With her 2016 album, Ain’t Who I Was, Bonnie Bishop embraced the artist she was born to be– a far-ranging vocalist and soul stirrer evocative of decades past but reaching towards the future. The Grammy-winning Texan spent a decade in Nashville writing, recording, developing demons and dispelling them through her music until the day came when she needed to breathe new air. Bishop set out for the desert, rediscovered her muse, and this past October released The Walk, a driving, gospel-tinged, rhythm & blues effort produced by drummer and studio sage Steve Jordan. No stranger to Macon, Bonnie Bishop returns on December 3rd for the Capricorn Revival, and she’s as excited about the show as we are.
AI- I do want to talk about the Capricorn Revival, but first, I want to dig into your new album, The Walk. We haven’t had an opportunity to speak to you since… Well, since I think right before you took your sabbatical. On the new album, there’s absolutely nothing rushed, nothing hurried in the arrangements or in your voice. You’re performing like you have all the time as well as all the happiness under the sun. Is that how you’re feeling these days?
BB- (Laughs) You know, I’m learning to practice gratitude in my life. Somebody told me a while back, gratitude can change your attitude. Have you ever heard that before?
I have. And your pal Ray Wiley Hubbard says the days he keeps his gratitude higher than his expectation, he has really good days.
Absolutely. That’s great advice. I need to write that one down too. But that’s where that song came from. I don’t think it’s really a secret a lot of artists struggle with depression. We have a lot of highs and we have a lot of lows and that’s usually where songs come from. I’ve always just dealt with life through music. And that song was written right in the few months before I moved back to Texas. I’d been in Nashville for almost ten years, and all the songs on this album were written… Except for one, all of them were written in that exodus period. Except for “I Don’t Like To Be Alone”. I wrote that when I got to Ft. Worth. But that song, especially “Every Happiness Under the Sun”, my friend Rebecca Lynn Howard and I got together and just talked about… Just the struggle. Every human being goes through it. You have the choice to see the good or the bad in every event and in every day. And it’s real easy to get depressed if you focus on all the bad things that are going on in the world. ‘Cause there’s plenty of things to look at, and it takes a lot more effort, I think, to focus on what’s good in your own life and in the world and to focus on things that are filled with hope and light and joy. It’s just easy to get bogged down, and so that song is really about an ongoing journey of being thankful and making the effort to see the good. It’s what the whole album is about. It’s like a soundtrack for surviving life, which is what The Walk is– the walk of life.
You brought up “I Don’t Like To Be Alone, and I saw where you had mentioned that your producer, Steve Jordan, had to talk to you into putting that one on the album. Obviously, it’s one of the most revealing if not the most revealing track on the album… What needed coaxing to get it on there?
Well, I just told Steve that it made me feel really uncomfortable to say that out loud and to admit that, and he said, “That’s exactly why it belongs on this record.” Because this is a very vulnerable, deep, introspective album, despite the fact that there’s all these really cool beats and grooves. The messages are actually very deep. And that was why I wanted to work with Steve because he’s such an incredible drummer and has a way of… None of the songs actually sound as depressed as I felt perhaps when I wrote them– that one in particular. If I had produced that record in a traditional singer-songwriter sounding format, it would probably be really sad to stand on stage and sing those songs every night. And that’s what I love about “I Don’t Like To Be Alone”, and it’s because as sad as I felt when I wrote it– and the demo of it is very sad… That’s why I was like, “I don’t want to put this on here. It’s too sad!”And Steve said, “No, it’s vulnerable and it’s honest and it’s something that a lot of people feel.” And he reminded me that’s why I’m putting a record out, is to connect with people. And that’s an important message for people who are feeling isolated and alone. It just released to radio in the middle of the fall going into winter and holidays, and I feel like people who are lonely are especially lonely and isolated during the holidays. So my hope is that even though it makes me feel vulnerable to put that song into the world, that it’ll reach the people it needs to reach and help them feel not so alone. And help them know that they’re connected to other human beings who are struggling with the same feelings.
The Walk continues your exploration with soul music. Steve Jordan you wanted to work with as a drummer leading the charge of production as opposed to… I would say with your last record and Dave Cobb, it was certainly more guitar-driven. Did you feel, vocally, like you were singing along with the drumbeat as opposed to any other instrumentation? ‘Cause it’s got such a cool… You used the word groove, it does have such a cool groove to it. And that’s where I think it sits– with you and the drums.
