BONZIE Interview: Zone on Nine, Collaboration and Intimacy

I first discovered BONZIE, an American musician whose talent betrays her age, purely by accident one evening. Since, I haven’t been able to stop listening to her oddly cathartic music; strong in the belief that I haven’t heard songwriting this refreshing in years. Her first record, Rift Into the Secret of Things, is a gorgeous trek through melodious brevity. While short, the potency of the material within leapt from my speakers with an understated purity. To be more accurate, the music of BONZIE laps against your eardrum with all the playful provocation of relentless waves.

Like soft ocean ripples, her songwriting brings with it a depth that sounds like it’s swirled the entire planet to reach the quiet beach you find it on. Nonetheless, these tenants never box her in. BONZIE is an artist with integrity; someone not satisfied by comfort zones or resting on laurels. As a result, her catalogue is a deeply-felt spectrum. Her pre-existing work far exceeds the lethargic nature of many of her elder peers.

Thankfully, BONZIE is back with her next tome of carefully sculpted music; Zone on Nine. It was a great personal pleasure for me to hear it ahead of its official release (May 19th). Even more exciting was the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview with BONZIE, to get some more insights on its creation. All quotes provided in this piece are from my correspondence with her.

The sound of an evolved artist is clear from its opening track, Crescent. While it’s certainly the work of the same voice who brought us Rift Into the Secret of Things, the marks of evolution are stark within seconds.

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This album was intense for me as an artist.  I was more involved than I have ever been. I travelled overseas to work with people in unfamiliar places, and I also engineered myself and produced myself in my own city. It was both more outreaching and more inwards reaching. I feel like it hit a midpoint that is brighter than it has been in the past.

Everyone I worked with put so much into it… I can’t thank those people enough; Ali Chant who I co-produced with in London and Bristol, Adrian Utley, Seb Rochford, Jonathan Wilson who I co-produced with in Los Angeles, Nate Walcott, Will Golden, Stefano Pilia, Neil Strauch here in Chicago… Everyone staked their lives on it, as I did.

That feeling of overwhelming effort is clear in every corner of the release. That’s not even to say that it sounds overwrought, or dripping with the fats of hedonistic production tactics; quite the opposite. The material’s raw quality can only be the work of creatives who invested themselves into the project.

This is one of the things that affords the album its coherence. Throughout, Zone on Nine comfortably toes the line between the songs’ individuality and a grander sense of something more overarching. For example, Everybody Wants To is a vastly different song to the soaring Nettling but they seem kin; it goes beyond them originating from the same songwriter too. Their differences are salient, but an organic tie binds them and their surrounding material.

The songs I chose to put together each are different and unique in their own ways, but they have a common theme… there is an overall message. I want the listener to come across that message themselves.

The whole product is indicative of BONZIE’s progression as both a musician and, in subtler ways, a person. She’s not just throwing songs out because they’re there and ready to go in the moment. The gap of four years between her two LPs speaks to this. Rich threads connect every corner, while the singular beauty of each track has ample room to shine. Bringing these things together is a painstaking process, which says much about the personal dedication across its entirety.

This album speaks for me at this very moment. It’s empowering for who I am as an artist now. I’m a perfectionist about things, so I’m always detail focused, but I really got to the place where I felt like, this is exactly what I want to communicate. It was an amazing moment.

As a listener, that amazement is a key expression. It can really make you pause at the aural growth compressed into less than an hour. Its sound is that of nature; evoking time-lapse trees scratching up to the sky, and thick roots digging diligently down into yielding soil. This never takes BONZIE herself out of things either, as those branches and roots converge to display an image very human in its glittering, synaptic majesty. Such terminology is accurate, with Zone on Nine‘s fractal palette developing in the way it does. However, there’s a humble originator sitting behind it all. Bearing this in mind can instantly simplify that complexity in a way that seems inherent.

I write all alone, but the production and instrumentation is valuable and important to me. I think that’s when everything feels right, when a concept becomes something beyond us as individuals, although I always keep the integrity of the songs.

Indeed, the fleshed-out instrumentation and arrangements of BONZIE’s songwriting give it a constant sense of movement. A song steeped in habitual darkness often takes surprisingly sweet turns from the merest lick of a guitar. Equally, deceptively delicate missives can bare their teeth after settling you into security. The place of other musicians and producers in crafting that ever-rolling dichotomy is evidently influential to Zone on Nine. Yet, the exploration of tenderness and strength alike is a feature of the core.

