The Boston Phoenix
August 17 - 24, 2000

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Tracy: What happened?

How Bonham's second album disappeared

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Before getting into the story of Tracy Bonham's second album, Down There (released last April on Island), one question: how many people are aware that it even exists? To judge from the sales figures it's racked up and the press coverage and airplay it's received, not many. Bonham was riding high four years ago, with a local and national following, a song ("Mother Mother") that was all over the radio, and a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist. Yet her long-delayed sophomore disc has sunk without trace.

The album is neither a misfire nor a glaring departure. Bonham did her bit on both the creative and the commercial fronts, delivering an even mix of written-to-be-hit-singles and more-experimental material. True, her quirky side is more pronounced than it was on her debut, 1996's The Burdens of Being Upright (also Island) -- but her quirks should be familiar to anyone who heard her early-'90s local hit, "The One." The selling points of her first album -- the big hooks, the smart/jaded lyrics, and the full-throttle vocal delivery -- are still there in force.

But even if the album were bad, you'd expect it to have at least a fighting chance. The reasons it didn't get one say a lot about how drastically the music industry has changed since 1996. Whether Down There is great or awful has nothing to do with it -- the real bottom line here is that the record just doesn't fit with what's currently on the radio. And in the current climate, if you're dead in one city, you're pretty much dead everywhere.

"How could I compete with Korn and Limp Bizkit?" Bonham asks. "Modern rock isn't what it was four years ago, so I was stuck in the position of being too soft for them and too hard for adult contemporary. Women aren't being played on the radio now, except maybe Gwen Stefani. I can imagine that if I handed them `Mother Mother' now, they'd say, `What is this piece of shit?' "

"It's certainly gotten harder for female artists in the Limp Bizkit/Slipknot era," agrees Sean Ross, group editor for Billboard's Airplay Monitor magazines. "Especially when stations like 'BCN and 'AAF have gotten so close to each other musically. `Mother' certainly gave Bonham some credibility as a singer/songwriter but also as a hard-rocking singer/songwriter, and that should have given her some credibility the next time out." But, he adds, "that's not the whole story. . . . It's been hard for a lot of people who had one hit in '95 or '96. There are some modern-rock-radio core artists, but there are also one-shots. If you're No Doubt, it's not impossible [to get modern rock airplay] with a female vocalist. If you're Hole, it's not impossible. On the other hand, if you're Sheryl Crow, you've been consigned to the Mix 98.5s of the world."

Bonham even flopped at WFNX, which had been behind her since the first demos. According to Bonham, 'FNX gave Down There some initial airplay; then a representative from the station (she declines to say who) called her manager and explained that it "didn't fit." And then she wasn't asked to play the recent 'FNX Hatch Shell show with Catherine Wheel, even though she'd been opening that band's national tour -- and Bonham had played the WFNX Christmas party with Liz Phair in 1998. "That really crushed me, because WFNX is where I started. I wasn't invited to play and that hurt."

Responds WFNX music director Laurie Gail, "Even though radio around the country ignored Tracy's new album, we put [the single] `Behind Every Good Woman' on the air as soon as we got it. What was disappointing was that unlike the songs from her previous albums, we got no response from our audience, and album sales even here in her home market were almost nonexistent. While we love Tracy and want to see her do well, our ultimate responsibility is to bring our audience what they want. For what it's worth, this isn't isolated to Tracy. Very few of the artists who did well in 1996 are still relevant and popular with the audience today." As for the Hatch Shell show, she says that the Sheila Divine were already in place as the opening act.

Although she's now a Brooklyn resident, Bonham is speaking to me over the phone from Los Angeles, where she and her band (including former Jack Drag bassist Joe Klompus and her husband of two years, drummer Steve Slingenere) have just wrapped up the national tour with Catherine Wheel. Her only plan for the immediate future is to take a watershedding break. "I'm sorry to see the tour end because I don't know what's around the corner. It's a real disappointment when you have something you love, something you're proud of and something you worked hard on, and everything just falls to the floor. Right now I want to step back and find the joy in music again, the way I had it in '92. Because it's let me down."

Bonham signed to Island in a blaze of glory, after her initial demos (produced by the local band The Elevator Drops) drew enough buzz to bring the record execs into town -- Island president Chris Blackwell was even spotted checking out a Bonham show at the Rat. During that year she wound up playing violin with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant at Boston Garden, and a cheer went up whenever she was shown on the video screen. Not all her early supporters liked the debut album (I reviewed it negatively in these pages, finding the production too mainstream), but response was generally favorable. And the national airplay and the Grammy nomination made it the most successful Boston debut in years.

