration I’ve had. If there’s a movie or book or records that have captured my attention, I’m more prone to pick up on it and sit down with an instrument and work.
In the past, I used to get freaked out by the process. I would write all the time. I was so diligent. Every morning I would record something, even if they were crappy songs. Then I stopped and I wondered what was wrong with me.
Now I know that inspiration is very sporadic. I’ll work really hard on a chunk of songs, release an album, go on tour and then I’ll go into a creative and physical hibernation. I’m not writing all the time. I need time to soak it all up. I need to have my sponge period. I need to take it easy, to live, to gain perspective.
I haven’t written a lot since I got pregnant. Everyone told me that I’d be so inspired but... [Shrugs] I’m still waiting. It might take a year or two for the songs to come, but when they do, there will be like 20 of them, and I’ll pick out which ones I like best.
You write a lot about men and relationships. Is each song a story about a specific person or are they a collage of different people?
HB: As much as I want to be specific on my perspective in a song, I try to keep the experience as broad as possible. I used to write more story songs because it’s easy to write fiction when you don’t have experience. Now I’m older, so I write about my own experiences without being too personal. I like to present a palette of things so people can take away what they want from it rather than telling them, “This is the color and the mood of this song.”
Has anyone from your past contacted you about a song that they thought was written about them?
HB: Oh, sure, I’ve gotten nasty emails from an ex, but I think it’s stupid. Even if he knows the song is about him, nobody else does. There’s also that “You’re so vain, you think this song is about you” thing. I’m not the first one to write a song about someone in particular. I’ve had songs written about me and I think it’s cool that I inspired someone.
Are there any experiences you won’t write about?
HB: My songs are pretty open book. You can’t read my human history directly from them, but they’re pretty raw. I don’t know how to be anything else. But I won’t write a song about labor. Nobody wants to hear that.
If anyone could pull off a song about giving birth that wasn’t too grotesque or offensive to people, it’d be you.
HB: Actually, that would be interesting. Maybe I will write a song about it and make it really grotesque! [Singing] Giving birth is haaaard…
Some of the songs on “Golder” aren’t new, per se. What made them relevant now?
HB: I wrote “Rattlesnake” the winter before I moved to Portland and “Silver Zephyr” is actually the oldest song on the album. I wrote that when I was 21. A friend of my emailed me out of the blue and said she’d found a demo of it, so I dug it out and rewrote some of the lyrics. If it weren’t for her, that song would’ve been dead and buried. The rest of them were written in a pod.
Talk about the decision to put two instrument-only tunes on “Golder.”
HB: I did an EP before “Golder” that was all instrumentation, so I’d been wanting to do that for a while, but I just didn’t have the right songs. With “Golder,” those songs are like the glue for the record. They round it out and showcase the musicianship. When you’re presenting an emotion, you don’t need to have the vocals.
What does “Golder” represent as a whole for you?
HB: It’s the end of a period of time in my life and the beginning of another. It’s saying goodbye to my early 20s and growing up and reflecting on that. In the past, I’ve written and recorded without thinking about what the group of songs meant. With this album, I viewed it more as “These songs go together. How do they go together?” They’re my diary for a period of six or seven years. Though I was writing and recording other albums during that time, it wasn’t until I went to the West Coast (Portland) and had time alone with my thoughts that it came together.
Tell us how your band (Jake Hanson, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis and Luke Anderson) influenced the songs on “Golder.” Did you have their parts in mind before you went into the studio or did they bring their own ideas about what the album should sound like?
HB: In the beginning, a drummer friend in Portland helped me because I was so far away from the guys. I knew what the band would sound like and what they had to work with, so I bossed his drumming around until it sounded like what I wanted. I used synth to mock the sound and put fake strings where the song should swell. Then I came back to Minnesota and recorded it with the band at Pachyderm.
Studio time is usually about putting the music under a microscope and I can’t do that. I get really bored scrutinizing. I chose these guys because I trust their instincts. That’s what makes the album seem so alive. They know what I like and they accompany the song. They don’t come in and demand to play a certain way. The band has this simpatico.
We recorded the album live—vocals, too—and that was difficult for me. There were times the instrumentation was right on but there was a mistake—or what I saw as a mistake—on the vocals. It was good for me to have opinionated people around during that process because the band would tell me, “It sounds great!” and if it felt good, I figured they were probably right. It was a lesson in vibe over matter. It wasn’t perfect…and that’s what makes it special.
This was quite the summer to go on tour; with the heat and the pregnancy, how did you get through?
HB: I don’t know. It was getting crazy. We were away for two months and at the end of the East Coast tour, I was exhausted, we had to cancel the shows on the West Coast. I don’t like to be weak. I don’t like to be “resting.” It’s hard for me, but I had to set a cutoff of Oct. 1 so I can go into hibernation and learn how to be a mom.
What was the peak of the tour?
HB: Our last show on the East Coast part of the tour was in Chicago at the Hideout. In the middle of the second song, a horrible high-pitched sound came out of the speakers. The board actually blew up! The sound guy was freaking out. He said that hadn’t happened in ten years!
My non-pregnant self would’ve freaked out, but since I’ve been pregnant, I feel like I’m high all the time, so I said, “Well, whatever,” and unplugged. I came up to the edge of the stage and did some of the songs acoustic until they brought an old soundboard up. We got four songs in at the end with the full band. That was special because it was unexpected and I think we were all getting burnt out playing the songs as we had been up to that point. It was one of those happy disasters you couldn’t have planned. The crowd loved it because it made for a memorable show.
Gramma’s Boyfriend. What the fuck?
HB: “What the fuck?” is right. That’s exactly the reaction we were going for. I named the band before it came to fruition. One day in the studio with the guys, I just starting screaming and being strange; it was so much fun, we said, “Let’s do this again. Let’s do this onstage!” It’s kind of embarrassing but at the same time it’s fucking liberating to do that, to completely expose yourself as a weirdo. We all know how to play and write songs, but it’s fun to be a freak. Nobody sees that side of me. My friends see Gramma’s Boyfriend and they say, “It’s you!” Because that is me. I’m a nerd. I’m a goofball. It’s my playtime. People dance and that makes me happy. We just had our final show at the Entry and I dressed up as an old lady. A pregnant old lady. [Giggles] That band is so fun for all of us.
Are you thinking about your next album yet?
HB: No. The way I’m feeling right now, it will probably be really stripped down or really rock.
Haley Bonar’s final appearance before maternity leave is Sat. Oct. 1 at the Dakota Jazz Club. If you’ve yet to experience her effervescent presence firsthand, don’t miss this show!
Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Sept. 2011