Interview: Bonnie Whitmore on Delivering Emotional Impact of Serious Subjects

Interviews

Austin-based singer-songwriter and bassist Bonnie Whitmore has never been shy about, well, anything (witness her last album title, F#@k with Sad Girls). But her latest release, Last Will & Testament, finds her addressing some of our toughest topics, including rape culture, mental illness and suicide – the type of things that Whitmore feels we NEED to be talking about. I spoke with Ms. Whitmore via phone a couple of weeks before the album release. In addition to the record, we chatted about her musical mentors, making music in 2020 and the best thing about being on the road.

Americana Highways: First, just a belated thank you for one of my all-time favorite song titles, “F#@k with Sad Girls.” 

Bonnie Whitemore: Awww (laughs). That one, I definitely owe a lot of thanks to, honestly. I’ve always been one for attention getters. It’s a delicate balance, you know? 

AH: I would imagine there was some resistance to that along the way.

BW: Really not as much as I would’ve thought. There were definitely times I sold t-shirts when I don’t think people had heard the song and probably were interpreting it their own way. But, you know, commerce! But as far as people hearing the song, I had actually anticipated it, and I didn’t get nearly enough respect for it. So that’s kind of the inspiration to put out a record like Last Will & Testament. I think of it as kind of a sequel. 

AH: You’ve worked and toured with so many different musicians, in somewhat different genres, including a couple of my favorites, Hayes Carll and John Moreland. How does touring with different musicians affect your own playing and your own songwriting?

BW: I toured with Hayes for about a year or so. I learned a lot just from being out with him. He also would let me open up his shows a lot of the time. We did a whole run up to Canada and back that I did that. It gave me an opportunity to dip my toe in the waters and really get out from being a side-person. And that was a really amazing experience, honestly. I think just being around people like that, like Hayes or Moreland or (James) McMurtry, when you get to absorb those songs on a regular basis, it’s a lot easier to delve deeper yourself. 

AH: James McMurtry – that must be a whole other realm of just soaking it in.

BW: It’s a whole new thing when you realize that you are considered on the same, equal footing as someone that you admire in such a way, I consider him to be one of my heroes. I’ve been around him for the past 20 years. I started playing in bands as a professional musician when I was 15. I’ve been used to being in the scene, in the deal, part of the mix, but without people really acknowledging who I was, because I was just a musician in the band. Getting to go out on tour with McMurtry  – he went one step further by also allowing me to use two of the members of his band to back me up on my set. That’s usually not a line that gets crossed, and he does it without any hesitation, and really has done all he possibly can to help elevate me, which is something I can’t thank him enough for. 

AH: It’s always good to hear that from the listener’s perspective, that there are really good senior members of the music community out there who really do want to help the younger people come up. 

BW: It has become such an issue sometimes. You get so used to being told, “No – we’re all competing for the same thing. We can’t help each other out.” That’s the one thing I actually do think is much different about the Austin community. It just always seems more like a family orientation. I lived in Nashville for a few years, and I have a lot of really great friends, and I love a lot of people there, but it is definitely a business town. It’s all about everybody getting what they need to get ahead. And although I understand that tactic, I don’t feel always comfortable being in that position. Now, just having the opportunities to be lifted up by my community, that’s something that I never expected to happen, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. 

AH: Looking at the new album, Last Will & Testament – the one song that really stuck out to me is “Asked For It.” It’s kind of big and bluesy and a little twangy, but it’s a serious topic, rape and sexual assault. How did you balance a serious message like that with kind of a participatory, almost call and response-type chorus?

