Bonnie & Taylor Sims on Performance as Life, Harry Potter-isms and Their Self-Titled Debut
Colorado-based Texas natives Bonnie & Taylor Sims released their self-titled album debut on September 15th, 2023, building on many years of making music with various projects, including their own outfit, Everybody Loves An Outlaw. The latter project threw them into a surprising situation that most musicians dream of, when their song “I See Red” went viral in 2022 and received global attention. Riding out this surge of attention and making the most of the opportunities it presented would be a potent challenge for anyone, even if it’s a happy challenge.
Meanwhile, the Sims were continuing with their plan to gather their Americana-leaning original songs, many of which they’d been playing out for years, for a debut release under their own names. Built from their core experiences of bluegrass growing up and drawn from years of performance with “strings and wood” in front of audiences, Bonnie and Taylor see this music as the basis of their musical personalities and as a kind of anchoring influence in their lives. I spoke with Bonnie & Taylor Sims about handling this duality in terms of musical pursuits, how they see those priorities, and why Harry Potter is always an apt example when making difficult choices.
Americana Highways: I notice that you all just played a show at The Troubadour in LA as Everybody Loves An Outlaw. That must have been a crazy highlight experience. I can see these different modes playing out in your music between the ways in which you have the spotlight on you at certain times and the ways in which music is a part of your everyday life also.
Bonnie: We want to live that music out loud. Our music is the most personal thing to us, but as a singer, and in life in general, imagination is key. Imagination will always get me there when it comes to a show.
AH: In my mind, those are also just different paths to reaching people that you might find.
Bonnie: Totally. When we find someone who really likes what we do, we like to explore all the little paths. There are layers to what we do.
AH: And you’re about to play a show in Colorado, too, under your own names, so tell me what you see as the similarities and the differences for you between The Troubadour show and the Colorado show coming up?
Taylor: Not a whole lot of differences, to be honest.
Bonnie: Mostly sonically, I would say.
Taylor: It’s a different approach. Our stuff is closer to our heart.
Bonnie: It’s much more natural. It’s about what we can sit in a room and produce, as humans, with wood and strings, our tools. In working with Everybody Loves An Outlaw, we get to work with people whose tools are production. It’s getting to work with musicians whose creative forte is how they can make you sound. I’ve never really worked in the world where people can elevate your sound before, but to get to do that is fucking unreal. It’s so fun.
As a singer, I always thought, “Oh, I don’t sound like that,”when I’d hear pop and rock. Because I’m a little bluegrass baby. My dad played the banjo. To hear what my voice sounds like when there are twenty of me is crazy. In reality, there are methods of production for voice, and to discover that has been really fun.
Taylor: Our own act is more like Americana and the singer/songwriter approach and we really love that, too. It’s been our focus for our whole lives and career. We both cut our teeth playing bluegrass and that’s filtered into other paths and genres, but it all goes back to that. It’s still a big part of our sound and approach. It may sound cheesy, but it’s like coming home when we play. That’s also how we founded our lives together, playing music together, and that kicked off everything that we do now in life and love.
Bonnie: The reality of the industry, as I think most people realize, is that it’s hard to make a living playing music, so the way that we’ve done that successfully has been to really vary our income streams, say “Yes,” to collaboration, work with other people, try not to be too precious about things, but always knowing that we get to come home to each other, to our songs, and our music. It’s always such a relief to get back to the music that we’ve made for 15 years, even though we have other projects. To come back to the music that defines me and Tay keeps me going, it keeps my identity in music alive.
AH: That makes absolute sense. It can be so overwhelming in the more commercial spheres if that’s all you do. You can be all-in because you’re committed to your artistic future, but it can erode the ground under you, too. It makes sense to hold onto both.
Taylor: Well said!
Bonnie: There’s so much about it that’s like, “Why did I start making music?” I started making music because I liked the way that it made me feel. As a kid, I would sit on my bed for hours playing my guitar and singing to my own reflection in a mirror. I absolutely love making music for music’s sake. I had to find a job in this world as an adult and that’s the only job that I’ve ever wanted. The fact that we can do this and buy a house and have a car is fucking incredible. That’s success.
People want to see commercial success from the outside looking in, and we’re lucky that we’ve had one of those moments, but at the same time, I feel like the real success is surviving in this industry, staying creative, having the wherewithal to keep your vision alive. I know so many creative friends who have gotten disheartened through battling with the industry because the business side is so hard.
AH: Oh, yes. A certain quality of life is the goal, like the house and the car. It’s not always easy for people on the outside to realize that those aren’t a given, they have to be achieved. Everyone is different in how they handle these things, but I have seen a lot of people run out of gas, too, because of over-extending themselves.
Bonnie: There’s a lot of risk in this industry, too, investing a lot of capitol and gambling in your own work.
Taylor: One thing we like to tell each other in the course of all these ups and downs is, “If you don’t stop, you’re unstoppable.” In one way, it’s all we know. Commerce aside, we’d do the same things.
