By Rob van Alstyne
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By Jack Spencer
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By Emily Weiss
Portland has a lot of things going for it: a rich arts and culinary scene, enviably mild winters, the possibility of bumping into relocated indie-rock royalty like Steven Malkmus or Isaac Brock at the local grocery store. With so many assets, did the Rose City really need to go ahead and steal Haley Bonar, arguably our town's most promising singer-songwriter? When Bonar headed west in June of 2009 it was up in the air just when—if ever—she'd return to the Twin Cities scene that's held her in high esteem ever since she was a teenager.
"I had gone out to Vancouver to perform, and ended up staying there for a week and started writing songs in my hotel room and feeling really inspired by the West Coast," recalls Bonar. "I had always wanted to move but it never felt like the right time. During that same week that I was on the West Coast I got a call that our landlord was selling the house I was renting a room in, and I had to be out by June. I took that as some form of divine intervention."
Living in a new city with few friends and little in the way of expenses, Bonar was free to soak in her surroundings and focus on her craft. "Everything seemed so right and easy," she says, reflecting on the productive months she spent writing the bulk of what would become Golder, her fifth album and a new high-water mark in an already formidable catalog. "My friend had a room in a house available, and the rent was so cheap I didn't really have to worry much about money. I did get a part-time job but I was able to leave everything behind in my old life, pretty much, and just shake up my world and shock myself into writing songs. That was really all I did. Whenever it got rainy I would just sit in the basement and write and record all day. Sometimes I wouldn't get dressed until I had to go to work in the evening. It was a really productive time, and having the great big mountains and ocean so close by was exhilarating. I did get to the point where I wasn't sure I was ever going to leave."
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Thankfully, all it took for Bonar to realize that Minnesota remained her true home was a trip back to begin recording Golder in May 2010 at the famed Pachyderm studios. "The question of what to do sort of answered itself when I came back to record and finally started putting all the songs down with the band," she says. "They're just so fun to play with, and it felt so right to be back."
Even a cursory listen to Golder makes one realize Bonar isn't just paying lip service to the concept of band-dom. More so than any of her previous albums, Golder feels like the work of a full-fledged symbiotic creative unit rather than a singer-songwriter employing talented backing musicians. Whether a surprisingly affecting sing-song keyboard ditty about distant fathers ("Daddy") or a biting country-rock kiss-off ("Raggedy Man"), Bonar's songs are taken to the next level by the talents of her collaborators, a murderer's row of Minnesota talent that includes Jake Hanson (Halloween, Alaska), Luke Anderson (Rogue Valley), and Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker (both of Andrew Bird's touring band).
"We purposely changed up all of the arrangements and many of the tempos once we started recording," explains Bonar of her high-wire tactics in the studio during the sessions for Golder. "I'm a big fan of the let's-take-a-wrong-turn-and-see-what-happens-approach. Throwing all of your preconceptions out the window and just experimenting live and in the moment is a great way to energize the whole process, because there's always that chance of failure. Wasting time in the studio is a really expensive mistake to make, so that keeps a certain amount of fear in your system, and fear is a pretty amazing drug."
With her fear fix met, Bonar now looks ahead to touring the country with her band, thanks to a successful online fan fundraising campaign on Kickstarter that netted her nearly $10,000 from passionate supporters.
"It's been an amazing ride so far and I've been very fortunate," she says. "You have to be humble or you're going to beat yourself up. There's no point in lying around feeling sorry for yourself because you're watching other bands on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. If you're an artist and that's how you're feeling, then you need to question your motives because you're probably not creating for the right reasons."