Below are excerpts of an interview by singer-songwriter Catie Curtis with Karla Bonoff that appeared in the Jan/Feb 2000 Issue of Performing Songwriter.
I remember spending much of the early ’80s in a stiff Shaker chair by the record player in my parents’ kitchen, hunched over my guitar, completely absorbed in the contentment of learning and playing Karla Bonoff songs. I was drawn in by the honesty in her voice, soaring melodies, and lyrics that seemed to spill from her heart like intimate conversations. I learned at least 20 of her songs when I was in high school and would play them over and over. The experience of her music felt relevant to me, unlike much of what was coming over FM radio in southern Maine at the time. My friends were listening to AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and ZZ Top. They took me to see Journey. But Karla … Karla was real. Karla spoke to me.
Growing up in the fertile Los Angeles music scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Karla and her sister, Lisa, were hoot-night regulars at the legendary Troubadour, watching then-unknowns such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne trying out their new songs. She soon teamed up with other Troubadour regulars Wendy Waldman, Kenny Edwards and Andrew Gold to form Bryndle – the first singer-songwriter supergroup that was, unfortunately, just a few years ahead of their time. After making an unreleased album for A&M, Bryndle disbanded and the four went on to develop their own careers. Karla had three of her songs (“Someone To Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again” and “If He’s Ever Near”) cut by Linda Ronstadt on her 1976 Hasten Down The Wind album. This led to Karla signing a solo deal with Columbia and putting out four records, Karla Bonoff (1977), Restless Nights (1979), Wild Heart of the Young (1982), and almost a decade later, New World (1988) on Gold Castle Records.
After a few years’ retreat from the music industry, Karla re-emerged in the ’90s and had three more songs recorded by Ronstadt (“All My Life,” “Goodbye My Friend” and “Trouble Again”) for her Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind album, with “All My Life” winning a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Duo. In 1993 she topped the country charts with Wynonna’s version of “Tell Me Why.” And in ’95 Bryndle reunited and released an album, touring together for the first time in 15 years. In 2000 she released a retrospective on Sony/Legacy called All My Life: The Best of Karla Bonoff. [In 2007, Bonoff released a 2-CD set Karla Bonoff Live.]
Even though her songs have been covered by some of the most impressive singers of our time, Karla’s fans know that nobody sings them quite like she does. I can’t tell you what it is, exactly. I can only say that when I hear her aching and unadorned voice, I slump in my chair in a deeply satisfied, melancholy way. Bonnie Raitt nailed it when she said, “Karla breaks my heart every time she sings.”
The role of a singer-songwriter in the spotlight hasn’t always been easy for Karla. As a shy person, she has struggled with the scrutiny and expectations that come with being a successful artist early in one’s career. When Karla’s cover of “Personally” became a hit in ’82, she had to go on Solid Gold wearing a miniskirt and white go-go boots. This was pre-grunge, pre-Lilith Fair. Female singer-songwriters were not all over the pop charts, and the thoughtful folk sound of the ’70s was on its way out. But against the backdrop of omnipresent electronic and heavy metal music, her straightforward, heartfelt, acoustic-based material sustained a legion of adoring folk-rock fans. The late Timothy White, editor of Billboard, summed it up best when he said, “Karla Bonoff’s works are a bold expression of humanistic searching and belief during an often faithless era.”
While Karla was providing us with a respite from the sounds of the ’80s, she was also influencing the next generation of female singer-songwriters. Her melodic sense, personal lyrics and vocal stylings have found their way into the work of everyone from Shawn Colvin and Jonatha Brooke to Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole. And even though her thoughtful ballads like “Restless Nights” and “Goodbye My Friend” never had a chance to get radio play at that time, they paved the way for songs like one of the ’90s biggest hits, McLachlan’s “Angel.”