Bonham decided to take the production in a different direction when she started the second album: the producers she chose were the Los Angeles team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. The pair have a reputation as artsy, noncommercial producers -- not always justified, since they've made hits with Crowded House and Bonnie Raitt. But they're more associated with the cult-classic commercial flops they've done with Los Lobos and that band's loopier spinoff, the Latin Playboys.

"The label was really nervous, because they [Froom and Blake] are not known as hitmakers. So I felt a lot of resistance, but this was when Island was starting to go through major changes -- Chris Blackwell had been gone for a year already. My manager said, `If you're going to go with them, you need a lot of pre-production to get the songs up to 100 percent.' So we did five weeks of pre-production, but meanwhile we had rotating record-label presidents. We'd send them demos, but we wouldn't let them in the studio because Mitchell doesn't like that. So Island would hear the demos and say things like, `Tracy, we don't hear the songs.' And that always kills me, because there's plenty of songs. It's like looking at a painting and saying, `I don't see the paint.' "

The initial Froom/Blake album was wrapped up in spring 1998, a full two years before its release. Fifteen songs were completed, nine of which made it to the released version. The production is restrained by Froom-and-Blake standards; they leave the voice and guitars up front instead of doing a Latin Playboys keyboard-loop job. And they brought in some ace players, including Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg. "They [Froom and Blake] can be overpowering, but I had a strong sense of what I wanted. They understood me and took me under their wing; Mitchell is an ex-classical pianist, and we clicked on that level. Also, I was starting to dislike rock and roll based on what I heard on the radio, because there were so many cookie-cutter bands. I was growing, and I wanted to say what I had to say in my own way."

When the album was turned in, Island's response was "We don't hear a single." So Bonham wrote one: "Behind Every Great Woman" is a heavily commercial song, right down to its fist-waver chorus ("Behind every good woman lies a trail of men") and its metallic Nine Inch Nails sound. "At this point there was maybe one guy at the label that knew me and cared about what I did, but even he was telling me I needed a hit. So I went off to write some more and came up with songs that I really thought were hits. When I played them `Behind Every Great Woman,' they were high-fiving each other and saying, `This is it, this is the anthem. Thank you for giving us this one -- now we finally have the record we need.' "

With hopes still running high, Bonham scratched some of the Froom/Blake material to make way for the newer, catchier songs she'd written -- though the anti-music-biz screed "Give Us Something To Feel" remained as the finale. "I kept a lot of the left-field stuff that we did. The songs that got cut were more like love ballads -- songs I wrote when I was missing my fiancé. When we were back together and everything was better, it felt like those songs didn't belong."

So at last everything's fine, right? Wrong. Because now it's 1999, and Island is a whole different label, merged with Def Jam and absorbed into the Seagrams/Universal conglomerate. "God, this is where it really gets crazy. The merger is happening; everybody I ever knew at the label is gone; Def Jam is coming in; I have a new A&R guy that's responsible for Britney Spears. They take me out to dinner and they hit me with it again. `Tracy, we feel we have the first single -- which is the anthem -- and we have the third single -- we just don't have the second single.' At this point I'm numb, I'm baffled. I didn't even think to ask why they couldn't just release the third one second." Nonetheless, she went off and wrote another potential hit, "Fake It." And the release was delayed till spring of this year. "They told me I was the priority, and they wanted the timing to be perfect."

One more change was made before the release, this one Bonham's idea: the promo copies were sent out under the title Trail of a Dust Devil, but weeks later the released album was called Down Here. "I didn't want to sound too bitter. The first title was my concept of the music business, like a dust devil sweeping through a deserted land. When I thought about that, I decided I didn't want to go there."

After a few months of no airplay, Bonham's priority status seemed to disappear in a hurry. The final blow was a recent conversation she had with Island/Def Jam president Lyor Cohen. "He's not a rock guy, but I really like him; he'd really shown enthusiasm for my music. But he basically sat me down a month and a half after the release and said, `I wish we'd never come with this single; I wish we hadn't spent the money on the video.' That was the single they thought was the anthem, and I felt like he'd blamed me for picking it. Now I get field reps coming up to me saying, `How much do you hate the label right now?' " (Cohen, meanwhile, has not responded to the Phoenix's request for an interview.)

Although she's still signed to Island, Bonham's not sure how long that will last. But she brightens up at the idea of getting back to the clubs -- maybe doing a residency at one of her old Boston haunts. "The one good thing about this downtime is that it's made me think about what I really want. And I've decided that I need to play music; if I can play 300-capacity clubs on a break-even basis, that's fine. If you stop at a time like this, that means they've won."

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