Fireworks Magazine Online 66 - Interview with Deborah Bonham

An interview with DEBORAH BONHAM


Of all the genetic blessings they could possibly have, the Bonham family must have been predestined to leave their mark on the popular music industry. Apart from the obvious examples of the late John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham and his son Jason, equally talented is the younger sister of the former of the two drummers. Deborah Bonham, a true lady within the female-fronted blues rock genre, has just released a classy ‘Spirit’ album and is heading to UK this autumn – she talked both issues in detail with Alexandra Mrozowska.

What are the similarities and the differences between your recent album ‘Spirit’ and its predecessor, 2008 album ‘Duchess’?

Similarities are it’s my band I’ve been with for years as in Peter Bullick, Ian Rowley and Gerard Louis. I also co-produced Spirit with Glenn Skinner again. Differences are different drummer, Duchess was Jerry Shirley founder member of Humble Pie who was in my band for 7 years and guest drummer my nephew Jason Bonham. Jerry had retired so it made sense try something new. I also wanted to revisit the style I was playing when I first started singing as in more organic – acoustics/mandolins etc. I wanted to do the songs I wanted to do in the way I wanted to do them. I had a feel for where this album should be and I wanted to follow that feel so bringing in Marco Giovino from Nashville on drums just set it all up for me. The drums are, for me, where it all starts. To have someone like Marco who already had the seal of approval from Robert in The Band of Joy was just .. well a Joy! I knew from the moment I saw him play with The Band of Joy that he was the one I wanted, when he agreed to do it, that was a good moment!

What do you think are the highlights of your most recent release?

It would be the personnel – Marco Giovino coming over from Nashville, recording the drums with us in a church in our local village and my whole band just digging his playing – the sun shone in through the stained glass over us ... that was magical and a very big highlight. BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar – BJ is just the best and I’m such a fan – it’s always an honour to play with him. Then of course there was Robert Plant guesting on harmonica….well yes…I’ll be playing that track over and over to myself when I’m in my ‘Old Folks Boogie Home’… saying to the other inmates… you know, that’s me with Robert Plant. Doesn’t get much better than that does it really? It was a real bucket list moment...

One of the album’s distinctive features is its musical versatility, songs ranging from blues-rock to soul and Americana/country. Where do you get your inspiration from and do they change throughout the years?

Umm.. for me songs just seem to come. One hopefully has a ‘crapometer’ built in so that you know if you get an idea about three chords down the line, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll ditch it. I’m conscious of that. I also know when I write something and my whole body tingles and the biggest smile is on my face then I’m on to something. I guess it needs to move me. I could never go on stage and perform my songs and try and convince an audience if I don’t believe it myself. I have to be in love with what I do and the band to convince others. It’s all about feeling that moment of ‘in the zone’, it’s just the biggest of thrills if other people get in my ‘zone’ also….band and audience.

Are the Americana/country influences a trace of your stay in Nashville? How inspiring music-wise is the “capital of country music” for you?

Ah… not really. I mean I totally love Nashville but I went there because of a drummer – Marco. Anything I gleaned above that was sheer joy. My love of country-esq music stems from my love of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt. Though I loved Union Station long before Robert made Raising Sands with Alison Krauss. I’m very much a country/blues/jazz/folk/rock lover – I can’t just listen to one style of music. From when I started singing and my first sort of demos, my big love was Joni Mitchell… so I guess my love was always west coast and then country slipped in together with some jazz and Irish Celtic music…But when you were only six and your brother joins Led Zeppelin and you grow up on this amazing sublime undefinable music, that’s always going to be in the depths of your soul…I have the most eclectic mix of music and that I certainly got from my brothers John and Michael – their love of motown, of melody… John was always strong on melody hence his love of the Bee Gees. Then there would be Hendrix being played. One night it was just the two of us and he played me Hendrix at The Isle of Wight Festival – John had one of the first video machines – of course we’re talking late 70’s and it was extremely big and clunky with big tapes! But boy was it great – I’d never seen anything like this guy playing guitar. We sat all night watching music videos – I got a complete tutorial on music! A very cherished moment with my big brother.

What prompted the use of instruments so rarely exploited in popular music these days, such as cello, mandolin or dobro?

We just wanted to experiment with more organic sounds and as I said, I wanted to revisit the style I started with. It’s what I love and what I grew up on. Led Zep certainly II III and IV, Fairport Convention, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Allman Brothers and especially Little Feat – it’s in my soul – proper instruments, real sounds – that’s where I was as a teenager – I wanted to go back there but keep the rock/blues element to it also.

Lyrics on ‘Spirit’ are written from the personal point of view rather than general. How open and personal do you think an artist should get in order to communicate clearly with the audience? How important this communication is to you?

