Artist Spotlight: Why Bonnie

    Hailing from Texas and now based in Brooklyn, Why Bonnie is the indie rock quintet led by Blair Howerton and joined by keyboardist Kendall Powell, guitarist Sam Houdek, bassist Chance Williams, and drummer Josh Malett. Around the early 2020 release of their Voice Box EP, the band spent two weeks at Tommy Reed’s Lazy Bones Studio in the small Texas town of Silsbee to record their debut full-length, 90 in November, which is out this Friday on Keeled Scales. Abandoning their bedroom pop roots and roughening the edges of their sound, the album blends ’90s indie rock and alt-country into a kind of modern, shoegaze-leaning Americana much like their contemporaries in Asheville’s Wednesday; it also showcases the unique dynamic the band has quickly grown into, anchoring in Howerton’s stark, poetic lyricism to deliver its punch.

    Much of 90 in November is about looking back: on places unmarked by time but always slipping in and out of your memory’s grasp – the taste of the ocean and the face of the sunrise, aimless drives under the scorching sun – and relationships, too, that shape you long after they’ve run their course. Rather than stewing in nostalgia, the collection reflects the journey of self-realization that becomes possible, as Howerton puts it in ‘Sharp Turn’, in “the quietest of times.” Such is the meditative calm of closer ‘Superhero’, where the singer finally shifts perspective: “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.”

    We caught up with Why Bonnie’s Blair Howerton for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about revisiting places she grew up in, the evolution of Why Bonnie, recording their debut album, and more. 

    ‘Galveston’ was inspired by a city in Texas that you associate with your childhood and the experience of revisiting that place. When did you go back there, and what was it like?

    So, Galveston was the beach city that I would go to growing up almost every weekend. It was only about an hour away from Houston, which is where I’m from, and it was always my family’s favourite getaway. We’d go there with family friends, spend the weekend. I have a lot of great childhood memories from Galveston. I really hadn’t been back there since I was at least in high school, until 2019. I went back for a weekend for my mom’s birthday, and I had this really weird feeling because I hadn’t been back to this place in so long. And I had changed so much in those years, but Galveston itself hadn’t at all. I was seeing all these same landmarks and restaurants and beaches that were all kind of snippets from my childhood, and they hadn’t changed one bit. So it was kind of disorienting at first, but then once I got into the rhythm of it, it felt really good to be back. That song is not only about that specific experience of going back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time, but also about reflecting on how you change over time, and how your relationship to people and places change with that. And how it’s not necessarily good or bad – it just is what it is, and it’s part of life.

    There’s this line that you circle around, “When I try to remember it I can’t/ It’s slipping like quicksand,” which I feel like really encapsulates the kind of hazy nostalgia that permeates the album. Do you find that capturing these memories in a song is almost as evocative as going back to a certain place?

    For me, writing music is my most natural, but also just the most magical way of communicating my experiences and my emotions. Things get lost in translation when you’re just relaying it through words, at least for me. And so, when it’s set to music, and there’s a purpose to this time that you’re giving to this one song, I think it communicates those experiences a little bit better. And I think it’s great that I can be writing about something so specific that has happened to me, but when a listener listens to it, that’ll elicit a completely different range of emotions or images. Everyone has their own relationship to a song and what it brings up for them, and I think that’s really beautiful.

    What kind of music takes you back to your childhood?

    A lot of the influences on the album are artists and bands that I listened to growing up. Things that my mom really liked, things like Sheryl Crow and the Lemonheads, which is still one of my favourite bands. Being from Houston, there’s a good amount of country in there. When it came to writing this album, I definitely wanted to keep it within that realm of music I had grown up with, sounds that felt nostalgic to me, because that is the theme of the album. I definitely had those bands in mind when writing this.

    You started writing songs while you were in school in North Carolina, but you formed Why Bonnie after moving back to Texas. How did being there solidify your decision to pursue songwriting in a serious way?

    I left school with a plan. I was going to move to Austin, I was going to start a band. I was going to pursue this dream that I had really let go to the wayside for a long time. For whatever reason – lack of competence or lack of experience, feeling like it was too late for me. I really felt like now is the only time I’m going to be able to actually make this dream a reality. And so, I did it. I went to Austin with the intention of forming a band. I had these songs already written, about an album’s worth of songs written. I was originally going under the name Ponyboy, formed the band, and we received a cease and desist from another artist called Ponyboy. So we changed it to Ponyboy and the Horse Girls, and then we ended up just changing the band name to Why Bonnie, I guess about a year into playing music under Ponyboy and the Horse Girls. And by the time we change it to Why Bonnie, the sound and general of the music I was writing at the time changed a lot. It used to be a lot more surfy, a little more twee. I loved artists like Dear Nora and the Softies, a lot of K Records bands from Olympia, that sound. I just wanted to do something different, and that’s kind of where Why Bonnie and our sound was born.

    Does it feel strange looking back now, the way you came together and arrived at that sound?

    Yeah, I think for a while, especially with this album – it sounds different than our other music. Our other music is a lot more shoegaze or just full-on rock, so I was a little nervous that I can’t write this music because it has a country twang to it or it’s not what are other stuff sounds like. And eventually, I abandoned that hesitation because I just wanted to write what was coming to me. And that was to sound a little more raw, a little more Americana. We recently had the review of “shoegazeicana,” which I really like.

    I saw it in your Bandcamp bio, too.

    Yeah, I like it. I don’t want to stay in one genre, honestly. I think music has so many different avenues you can go down and that’s always really exciting to me as an artist, that I don’t have to box myself into one genre.