Bonnie: And it’s about being to do it together. We’ve been working together for 17 years. I met Tay when I was 18, got married when I was 20, and I’m 36 now. It’s really nice to have someone who’s with you no matter how it goes and that we can be supportive of each other. It’s such an unpredictable job that it’s monumental.
AH: It’s key to have another perspective, I think, and if you’re a solo artist, sometimes it’s a producer or best friend. It’s having a touch-stone. I think what I’m hearing is that you have a “lifer” mentality, and that way, even if there are some crazy ups and downs, you can still look toward some point on the horizon, in the future, and stay steady.
Taylor: That’s very true. Especially with Everybody Loves An Outlaw, we had this viral moment in 2022 where one of our songs blew up and it was insane, number one in the world for eleven days. I think without the firm foundation that we’ve had in the trenches, it might have messed us up.
Bonnie: Or passed us by.
Taylor: In some ways, we were completely unprepared for it, in some ways it was by rote to handle things. It is really nice to have someone constantly at your side through this. We are a team, so the blows are softened and the celebrations and triumphs are greater shared.
AH: Tell me about the history of the songs on this self-titled album.
Taylor: It’s been something we’ve been hoping to do for a long time.
Bonnie: These songs had a lot of life, I think. We hadn’t recorded a band project since 2016, this was our first one since then. So a lot of these songs had been played out and we’d given them legs and let them live a life before we tried to record them. As an artist, I haven’t had that happen before. I usually go the studio and I need new material, so I’m writing and recording it there, then taking it out into the world.
We got to feel the songs first, experience them on stage, and get to be part of that energetic loop with people who encounter them. I feel like I learned so much about the songs that way. I’m also figuring out how I want to sing them, too, because after recording I often wish that I had sung it a different way. That made me very happy as a creative person.
AH: I’ve seen three of the songs and videos that go with them, and seeing those live play videos made me think that you had been playing these songs. You were so comfortable with them. But also, these specific songs make me very aware of the vocal choices. I think they could be very different songs depending on those choices. I was wondering how you decided those things.
Bonnie: I think experience and learning is the number one teacher when it comes to singing. I’ve taken a lot of vocal coaching and I’ve taught singing as well. I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd, so I like to think of it as “The Marauder’s Map,” the secret map of Hogwarts where you have to walk through those corridors for them to appear on the map. You have to live and sing those moments with your body to then know how to access those with your voice. Having that consistent positive experience with the songs gave me the confidence to go into the studio.
I actually don’t feel like I’m a studio artist. I am a live artist. I feel like it’s taken me to this point in my life to feel like I have a grip on how I need to feel in my head to go into the studio. Usually I’m singing for people, which is life-giving. Singing by yourself is fun, as long as you can silence that little voice, that critic, that little piece of broken ego at bay. Learning to dance with that little voice is something I’ve only just learned. It’s like Harry Potter again, since in Book Seven when, spoiler alert, Harry dies, they are at the train station and they find that little piece of Voldemort under the bench. That’s the little piece of me I’ve had to nurture and care for, the voice that says, “You’re not good enough!” If you don’t make friends with that part of you, as an artist, you’ll always be in battle. But when I’m recording, I have to placate it.
AH: Wow, that is not easy! It’s a whole life’s task, what you’re talking about. This comes up a little bit in the music, too, like in “The Cigarette Song.” Even in “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” There’s a coming to grips feeling in some of these songs, teasing out the thing that the mind might be avoiding or refusing to look at.
AH: Those things get called out and it’s really special because it’s transformative. They could become a life-giving thing, like you said, rather than an embattled thing.
Bonnie: Yes! And the idea is that you’re carrying all these things, anyway. It’s a part of you. Our self-sabotage, or whatever you call it, is coming from you. If it’s in me, I have to decide how to channel it. If I try to force it to go away, it’s a lie that takes all my energy. I feel like music is this fucking magical thing, that you can put the worst stuff into, the saddest, most broken things into, and then at the end, you still get this gorgeous thing that’s wildly helpful to other humans. Including me! Other peoples’ brokenness has saved me over and over again. Getting to feel like I can share that vulnerability is fortifies this tiny child version of myself. I get a piece of healing for myself, too, and that’s so monumental with music.
[Laughs] I’m like this, I’m so “woo-woo” and witchy, believing in all the shit. When I first moved to Colorado from Texas, I said, “What are you all talking about? Why don’t you wear deodorant?” Now I’m just wearing no deodorant, feeling all the feelings, and I absolutely love it! I’m invested. I couldn’t be more so.
AH: The transformation is complete!
Taylor: She’s gone full-on witch! Now she only talks in Harry Potter-isms and how one’s life relates to Harry Potter’s life. [Laughs] It works! It’s very apt.
Thanks very much for speaking with us, Bonnie & Taylor Sims. Find more details on their website here: https://www.bonnieandtaylor.com/