It’s the biggest thing for me. The Old Hyde title track of my second album is the biggest communicator… a means of catharsis … through singing this song I realised that I was not alone in losing the people I loved… I do not have the monopoly on this. The song is all about the derelict farm that my brother John bought not long after Led Zep II, and built with my Dad and my other brother Michael all of whom have now passed, as has my mother 3 years ago. It’s the place where I grew up/lived. I explain this to the audience every night I perform the song and even after all these years it still gets me, it gets me personally and it gets me the way it gets others. The amount of people who come to talk to me afterwards explaining what they have gone through and how this song has helped them – that’s incredibly humbling but it is quite emotionally exhausting but amazingly cathartic. We all lose people we love… it’s a bitch but that’s the way life is. It isn’t always easy, in fact it very rarely is for many of us. But from what I see out in the world today, I know I’ve been incredibly privileged - I’m just so lucky I had the best family anyone could ever have had and the greatest love ever….

Undoubtedly, the most famous name to be credited on the album is Robert Plant. Could you please tell the readers about the other musicians involved in recording ‘Spirit’?

Well, there’s Marco Giovino on drums. Marco has played with Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and of course Robert Plant & The Band of Joy. He brought the feel, the groove, the soul… from that moment I knew where it had to go. My bass player Ian Rowley, who I’ve been privileged to play with for many years is one of the greatest… he just needed that drummer, that groove to shine and so he did. Same for my guitarist Peter Bullick and keys Gerard Louis. We are family, we’ve been together many years and we feel from each other which makes being on stage just amazing – we instinctively know where the other one is going…Of course they’ll be the occasional car crash and I would say I just smile and get on with it… the band will tell you something else! It’s very rare though..

You co-produced the album with Glenn Skinner (Deborah Harry, Killing Joke). It’s not the first time you’ve worked together; why have you decided to join forces with Glenn again and what kind of influence does it exert over the album?

Well Glenn just has a catalogue of the greatest music of all time in his head… he’s like a walking juke box. So if I say to him “I hear this like so and so...” he knows it. We are both like minded too– we both love an eclectic mix of music – the same eclectic mix..

How does your songwriting process usually look like? Was there any difference between writing songs for this album and your previous endeavours?

Not really, just one day I’ll be walking the dogs or riding my horse, driving my car… out comes an idea and I have no idea where from or what form it is going to take… all I know is that the crapometer comes into play and if I feel its no good then it’s scrapped. If I’m feeling it… then I play it to the band and then off we go.

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‘Spirit’ was released on CD and also, in vinyl format. What do you think is the re-emergence of vinyl – is it just a fleeting fad, or a backlash against the digital downloads, iTunes and mp3 format?

I think vinyl is the future – it always was the best sound and the artwork, the cover – you always felt like it was value for money. I think all the other formats have been a fad… we’ve been looking for something to replace vinyl – something more robust maybe, that didn’t scratch – we were promised that with cd but it didn’t happen, it still skips and jumps and gets scratched and it’s small and you don’t get the impact of the artwork. I also hate those plastic cases - I feel we were just short changed with that format. I also loathe shrinkwrap – what is that about? It’s not environmentally friendly and it’s a nightmare to get off if doing a signing after a show. We need something that’s biodegradable if we’re are to continue wrapping cd’s. And download? Well ok, you have to make your records available as downloads these days but I want something tangible – I want artwork I want product. Give me vinyl any day. You could spend the first two weeks just playing side one then it was like a whole new album two weeks later when you eventually played side two and gatefold? Well that was just lush

It’s not enough to say that you come from a musical family – and we don’t have to explain why. How do you think your background has influence your further pursuits?

In every which way possible… my family are in my soul, in my life, in my everyday thoughts. There’s not a moment I don’t think of them. It’s not easy not having them here, so many times I want to see John and play him what I’ve done, see what he thinks. He really didn’t want me to become a rock n roll singer – he hated the business and thought it was no place for his kid sister but you just can’t deny what’s in your soul, your blood. I’ve tried hard to do him proud, do the name proud, not cheapen it or bandwagon it. Against a lot of odds I’ve stuck to my principals, I’ve stuck to doing what I do, what I love. I guess that comes from my backgroud… always try to be true to yourself cos if you can’t do that you wont convince anyone. I’d like to think John would be proud and love the music I do – the influences are all from him and my brother Michael and the music they loved which became the music I loved. I’d like to think that if he was still here he’d be playing on it. I had a chance to share my music with my other brother Michael before he passed – in fact Michael played percussion on the Old Hyde album. I’d just started the mixes for album when he tragically died at 49. We were very very close and it was devastating – 2 brothers, I just never thought that could happen. Same with my Dad. And now my Mom, but she did live a long life and lived with me, in fact we only ever had 1 year apart when I first lived in London, after that she moved from the Midlands to be with me in London and we then moved to West Sussex where she lived with me until she passed away peacefully in my arms 2011. She was an amazing woman. She had a beautiful voice and made her first recording when she was 80 for The Zimmers – she sang Let It Be. She tried to come to as many of my shows as possible and occasionally got up and sang Rock N Roll if she could! She made front page of the Perthshire News when she got up at a show we did in Scotland! We had a hard time making her sit down! She also came to Malta with us when we opened for Robert Plant at the Valleta Waterfront which I have on DVD – there’s a clip at the end of Mom and Robert deep in conversation – she loved him very much and he always called her his second mama – Queen of the Hop! We were each others rock having lost John Michael and Dad, we were what kept the other going – it’s been hard since she’s gone but I’ve found solace knowing she’s now with them and I’ve found an amazing strength with the band, friends and animals. I have learned to live with it all, keep moving on, moving forward – it’s taken me a lifetime to understand that. I occasionally slip into the past, to get my fix I guess, but I can now pull myself out reasonably quickly. My rescued dogs and horses have helped with that, they are amazing healers and the various charity work I do – keeps you real.

