Calling Tracy Bonham’s musical journey “diverse” is an exercise in profound understatement. For over 25 years, she’s shape-shifted – effortlessly, it seems – from being a classically trained violinist and pianist to a singing sensation and alt-rock cause célèbre and, most recently, to a curriculum developer for kids’ music education and the star of a children’s album. She appears to be entirely unfamiliar with the concept of “resting on your laurels.”
Born in Boston and raised in Eugene, Oregon, Bonham showed a keen interest in singing by age five and began violin lessons at nine. She won a full scholarship to the University of Southern California for her playing, but returned to Boston in 1987 when she transferred to Berklee College of Music to study voice instead. Laser-focused on songwriting from that time forward, in 1995 she released her debut EP, The Liverpool Sessions, and its single, “The One,” was named Best Single in a Boston Phoenix reader’s poll.
In 1996, Bonham eclipsed that local success by leaps and bounds, soaring into the upper stratosphere of alt-rock stardom when her debut LP, The Burdens of Being Uptight – recorded at Fort Apache Studio in Cambridge – received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance. The album’s single, “Mother Mother” – which was number one on the Billboard Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart for a month – brought a second Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance plus two MTV Video Music Awards, Best New Artist and Best Female Video.
Since her meteoric rise to alt-rock royalty, Bonham, also a self-taught guitarist, has continued to push musical boundaries, releasing six LPs, seven EPs and one live album – on which she performed Paul McCartney’s Ram album in full to celebrate his 70th birthday – and has toured with acts including Aerosmith and The Blue Man Group.
In 1998, now in the unenviable position of being under pressure to repeat the phenomenal success of The Burdens of Being Uptight, Bonham recorded her second album, originally called Trails of a Dust Devil. The LP was renamed Down Here and released in 2000, but the single, “Behind Every Good Woman,” failed to chart and – although many critics called it a “sophomore slump” and predicted a strong third outing – Island Records released Bonham from her contract.
In 2001, still without a label, Bonham toured with other acts including Aerosmith and The Blue Man Group. In 2003, one of her appearances was featured on a DVD, The Blue Man Group on their Complex Rock Tour Live. Also that year, she released an EP, Bee, which included her cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” where she replaces Jimmy Page’s ferocious guitar riffs with violin.
In 2004, Bonham signed with Rounder Records and, in 2005, she released her third album, Blink the Brightest, promoting it with performances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. That same year, she released her first self-funded EP, Something Beautiful, followed by her second in 2006, In The City + In The Woods. In 2010, on the indie label Engine Room Recordings, she released the album Masts of Manhatta.
In June 2012, to celebrate Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday, Bonham recorded a concert in Copenhagen where, backed by the Danish band The Damn Crystals, she performed his Ram album in full. The resulting LP, Pure McCartney, was released in 2013. From 2013 to 2017, she released two EPs, All I Wish Every Christmas (2013) and My Big Red Heart Beats for You (2015) and two LPs, Wax & Gold (2015) and Modern Burdens (2017).
In 2020, with Rene Hart, her bassist and musical collaborator, and Jasmyne Lawrence-Hart, one of her former students, Bonham developed a children’s music-education curriculum and founded Melodeon Music House. Inspired by educational shows of the 1970s like Sesame Street, School House Rock and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, their objective is to “share a passion for music theory and harmony through original songs and stories.” The program has been adopted by the Brooklyn Preschool of Science and the Woodstock Day School, and hundreds of classes have been live streamed.
In 2021, Bonham released her first children’s album, Young Maestros Vol. 1, an 11-song collection that teaches music theory, with a focus on confidence building. It provides “plenty of musical depth and diversion to keep an adult entertained on many a long car ride,” wrote one reviewer. “More importantly, the kids will just love it.”
Also in 2021, Bonham performed at Rock n’ Relief, a live-streamed event held at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. Organized by CORE, a non-profit founded by actor Sean Penn and singer Ann Lee, free COVID-19 testing was available at the show, which also featured Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters, Dawes, Carly Simon, L7, Perry Farrell, Linda Perry and Jewel.
(by D.S. Monahan)
Published on April 13, 2022