Taking [my music] to outside places was not an immediate process for me. However after I’d finished one, I always wanted to hear how they would sound as a fully realized “thing”… I would have these different parts in my mind that would be instrumentals or gestures in the song that felt like they couldn’t communicate all the way without more sound, more power.

I play a lots of instruments myself so I sometimes produce it all on my own. There’s something incredible about playing with other people. Like putting chords or notes together… Everything that is part of a whole, people are meant to work together. I feel like I’ve honed in on the right combination of isolation and collaboration that honors the music.

Important to that collaborative process is the use of production. In many ways, BONZIE took an open approach to working with her producers. While her vision, rightly, remained the prevailing drive, there is an underlying sense of some community overall. In particular, the influence of Ali Chant and Jonathan Wilson was welcomed by BONZIE. Their work, amongst the others on the record, have helped it become resoundingly more than the sum of its parts.

They dedicated a lot of creativity with me, and really joined in on it, and that was what I had wanted. I wanted to create a dynamic wherein we could truly collaborate, not feel bogged by anything… No label A+R, manager, or anything.

There were aspects that I wanted collaboration on and then aspects where I wanted to finesse things myself because I had specific ideas I needed to get across, but when we were together it was all-in, no holding back.

The results are mystifying, in the best possible way. The intentions and inflections of BONZIE are the very life’s blood of Zone on Nine. Yet, across its myriad tones and timbres, so too do the voices of her musical compatriots ring-out. It’s an unusual, but intensely pretty, projection. Such opposites show up often on the album, and it’s one of its greatest achievements. Just one of the album’s Knights of the Round is Adrian Utley, perhaps best known for his work with Portishead. While an influence of BONZIE’s (though none of her inspirations define her), it turns out that it was, in fact, Utley who made the first move.

I had made demos of my songs, super raw and direct, USB mic-style. He got ahold of my demos from Ali Chant, my co-producer, and got in touch with me and said he wanted to be involved. I love his work in Portishead, and his production on the projects he gets involved with is stunning, so it was great having him on record.

Some of my favorite parts of the record we created at his studio in Bristol. There’s a certain buoyancy he has about music that we really clicked on. We had a great time over there.

That coming together of things, in a way we can’t control, may just be a deliberate fuel for the album’s thematic leanings. As BONZIE said herself, it’s best that you decide that for yourself, but there’s no doubting that a respect for fate is part of her make-up. She also recognises the poetic contradictions in her sound and lyrics, while it may just be best to leave contemplation on them to the sub-conscious. When I asked her about the balance between the sweet and dark that I hear in her music, and to what degree that was informed by her personality, her response was telling of just how naturally Zone on Nine has formed.

I suppose I’m not aware of what I am! It’s like when people tell you what your personality is, we’re usually not aware of how we are, unless it’s a façade or something. Well, it’s definitely not a façade because I’m not really aware of those aspects in myself, haha. My mind goes blank when I write and it’s all just some kind of spiritual experience.

That dynamic probably comes from my love of contrast. Yin and yang. I think that happens naturally without anyone realizing it.

It harks back to BONZIE’s refusal to be boxed in. She seems uninterested in creating a chiselled character to hide behind, instead preferring the tranquillity of a swelling river-flow in her ongoing evolution. This has the effect of making many of her songs intimate in the extreme. While some would have associated that intimacy with more minimal tracks like Catholic High School (from her debut), BONZIE finds herself equally exposed in instrumental settings. It’s true that much of the music itself on Zone on Nine has closeness in spades, regardless of arrangements that may feature numerous intricate elements.

Stripped songs are more language-based and on the ground, less between myself and the listener, there is something person-to-person about that. I feel like there are a few ways to speak in songs.

Sometimes when there are no words and it’s just instruments and sound expression I feel more exposed and emotional—where sound is the only way to explain. Other times you need to sit down and just talk and hash it out.

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Musicianship is key to the album, without ever sounding pretentious in its composition. When reading what BONZIE says about her process, it’s fascinating to see unpredictable relationships cropping up yet again. Considering what she says about the spiritual experience of her songwriting, it may just be that liberation allowing for the discovery of neglected combinations. She knows what she’s doing when it comes to music theory, but any formal leaning is as much a constraint as anything else on Zone on Nine; that is to say that it isn’t at all. Her songs transcend simple manuscript, moving towards something more fundamental.

I like making combinations with chords that I might otherwise overlook; giving every part of the instrument a chance in the sun. I’m interested in the chemistry of different intervals and chords. I started teaching myself guitar around nine or ten. My hobby is inventing shapes on the guitar that I haven’t seen or used before.

