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Best of Both Worlds


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:08 pm

It’s 12:25 EST and Tracy Bonham is on the TV screen. “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” to be exact. She’s wearing high heels and a little black dress, standing in front of a band of crack West Coast musicians, and knocking out “Big Red Heart,” the infectious single from her first album in five years, Masts of Manhatta (Engine Room Recordings). Switching back and forth seamlessly between electric guitar and violin, she coos with playful poise over the tune’s überslinky bass line before the giant, lighter-lofting chorus comes around again and brings it to a close. The host shakes her hand and tells America goodnight, and the credits roll. The next day Bonham will fly back to New York for a sold-out show at Joe’s Pub. She’s the very image of a self-assured performer, ready to rock ’n’ roll all night and then beat your ass to breakfast, thank you very much. But then, you don’t know the real story.

With all of these high-stakes, high-profile happenings on her plate, Bonham’s been battling every vocalist’s worst nightmare: throat trouble. “Fortunately, I have a really good doctor,” says the singer-songwriter, back in fine voice, over tea the day after the concert. “He told me I had to keep my mouth shut except for when I was onstage. So that’s what I did, and it definitely helped.” Compounding her ailment, however, was some bad news that came just before the “Tonight Show” appearance: Her good friend, cellist Dan Cho, who played on Masts of Manhatta, died while on tour in Europe. His funeral is only days after the interview, and though Bonham is, naturally, crushed by the loss, she’s so far been able to compartmentalize her grief. She is, after all, a longtime pro.

Bonham was raised in the wooded splendor of Eugene, Oregon, the hippie college burgh that also gave us author Ken Kesey and was dubbed “Track Town, USA” for the local University of Oregon’s consistent crop of champion runners. “[Growing up in Eugene] was great—perfect, really,” she says. “I went hiking and camping in the mountains a lot. And the arts are really strong there. Eugene has some nationally known music programs.” Indeed, Bonham’s mother, a singer and music teacher, was more than encouraging when her daughter took an early interest in music. “I started singing when I was around five, and when I was nine I found my older sister’s violin in the attic,” recalls Bonham. “She’d hidden it there because she didn’t like practicing, so I took it to my mom and said, ‘Mom, can I learn how to play this?’ And, of course, she was excited and signed me up for lessons right away.” Piano lessons came at age 14.

Her formal schooling took her to the University of Southern California in LA to study violin performance, and eventually to Boston’s Berklee College of Music for jazz vocals. But the conservatory was no place for a precocious, uppity solo artist-to-be. “I’d come from a classical background but by then I was more into rock and going to see all of these great local shows by the Gigolo Aunts, Throwing Muses, Jen Trynin,” says Bonham, a self-taught guitarist. “There were a lot of talented students at Berklee, but going to school to learn to play pop or rock just didn’t make sense to me. So I dropped out and started playing in cover bands and recording jingles. A little later a friend told me, ‘You’re better than that. You need to do your own music,’ and challenged me to write a simple, three-chord song while he left me alone for an hour. When he got back, I’d written my very first song. Actually, ‘Mother, Mother’ was, like, the second or third song I wrote.”

And it was “Mother, Mother” that put Bonham on the greater musical map. After debuting with the 1995 EP The Liverpool Sessions (Cherrydisc Records), she scored a deal with Island Records, which released The Burdens of Being Upright the following year. Home to the aforementioned grunge-tinged track, an era-defining number one single whose sly, self-deprecating lyrics parody the not-quite-ready-to-cut-the-apron-strings relationships of many younger artists and their matrons, the album went gold and brought her Grammy nominations for Best Alternative Performance and Best Female Vocal. “It was really exciting,” she says. “I was only 24 and I was having a lot of fun, listening to the Pixies and PJ Harvey and screaming a lot.”

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