Singer, songwriter, violinist
Tracy Bonham has been compared to other groundbreaking female musicians of her generation, namely Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair, but she has retained her own sound. Bonham’s music, while hard rocking and sometimes characterized as angry, has been influenced by her classical training in violin and voice. On her 2000 release, Down Here, her skill as a violinist is showcased and the lyrics reflect a more contemplative talent. The album also marks a moment of passage in Bonham’s life: she has matured into her own voice, blending the frustration of youth with the lessons of life as a full-fledged musician.
Bonham was born on March 16, 1967, in Eugene, Oregon, where she was raised. Her father died when she was just two years old, and her mother remarried a loan officer, Edward Robertson. Bonham was the youngest of nine half- and step-siblings. Because her mother was a music teacher, Bonham was encouraged early on to develop her talents. She began playing violin when she was just nine years old and attended the respected Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan at age 16 but was expelled for smoking. After high school, Bonham received a scholarship to the University of Southern California to study classical violin. She soon became disillusioned, though, and dropped out. Bonham moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1987, enrolled at the Berklee School of Music where she focused on jazz and the study of voice.
While living in Boston, Bonham waitressed and recorded jingles for advertisements. She also developed a taste for rock and began experimenting with music outside the scope of her classical training. She told Billboard magazine, “Gradually, my tastes changed to the Pixies and the Buzzcocks. I took up rock ‘n’ roll around ’92 and was inspired by woman singers like Sam Phillips and Jennifer Trynin. I got in touch with my feelings in a way I never could have with classical music, where you can bury things for the sake of discipline.” That effort to branch out paid off in 1994 with Bonham’s first hit, “The One,” released by Curve of the Earth on the Girl compilation. The song, a caustic lyric about an ex-lover, led to some critical attention for the singer. The Boston Music Awards named her Best New Artist, Best Female Vocalist, and “The One” was named Best Indie Single in 1995.
Even with a popular single and the well-received EP The Liverpool Sessions under her belt, Bonham faced the formidable challenge of making a living in rock music as a female artist. When she signed with Island and recorded her first full-length album, Bonham filled the recording with songs that reflected the desire and struggle that fueled her during the early 1990s. As Tim White noted in Billboard, The Burdens of Being Upright is “the keen accrual of a lifetime of musical seasoning and six years of occupational struggle.” The first hit from the album, “Mother, Mother,” sums up the experience of the struggling musician as she calls home.
For the Record…
Born Tracy Kristin Bonham on March 16, 1967, in Eugene, OR; daughter of Donald Lewis Bonham (an editor) and Lee Anne Leach (a music teacher); married Steve Slingeneyer, 1998. Education: Studied violin at the University of Southern California; studied voice and violin at the Berklee School of Music, Boston, MA.
Released single “The One,” 1994; released EP The Liverpool Sessions, 1995; signed with Island Records, released debut LP The Burdens of Being Upright, 1996; performed with two consecutive Lilith Fair tours; released Down Here, 2000.
Awards: Boston Music Awards, Best New Artist, Best Female Vocalist, and Best Indie Single for “The One,” 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Island Records, 825 8th Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.islandrecords.com. Website —Tracy Bonham Official Website: http://www.tracybonham.com.
Even as she tells her mother that things are going well, Bonham screams about how it really is: “I’m hungry/I’m dirty/I’m losing my mind/Everything’s fine.”
Bonham’s willingness to tell the unflinching truth and to reveal her feelings in her music puts her in the company of other hard-rocking women, including Courtney Love, Aimee Mann, and Liz Phair. Although she has often been compared to Alanis Morissette in the press, Bonham’s passions are channeled differently. As Sean Slade, co-producer of The Burdens of Being Upright, told Entertainment Weekly, “You don’t get the me-against-the-world feeling from her that you get from Alanis Morissette. She’s so not showbiz; she doesn’t have that phony melodramatic quality.” Bonham’s straightforward style and evocative songs about life as a woman landed her a spot in Lilith Fair—a megatour showcasing women musicians that traveled throughout the United States and Canada—for two consecutive years.
Bonham writes, sings, and plays guitar on The Burdens of Being Upright, which has been praised for its accessible pop feel. Peter Castro reviewed the album for People, noting, “Bonham has an uncommon knack for embroidering her rage with catchy melodies.” Bonham’s official website biography calls her guitar playing “untrained but inspired,” and Bonham herself notes, “I’m not a good guitar player, but I’ve got a style that works for me. There’s a stupidity in my playing that makes it fresh, and I want to keep that ignorance.” The combination of heavy guitar and searing lyrics worked for Bonham. The Burdens of Being Upright went gold and was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 1996.
It took four years after The Burdens of Being Upright for Bonham to release another album, mostly because of the turmoil and uncertainty at Island during those years. Down Here took the singer two years to write and had to be recorded intermittently because of corporate changes at the label. Musicians backing Bonham on her second album include Pete Thomas, Steve Slingeneyer, and Sebastian Steinberg. She worked with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake on most of the songs, but Mark Endert produced three cuts. The album was finally released in the spring of 2000.
The break between albums seems to have allowed Bonham’s music a chance to mature as Down Here shows a development both in style and in content. Bonham reflected in her official website biography, “While making the first record, I rebelled against my classical training…. With this record I’ve embraced my classical background and coupled that with the heavy guitar sounds that I love. Now I’m making music that sounds like me, past and present.” Bonham’s lyrics also reflect a change. While her early recordings have a definite angry edge, the material on Down Here has a different tone. Bonham commented to Chuck Taylor in Billboard, “I’ve grown up a lot and become more confident without the growing pains that come in the early 20s. These new songs dig deep and help me accept myself for who I am.” By maintaining a strong female voice in her music, Bonham hopes to redirect the attention of those who may feel that appearance is everything. “I hope my message is that you can embrace your imperfections and not be swayed by TV…. There’s more out there,” she told Billboard.
(Contributor) Girl, Curve of the Earth, 1994.
The Liverpool Sessions (EP), CherryDisc, 1995.
The Burdens of Being Upright, Island/Def Jam, 1996.
Down Here, Island/Def Jam, 2000.
Billboard, January 20, 1996, p. 3; March 4, 2000, p. 1.
Cosmopolitan, December 1996, p. 186-190.
Detroit Free Press, July 12, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, March 15, 1996, p. 64; June 21, 1996, p. 21-22; April 21, 2000, p. 78.
People, March 25, 1996, p. 24.
“Tracy Bonham,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 25, 2001).
“Tracy Bonham,” sing365.com, http://www.sing365.com (Septembers, 2001).
Tracy Bonham Official Website, http://www.tracybonham.com (June 25, 2001).
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