There’s no denying the natural symbiosis of certain chords— especially when they’re unlikely pals, notes or chords that wouldn’t commonly fit together. It’s the same with people, sometimes unlikely bonds form— less about the aesthetic… More about some kind of common truth.

That said, an aesthetic has seen struck gorgeously in the album’s artwork. While it’s not a word I wish to overuse, it screams once again of intimacy. It’s also strikingly expository. With music this good, memorable and matching artwork is always a help. That said, it’s never entirely necessary to get across truly quality composition. BONZIE needn’t have cared so much about the artwork for Zone on Nine for the power of its contents to still stand. It’s laudable that she puts similar thought into visual representations. While, of course, the music is the main event, it’s happily married to its eye-catching packaging.

On the vinyl album art, the BONZIE text is a cut-out in the vinyl which shows through the LP sleeve a picture of me in an all-red turtleneck with an all-red background. “Body and blood”. I put everything into what I do and I want to invite people into each world I create on this album.

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When an entity of such proven vigour is thriving, you can only expect the evolution to roll on. With thoughts of the future already in mind, there are certainly many songs waiting for their moment in the sun. There’s no indication that BONZIE’s work is going to dry up any time soon. With her art being so entwined with her very being, it should be anticipated that her two LPs represent the tip of an exciting iceberg. BONZIE, it seems, simply must do what she does. Her as-yet unreleased catalogue is surely far more than a modest pile.

It’s more than a handful… I carefully chose the songs to put on Zone on Nine, so there are many others and they keep uh, making themselves. So yes, I have a lot more, and sometimes I’ll throw in a new song at shows, especially solo shows. I’m already thinking about the next record, I already have ideas and I can’t wait to get back into the studio.

Despite a keenness to return to recording, and her gravitation towards prolific songwriting, BONZIE puts no special onus on any one area of her musicianship. Whether performing live, composing or recording, it seems she’s right at home in any setting. Even the idea of prioritising one area over another seems distasteful in her view; just another indication of her genuine intentions. Interestingly, considering the organic impression I get from Zone on Nine, BONZIE herself draws an analogy to flora.

They are all incredibly important. It’s hard to imagine one without the others. It’s like planting a plant and uprooting it before it grows because, why? Why would you do that? All parts of music creation are important.

Another thing that could comfortably be compared to the growth of, say, a tree is the Internet. When it comes to evolution, nothing else is moving faster. One of its biggest drawbacks, as most of us know, is that it hasn’t quite gotten a grip of intimacy, as BONZIE has. What the Internet does do well is in its ability to connect us. I’ll grant that, in many ways, the filter bubbles and social clusters encourage closed minds. However, my coming across her work, and our subsequent dialogue through e-mail, is the very essence of the Internet’s possible influence.

There was a time, when I first started out, that the only people I could reach were those that heard me perform in my hometown in Wisconsin. There are so many people in this world. The internet allows us to connect, it’s wild— like how we’re connecting for this interview!

Spookily, the Internet would be just as well-described by BONZIE’s own impression of Zone on Nine, but that’s mere food-for-thought. In what was, to my mind, a somewhat gimmicky question (of the type journalists like myself are fond of), I asked her how she would sum-up the album in a single sentence. Fortunately, BONZIE’s response was anything but gimmicky. It shows that, in just seven words, she can capture the magic that clings to her songwriting, and reveals how comfortably she can evoke thought and feeling alike. Take her words as a perfect conclusion to my analysis of Zone on Nine, gift-wrapped in the aforementioned brevity she’s long since mastered.

Freedom at the edge of the world.

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For those lucky enough to be in the vicinity, BONZIE will be performing an album release show at Schubas in Chicago on June 23rd. Otherwise, keep your eye keenly on upcoming live performances. Also, expect plans for British dates in the next year, which I implore any of our UK readers to attend. I’ll be there and, considering the size of our island, you can’t use potential distance as an excuse. For those who won’t have the opportunity to see BONZIE perform any time soon, make sure to give deserving time to Zone on Nine and, indeed, her preceding oeuvre.

You can download and purchase all my music digitally, vinyl, or CD galore at bonzie.net. I won’t be mad if you Spotify it up either. iTunes is awesome if you’re a digital traditionalist, and Soundcloud is cool if you’re into that scene. YouTube works too (and you can see my new music video I shot in London for “Crescent” off Zone on Nine, which is coming soon on my YouTube channel!). I can’t wait for you to hear it!

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.