BW: I did it with a lot of intention, kind of the same way I wrote “F#@k with Sad Girls.” You take a complex idea, and trying to turn rape culture into a catchy song is not something that can be easily done, and could also be taken as an affront, too. What I wanted to do, and part of the call and response aspect of it  – I think my approach to songwriting as of late, it’s always been my form of therapy. When I was dealing with things, I would write a song. That was how I got through some of the feelings. Now, I’ve really been interested in writing as a form of therapy for other people, not just myself. So, especially playing it live, it’s almost like a therapeutic experiment, because when you’re asking people to participate, and especially saying that particular line [“Asked for it”] – there’s usually two different kinds of people: ones that are with me and are using it championing for themselves, or there are people that are really enthusiastic at the very beginning, and they don’t want to sing it anymore by the end. And I think that’s a good thing, you know? Because that’s sort of the challenge about this subject. And it has to do not just with this, but it’s about how we process difficult information. Our first instinct is to always attack something that seems weak, rather than champion something, because of our own fear of it. So I feel like it’s been a really good response to it. I do know that it is more accomplishable now because of where we are. When I first wrote the song [in 2012], it was before Me Too was up, and it was like the air had been sucked out of the room, It can be like a “record screech” topic a lot of the time. I think, partly because culturally we’ve allowed this to come into the forefront, and we’ve been given a space to actually have these discussions. We’ve seen this played out over and over again. I just finished a whole campaign with that, including artists and different groups like SAFE Austin, which is a place for people who have been sexually assaulted or children or mothers of violence can go in Austin. I just actually finished the book Know My Name by Chanel Miller, the woman in the Brock Turner case. She kept her anonymity for a long time. She basically had finally come out to say that that was MY story. That statement alone went viral. When they released her statement on BuzzFeed, it got viewed at least 20 million times. The impact that she had was just incredible. She was able to accomplish something that so many other people who had gone through that same experience had never gotten the opportunity to do, because half the time, a prosecutor can’t even go after the case because there’s not enough evidence. When people say, “Why don’t you just go get tested,” they think of it as a “Law & Order: SVU” dramatization of reality. It’s not. It’s really terrifying, and it’s just something that keeps victimizing the victim over and over again. And then, to have her go through this, to get the guilty verdict, and then a judge gives him six months…everybody had put so much pressure on this case, and when we were let down by the judge, and to see what happened, because of what she was able to say, it inspired more people to really elevate that subject in a positive way, to the point where people went and got signatures and got the judge [recalled], which is highly uncommon. It is really amazing to see that we are in a place right now in our society where we really are starting to not only agree with the fact that this is wrong, and it shouldn’t be kept in a dark corner, a place that nobody really wants to talk about it, that we actually need to fix this, because it’s becoming like an epidemic. With college, especially. So, I just feel like, when I wrote the song, it was before it actually started to be pivotal in our society. I think because now we’re in a situation where people are not so surprised by it, it allows for people to actually participate in this, maybe it reaches somebody deeper. Especially if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Well, she asked for it,” or. “What was she wearing? She obviously didn’t use her own judgment.” Instead of being, “I don’t care if a girl’s drunk or not drunk, or what she’s wearing, it does not excuse what occurred to her.” 

AH: Touching on that, and I don’t want to editorialize here in my own question, but how does it feel to still have to write that song, even in 2020, or release that song, since it was written a few years ago? How does if feel to still have to sing that song and still have it be important?

BW: Well, I’m really good at delivering the emotional impact of certain subjects. So for me, in a way, because I have so much anger about it, and I’m able to portray that within the performance of the song. I think it does demand people’s attention along those lines. Especially with trying to get it a little lighthearted with the audience participation. Like I said, they don’t really understand what I’m doing, and especially at the end when they don’t want to sing it anymore. The therapeutic idea is, it’s one thing to think something, it’s another thing to say it out loud, so when you’re being heard saying it, when you are then actually getting the reaction back, it has the potential of changing your perspective. That is my hope and goal behind the song. So, as frustrating as it is to have to write a song about it, I haven’t actually heard a song…I’ve heard plenty of songs that alluded to, but nothing so blatantly. And it’s not about the actual act, it’s about the reaction to it that is what I’m wanting to get out. Because nobody asks to be sexually assaulted. You wouldn’t tell somebody it was their fault because they got their house broken into. There’s plenty of other ways which we don’t re-victimize what that person has been through. But in this particular subject, because we’re so…if I can go even to this point, we have so much toxic masculinity within our culture, and we’re seeing how the patriarchal accomplices actually include everybody. We need to change that perspective in life in order to really be able to fix the problem. So, as a songwriter, my job…I’ve always taken my Woody Guthrie inspiration, he said, “It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb the comfortable people.” I’m not here to be fluffy. And although I’m capable of writing a happy love song and things of that nature, I do feel it’s my duty, especially when something hurts my heart the way that we do treat our victims. I actually don’t like saying “victims.” I’d rather say “survivors,” because they have – they’ve survived something that was terrible and now have to deal with the trauma of it. So that, to me, if I’m going to be championing anybody, that’s who I want to champion. I want to help facilitate space for people to actually have conversations about tough subjects. 

AH: It seems like, with your songwriting, that part of making people uncomfortable and part of starting a conversation, your songs ask questions, as opposed to just, “This is what I feel, and deal with it.” A lot of your songs ask the listener to ask the question to themselves. 

