An Interview With Singer-Songwriter BONNIE WHITMORE On Her Latest Album, ‘Last Will and Testament,’ Handling The Pandemic and More!
For the last two decades, Bonnie Whitmore has played bass and sung with some of the biggest artists in the Americana genre: Hayes Carll, John Moreland, Eliza Gilkyson, Sunny Sweeney, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, to name a few. She’s also maintained a weekly residency at the legendary Continental Club Gallery in Austin, where she lives now. Her 2016 release “F*** With Sad Girls” turned heads, but with her newest collection, “Last Will and Testament,“ Whitmore has turned a corner in her own artistry that may just catapult her to the top of the Americana heap.
As someone who’s never shied away from the issues, she’s not afraid to be direct. Her record is full of topical songs, tackling suicide, rape culture, loss, and the great American divide. It’s not easy to talk about heavy subjects without weighing the music down, but Whitmore pulls it off without difficulty. It’s like she’s used to talking about serious matters in casual conversation — which she is.
“I’ve definitely been told to shut up and sing,” she says, referencing the phrase that became commonplace after it was directed at The Chicks. In such divided times, many artists have become hesitant to share their opinions for fear of being ostracized or losing fans. But Bonnie took “shut up and sing” literally. “I thought, fine, I’m just going to sing what I want to talk about.”
“My goal for this record is to inspire people to have hard conversations,” she explains. “But I definitely subscribe to writing pop music, with catchy lyrics and repeating phrases.”
The depth and candor of the record conveyed through Whitmore’s pop sensibilities make it a pure pleasure to listen to. Instead of telling you how it is, she often poses questions in her songs. “Who do you want to be?” she asks in the song “Right/Wrong.” “What do you want to say?” “What’s the point of liberty in the land of the free, without you and me?” It feels like a Tom Petty anthem, and, not unlike Petty’s writing, carries a message of justice and true patriotism beneath an all-American jangle of guitars.
“None of My Business” was written after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris. Whitmore’s gorgeous vibrato is the star on this lush, vibey track. “Day in and day out, all we really do is scream and shout, missing what it’s really all about. Instead of melody, let’s find the harmony, love forwardly, don’t let our fears defend us.”
She wrote the title track, “Last Will and Testament,” after losing yet another member of the music community to suicide. “Asked for It” uses a punk rock attitude and driving rhythm to get the listener take a hard look at the nature of rape culture. “So go on and blame the victim. Why should violence have consequence? And each time you silence them, recreates the same event. She’s the kind of girl you said asked for it.”
Whitmore co-produced this new record with Scott Davis, who also co-wrote one of the album’s standout tracks, “Right/Wrong”. They recorded at Ramble Creek Studio in Austin with engineer Britton Biesenherz. Craig Bagby (drums), Trevor Nealon (keys), and Betty Soo (backing vocals, accordion), all members of Whitmore’s band the Sad Girls, are fixtures throughout the record.
Learn more about Bonnie Whitmore in the following All Access interview:
Thank you for your time. Given these unusual Covid-19 times, what does a typical day look like for you?
The content of each day is different, but there is a bit of a “Groundhog Day” quality to life right now. I still don’t adhere to a schedule, though I probably should, but I do have more stability in some ways versus being out on the road.
How have you adjusted to these times? What has changed about your life?
I find that I am very adaptable to most situations, and think that’s because of my chosen profession. When your job is playing music it doesn’t not come with a lot of stability. There’s always been an element of hustle involved and I think because of that aspect it gives me perspective. Everything about this is a novel experience so comparing it to what it was isn’t realistic. I acknowledge some similarities though. Instead of touring on the road, I’ve been doing gigs online. It’s not the same, but it’s still familiar and allows the connection to people to stay intact and that’s the most important thing to me — maintaining a connection.
What has been the hardest/most challenging part about being quarantined?
Having patience. Watching the selfish actions jeopardize others and keeping us in the purgatory longer and overall lack of control over any of it is hard. I expect everyone is feeling challenged. I try to remind myself that we are all in this together though and how we handle it matters to those we care most about.
Is your city starting to open up more now?
It (Austin) is opening up and for all the wrong reasons. The lack of leadership has been appalling. We have been left much like a ship without a rudder left to fend for ourselves. It’s disheartening to say the least. Having an election to look forward to is helping. If we all do our part and make our voices heard, we can course correct and come together for a better outcome. That is what’s giving me hope right now.