I met Karla Bonoff at her house near Santa Barbara. She was in the process of having a new home built, so in the meantime, she’s living in a cottage that she has decorated in a colonial/farmhouse style. Her taste is unpretentious and down to earth, much like her music. She welcomed me in to sit in a creaky wooden chair at a beautiful old kitchen table, and our conversation was easy and open. At one point her cat jumped up on the table and became fascinated with the microphone. I kept having those out-of-body sensations, realizing, “Here I am, sitting in Karla Bonoff’s kitchen, talking to Karla Bonoff about Karla Bonoff’s music.” Partly that’s just the typical star-struck thing, because when you’ve lived with the album covers for long enough and then you meet the person, it’s always surreal. But more importantly, I had this sense of reverence. Here was the person that first moved me to write and sing my own words—someone who seemed to care about music because of its ability to convey emotion. At the risk of admitting an unobjective interviewer status, I have to say I’m thankful to Karla for giving me such great tunes to ponder back then, and to still have kicking around in my head—word for word—after all these years.
Do you remember the first time you heard Linda Ronstadt sing one of your songs?
Actually, the first one I heard she learned out on the road. I heard through Kenny [Edwards] she had learned “Lose Again.” They had played it in their sound check and she liked it and they were doing it in the show. I was like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” I saw them at the Universal Amphitheater, and they played it. So that was the first time I heard her do it, and I was in the audience.
It was amazing for me, because I think when you’re a songwriter—until you have that first moment when someone records your song and you hear it back—there’s some part of you that goes, “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m really not good, maybe I just think I’m good.” But it takes somebody else mirroring back at you…and she just sang the shit of it (laughs). It was great.
Like “Someone To Lay Down Beside Me,” I wrote that song while I was living in a tiny $200-a-month house in the San Fernando Valley and we had turned the garage into a music room. The water used to come down into the garage when it rained, so the piano sat in this wet place. When I think of some of some of the songs I wrote in this very, very uncomfortable situation, maybe that contributed to it. I remember that I was trying to imitate John David Souther (laughs). It was before Linda had recorded anything of mine, and she had done a bunch of his things. I was thinking, “I could write something she could do,” and I was consciously trying to be in his shoes.
These days, how do you approach getting songs written?
I guess for me it’s just getting out of my own way. The best writing I’ve done comes from a subconscious, deeper place. And whatever writer’s block I have comes from something in my head that’s criticizing or editing what I’m doing, and not letting it just come out. For me the issue is about just avoiding that whole inner dialogue that’s so paralyzing. That’s the fascinating part, I think—where these songs really come from when that channel is open. Because I’ve had experiences where I have written stuff and then I looked down on the paper and went, “Wow, where did that come from?” So it’s kind of non-intellectual.
Are you saying that the process feels less like creating than discovering…like you just found this song?
Right. Yeah, I think the innocence of not judging yourself along the way, “Oh, I don’t like that chord,” or “What would so-and-so think of that?” Yeah, I would really get into it playing these songs. And instead of just doing them for myself, I was thinking about what other people would think of them. All that stuff that people do in their lives—not just in songwriting. I think the lesson is to stop worrying what other people think of you. Just do what is purely you. It’s the lesson for me in every step of life, especially songwriting. I don’t know, I think when I was younger and I had nothing to lose, I felt like if I would write something great, then great. If I didn’t, no one would hear it anyway. I think there is more at stake when you’ve had some success, then all those other voices start. For me it’s really about getting back to the purity of doing it.
Someone To Lay Down Beside Me
Looking back, now, on being a 23-year-old person struggling to find my way, I think I was lonely, very isolated in those days, especially in trying to find a way in music and find what was going to be my adult life. I had the music for the song for a really long time and I knew it was special and I could never come up with lyrics for it. One night I watched it appear on the paper, and it was the most disconnected-from-my-body experience. To this day I play the song on the road and I never get tired of singing it; it just has this life of its own. It’s in some ways the most important song of my repertoire and has this magical quality to it.
I read that you did some work with a writing coach. What was that process like?
Well, I’ve always had a lot of writer’s block, and someone recommended to me a writer’s coach who had developed a system of tools to help you break through that. And really it’s just learning the discipline of working on anything. So he taught me about writing in a journal everyday. There’s also a book called The Artist’s Way which has a lot of these same techniques in it…doing it every day, doing it right when you wake up in the morning before other things distract you.