BW: Yeah, I don’t want to be a preacher. I’m not wanting to tell them what they need to think, but I definitely want them to answer the questions that I’m putting out there. I think that’s actually the best way to start a conversation with anybody. You’re not really going to help if you’re just talking at somebody. I genuinely want to know why, and I’m genuinely curious as to the answer, and I’m not one for judgment of it. I’m just simply not willing to shy away from a subject just because it tends to be uncomfortable. Mental health is an underlying theme to all of the things that I’m talking about on this record. And that’s a taboo subject. It’s become less so, but even in the sense of talking about police brutality  – the whole “defunding the police” movement. Although my friend always makes the point that, “If you’re going into an argument, and you already have to explain yourself, then you’re losing.” You’re losing the argument. And I don’t disagree with her, but I think that with a lot of the stuff, we also need to change the way that we think about stuff. And the only way to do that is to challenge that at the core. But the defunding the police stance  – when police are called to deal with mental health matters, they are the last people that need to be involved in those situations. They tend to escalate it. A friend of mine who works for a mental health hospital up in Dallas says when police have been called, or when they’ve had to call 911 and police showed up, they don’t actually allow them to enter the building, because they know they’re going to make it worse. When the people who are supposed to serve and protect are also uncertified and incapable of actually serving and protecting, we definitely find ourselves in a lot of different positions where someone gets hurt or killed. And please let me clarify that I’m not speaking  from the forum of all black lives, because that’s a whole other side of the police defunding. But this is just another example of what I’m trying to say, in addition to everything else that’s just a part of it. I don’t mean to simplify it, but I definitely feel like it’s coming from a toxic masculinity standpoint. 

AH: And an inability to just listen for a minute before taking action. 

BW: Right. The “I AM the authority,” instead of being, “I have authority, but let’s try to fix this.” 

AH: I was scrolling down your Facebook page the other night. One of the things you do that I don’t see a lot of musicians do  – you put a lot of time and space into recommending books and thought-provoking articles. So you’re not just promoting your music, you’re doing other things with your social profile as well. Have you enjoyed engaging with your listeners that way?

BW: I feel like, if I’m going to actually solicit for people to have these conversations, I have to be willing to take the first step. I essentially try to lead by example. I do think that all of these things are important things to talk about. I’m very much involved with politics. I try not to go off in a tizzy, and I definitely try to invoke my inner Mr. Rogers as much as possible, even though I don’t think that I’m a nice enough person, really, to pull it off! I get very passionate about a lot of different things, and I want to put it out there. I’ve just never really been good at the small talk. I’d much rather have a discussion about something that’s meaningful. And albums like this, and F#@k with Sad Girls, really expose me to being who I am, and my vulnerability. Thankfully, people have responded in a positive way to that. So it’s sort of emboldened me to keep on truckin’. But I definitely did take the “Shut Up and Sing” commentary to heart, which is why I started writing songs about the things I want to talk about.

AH: It’s a strange time for everybody, but especially a strange time to be a musician. Without touring and everything else that goes with that, and I’ve seen the “Virtual Gallery” shows that you’ve been putting up, but how else have you been keeping busy during the pandemic?

BW: It’s been amazing how busy that, not just me, but a lot of my close friends like [singer] Jaimee Harris, we feel like we’re more busy than we have ever been. I don’t know how much of that actually equates to dollars! For me, I had a Thursday residency, it seems like an easy thing to do, to put it in a virtual format, so that’s been keeping my head above water and allowing me to still have the interconnection There’s pros and cons to it, but it’s definitely been something that’s been thoroughly needed for me, and for the people who come and experience it, they always leave feeling connected. And I think that’s the thing that we’ve got to make sure that we keep going. The thing about the Zoom sort of experience is that it’s not just that I want to perform for people and have them see me, it’s about having them see each other and the music. Because that’s what being in a room together does. You’re not just staring at the artist the whole time, and the artists can’t see you. You are collectively sharing that space together, and whether you know people or not, that’s what adds to the energy of the room, contributing also to the music. It all gets to feed off of each other. It’s the closest experience to actually playing live that I’ve had. It is really weird. The whole experience is really weird. I’m glad that we have this option right now. A lot of people have a hard time dealing with it’s not what it was. It’s just difficult to deal with change. We’ve all been fed a huge, heaping amount of it – it just keeps coming this year. And this has just been really extreme circumstances for everybody. Besides the fact that we’re seeing so many human beings that were not recovering from this illness, we’re feeling the effects of Mother Nature, who is burning right now. That’s all the creatures, that’s all the trees, there’s all these living things that are no longer. I remember the really bad fires outside of Austin – you’d go out there, and it was like being on the moon. And then you can just feel the heaviness of what once was there, isn’t. I just think that we’re all kind of interconnected along those lines. I think that, the more we can stay interconnected to one another, it’s going to help us get through this.

