Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Haley Bonar was discovered at age 19 by Alan Sparhawk, who asked her to open for Low more than a decade ago. She tours widely as a solo musician and has earned praise from the likes of NPR, Pitchfork and Time Out New York. She’s toured with Andrew Bird and appeared on his 2007 release Armchair Apocrypha, and has had her songs turn up in such mainstream places as MTV’s Teen Mom, yet she still maintains a curiously low profile.
Perhaps her forthcoming fifth full-length, Last War, will change that. Though its title alludes to violent endings, the songs are full of both apocalyptic destruction and triumphant resurrections. “You have to have dark to have light,” Bonar explains.
The title of “Kill the Fun,” for example, implies gloom, but the music is bright and sparkling, synths pulsing beneath Bonar’s cotton-candy vocal melody. In “Bad Reputation” she feels “stupid and confused about anything that has to do with you,” but the song — a gentle, tumbling ballad — eventually moves to a place of calm acceptance. In a notable departure from previous albums, the songs on Last War are wreathed in synths (Bonar describes them as “Twin Peaks inspired”), lending the album an air of mysteriousness.
She’s also outspoken about her life as a single mother to a preschool-aged daughter. When asked about her day, she says she got a late start because her daughter was up from 2-4:30 a.m. Despite this, she impressively found the energy to talk with Katy Henriksen about mortality, motherhood and “Women in Music.”
I love to talk to creative mothers and how it’s changed things for them — or hasn’t. I’m a mom too, and I think about how male artists aren’t asked about parenthood in the same way. How has becoming a mother redefined your creativity?
Wendy Lewis, the woman who wrote my current bio for the press materials, is also a musician and a mother with a grown daughter, [and she] really helped coach me through that period. Right after I had my daughter, I was kind of feeling lost. You feel you’ve gained this new life, essentially, a new part of yourself that you don’t know, and a new person you don’t know and you need to be quiet with that and learn how to adapt to this new lifestyle before you can really tap into that creativity again. One of the things she brought up to me when she was writing my bio was whether I wanted to mention my daughter Clementine. She asked, “Why should we have to talk about our family like that?” Because, just like you said, men aren’t really asked that. [Journalists] are like, “Oh, cool, you have kids, whatever.” But as a woman, you’re asked, “Oh, you’re a woman — you’re a mother and you’re a musician?”
I thought about it, and she’s a huge part of my life, so therefore she’s a huge part of my art. So I have no qualms about talking about it, because I don’t think that’s anti-feminist at all. In fact, I think it is more feminist to say, “Fuck yeah, I’m a mom. Yeah, I make it work. I’m a single parent and I’m a musician who is self-employed, and I’ve had to compartmentalize my life into the time I spend with her and the time I spend on my music, and it’s great.” I think she’s greatly impacted my work ethic in that regard. Before, when I was doing whatever I wanted and had no one to think about but myself, I’d sometimes find that I wouldn’t get things done. Now, I have four hours to get stuff done — play instruments and record and such. And then when I’m finished with that, I’m all hers. I think I’ve kind of gotten it down to a science at this point.
The advance word on your new album Last War was that it was darker than your previous records — which surprised me when I heard it, because there are a lot of up-tempo songs. To kind of continue what we’re talking about: I feel like motherhood, for me, really affects the way I see life — there’s a lot of joy but also a new sense of mortality, the idea that death is everywhere. Do you think the new album is darker?
That’s a really good question. I noticed that people have been saying that, and I feel like when somebody brings that up right away, I’m like “Have you listened to any of my other music?” Because I’ve always had a darkness to my sound. I’ve always had some pretty heavy topics in my writing. And it’s very honest, and a lot of it is really sad and dark.
That being said, I don’t think the new album is any darker than anything else I’ve done. If anything, maybe it’s stronger — I think it’s got a little more grit to it. These songs are extremely personal to me, probably more so than any of the songs I’ve ever written, but there’s enough hope that it’s not a total bummer. The title Last War kind of implies a dark end — maybe apocalyptic — but I also think that you can also interpret that as the last of something evil and the beginning of something peaceful. There’s the dichotomy of both.
