By Tom Semioli
This feature appeared in Amplifier Magazine, February 2000
"I almost forgot it was Valentine's Day, isn't that cold?" Perhaps that's just the type of comment you'd expect from Tracy Bonham if you only knew her by her 1996 vitriolic mega-hit rant against parental discipline entitled "Mother, Mother." In the flesh, Ms. Bonham is an absolute charmer. "I'm married now and my husband and I are very much in love, so every day is like February 14th." And for the record, the aforementioned anthem that defined the "women in rock" movement in the 1990s was actually a testament of self-frustration, and not the other way around, as it was widely misinterpreted.
Four years is a lifetime in pop music, and it's been that long since the USC Berklee alumnae has released a collection of new material. Two years ago Tracy and her band hit the road for what was to be a warm-up tour to support Trail of the Dust Devil, an album that never came to full fruition. The earthquake that shook the record industry in 1998 nearly swallowed her. "All the mergers caused a rotating record executive situation, which was very unstable. The Island label was crumbling, and then Universal took over, and that held everything back. I thought the record was going to come out in the fall, then it was pushed back to the following January, then to April, and so on, and now here we are."
The long layoff pushed her patience to the limit, however it also allowed Tracy to push herself to new artistic heights. "The album really changed in all that time. Basically, I kept writing more because I was bored. So I kept going back into the studio." The original collection of songs was produced by the formidable team of Mitchell Froom (Susan Vega, Crowded House) and Tchad Blake (Cibo Matto, Elvis Costello, Matthew Sweet). " I did what I thought was a whole record with those guys, who are heroes of mine. I love their stuff with the Latin Playboys (moonlighting members of Los Lobos), and their sense of adventure. I chose them for their credibility and for the way they make records ‘sound.’ And they don't necessarily worry about just making hits. But when I returned to the studio, I needed to get new life into what I was doing, so I enlisted Mark Ender. Mark did a wonderful engineering job on the first Fiona Apple album, and also worked on Madonna's Ray Of Light, which I really listened to."
From the ashes of Dust Devil emerges Down Here – which effectively channels the pent-up anxieties of a dangling career and uncertainty into heavy dance grooves. "This album shows how much I've grown. After awhile Trail of the Dust Devil didn't have any meaning for me anymore. I couldn't explain it to anyone. At the time it was a real visual image that I had which reflected my state of mind about the music industry and being left high and dry with nothing to feel, which is what the last song on the album addresses. It's a plea to make our souls ignite."
"When you have a hit record like I did, a lot of people think life is easier. Sure, the doors open for you, but they shut just as quick. You don't necessarily get to a safe plateau. I thought I would, and figured that everything else would come smoothly, but it just doesn't happen that way." Coming to terms with the machinations of record company politics, Tracy was able to focus on other things. "The track ‘Down Here’ is my ballad. I felt tired of being bitter about the business, and I no longer want to dwell on it. Fortunately I was able to catch a second wind, and the title track is about asking for strength. I deliberately wanted this album to be more rhythmic and richer than Burden."
Facing the dreaded rock ‘n’ roll sophomore jinx was another hurdle to overcome. "Yeah there was some pressure with this record. I was questioning everything I did. If the writing came too easy, or if it was too catchy, I would accuse myself of being a sell-out. That happened for a few months after the tour ended. Luckily I came to my senses. I started reading books about composing like Songwriters On Songwriting which is a compilation of about fifty artists who discuss their craft. It really helped when I felt troubled. Writing is too personal, and I actually have a hard time sharing it. I don't co-write and I'm very private and protective of my work. When I'm in the process, I usually have a vision right away and it's hard for me to let go of it."
Celebrity does have its perks, however – especially when the self-proclaimed King of All Media is a fan. "The Howard Stern show was cool. When I first got the offer I was terrified 'cause I was not a big fan. Then I heard tape recordings of what he said about me such as 'I don't care if she's a pig, I'll do her,' and 'she hates her mom, I dig that.' He brought up my stepdad, and kept asking me if I was ever molested. At first I wanted to go in there and burn him, but he's too clever for that. But I had a mission. When Howard went through his typical 'will you take your shirt off' routine, but I just blew him off. The night before when I was preparing for the radio broadcast, I got real drunk and re-wrote the lyrics to 'Mother, Mother' as if it was Howard confronting his mom, and talking about how small his penis was. You have to be on the offensive with him. So I played his game, and he loved it. It was a blast, I didn't want it to end."
Is there still room for Tracy Bonham on the radio? On video? "Four years ago, when I had 'Mother, Mother,' the whole 'females in rock movement' was in full swing. Now I have no idea why that all dissipated. I thought that the door was going to be open forever, and everything was going to be peachy. Maybe the whole Lilith Fair tag got out of hand, and there's kind of a major backlash happening. All I hear on the airwaves are really aggressive male bands, or fluff without any soul behind it. Right now there is a drought, I think that's going to change soon. People will get tired of being spoon-fed all this crap. Less and less people are watching music television. The audience is gradually turning away. Videos are frustrating too, just like radio nowadays. The window is closing and getting smaller and smaller. Even though my chances are not as good as four years ago, I'm gonna try to fit through."
Tracy Bonham's Down Here will be released in April 2000 on Island Records