AH: So we’re all out here, missing our normal lives. As far as music, being a musician, being a touring musician, what have you missed the most? 

BW: I really just miss the people. The real underlying thing that brings me the most joy is the adventure. I’m always up for the adventure. I will always want to ride that roller coaster. I know that my body is actually happy that I am at home. Because I’ve been consistent, I can actually stay on a pattern, and that is not common for me. Just being able to not be driving for seven hours straight, daily. I can see how the wear and tear from touring has been, has done to me. But I still love it, and I so miss it. I love being able to go to different cities and finding where all the locals like to eat. I like to find the great coffee shop. I don’t always get to have a traveling experience like most people do. My trips have always been work-oriented, or at least they have for my adult life. I was attempting to do a questionnaire the other day, and it was like, “Where was your last vacation,” and I was, “What’s a vacation?” I don’t even know what that means! LIke, what do you do while you’re traveling? Well, all I have is a window, and I’m always hungry. My first thing when I go anywhere is food. That’s the adventure that I want to have. Yes, do I want to go see the famous sights and things? Sure, but oftentimes, that is not an option to me, so at least I get to have something that I think is extra special. And that’s something that, the last time I actually had a vacation, I went to Europe with my best friend from high school and we were there for six weeks. It was actually crazy. We didn’t plan anything which, in hindsight, was maybe not the best idea. She had had her whole life planned up to that point, so she’s like, “No, we’re not doing that.” She could actually speak the language. So because she was able to get right into the local situation, I had the most amazing experiences simply because I had a way of being able to communicate. When you have that option, when you get somebody to tell you where you should go and what you should try, then those are the moments that I live for. And I do miss that a lot.

AH: What’s it like to try to promote an album now?

BW: It’s definitely a lot more work! I don’t get to do it in person. There’s usually that aspect of just being able to show up and be there and want to come together. This is definitely different. I feel like I’m getting a good response. It feels like it’s being moved forward, and that’s always a nice feeling. It’s different, but in some ways, maybe it’s to my benefit that people are able to take more time to sit and listen to it. One thing about this time that I know a lot of people are upset about but I actually just genuinely appreciate is the opportunity to slow down a little bit. We’ve been trying to keep this extreme pace to keep up with our computer counterparts, and it’s just not healthy, and it doesn’t feel good. So the idea of things not having to be so immediate definitely feels like less anxiety involved with it. 

AH: What do you think will make you feel to get out and play again, tour again?

BW: I kind of oscillate a little bit from it. It really has to come down to the details of everything. There have been some situations that have been offered that I could see how it would be doable. But you kind of have to know what to ask for and what to look for beforehand. I think for now, I at least have something that I can accomplish. I do have a show that I’m going to do in my backyard – it’s a live streaming for the record release. Basically, we need for people to believe that this is real, that wearing a mask does an incredible amount of good. Especially in my state of Texas…

AH: It’s a little bit of a free-for-all down there…

BW: It’s been a special breed of crazy, let’s just be real! We weren’t exactly the South, although we were part of that. We’ve always had this sort of outlaw, from the get-go, that can make it very entertaining, but also frustrating and maddening. We need this election to go well, we need a way to unite people, we need to be all on the same page, be adhering to the same rules, and once we can actually accomplish that – we’ve seen it multiple other countries that when you do, when you do succeed at this, you get your privileges back! But it’s like the whole United States is this salty teenager that can’t be told what to do. And until we can get through to that, we’re going to be stuck here, and musicians were the first ones to lose their jobs, and we’ll be the last ones to get ‘em back. And that’s only for the venues that survive this. I have no idea what our outcome is. To be perfectly honest, because of the choice of my life, I’ve always had a gig income. There’s never certainty in my job. This is different now. The usual things that I would go do are not available to me, so you have to be able to adapt in some form in order to keep going along, so I’m trying to do that to my best ability. None of this is all that different from my regular, day-to-day life. But what does affect me more than anything is knowing how much suffering is happening and how much loss is occurring. That’s just something that is going to keep going up until this actually comes to its end, whenever that day comes. But I can’t obsess about getting to that point, because it’ll drive me crazy. And I can’t obsess about what it isn’t anymore, because that’ll drive me crazy, too. 

Go here to order Last Will & Testament (or F#@k with Sad Girls): https://shop.merchcentral.com/collections/bonnie-whitmore

Get the details on Bonnie Whitmore’s album release live stream here: https://lwat.app.rsvpify.com/

 

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