Best of Both Worlds | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Best of Both Worlds 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:08 pm

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With the 2000 follow-up Down Here (also Island) Bonham not only established a routine of taking three to five years between records (“I operate on a different plane when it comes to creativity”), but also more fully came into her own as a songwriter rooted in Beatles/Badfinger pop and the stately classical touches of her schooling. Co-produced by the star team of Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom (Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, the Pretenders), the disc was an artistic triumph, if not a commercial one. “Tracy’s one of the best singers I’ve worked with,” says Froom, who played keyboards on the Leno date. “She’s an excellent musician and a really cool songwriter, and musicians just gravitate toward playing with her because she also has this great spirit and personality.”

Also among those that took to Bonham was Blue Man Group, which tapped her as an ensemble player and support act for its 2003 tour. “The Blue Man guys are just these silly, really creative nerds—and I mean that in the nicest way,” Bonham says with a laugh. “I played [the Who’s] ‘Baba O’Reilly’ with them and we did some recording. Luckily, I could fall into switching gears every night after I opened, get changed out of my dress and boots to go and do their thing.” After returning to LA, she released an independent EP, Bee, and cut 2005’s Blink the Brightest (Zoë/Rounder Records) around the time she met her husband, Rolling Stone’s executive editor, Jason Fine.

Inevitably, the question comes up: Does their both being in the music business ever get to be a bit much? “We promised each other when we started dating that we wouldn’t bring our outside work home,” says Bonham. “And we’ve stuck to that. Jason’s definitely not phased by the whole celebrity/rock ’n’ roll world, so he really never talks about it. He’s more of a jazzhead, anyway. That’s his thing.”

Another pact the couple made was in regard to which coast they would live on. To be close to Rolling Stone’s Manhattan office, Fine had long lived in Brooklyn, which posed a potential problem. “I said I’d move back East as long as we also had somewhere with woods and trees that we could get away to,” Bonham explains. “So I sold my little bungalow in LA and we put a downpayment on a cottage in Woodstock in 2006.” That same year brought another self-financed effort, the fan-aimed In the City + In the Woods, whose title comes not from the singer’s newfound domestic duality but rather its split lineup of live tracks from a rural Dutch festival and New York studio recordings. But it is, however, her urban/rustic lifestyle that loosely informs the songs on Masts of Manhatta, although Bonham didn’t consciously set out to make an album about her tandem worlds.

“I guess I sort of realized I was doing it around the time I wrote ‘We Moved Our City to the Country,’” she says. One of the new record’s lyrical plums, the tune is a wry dig at big-city transplants who bring their speeding SUVs, birdcall-ringtoned cell phones, and sushi-eating offspring upstate in search of a “simpler” life. “A lot of the album was written in Woodstock. I remember coming up with the chorus to ‘Big Red Heart’ when we were painting the house, parts of songs hitting me on snowy days when I was out walking our dogs. But then there’s ‘You’re My Isness,’ which I wrote the words for in a Brooklyn café.” Buttressing Bonham’s recognizably warm and woody voice throughout the set is a company of sessioneers that includes violinist Matt Glaser and guitar ace Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Norah Jones, Beck, Tom Waits) and his band.

Besides becoming an in-demand session player herself—over the years Bonham’s played with Aerosmith, Juliana Hatfield, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, among others—she’s recently found a third career: teaching music. “I know I can’t tour forever, so I wanted to have something else I could do that still involved music,” says the singer, who currently tutors children in violin and piano at New York’s Blue Man Group-funded Blue School and plans to offer private lessons in the Woodstock area. “It’s been an absolute blast, seeing these kids blossom. Music is such a personal experience. I’ve found there’s really no one way to teach it.” And in a further ironic twist of for the rebellious student turned teacher, it seems that the artist who wrote “Mother, Mother” is about to become one. As she teaches and works to promote Masts of Manhatta (whose title, a reference to a line from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” bears the perhaps unwitting acronym M-O-M), Bonham and Fine are in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia. “Jason and I love kids so much, we’re really ready to become parents,” Bonham says, clearly thrilled. “I know it will mean a complete shift in life, but what are the alternatives? Not having kids? That sounds selfish to me. I still want to keep making music and stay in touch with my creativity, but that could change. It could grow. We’ll just have to see.”

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