Return of the Grievous Angel

Haley Bonar on the fine art of disappearing—and coming back in one piece

Haley Bonar
Lure the Fox
Afternoon Records

Looking like a cornflower Mia Farrow, folk songstress Haley Bonar swept down to the Twin Cities from the coffeehouses of Duluth in 2002. She quickly became a standout face on the lo-fi music scene, her delicate, melancholy croon edged with a farm-cat purr. A catalog of starkly lovely, country-road-sleepwalker dirges made a success out of Bonar's sophomore release, The Size of Planets.

Yet when her ascent to larger-level fame seemed inevitable, the gamine 21-year-old dropped off the radar. After the end of a romantic relationship with her drummer and fruitless talks with a large indie label, Bonar retreated to her parents' house in South Dakota. As wary as she is of over-dramatizing it, that move seems destined to become part of Bonar's mythology. When she returned to Minneapolis a wearier, more cautious spirit, she looked for a way to retain creative control before taking her next career step.

Finally, in 2006, Bonar self-released her third album, Lure the Fox. The record won this year's Minnesota Music Award for Best American Roots Recording, and will be re-released and distributed nationally by Bonar's new label, Minneapolis-based Afternoon Records. Before she set off on her early-winter tour, the guitar-strumming chanteuse took some time to answer a few questions via email.

 

City Pages: You released your first album while still a teenager. How did you get such an early start writing and performing songs?

Haley Bonar: I'm not sure, really, it just sort of happened. Like any other rock-loving teenager, I wanted to play electric guitar. My mom said I had to start on acoustic first because it was "harder to play" (I know it was a noise thing, though). I managed to learn some chords and started singing along with my poems. I started doing the whole open-mic coffeehouse thing for a while, and I just collected a bunch of songs and thought I should record them.

 

CP: When you began composing, were you more inspired by older folk and country singers, or contemporary No-Depression-era musicians?

Bonar: I grew up listening to old folk and rock, and had no idea that No Depression even existed. I didn't know what "alt" country was—I was obsessed with Billie Holiday, and Johnny Cash's Live at San Quentin, along with any punk band that came through my hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota. Elliott Smith was probably the first punk/folk artist that I discovered, which was inspiring because he was the quietest storm on acoustic guitar I had heard...it really opened my eyes.

 

CP: Is music your only creative outlet, or do you also write short detective fiction, or run a comic-book printing press out of your garage?

Bonar: I don't do much else creatively, except maybe cooking or baking. I like to color in fairy tale coloring books, too, but I guess that's not really that creative. Someday I would like to act in a movie, though. I've always been very interested in film.

 

CP: You dropped out of college a few years ago. Will Haley Bonar ever return to finish her degree?

Bonar: I think if I don't finish my degree, I'll at least take some courses sometime down the road. I miss learning and pushing myself in that way—but for now, the school of rock is my place.

 

CP: I read that you recorded an album during the period of upheaval and uncertainty that found you dropping out of the music scene and returning to your family's house in South Dakota. Do you ever play songs from this record live? Did any of them make it onto Lure the Fox?

Bonar: Well, I didn't necessarily "drop out" of music. I just took a much-needed break from everything. I tossed out the first version of Lure the Fox because I wasn't as content as one should be when finished with a record. But many of the songs did make it onto this version. I haven't really played the ones I cut 'cause I don't like them much anymore, but who knows if I'll always feel that way.

 

CP: You have a song, "Quiet Breathing," on the soundtrack of the movie Sweet Land. How did that come about?

Bonar: I ran into [Sweet Land director] Ali Selim at the post office over a year and a half ago, and he said that he wanted my music as part of his film. So, I went into the studio and co-wrote some lyrics to the song and sang it. I'm very happy to be part of that.

 

CP: Cats or dogs?

Bonar: CATS!!! I have a big cat named Pete, and just adopted a new kitty named Percy.

 

CP: What is the most un-Haley-Bonar-like music you listen to?

Bonar: Justin Timberlake and Missy Elliott.

 

CP: Although you play both acoustic guitar and Rhodes keyboards, your most powerful instrument is that voice of yours—do you think there's a particular quality about your voice that lends itself to the lonely, mournful songs that are your trademark?

Bonar: I wouldn't know how to answer that exactly, but something my mom's friend said once comes to mind. She and my mom were talking about my music and my mom made a comment about how dark it is. Her friend said that is the reason my music is unique, because my voice is so warm and "innocent" and the contrasting subject matter is so sad. And the way my voice delivers, it is not celebrating sadness as much as just being honest about the reality of darkness in the world, bringing out the contrast between darkness and light.

 
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