I remember clearly when Mother, Mother was on rotation on MTV; there she was, Tracy Bonham, reminding me that we were all losing our minds. Hooked I was, a fan forever. I was so happy to meet Tracy for a coffee at one unseasonably warm February morning in Brooklyn. I got there extra early. There was a movie star in the shop, and a few millennials; I took a table in the sun. I felt comfortable. Once Tracy arrived, sat down, we just jumped right in: family, life, music. Tracy is married now, with a young son in elementary school; her creativity as vibrant as the woman losing her mind in 1996. She’s in the process of re-recording her debut record, and she’s got a dream time of women singing along with her: Angie Hart of Frente, Kathryn Calder of New Pornographers, Kay Hanley of Letters To Cleo, Nicole Atkins, Rachael Yamagata, Sadie Dupuis, Tanya Donnelly of Belly. You can pre-order Modern Burdens right here.
So, right now, you’re about to come out with a re-recording of your huge record, The Burdens of Being Upright, called Modern Burdens.
I recently got my copyrights reversed to me so it’s a good idea to have those songs out there that I can distribute through platforms like Pledge Music. My friend—who is kind of my manager—was pushing pushing pushing at the 20th year mark. And I was just, you know, still mom-ing and trying to do everything. Anyway, finally decided to do it so I’m re-recording the songs from front to finish. It was really weird to go back because the songs are old and they’re of a different time and they’re all about an ex-boyfriend. I was like, why am I doing this? I was really wracking my head like how could I make these lyrics relevant with this-ex boyfriend who’s no longer with us.
Oh, I’m so sorry.
It was one of those really terrible relationships. It was like really bad. Just a lost person. He was very demeaning and degrading. I was kind of like his little prisoner. I allowed it to happen. And so Modern Burdens is all about that. Okay, so cut to today and I’m starting to hear these conversations about misogyny and stuff like that. Even watching some mannerisms and attitudes that Trump has, I was comparing the two. Without the money equation, my ex boyfriend is very much like that. So then I found the relevance for the lyrics. I have the one song that says, “You’re the one that froze the sun.”
Yeah! Let’s do that about him. He used to make me dance around the living room in front of his friends just wearing nothing and I just allowed it. I was 20. I didn’t know. I was really lost myself and just allowed someone to come in and take control. And there, I found the new meaning for this album. I was like, wow this is all about that! It’s a horrible place to be in. I think a lot of girls still, I mean forever, will find themselves in this position. I made it known to my friends that this is going to be a healing—a healing of the songs, a healing of me, healing of this whole idea. Then after the switcheroo—when we thought it was going to be the year of the woman, we were so excited—then I started asking other women to join on the album.
Is that how you ended up with Sadie Dupuis from Speedy Ortiz?
I tweeted at her. She couldn’t believe it. She had just been listening to my album. It was why she wanted to start writing music. So she was like an emphatic yes. We got Tanya Donnelly from Belly and Rachael Yamagata and Kay Hanley who the singer in Letters From Cleo. So there’s a 90s/Boston vibe. So now we’ve got seven singers! I had to stop at some point because I was like what about me?
So then these women—some of whom I had already known and some I was a fan of—we started this conversation back and forth through email and Faceboook like, what about girl power and how the message needs to be clear and we need to not stand for this shit. I wanted to give money to a charity so I kind of scoured the internet for a charity I really liked. I found this one that happens to be a UN foundation. It has girl empowerment camps all over the world and it just seemed really cool. This one is called Girl Up. So when we’re done with the pledge campaign, I want to give them part of the proceeds too. So that makes me feel better about all of it because when I thought about re-recording my album, I was like, who the fuck am I? Why am I so full of myself that I think it’s so important? But then I started to think about it as a mission a statement as a way to give and create a community and inspire other artists to do the same thing.
Yeah plus, think about how inspirational you were to us when (the song) Mother, Mother was so huge? There’s a whole generation of women who are the age we were when we first heard that song and they need to hear it now as much as we did then.