What has that been like for you watching that unfold?
It’s a feeling of groundlessness and overwhelming heartache and we are seeing how it’s traumatizing to us all. Times like these definitely give light to a lot of things that are broken. We can’t keep going at this pace and with so much division. It is not healthy or right in my opinion. I don’t think I will ever understand how the loss of 200,000 people (so far) is somehow justifiable knowing so many of these deaths were preventable. We need leadership that cares about its people instead of the stock market value and shareholders.
How have you been able to use social media during these unprecedented times?
Social media is a great tool to have to stay connected, but I try to set boundaries for myself. At its core, it does a lot of good, but the side effects and addiction to it is a bit of a conundrum. I do use it to my advantage and am grateful to have to stay in touch with folks, but it’s a double edged sword.
Are you finding that you use it even more now to stay connected to fans and other musicians?
I become more codependent on social media. It’s been both good and bad for that reason. Right now it’s the only means we have to connect with our fans and friends and I have a lot of appreciation for that. It is a good tool to have and it’s what we can use, but there is no question that their goal is to make money off of us, not to help us survive and thrive. I feel that my morality is being tested with it, but for now I’ll just say the pros outweigh the cons.
Have you changed the way that you utilize it these days?
I try to be aware of how much time I give to it. I know my desire for having it is different then most, because my livelihood is dependent on it especially right now. It’s not just a social collective for me. Most days I’m grateful for it, but I am aware of the additive behavior it breeds and try to be mindful of how much time I give to it. It’s also why I’ve chosen to move my weekly Thursday residency I had at the Continental Gallery and adapted it to a Zoom format. This allows me to have a more intimate and gig like show versus live streaming which feels more like adding to the void then community. That’s my interpretation.
What has it been like having to reschedule all your shows this year?
Painful. For folks like me, there’s not a lot of stability to this business to begin with, but to see the work you had taken away without any inclination to when it will come back is heartbreaking. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like once we’re able to play out and congregate again, but heartbreak is something I’m familiar with. I know how to use it to my benefit and that’s helping me get through this.
Are there shows getting scheduled for 2021 that you already looking forward to or are you waiting to start making future tour plans?
I am trying to stay present in the moment and work on being patient. Reflecting at what was or trying to see the unknown of the future is a way to drive yourself crazy. I have dealt with depression long before this happened, and I think because of that I recognize it for what it is. Having learned about my depression has helped me with this current predicament we are all in. I know that any gig I agree to do is more in hope than set in stone and this is all temporary. For now I want to focus on is that it will happen again and not on when it does.
Since we are all really missing live music, can you recall a favorite show of yours from the past?
I recall so many wonderful moments, including the beginning of this year. I did a run with James McMurtry in January/February. His band also backs me up on my set which has been such a blessing. There is nothing better than being able to rock out and these guys know how to slay. One of our last shows was in Mississippi and I drove after the gig, ears still ringing, and showed up at the Folk Alliance in New Orleans. We stayed up all night playing songs with friends. It was magic.
What do you think ultimately makes for a great show for you?
It’s the always correlation between the music and the people. I’ve spent the past couple of years getting up in front of folks who didn’t know me yet, but they were going to. I played to a sold out crowd that included a couple of my heroes in San Francisco. It was almost overwhelming, but from the moment of the first chord and when the songs are grooving you could see how people are pulled into that magic that is live music. It’s like dancing on a high wire and the music is your safety net. You are vulnerable and loved at the same time.
What has been a favorite show of yours by another artist?
I was at Centro-Matic’s last show at my home town bar in Denton, TX. We all knew this was their last show and knowing the finality of that made it that much more special. This was my favorite band playing my OG Church, Dan’s Silverleaf, and even though so many people were strangers to me, we all shared in the love for each other and for the music. I cried so much that night that my eyes were swollen shut the next morning. It was truly cathartic and magical and a moment I will cherish forever.
Let’s talk about your brand new album “Last Will and Testament” set for release next month. What was it like making this collection?
It was an absolute joy. I feel like making records is the best thing you can do as a musician. This crew of people work well together and I only hate it when it comes to an end.
Did anything surprise you about the overall process?