    I know you considered a few different locations to record the album. Why did Texas ultimately feel like the right place, despite most of the songs having been written in Brooklyn? Was it that emotional connection?

    There’s definitely the emotional connection of a lot of the songs being influenced by Texas. And having this opportunity to go record at this really beautiful studio in a very small town in East Texas, where it was no distractions, quintessential Texas landscape, there were cow fields and trees – that really spoke to us. Not only that, but we loved the idea of working with Tommy Reed, who is our producer and runs Lazybones Audio where were recorded. He has worked with a lot of musicians that we love, like Lomelda and alexalone and Jodi. We had a really good time, and I think it was meant to be.

    Do you have any fond memories from the recording process that you can share?

    Yeah, we we did a lot of cooking together every night, which was really sweet. Since we’re in such a small town, and it was January 2021 so we’re in heavy lockdown mode, we did a lot of cooking. We’re all a bunch of foodies, so we bond over that. We also for fun would – do you know what a BB gun is?

    I think so.

    It’s a gun that shoots little plastic pellets. There was a BB gun out there, and we would shoot beer cans a lot in between takes. [laughs] It was fine, everyone was safe about it. What else… Just a lot of really quiet nights under the stars. We didn’t have any TV, we were just listening to music and spending time with each other. It was really nice.

    To lean on that last part, I feel like the idea of finding comfort in stillness and solitude is reflected in the album, too. Was that something that you learned to embrace more during the pandemic, or was it something you already felt attuned to?

    As most of the songs were written in the height of the pandemic in lockdown, I wasn’t able to go anywhere, I had no outward influences. I was really just left to my songs and myself, and it had been the first time in so long that I had a chance to sit and be still and be quiet with my thoughts. And I realized I hadn’t really emotionally gone through all of the experiences I had had in the years leading up to that moment. I was always on the go, looking for the next thing, looking forward to moving to New York. I was just moving at a very fast pace. And when you’re doing that, and you don’t take the time to be still, you don’t have time to process. So I think a lot of these songs were me processing the past in this very rare moment of stillness. I think it’s really cool that we were able to find that stillness in Silsbee when we were recording as well, because I think that it comes out in the music, that idea of coming to terms with your past in the present moment – not running away from it, just sitting with it and accepting it for what it is.

    On the title track, you sing, “Lonely times are louder in the Lone Star State.” What does that mean to you? How can loneliness be loud in your mind?

    I think that line specifically is referring to not only the physical reality of it being, I grew up right next to a highway in Houston. It wasn’t a very quiet place, and that’s sounds that I think of when I think of my childhood home and growing up. But also, being young and just having a lot of chatter in my own head, not having the tools or the experience to quiet down my inner thoughts, my inner world. It’s just something I remember very specifically about being a teenager or a younger person. It’s kind of referring to younger years and dealing with that inner monologue.

    That loudness maybe doesn’t go away as you grow up, but you’re trying to make it less lonely.

    Yeah. Trying to ease the chatter down to a friendly conversation. [laughs]

    I think it’s interesting that the record ends with ‘Lot’s Wife’ and ‘Superhero’, which from I understand were the first and last songs to be written for the album. They also compliment each other thematically, one reflecting on the dangers of constantly looking back, and the other being anchored in the present moment. Was there a specific intention behind closing out the album with those tracks, instead of, like, opening with one and ending with the other?

    I love that you caught that. I think ‘Lot’s Wife’ is definitely one of the most nostalgically charged songs because it is very outrightly about looking back. There’s a line in it referring to Lot’s wife, who is a character in the Bible, who looks back at their hometown that they’re fleeing and she turns to a pillar of salt. And I always thought that that imagery was so poetic and beautiful, so I wanted to incorporate it into the song and kind of built the song around that imagery. Also, sonically, I like the idea of having the second to last song being this big eruption of emotion, and then having the last one be like a quiet landing to ease yourself out of the album.

    ‘Superhero’ is probably the one song that is more about the present moment, and even looking forward to the future. It’s a love song, and I wrote it literally the day before we jumped into the studio. I didn’t even know if it was going to be on the album. We had finished recording for the day, we’re just hanging out in the studio. And I was like, “I have a song, I really just want to mess around, see what happens.” So I got in there, just playing it live, and Sam jumped in on the guitar, which he’s playing with a violin bow, which is really cool. It all just kind of came together very naturally. And very much in the moment, which I think goes along with the theme of the song, which is being thankful for present love that you’re experiencing and also being hopeful for what comes next. I wanted to leave the album on a hopeful note.

    Was it in any way thrilling or new for you to step into that mode of songwriting, where you’re not necessarily so much reflecting back on the past but trying to look around you in the present? Is that something you’re finding yourself more and more inspired by, now that you have some distance from these songs?

    Great question. I think that this album was not an ending to my personal, like, diving into my past or being nostalgic, but I definitely feel lighter after having written it. And I think it coming out and people being able to listen to it is going to be a really cool experience. I am really excited for the next thing. I don’t know exactly what all of my songwriting will be about in the future, but your past, your present, and your future are all very much kind of one in the end; it’s all what makes you, you. So, probably won’t stop writing about all those things.

    What do you love most about being in Why Bonnie?

    I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to be playing music with, honestly. We just vibe really well, and we make each other laugh. Which I think is really important to all of us, because being in a band is not easy. There are a lot of moving parts all the time and you want everyone to feel respected and want everyone to feel taken care of and like they’re having fun. It’s just been it’s been one hell of a ride, and I’m excited to do it with these people because each of them are special and wonderful artists in their own right and bring their own sound and flair to the music. I think that’s really special.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Why Bonnie’s 90 in November is out August 19 via Keeled Scales.

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