Perhaps its irony, or some kind of cosmic cycle, but twenty years ago, give or take a month or so, Tracy Bonham recorded “Mother Mother,” a bristling young adult anthem about cutting the metaphorical umbilical cord. The song and the album of which it was a leading part, The Burdens of Being Upright, which was released on Island Def Jam in 1996, put the young Berklee School of Music student on the path to fame and critical acclaim as a gutsy alterna-rock chick wielding taut lyrics and a wicked violin bow.
Now, with two decades of music making and life living behind her, Bonham — who was born in Boston but raised in Eugene, Oregon — has a new album, Wax & Gold, which is inspired and shaped by her own experiences with motherhood and the journey she and her husband, Rolling Stone managing editor Jason Fine, took in adopting their son, Selman, from Ethiopia in 2010. But don’t expect an album of obvious parenting woes and wows. It’s true that the title track sees Bonham singing out about a mother’s love being “like the burning sun,” and she declares “you fell from the bough into my loving arms… and I’m with you all the way.” It should be stated that none of that is as tweely sentimental as it sounds when taken out of context of the whole song. The record doesn’t scream “Diapers and dishes!” throughout.
“A lot of the songs are about becoming a mother, sometimes specifically [about] adoption, but I was just writing about my life, and that’s something I’ve always done. Nothing has changed in that way,” says Bonham, speaking from her home in Boerum Hill, where she has lived since 2005.
What changed about the process of writing and recording a record, however, was the restriction due to having another living being dependent on her, and having her time and energy split between two people. “I’ve said this before, but it’s like moving through molasses: everything just takes so much longer to get done,” she says, almost groaning at the thought of the effort. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to get this record done, I can’t indulge myself.’ So I wrote in a different style to what I normally do. My songwriting became more straight down the line and simple. I’ve often been critical of songwriters who don’t take chances, but this time I couldn’t take that time to find the bizarre bridge or the left field chord.”
That in itself became an exercise and learning experience Bonham values. “Simplicity has its benefits. I often used to say I wish I could write a song with just two chords and now I have ‘Under the Ruby Moon.’ My producer, Kevin Salem, wanted me to try doing it with only one chord! It’s a great exercise in trimming the fat. Why make it complicated?”
Recording took place in Salem’s Woodstock studio, and guests include Americana singer-songwriters Langhorne Slim and Amy Helm. The result is indeed a lean record, but with rich instrumental embellishment wrapping around Bonham’s voice, and adding twists of jazz, blues, and even gospel to the mix.
But, for all this simple approach, the record still took five years to make — the expanse of Selman’s life, basically — but that, says Bonham, isn’t necessarily down to mother duties. “That just how I do it,” she says with a laugh. “I make an album every five years. There’s something about the five year cycle, I don’t know — that’s just a cycle I’m stuck in.”
Far from stuck, adopting a child from a far-flung place has opened Bonham’s eyes to a whole new world, and a whole new culture. “It was important to understand the culture our son came from, and during the process we had to communicate with people [in Ethiopia], so we learned some of the language. A phrase I would hear quite often roughly translates as ‘wax and gold.’ I still can’t explain it fully, but it was used in Ethiopian literature and then became part of their everyday language. The wax is the superficial meaning and the gold is the meaning underneath. But it also can mean saying one thing and meaning another. I related to it and tried to put it into songwriting.”
This is why Wax & Gold has a ubiquity beyond this one topic of motherhood, and just as The Burdens of Being Upright held the direct cry of the fledgling leaving the nest and documented the pains of growing up, this record expounds on what it is to grow by sharing yourself with other beings. Bonham, however, doesn’t put too much weight behind linking the past to the present. Besides, how much time has she already spent explaining “Mother Mother?” “That whole album was my experiment with getting a guitar. I was rebelling,” she says dismissively. “It was just raw. I was like, ‘Just get out and do it; get behind a microphone and just scream.’ Twenty years ago I had more doubts; I thought, ‘I can’t just stand there and do that’ — which is when I knew I had to do it.”
Tracy Bonham performs on August 28 at the Rockwood Music Hall. For ticket information, click here.