Haley Bonar has been making music for half her life. A prodigal daughter of the Black Hills of South Dakota, she got her start in music at a fateful open mic she decided to enter when she was a teenager. Her seventh album, Last War, came out last month. She blames her prolific output on how much she loves every step of making a record, from the writing to the recording to the production.
Bonar has a big, sweet, country-ish voice, but it’s her lyrics that really take my breath away. Last War has been on repeat in my car, my kitchen, and my head for the last month. Today we premiere this amazing (not being hyperbolic, no spoilers) video of hers.
I spoke to her last week about not wanting to grow up and getting the confidence to perform.
JESSICA: Even though you are an actual grownup now, most pieces written about you still play up your discovery as a teenager by Alan Sparhawk from Low–like it’s so bizarre and precious that a teenage girl would be writing songs. Does that ever bother you? Did people use to treat you like it was some special feat?
What I was doing was coming from a super innocent and honest place: “Guess I will go to this open mic.” One of the first times I played–maybe the first or second time—I was scared shitless. There were tons of people there, because it was Rapid City and there was nothing to do. I just hopped on the mic and played, and I didn’t look at anyone. They would pass the tip jar around, and the guy that ran the whole thing, he counted the money and then he rubbed my shoulders and gave me a kiss on the cheek and then gave me my money. It was so weird. It was like “what is this?!” I didn’t know that was a microscopic piece of this much large issue and it’s taken me a decade to navigate: this idea of people being like, “Look at you, so cute with your guitar and your feewings.” [Laughs] I listen back to stuff I wrote then and it’s typical teen diary–feelings, very raw and emotional, petty in some ways–but you do it anyways and you keep on trucking until you find your voice. I had to start somewhere. We all start as a depressed teenager somewhere.
Were you excited to be an adult?
I am not sure if I ever had that thought, because I’ve been nostalgic to a fault for my childhood, especially when I was a teenager. I struggled. I hated being in the awkward phase, and so aware in it. I knew that eventually I would become an adult and write about grown-up things. I wrote a lot of that early stuff from other people’s perspectives—people who were older and had different lives than I do—since I didn’t have my own problems. It’s been a natural progression to now, when I write about my own problems. [Laughs]
Your lyrics are so incisive and sharp, but also really visceral and personal-seeming. How much do you edit them between when they come out of your brain and when they make it into a song?
I start by finding specific chords on the piano that I like and then figuring out the melody and filling in the blanks. The words just start spilling out as I connect the vocabulary to musical part of it. I just end up recording rubbish and singing stuff I like and figure out how to tell the story. Then I sit down and comb through it and add stuff. Some songs I have worked on a lot more than others, but that magical stuff, where the song comes out of outer space and into my brain and I’m like, “Where did that come from?”—where it’s perfect and I don’t have to edit, it’s just done already—that just happens. It’s a weird feeling.
Do you have to get your mettle up to perform personal lyrics?
With any kind of performance and artistic expression, you have to have some confidence and the desire and fortitude to apply it, and not really care what other people think. Which is terrifying and almost impossible, because you are always worrying about what people think! I was an outsider and a weird kid, so I think I was already calloused about what people thought of me. I had friends and people in my life who were into music, and I was grateful that in my tiny, freakish community I had a friend who loaned me a guitar until I saved up for my own. You have to have some confidence, but it’s always hard to do it until you try. Once I had a taste of that spilling-your-guts feeling, I just wanted to do it again.
Where does that confidence come from for you now?
I struggle with it on a daily basis. Though I am confident woman, I deal with a lot of shit in the music industry and just being an artist and a mom. So I struggle with it like everyone else, wondering what I am doing with my life, my career, my hair [laughs]–just like anyone else. But confidence is a survival mechanism. You gotta have it, because the world does not ever wait for you. You are the only person responsible for your happiness. You just hope you’ll have confidence to stay on your path. ♦