I do think these songs have a lot of light in them, and they’re a huge reflection of me becoming a mom, which is a complete and utter bipolar experience. You love it and you don’t know what you would do without this person, and then there are times when you’re like, “I don’t know who I am and I can’t do it.” It’s extremely hard, obviously. There’s a way to write about it where you’re not completely dismissing that or dismissing motherhood or love but you can still write about it honestly. I don’t think there’s a parent alive who can honestly say, “I never feel like I want to be away from my child,” because it’s just not true.
What was the starting point for Last War?
It was sort of an evolution. I wrote some of the songs two to two-and-a-half years ago — pretty much right after I had Clementine. “Bad Reputation” was released as a 7-inch. I basically built the record up song by song. I didn’t really know what the theme was. It was just sort of happening.
The final song I ended up putting on the album, “Woke Up in My Future,” wasn’t supposed to be on it at all. Last War was already all mastered and finished. We went and recorded at Dave Grohl’s studio for a completely separate project, a charity 7-inch. The distributor told us the record was too short, saying we couldn’t market this as an LP at 29 minutes. So I threw this one on there.
The songs “Eat for Free and “From a Cage” you said you basically recorded entirely yourself with a mic hooked up to your computer. Why did you choose to record those songs that way and how did that make the songs different?
I’ve honestly always just recorded before using the built-in mic on my computer, and it always sounded like crap, but since it would just be a demo it didn’t matter. But then, a lot times in the past, I’d end up wanting to keep that version of it, so then you really have to scrutinize it in mixing and mastering, taking the hiss out. So I thought, “I might as well [learn to] record from home well enough so that the songs can be on a record and not have that ‘demo’ sound, but still have rawness.”
When I recorded “From a Cage,” I’d been emailing Justin Vernon a lot. We know a lot of the same people but hadn’t really met. At one point I sent him songs I’d been working on, and he was like, “These are great, keep sending stuff.” So one morning I just decided I’d write a song to give to him. I thought, “I’m going to write this song and show it to him right away.” So I recorded “From a Cage” and sent it to him immediately. The next day he wrote me back “I’ve listened to this 35 times in a row. This is amazing. Don’t do anything to this song. It’s fucking perfect,” or something like that. I ended up putting some drum on it and synths and then he offered to sing on it, which I thought was pretty perfect since he obviously had a part in that song being in existence at all.
Let’s talk synths, which sound incredible on the new album. Why did you add this layer to your songs?
I asked Jeremy Ylvisaker, who is an incredible musician and who I’ve worked with for a long time, to do the synths and bass on this record. He is primarily a guitar player, but in the ’80s he played a lot of synths, and his ability to get an awesome sound is amazing to watch. He just presses three buttons and says, “Here it is,” and you’re like, “That’s perfect.”
When we recorded the brunt of the songs on the record — “No Sensitive Man,” “Kill the Fun,” “Last War” and “Heaven’s Made for Two” — all of those songs we did in two days in the studio. We all played it live and then he went back and did all the synth sounds and I don’t think I had any opinion after he recorded other than, “Yeah that’s great.” It sounded perfect, because I wanted it to sound really ominous and kind of Twin Peaks-y, because I love that soundtrack. There’s something super nostalgic about that sound, something haunting about it, and I think he pretty much nailed it.
You’re back in Minnesota, where you’ve lived most of your life, after spending time in Portland, Oregon. Talk about that experience.
I only spent a year in Portland, so I feel like it wasn’t enough time for me to really get to know it. I mean, it takes a year to establish yourself anywhere, make friends, find work and all. When I decided to leave here I was just tired of Minnesota and needed a break. I wanted to be close to the mountains and the ocean. I’d always liked touring through Portland and I had a couple of friends there, so I just decided I would take sort of a sabbatical. I didn’t plan on living there for a long time. I definitely knew I’d be moving back to Minnesota eventually, and it was really pretty perfect. I was there from one summer to the next.