The first time we all got together was to make Fuck With Sad Girls, so this was as much of a reunion as anything. I felt like going back to camp and hanging with all your favorite people. remembering old jokes and catching up while still creating and making new music together. It’s the best feeling.
What was it like making this collection with all your producers, co-writers and your band, the Sad Girls?
It kind of feels like we all got to turn into our inner 12 year old selves with adult proficiency We have fun making the music come to life and adding all those extra bells and whistles that create the final record. Producing and co-writing with Scott Davis is so much fun. We both have the desire to serve the song and allow our imaginations to run free in the counter melodies. Scott is one of my favorite people with whom to work. This group really gets each other and champions the best performances from each other. I would do this all the time if I could afford to.
How would you say that you have grown as an artist since you first starting singing and since your 2016 album, “F*** With Sad Girls” specifically?
I think have more confidence now especially in the studio. I’ve definitely become a better songwriter. When I first started singing I was a kid, so much of what I did was in the desire to entertain. Leading up to and after FWSG I really wanted to explore the art of making music. The subject and substance of the song I was more invested in. To write a song like FWSG which was exposing myself and have my hero tell me it’s a damn good song really made me want to keep doing that. Keep coming up with songs that talked about the things that really mattered most to me. Don’t get me wrong, I still want people to be entertained, but my goal isn’t only to do that. It’s okay if it makes people a little uncomfortable. It has become more important to me to want to move people, not just entertain them.
I am curious to know how your experiences performing with so many incredible artists in the Americana genre has influenced the kind of musician that you are today?
I love getting to be a part of the group. Yes I want to be able to stand on my own and do my own thing too, but as a bass player it’s in my nature to want to play with people. I learned a lot from watching everyone I’ve worked with from Justin Earle to Sunny Sweeney. Working with James McMurtry the past couple of years has been an incredible experience. There’s really no one who has ever done what he has for me. Most situations I get to be the opener because I am in the band, but it’s the other way around with McMurtry. He let me play as a band using his band. That is something that is so rare and I count my lucky stars to have had that.
What do you think you learned from these amazing men and women performers?
Every tour is different and each artist I worked for comes with a different type of universe and with its own set of expectations. The thing about it is, it’s a whole other world leading the band and being in the band. Leading is tough and there’s a lot that sits on your shoulders. I think I’ve learned how much goes into making it possible and how you treat your people. Touring is not easy and the road can rub you in ways you wouldn’t expect, but how you deal with it shows what your character is. There’s an old saying “that there are three things you look for in playing in a band; the music, the money and the hang. And if you can get 2 out of 3, it ain’t so bad.” Which two it is up to the individual. I always strive for all 3 when I can.
Who specifically have you learned the most from?
I think I learned the most from McMurtry in part because I never get tired of listening to his songs or getting to hang with them. It’s a songwriting class every night, plus there’s a lot that can be said for an artist whose band is consistent. These guys have been working together for decades at this point and it’s the equivalent as the love for a well oiled machine. They know how to compliment each other. That is not something that is easily accomplished nowadays.
How do you think future music is going to be influenced by this incredible and absolutely necessary Black Lives Matter movement that the US has been going through?
Representation is important. My hope is to see it more of the Black community reflected in all genres of music and art and everyday life. Their voices matter and the more inclusive we can be the better the music, better the art and life will be.
How exactly is it inspiring you and your music?
So much of what’s going on is inspirational and it manifests itself in different ways. I subscribe to the Woody Guthrie philosophy which is “as a folk singer, your job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” The more we write and talk about it, the more change will come from it. Whether it’s speaking up or singing out, it’s needed and necessary.
If you could get into the studio with any artist today and collaborate on a new song for you, who would it be and why?
Lizzo. She is a FORCE and a true leader. She’s a hell of a songwriter and musician and a true icon of our time. It would be a dream come true to collaborate or even be a fly in the room of those collaborations.
What would your dream music video look like right now?
I don’t really know. Music videos are kind of a new concept to my world, because they’ve always been beyond what my pocketbook could handle, but there’s a lot of visual artists I would love to work with. If the sky was the limit, I’d love to create something as powerful as Lemonade by Beyonce. That was EPIC! I’ve toyed with the idea of making a musical though. We shall see if that is something that happens.
If you could go back in time and tell your younger musician self something about this industry or how your career was going to progress, what would you say?
Focus on the message you want to hear, not what other people want you to say. I wish I had learned that lesson years ago.