“Don’t try to define me,” Haley Bonar says from a St. Paul coffee shop a few weeks before her new album, Impossible Dream, is to be released. “I don’t want to be defined. People will do that on their own. I’m a lot of things with a lot of energy; I have a lot of things I am interested in, and I don’t think I can be just a ‘songwriter.’”
The South Dakota-raised, Twin Cities-based musician lets questions linger before responding. Her vivid blue eyes view the world with a sense of reservation; she won't let you waste her time. Bonar seems to keep outsiders at arm’s length, literally so at a recent show from her rock 'n' roll band, Gramma's Boyfriend.
“I’m not a hugger, and this guy kept on insisting I hug him, and he somehow got onstage during our set and put his arms around me," she remembers. "I pushed my elbow into his chest just to get him off of me. I don’t know what it is about that band, but seeing a strong woman on stage makes people think they can touch me.”
This past spring, Bonar once again partnered with producer Jacob Hanson to start crafting Impossible Dream, which will be celebrated at a free outdoor concert this Sunday at Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis. Her prior albums, 2011's Golder and 2014's Last War, signaled changes to Bonar's sound, the latter with its keys and casual cleverness, the former with its urgent, indie-rock pacing.
Impossible Dream is the love child of those two albums, the fusion of humor and brawnier arrangements to her rock-steady, melancholy songwriting. It was the first time Bonar allowed herself and her bandmates the freedom to experiment in the studio.
Most musicians don’t write their own bios, but Bonar took up the task for Impossible Dream, inviting listeners to arrive at their own conclusions and find their own stories. She says she doesn't view lyrics as instruction manuals -- they're catalysts for one's own unique feelings.
“I think some things are easy to interpret, but yet when I go to an art museum and I stare at a Matisse painting, it’s going to [mean] something entirely different for me than it was for Matisse," Bonar, 33, says. "Nobody else can have the exact same feeling, because it’s often a thousand different things. The process of writing and creating it -- that’s my involvement. Once it’s recorded, do what you want with it.”
On her latest single “I Can Change,” the result is a gorgeous, waxing and waning pop song that shimmers and wobbles while Bonar plays with her vocals and mind. On “Kismet Kill” she sings about growing older with a poignant sense of dread, while charging electric guitars pulse beneath.
Impossible Dream oozes charm, self-inflicted joy and sorrow, and sly effortlessness. She found a way to decorate a folk song with fragile emotion, turning the 10-track, 31-minute LP into a tremulous lament. It's getting noticed, too, having scored love from Pitchfork, NPR, American Songwriter, and even Sir Elton John (!) on his Rocket Hour Beats 1 Radio show.
Bonar, who's also a busy mom, has a mental calmness, one she's arrived at after putting in a decade-plus of work toward her career. Eventually, she wants to get into composition and film scoring, and her underlying confidence makes that dream seem anything but impossible.
“I definitely go through that depression of second-guessing what I’m doing with my life when I’m worried about money," she says. "That being said, I’ve always been confident in my ability to make it work. I’ll get there eventually; I’ll be a rich bitch working my ass off. Whatever you do, if it brings you any amount of joy, you’re doing the right thing. If it makes you miserable, you should change it. Seriously, it’s so fucking cliché, but life is really short. Why spend all of this time having anxiety about whether you’re doing the right thing or not? Everybody dies. Try to be happy.”
Where: Sociable Cider Werks
When: 3 p.m. Sun., Sept. 25
Tickets: Free with advance ticket; more info here