Based out of New York and originally from Texas, Why Bonnie’s music is always littered with a sense of place, these are road songs, tales of moving on in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the term. After a string of well-received EPs across various labels, the band recently returned to a Texan institution, Keeled Scales, for the release of their debut album ’90 In November.
It seems fitting that the record finds songwriter Blair Howerton and her bandmates returning to Texas. ’90 In November is a record of nostalgia, of looking back at the people and places that make us who we are, offering moments of sepia-toned nostalgia and at times, a sharp-edged sense of honesty. Although largely written in New York, the sense of being apart from your roots was hammered home by the enforced distance of the last few years. Blair found herself stuck in a small Brooklyn apartment, finding herself pining for the vast open skies of the Lone Star state, while simultaneously trying to carve out a life in her new home city. It was only once the songs were written that their links to home and place became clear, to the point where the band decided the album simply had to be recorded in Texas, the band headed down to the town of Silsbee to work at producer Tommy Read’s studio, Lazybones Audio.
The record opens with the squalling intro of Sailor Mouth, it’s an energetic challenging greeting, even if it’s one they don’t necessarily follow through on as the song progresses via rich piano flourishes, and Blair’s lyrical dissection of her tendency to fall back on old habits, “it’s a salty, sweet familiar taste, but it always tastes the same”. Elsewhere there’s the grungy-strut of the title track, which recalls Forth Wanderers or Wednesday, while Galveston sways and swaggers via a country-licked guitar and clattering chorus as Blair tackles fading memories of a past that plays on a loop, “when I try to remember it I can’t, it’s slipping like quicksand”.
One of the highlights is the recent single, Nowhere, LA, which is a story of Louisiana road trips, broken down cars and the sometimes blameless nature of a relationship coming to an end, “it wasn’t my fault, but it wasn’t yours either”, while the breezy Healthy offers its celebratory thoughts on the benefits of drinking water and staying inside unless entirely necessary. The album draws to a close on the majestic Superhero, a strong contender for my favourite song of the year. It’s a stripped-back reminder of just what an amazingly pure-country voice Blair Howerton possesses, as accompanied by just an acoustic guitar and a fizzing lead guitar line, the twin vocals leap forth. It’s in some ways a straight-up love song just with an edge of danger lurking, “I can feel my heart setting a fire so big, it’d burn the city in the blink of an eye, when we’ve cleared away all of the rubble above us there’s a clear blue sky, that’s what loving you feels like”. You’re left as a listener unclear if you’re watching history’s great romance or something burning up in an inexhaustible flame.
Following the release, Blair recently took some time to answer my questions, discussing embracing their mistakes, turning emotion into song, and how she, “didn’t even realize how much I wrote about driving until after the fact”.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who are Why Bonnie?
Why Bonnie is me, Blair Howerton, (vocals / guitar), Kendall Powell (Keys), Sam Houdek (lead guitar), Chance Williams (bass), Josh Malett (drums).
FTR: You’ve just released your debut album, 90 In November, what can you tell me about the recording process?
We recorded in January 2021 so Covid restrictions were still very intense and anxieties were high. We contemplated recording in New York or Los Angeles, but once we spoke with Tommy Read at Lazybones Audio in Silsbee, Texas, we knew that it was the right choice. His studio is attached to his family home and is surrounded by cow fields and pine trees. We had so much space, both physical and mental, to just relax and dive into the recording process. We hadn’t played as a band for almost a year until three days before jumping into the studio, so a lot of ideas were being fleshed out while we were there. I think the timing of everything allowed us to not overthink things which ultimately lead to a more raw sound. Whenever we would make a mistake, we would say “wabi-sabi, yall” and some of those “flubs” ended up being my favorite moments on the record.
FTR: The album comes after a series of EPs, what made this the right time to release an album? Did you approach it differently from writing an EP?
We ultimately didn’t have much of a choice in when the record would come out. The pandemic and unforeseen business changes pushed our timeline back significantly. At first, we were bummed but during that time, I pretty much wrote all new songs. So in a way, the pushback was a blessing in disguise. I was able to spend more time with these songs and try new things. In the past, I was still finding my voice and sometimes felt rushed. I maybe would have done some things differently but I’m really happy with where we’re at now and excited for what we’ll do next.
FTR: The album has come out on Keeled Scales, how did that come about? Are record labels still important to you?
I don’t know how much I can say about the situation but Keeled Scales was our saving grace. We’ve known the folks there for years now and trust them immensely. I think record labels can help in a lot of ways, especially if they really believe in you.
FTR: The record seems to really dig into your Texan roots, was it important to share that part of your story?
When I first started writing songs for this record, I wasn’t intending it to have a cohesive theme. I was living in a small apartment in Brooklyn and wasn’t allowed to leave because of lockdown. I really was just writing music to escape my confinement. I started to realize that most of the lyrics that were coming out of me were reminiscent of my childhood and time living in Texas. After a while it all made sense to me. I was isolated, stuck, and so far from the wide open spaces of Texas. It was a way for me to reflect on the past while also bringing me closer to what I was missing.
FTR: Why do you make music?
Music has always been the most therapeutic way for me to process my emotions. I feel so much lighter after I’ve written a song. It’s also really humbling to turn any emotion, even negative ones, into something that you’re proud of. Music is my most authentic way of communicating with the outside world. On top of that, my bandmates make everything that much more fun and worthwhile. They’re all so talented and making music with them is the greatest joy of my life.
FTR: Who are the influences on your songwriting? What were you listening to when you recorded 90 In November?
Most of this album was influenced by music I listened to growing up. Artists like Sheryl Crow and The Lemonheads were huge influences. I also was inspired by Liz Phair, Sparklehorse, and Kacey Musgraves so it’s kind of all over the place haha.
FTR: What about influences outside of music? Do you have any other creative outlets?
Cooking is a major outlet for me. I like to take my time and taste along the way. Some might say that cooking isn’t an art but I disagree! The combination of creativity and technique is important just like any art form. Dance is another outlet for me even though I don’t get to do it much. I grew up dancing so it will always have a place in my heart. I wish I could draw but I’m honestly so bad at it…
FTR: Do you have plans to take this record on the road? What can people expect from the Why Bonnie live show?
Yes! We’re cooking up some things for the road! Our next move is a Texas Tour starting September 16 in Austin. We’re excited to be back home. I think our live shows are really energetic and fun. We definitely don’t take ourselves too seriously on stage.
FTR: Listening to the record, it has the feel of the great American tradition of the road trip. Did you deliberately try and tap into the tradition?
I honestly didn’t even realize how much I wrote about driving until after the fact. It makes sense though. When you live in Texas, you have to drive a lot. It’s such a massive state and the Texas highways are unparalleled in size and grandeur. A drive across Texas is such a unique experience too because you pass through so many different landscapes. From beaches, to swamps, to pine tree forests, to hill country, to desert, to mountains… It’s pretty spectacular.
FTR: What’s next for Why Bonnie?
We’re looking forward to taking this album on the road, and hopefully overseas! We’re also pretty much done writing the next record so stay tuned 🙂
’90 In November is out now via Keeled Scales. For more information on Why Bonnie visit https://www.whybonnie.com/.