Yeah. That was the point, to collaborate with Steve, to create music that moved people’s feet while the lyrics moved their heart and moved their minds. We recorded everything live. The whole band– Ryan [Tharp] was playing guitar, Jimmy Wallace was playing keys, Al Carty on bass, and Steve Jordan on drums– they were all in the big room, and I was in the vocal room attached, and my windows stared right at Steve. So while we were tracking… You know, Steve wears sunglasses all day inside, outside. He wears sunglasses at night time… I don’t know, he might wear ’em to bed! But he wore him when he was playing drums in the studio. Nobody knew who he was looking at until he turned and looked directly at the vocal booth, and he would give me this nod. He wouldn’t say anything. And that nod was like time to start singing. ‘Cause he would groove and groove and groove and groove… I mean, one of those songs– I think “Love Revolution– we played for three hours straight. Like we never stopped. The beat never stopped. He would bring it up, we played through the song and then he’d bring it down and then he’d kind of adapt the groove and try something else. The band would just follow, and they’d get into a whole new groove and sometimes it would be 20, 30 minutes of them doing that. And then he’s locked into whatever he wanted and then he would look at me and nod when it was time for me to sing. So in that way, yeah, I did follow the drums. We collaborated… Like we made all this record together, and those beats really helped me move through, not just the recording process, but kind of get my beat again in life and in what I was doing and the reason I’m making music too. I guess my vocals did kind of follow the drums.
Leading into this interview, I was listening to that record, I was listening to Ain’t Who I Was, I was listening to some of your earlier country music…
Oh, boy… (Laughs)
What’s your relationship with country music these days? Is that something that you will… ‘Cause I mean, you know, you can take the girl out of Texas, not Texas out the girl kind of deal. Is it something you’ll revisit?
Yeah, that’s right! I think that it’s like… I didn’t really grow up listening to country. In fact, I grew up listening to Motown records and a lot of the stuff that came out of Georgia, you know, like a lot of Otis Redding. My mom and dad played, of course, a lot of Aretha Franklin, and those are the first songs I really remember latching onto. I think I got into country music because I lived in Texas, and I knew all these people who were out there playing live in dance halls and in clubs and stuff, and they were making a living playing music in those places. And I wanted to make a living playing music. I didn’t want to get a real job– and I knew I could sing anything. I was trained in opera, I studied music theatre, I was a theatre major in college… I could do a lot of things, but living in Austin and going out and seeing people make music, it was like the majority of people that I saw playing in bars with a live band were country sounding. The Texas music scene was very geared towards country and remnants of what Willie Nelson did and Jerry Jeff Walker, Pat Green, et cetera. So I think I fell into that more because it was accessible. I couldn’t play an instrument. You know, I didn’t start playing piano ’til I was 30, and I didn’t start playing acoustic guitar ’til I was like 26. So the first five years that I was writing songs, I would have to get together with a guitar player and sing them my songs. I was really dependent on what somebody else came up with. I had the melody in my head, but however they heard it and interpreted it had an influence on me. I think I just kind of got in through country, but I was never satisfied with that, obviously, because I’ve transitioned and morphed and grown into a lot of different versions of myself musically. And I think that’s cool. I’m okay with that. I’m an artist at heart. I get restless, and I want to recreate and reinvent. And so you know what? I might like to make a jazz record next. Who knows? I just write the songs.
Let’s talk about reinvention. The Capricorn Revival for the renovated studios… You’re coming to town to play this big show. Can you give me any kind of hint or preview of what you’re going to be doing at the show on December 3rd?
(Laughs) I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what I’m doing. I’ll tell you, I’m doing a Jonathan Edwards song and an Elvin Bishop song.
Jonathan Edwards will be in attendance.
Yes, he will!
And an Elvin Bishop song, you say? Okay, well, we’ll try to narrow that down. Who are you looking forward to collaborating with when you get to town on stage?
Oh, my God– everybody! I mean, when I got the call, I kept being like, “Did they call the wrong Bonnie?” I was so excited! I don’t really have any Georgia ties except that I love all the music that comes out of Georgia, and I’ve spent a lot of time touring there. I’ve come to see you guys a few times over the years, and I always found such a warm reception in Macon– and I can sing soul music. So I guess that’s why I got the call, but I was so grateful, and I’m thrilled to work with Chuck Leavell. He’s the bandleader on this whole thing– and Bonnie Bramlett! All those iconic, Bonnie’s– Bonnie Raitt, Bonnie Bramlett… I’m so excited that she’s going to be there. I’ve sung with her before. She probably won’t remember, but I’m looking forward to singing with her.
You’d be surprised. She’s got a pretty good memory.
Well, maybe she will remember me! My friend Brent Cobb will be there and Marcus King Band– I’m a huge fan. Jimmy Hall is going to be there. I’ve known Jimmy for a long time. He’s from down here. And Randall Bramblett! I’m excited about all of it. I can’t wait. I already got my outfit picked out and everything.
You would have been tailor-made for Capricorn Records back in its heyday.
I know! I would’ve been! Maybe I was here last time, and I recorded there and we just don’t know– and that’s why I got the call. Maybe in my last life!
That’s where I’m going with this question… I know you just put out this wonderful album, so absolutely no rush, but what are your thoughts about coming back to Macon at some point, settin’ up shop in the classic Capricorn studios and making an album?
I think that sounds amazing! I’m in!