It's summertime, and Haley Bonar is coming out to play. After a long, cold winter, Midwesterners are reveling in the chance to finally frolic in the lilac-scented breeze of a warm summer day, and Bonar is joining in the celebration by unleashing the fourth and most vivid album of her career.
"I hate the wintertime," she admits sheepishly, as if a swarm of staunch turtleneck-clad Minnesotans might apprehend her at any moment. Wisps of wavy blond hair frame her freckled face, and her mouth contorts into a wide frown of dismay. "I don't feel at all productive. I just like to be in my room, reading and watching movies all winter."
Bonar says the relaxation that comes with a warm summer day helps to fuel her creativity. "Honestly, I like to sit in the sun and just think and read and pass out for a while. I like to go take naps in the park a lot," she says, giggling and scrunching up her nose. "It's the best nap. It totally refreshes you. You wake up and you're like, Where am I? Oh, yeah, in the park!"
On a more serious note, she adds, "I just like the laziness of summertime. It allows people to be relaxed and do relaxing things. It's more conducive to writing."
Bonar's new album, Big Star, is in many ways a departure from the more melancholy music that has defined her career thus far, conjuring the hopeful feeling of a sunny day more often than the despair of a dark, cold night. Which isn't to say that Big Star is totally lacking in Bonar's signature haunting melodies and slow-burning electric guitar builds; rather, it seems she has become more comfortable alternating between light and dark, between confident proclamations and pensive unravelings. In short, Big Star is the work of a songwriter who is constantly evolving and becoming more comfortable with her own triumphs and hang-ups, coming to terms with the successes and setbacks of her own musical history.
Growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, Bonar knew from a young age that she wanted to write songs. Fueled more by a desire to create her own music than to learn theory, Bonar struggled through piano lessons for a few years before giving up and asking her parents for a guitar. "That seemed like the most amicable vehicle, since I'm a songwriter," she explains. "It just made sense."
When she was 14, Bonar got her first guitar and learned a few basic chords from friends. She says she modeled herself after musicians like Ani DiFranco and Elliott Smith, "the people who were rocking out but still songwriters" at heart, and before long she had written enough of her own tunes to record an album. She began working the open-mic circuit in Rapid City and recorded her first album, Haley Bryn Bonar, in the attic of a farmhouse when she was 17. Introspective and sparse, Bonar's first album conveyed an emotional maturity beyond her years, driven by the isolation and loneliness of being an overtly creative girl wading through the public school system ("I've always been kind of a weird, weird girl," Bonar told a reporter in 2006). As a graduation present, her parents paid to have 1,000 copies of the album pressed, and shortly afterward she migrated to Duluth to find a larger audience and attend classes at the University of Minnesota's campus there.
Once in Duluth, Bonar quickly found her place in the city's flourishing music community. "Duluth is a weird place, and it's full of weird people, so there's lots of good art coming out of there," she remarks with a laugh. Bonar befriended fellow Duluth musicians Charlie Parr and Alan Sparhawk, who encouraged her to keep playing shows and making albums, and in 2003 Sparhawk released Bonar's second album, Size of Planets, on his Chairkicker's Union label. Over the next year she dropped out of school and began touring, filling the opening slot on a national Mason Jennings tour, and soon found herself the subject of much critical attention, both positive and negative.
"She was hearing from all sides, 'You gotta write some poppier stuff. Your music is beautiful, but you have to go a little bit closer to the center,'" says Chris Morrissey, Bonar's longtime bass player (and, until recently, her longtime boyfriend). But rather than listen to her critics, Bonar chose to wade even further into her own psyche and produce one of her most intensely personal albums, 2006's Lure the Fox. "And Lure the Fox makes Size of Planets look like a fluorescent light bulb, it's so dark," remarks Morrissey. "The subject matter in the music is incredibly dark, but it was, for her, a point in her career where she was rising above all of those things that were putting her in that dark spot."
"I have a weird side of me that kind of gets off on people putting down what I'm doing," Bonar says with a smirk. "It feeds my fire."
On both "Better Half" and the title track, "Big Star," Bonar owns up to some of the less-than-pretty side effects of a successful career, but they come across as more self-righteous than self-pitying. "They're going to call you baby/And treat you like the symbol/Of something that they'll never understand," she sings on "Big Star," which sounds more like a kiss-off to a star-struck friend than a reminder to herself. Other songs on the album align more closely to her previous work, including the opening track, which laments the loss of a certain green-eyed boy, and "May Day," a terrifically sad song with a descending vocal melody that perfectly conveys her surrender to loneliness and despair.
When introducing Haley Bonar, critics and publicists are quick to note two things: her age and her gender. At 25, Bonar has already proven herself a prolific and talented songwriter, but her intrigue extends far beyond the fact that she is young and female.
Onstage, Bonar is delicate and serious, sometimes bordering on endearingly meek. In photographs, she often wears a contemplative frown, her beauty emanating from behind a wall of introspective stillness. But in her day-to-day life, Bonar comes alive with an unassuming confidence, her brow wrinkling and relaxing to reveal every change of mood. She makes frequent jokes, mostly about herself, and speaks animatedly using a different voice and expression for every story.
The dichotomy of Bonar's two personas is striking. "She has many comedic voices and characters many people may never know about," says Mike Michel, frontman of the Bill Mike Band and Bonar's guitarist. "That's a cool thing. She creates very serious music and is very charming live, but when she is comfortable with you she can make you fucking laugh real hard."
"She's a goofball," says Morrissey. "She does have a somber vibe, she wears a frown a lot of the time, but that's not indicative of what she's feeling. She takes the weight of the world onto her shoulders, but underneath all of that, there's this light—a fun-loving, immensely talented, beautiful, strong person."
Whatever downfalls she has survived in her past, Big Star is the soundtrack to Haley Bonar coming out on top. She has surrounded herself with an array of highly talented musicians, including high-profile local jazz drummer Dave King (who has played on three of her albums) and indie phenom Andrew Bird, who invited Bonar to sing on his last record. Big Star was mixed by Tchad Blake (who has worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Tom Waits and is now working on the forthcoming Halloween, Alaska album), an opportunity that Bonar describes as "an honor" and a highlight of her music career. Bonar's CD-release show comes in the middle of a tour opening for Canadian folk rocker Hayden.
If Bonar's live presence is any indication, her touring will only lead to an increasingly large fan base. In concert, Bonar has mastered the art of setting the mood, often causing entire rooms of rowdy barflies to fall silent. She has constructed what Mike Michel describes as "hyper-introspective music that invites people to reflect on their own personal lives. It's live music therapy. Lots of people's eyes are closed. It's very healing music." Deeply introspective and personal yet widely accessible, Bonar's music allows listeners to interject their own feelings between the lines of her lyrics, to take the songs home and own them as life rafts and guiding lights in their own struggles.
Whether Haley Bonar will ever become a Big Star is unsure, and in many ways, unimportant. But with the way she has positioned herself for takeoff, there's a good chance that at the very least she is in for a damn good summer.
HALEY BONAR performs a CD-release show with Mystery Palace and Jeremy Messersmith on THURSDAY, JUNE 12, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222