What were and are your other influences in terms of singers and, possibly, songwriters?

Male singers: Otis Redding, Al Green, Levi Stubbs Four Tops, O’Jays, Phillipe Wynn of The Spinners, Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers, Frankie Miller, Steve Marriott, Lowell George, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Everly Brothers

Female: Aretha Franklin, Ann Peebles, Eta James, Dusty Springfield, Maggie Bell, Elkie Brooks, Kiki Dee, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchel, Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Ann Wilson, Bonnie Rait, Elizabeth Fraser (Cockteau Twins).

Songwriters: Holland/Dozier/Holland, Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Prince, Lowel George Little Feat, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, Lennon/McCartney, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen Steely Dan, Steve Winwood, Shuggie Otis, The Gibb brothers - Bee Gees

This autumn, you’ll play a set of UK dates, four already announced. Are there more of them to come?

Yes I’m playing and acoustic set at the Royal Albert Hall as special guest to Paul Rodgers with his Royal Sessions Memphis Band and I just can’t wait – Monday November 3rd Big smile!! All proceeds to Willows Animal Sanctuary which I support and Paul and his beautiful wife Cynthia are Patrons. www.illowsanimals.org

What do you think are the most important aspects of playing live?

Meaning it, giving it soul and loving it.

Apart from this, what are your current plans?

I’ve just guested on an album called Purple Reggae by Radio Riddler who are Frank Benbini and Brian Fast Leiser of The Fun Lovin Crimnals. It is Prince’s Purple Rain album in it’s entirety but in reggae/dub style. I met Frank some years ago at a FLC concert and was knocked out by his drumming – I could tell he was a big fan of my brothers. We met, became friends and he then asked me to guest on this album on a track called Take Me With You after hearing me sing at a show. I knew I’d be completely out of my comfort zone but Frank had this vision and persuaded me it would work so I agreed. I have to say it’s one of my proudest moments – it’s completely out there but it took me into a very different genre to what I’m used to, one I’ve never been in before and it was amazing – really liberating. Different sounds, different style but it really did work with my voice – he was right. I then got to perform it live at the Jazz Café in London with them for the album launch which was a joy. They are just amazing musicians and it cooked. The album is released 29th September 2014 through Mita Records www.mitarecords.com and I’ve heard that it’s shooting up the Amazon charts through presales so I’m really thrilled for them. Big love to both Frank and Fast for giving me that opportunity to do something new and totally different, I loved it.

For the rest of the year and into 2015, we will continue playing live – especially in Europe – France is becoming a great place for us, probably helped by the fact I speak a bit of French and we did two of the songs on Spirit – Take Me Down and Fly in French. I also want to release a live album next year along with another studio album hopefully later in the year for release in 2016. We have also held the vinyl of Spirit back until next year to coincide with a European tour. Other than than, I’ll keep campaigning for animal welfare, our elephants and wildlife in Africa, the plight of our racehorses – how we need to take responsibility for them and to stop puppy farms and factory farming. I’m also now involved with Rock Against Trafficking to try and raise awareness and money for young girls and minors in slavery which is something that I’m very passionate about – no girl should be forced into sex slavery – I can’t imagine what is happening to them and what they are going through having had such a wonderful upbringing and family myself – I guess that’s why I feel so passionate about it – all children deserve the right to a safe secure and loving upbringing. This is just so wrong. These children desperately need our help, it’s our responsibility as human beings to provide it and that is what RAT is all about. So I guess I’m real busy! www.rockagainsttrafficking.org

Anything you’d like to add in the end?

Just much love to all the people that read and are involved with Rocktopia…and all our supporters, it never ceases to warm my soul when someone gets my music. Forever love light peace health and happiness .… Big love to you all.

Deborah Bonham

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