Its really fun to do it now. A lot of the songs are sounding completely different. So it’s not a typical re-record, even production wise.
Do you think you will do a tour? Like pile into a van and drive around?
I think it’s how I would have to because there’s no way I could afford to fly to do the one-offs. I did it a couple of years ago, I would just get in my car. The problem now is child care. I can’t really bring my son and my husband works so much and we have two dogs too and its so complicated. That’s why there’s not a big impetus to make it happen.
It’s a difficult balance, that of the artist and life itself.
It’s hard. I haven’t figured it out. If anyone could help me…it’s a real balancing act. I have a friend—Joan Osbourne—she does a little bit here and there but mostly local. She’s in a couple too where they play together so they go out and they do the duo thing. If you’re with someone who’s not really in that world, someone’s going to have to make a sacrifice.
Right and if your partner has a staff job that has health insurance and all those perks, what are you gonna do?
Right! What are you gonna do? So that I can go and bring home 200 dollars a night? That’s the big part. Health insurance is nice.
And it’s tough for you, because in addition to caring for your family and running that show, you are an artist.
You have to be a dreamer. As an artist, you hope for that thing to happen. You have to lay the groundwork and do all the divine dances and stuff like that for it to happen. It’s really hard because I want to be a dreamer. I’m lucky enough to say it can work because I’ve had success. It fell in my lap. I would look up at the stars and say thank you, thank you. Not everybody had that luck. So I have to believe it could happen again somehow, obviously different and obviously different scales and all that but that’s what propels me to keep doing. It is that chance that somebody’s gonna like it and it’s gonna move, it’s gonna reach other people. And if you don’t have that, then why?
So you have this huge hit with Mother Mother and your video is on MTV all the time, back when MTV ran videos. What was the follow up like for you?
Okay. So I had this great success. The music business was changing and changing quick. (My label) Island records got really thrown into the fire; Chris Blackwell sold it, yadda yadda whatever. There were constant rotating teams coming in and telling me to wait on my next record. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait to the point where it was four years later until I could finally release a new record. It was now the year 2000. Everything was different. Nobody cared. They were listening to Korn and Limp Biskit. A strong woman was like, you know? The pendulum had gone the other way quickly. All those radio programmers were like whatever, we’ve already had Alanis Morrissette, you’re done, thank you. Let’s turn our hats backwards and listen to Limp Biskit.
What was going through your mind?
It was the worst. And you know what else I did? I made an arty record in response to the hit record because I was like, I want to be known as an artist. So I made the art record. It was not as commercial. Lyor Cohen—he came in when it was Island Def Jam—, he was a cheerleader of mine; he really thought I had an anthem on this one song. It was going to be a woman’s anthem. And it was just the wrong time. The rest of the album was kind of dark and arty. I was angry at the music business. I was imploding. Now when I look at it, I’m like who the fuck cares, why am I complaining about how hard the music business is, nobody cares.
Well you care.
I did at the time. It was my livelihood. It was what I thought my purpose was. And so quickly the doors closed that I was very confused. I felt really misunderstood. I thought I was going to keep making records and it was going to be this flow. It was hard too when things changed. It became more male dominated again. My new CEOs of the company and A&R guys were checking out my ass or asking some friends of mine if they would consider getting a face lift for the next album. It just stopped being about girl power and it started being about that. It was not fun. Nobody would play my video, no one would play my song and it was just depressing. It just sucked my soul,
It is so devastating as an artist, because for a long time you’re courted and supported and then all the fawning from the suits just stops. And then you realize that you’re only a commodity, that as long as you’re bringing in revenue, you matter.
Right, because you don’t want to believe it. And then when you find out people want to hear from you, you’re like, wow. Then the door slams and you get a real taste of reality. It sucks, it totally sucks. I was kind of jealous of some artists back in the day, even female artists. Fiona Apple had a much bigger hit record but she stayed steady and she put out records and she could be arty. I was always like, dammit what happened, what’s wrong, why can’t I do that? I had a bad manager at the time who’s famous quote was like, go hide your head in the sand and wait it out.