So I’d feel like I had nothing to say or nothing to write about, but I would write in my journal for a week and then I’d just go read pieces of it to him. And he’d go, “There are so many ideas in there,” and I’d go, “No, there’s not.” And he’d go, “Yes there are. There’s this and that.” He would just pull out a phrase and go, “What about that? You could write about that.” I would go “No,” and I’d be really negative. At one point as an exercise he just said, “Try to write a song about this. I don’t care if it’s bad. Just take that phrase and write a song. That is your homework assignment.” It was actually this phrase, “daddy’s little girl,” and I walked out of there going “Oh, I do not want to do this…I hate this.”
The amazing thing was I sat down to do this, and this great song came out. Even with all my negativity and everything, I realized that if you’re good at this and you’re talented at it—even with all that, “Okay, this is an assignment I don’t want to do,”—if you show up for your job and you do the work, then at some point the songs will get written. And it really proved to me that I could come to the keyboard with something I really didn’t think was going to work and was negative about and write a great song. That just blows my whole theory about all of this, “Oh no, I have to wait until I am inspired.” So, he really proved something to me.
However, knowing all that I still have a hard time. It’s like anything else, I think. If you want to run three miles, you have to go every day and run a quarter of a mile, and then a half mile, then a mile…and then maybe after three or four weeks you can run three miles. But I’m always impatient. I want to go out the door, never exercise and then I want to run three miles.
Because you’ve had those experiences where there are songs that do just come to you like gifts.
But I think you still have to be playing your guitar, or playing your piano, or you have to have those days where you just play for an hour and go, “I hate everything I just played,” because then maybe the third or the fourth or the fifth day you’ll play something you do like. But you can’t just never play and then sit down and expect that you’re going to write this really cool song. Although, like you said, sometimes that happens.
That came out of a cross-country trip, the first time I’d ever really gone anywhere in a car like that. I remember seeing snow for the first time, and driving through Utah. I was just inspired by being on the road and missing my little nest, more than anything, at the end of it. I think the best songs come for me from a place where I don’t intellectualize them.
Why is it, do you think, that it’s still important for you to write?
Well, I don’t know…in some ways it’s not. Frankly, I’d be fine if I didn’t, but I think the process of writing a great song is so enjoyable, and I think there’s a sense of well-being that a writer gets from creating. I like that feeling. I can get that from being creative in other things, too, but I just think it is such a positive reinforcement of who you are…for me, my identity is so tied up in that, if I don’t do it I feel like, “Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?” And I think that it’s the place where I’m able to express myself.
That goes back to the $200-a-month house we had when I was still with Kenny [Edwards], who then was on the road. I hadn’t written anything in a couple of months and I was frustrated, so I said, “Damn it, I’m gonna write a song before I go to sleep!” I was in bed with the covers up around my guitar, and it just came out.
How do you view your relationship with your fans? Do you talk to them at shows?
Yeah, I do. In the old days we never did that. When I was younger I was kind of afraid. Now I sign CDs after shows and I talk to people, and I think I came to appreciate them a lot more as I got older. My fans have hung in with me for so long and have been so supportive, and really hung in with so little material (laughs), with only four albums. I just appreciate them so much. I hear the same things from my fans like, “You got me through my divorce,” or “We got married to ‘All My Life’.” I hear that a lot.
I think there came a point in my life where I realized that my music really did touch people, and had a healing property for people. When I was younger it was hard for me to accept that, I think. To accept the gift I was given as a songwriter, and as someone who could maybe express feelings for people that they couldn’t express. I’ve really come to value that as a gift that I certainly have no control over having. But the fact that it’s been healing for people makes all the stuff that we go through in this career worth it.
All My Life
I went to a screening of a movie with Virginia Madsen in it called “Fire With Fire,” and they were looking for someone to write a song for a slow-dance scene. Because it wasn’t personal and I didn’t have to take that kind of responsibility for it, I wrote it in about 20 minutes and it came out great. They didn’t use it in the movie, but I used it on my own record [and then Ronstadt recorded it], and it showed I didn’t have to wrench myself to write something good.