I locked myself in the basement every day, so basically when I wasn’t working as a nanny, I was just recording, and there was something about that place that really inspired me. I felt something every day. I don’t know if it’s the air or the water or what it is. It’s a very beautiful and mysterious place to me — not just the city of Portland but the surrounding area — it’s got this haunting quality to it. The mountains are always there, always present in your daily life, and it makes you feel so small. I really liked that feeling. When I was done, I was done. I was like. “OK, cool I’ve had enough. I’ll go back to the Midwest, where people dress like whatever and don’t care, where they drink Coke and stuff.” Everyone was so fucking healthy out in Portland. I’m a Midwesterner at heart. I like the changing of the seasons and the brutal hatred of winter that propels you to be creative. It was good to take some time away for sure. It makes you appreciate your surroundings more.
I read that you’re a huge fan of Joni Mitchell, who I also love. Can you describe your connection with her?
My parents played Blue for us when we were kids and I hated it. I don’t know how I came to like it again. It was one of those things you hear as a kid and you’re like, “Mom, I don’t want to listen to this!” Her voice is so high and the lyrics are so complicated. Yet they’re still in my brain from childhood.
I think I was about 22 when I started listening to her again. I gained some perspective. I listened to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll music, and for some reason her sound really resonated with me, because she really does not sound like anyone else. She’s a completely unique songwriter. I love that she can kill a pop song, but there’s just no rhyme or reason to it. I love that she dismisses verse-chorus-verse, she just does whatever she wants. “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” is her pop song, and it’s almost tongue-in-cheek — yet it’s so profoundly good, with such good lyrics. She just has a way of speaking to your heart. I know that’s cheesy, but the way she sings about men is how I want to sing about men. She really talks about it in a way that’s super personal and everyone can relate to it. I think she’s a genius.
Describe your earliest engagement with music.
I’ve always been playing music. My mom talks about me making up songs and singing when I was a toddler. It’s just kind of always come naturally to me. I think when I decided I wanted to play the guitar as a teen — I’d been playing piano and taking lessons through my childhood — there was something about it that made it easier to apply my poetry to chords on the guitar for some reason. I didn’t really make that connection with the piano.
I was like, “Oh, I have all these poems. Oh, I have this guitar that I can voice them on,” but I never really considered myself a singer or thought, “I want to sing my feelings.” I was just like, “Hey mom, look what I put together.” I connected these two pieces and I’d come up to the kitchen I’d play it for my mom while she was doing dishes or whatever, and eventually I decided I wanted to try and play it in front of people, so I started doing open mics, and I liked it. I liked that terror of getting in front of people. It’s such a high. I still get scared. I still feel that same panic right before I get on stage. And then you do it. It takes a couple minutes, but then you’re centered and think, “This is what I’m doing right now. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what makes me happy.”
On the Minneapolis City Pages blog you talk about how you’re constantly compared to other women musicians when the only thing you feel you have in common with them is anatomy. Do you still feel that that’s something you have to continue to fight?
Absolutely. I’ve yet to read an article where a male band or a male musician in the first paragraph is compared to another male musician, and then the article talks about what they’re wearing. Pretty much every time I’ve read about a woman it’s all about the way she looks, what she’s wearing and she’s a female so therefore she sounds like every other female. You’re compartmentalized a lot more. So you definitely have to fight a lot harder to get people to listen to you for you, for you as an artist, not a female artist.
I hate the term, “You’re my favorite female singer-songwriter.” Oh cool, um, thanks, I think? Does that mean I can’t be in the same category as a male singer-songwriter? It’s something that’s happened since I was a teenager. It’s annoying, but it’s also just the way it is. There’s nothing you can do about it except continue to do what you’re doing. It’s unfortunate, but in my mind I think that the [notion of] “Women in Music” is just propelling that patriarchy. I don’t think people realize it, but that’s the way I see it. Like, why do we have a special month of women in music on our local radio station? And yet the artist of the month is a dude. I don’t agree with it, but I don’t think it’s a terrible thing at the same time. I like being a woman, I’m proud of it, obviously, but why do we have to be separate? I don’t get it.