When you’re that pure in your art, it must be so hard to know who to listen to, who to trust.
You gotta trust yourself. I mean for me, it took a lot longer than most. Well, I wouldn’t say most but just a lot longer. I’m just a slow learner. I’m almost 50 and I’m finally learning how to say the shit that’s hard to say. It’s not easy.
It’s amazing turning 50 and be like, world, come at me.
What do we have to lose? We learned that that didn’t work. You have to be solid and you have to work from the core. I’m working on that a lot right now.
I feel like the term Fight Like A Girl means so much to me now at 50. I feel the fight in me every day. Thank god I have my close circle of friends, that support. I couldn’t make it otherwise.
Which is exhausting. I just want to relax. Just be yourself and not have to constantly be on guard. That’s why you need your girlfriends and like you said, your support. There’s like two brains and I can have them working at the same time. I’ve been super creative ever since I became a mom. You have to be available to it and it has to fall and you have to catch it. The frustrating part then is not being able to finish it or not being able to release it to the world so it’s like a blessing and a curse. More like a blessing because the gears are still churning. But damn, everything takes so long. It’s like moving through molasses or something.
How has your approach to feminism evolved over your lifetime?
I think I had a real struggle with it because I grew up with a mom who had a lot of self doubt. We had a funny story about the women in our family, we never really spoke out. My grandmother still holds secrets from back when my mom was born. My grandpa wasn’t catholic so they to like lie about my mom’s birthday. So there’s a lot of like secrecy and not standing up for yourself. My mom she was able to extricate herself out of a bad marriage and then support herself with four kids. She had three kids from a previous marriage and this first husband was a real degrading kind of guy: didn’t want her to go to college, didn’t want her to get a job. My dad was a city editor at a paper and he had kids too. It was like the Brady Bunch. Then he died. So she was handling everything, She’s a really strong woman. She gets through the big stuff but she had a lot of self-doubt. She didn’t really know how to have confidence and speak from her authentic self. I grew up in that kind of household. She would look at strong women and think they were kind of weird. lf anyone was outspoken, she would have a comment behind their back. I adopted all this kind of stuff about strong women. I’m a little bit schizophrenic in that I have a lot of passion and angst and this is what comes out in my music but only in my music. In my day-to-day life, I couldn’t even stand up and say I’m a feminist because I wasn’t even sure I knew what it meant. Does that mean I have to be like them and I have to be angry all the time and show my boobs? I didn’t even get that my mom was that generation where she was just a little too old for the ERA thing and the women’s lib thing. She probably questioned it. It was confusing to me what feminism meant. I thought it meant extreme. I would call myself a humanist or something. It’s taken me a long time even with my albums that are about women’s issues and not having to think it or needing to be heard. I still was always vacillating and again personally just not being able to speak up. So I’ve been really kind of grappling at peeling the onion and trying to get down to the core of what it means. In a way, silver lining even though I’m 49, this year with all of this going on in the conversation I’m finally getting it—with this movement and with the march and everything. I mean maybe it took this kind of alternate power to really make me wake up. It took something this big in a global sense. Not just me dealing with boyfriends and husbands and whatever it took a global thing for me to be like, oh now I get it, oh yes now I am a feminist, now I have something to say and stand for and I want to stand for other people who feel they don’t have the voice.
I get it. I so get it.
I’m a slow learner. Again, I’m really slow.
It’s so hard because you adapt what’s around you when you’re young. And when you’re not raised in a feminist household, it takes a while to learn that it’s up to you to write you feminist legacy.
Right because you’re not going to get it from generations unless you have a really outstanding exceptional female lineage. It’s not given to us. It’s not obvious.
Pre-order Tracy Bonham’s Modern Burdens on Pledgemusic NOW.