Alan Bonner - The IndieLondon interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ALAN Bonner talks to us about his sophomore album, Ballader and what inspired some of the songs.
He also talks about his journey to success so far, including why he decided to make an early move from Suffolk to London at the age of 18, overcoming his sexuality and why he digs retro wardrobes when performing live. He also looks forward to his first American tour and reveals which songs he’s listening to at the moment.
Q. You must be pleased with the response to Balladeer? How long did the album take to put together?
Alan Bonner: The album took just over a year to make. Some of the songs were already written when I started making the album, others came later. I’m very happy that most of the reviews so far have been good. Of course, you can’t please everyone but when you spend a long time working on a project your always hoping that people respond well to it.
Q. And what inspired it? I especially like Little M – who or what inspired that song?
Alan Bonner: Lots of things inspired the album… life events both good and bad. Little M is special. My friends Dean and Kim were having a baby, Meisha, and when she was born I wrote that song for her.
Q. And likewise, a song like Redemption?
Alan Bonner: Redemption is about exorcising your demons. The last two or three years have seen some dark stuff happen in my personal life and it left me in quite a bad place psychologically for a while. Writing this album was very much part of my recovery from that, and Redemption is about the journey that you go through until you face your shit, reclaim control and you can step back out into the light.
Q. What made you want to write a song about the infamous hate-killing of Matthew Shepherd, on Rainbow Man?
Alan Bonner: Even though Matthew’s death happened some time ago now as a gay man myself and as an artist I felt the need to pay tribute. We have come a long way since 1998 but there is still a lot of hate and intolerance within society as a whole, and also within the gay community itself. All too often gay men especially take the hurt and shame that has been dumped on them growing up and use it against each other. I ‘ve been guilty of it myself. I wanted to write a song that paid tribute to those we have lost to hate crime over the years as well as something hopeful that inspires people to hate less in general and treat each other a little better. I hope I achieved that.
Q. How do you decide which themes inform your songs and when to remain personal or to get more political? Is it true you’ve penned lyrics on beer mats?
Alan Bonner: I have been known in the past to write on beer mats, yes. Anything I can get my hands on if a great line pops into my head, and there was a period when I spent a lot of time in bars. I don’t ever decide consciously what themes I’m going to write about. I just write what comes. Both of my albums so far have been quite introverted and confessional but the songs I’m writing at the moment for the next one are more about looking outwards and writing about what I see around me. I think the personal and the political are equally important.
Q. How important do you view song-writing as a tool for making political points?
Alan Bonner: I think that some of the greatest songs ever written have had a strong political message. And I think that the best artists are those who have something to say are aren’t afraid to say it bluntly. So, yes I think that’s important. Having said that I also think that I can get as much joy from Bob Dylan as I can from a euphoric synth breakdown in a disco track. I think both things can move people, so it isn’t always about making a big political statement. Its more important to move people. And that will mean different things depending on the listener.
Q. You’ve been compared to artists such as Rufus Wainwright and David Bowie – how does that make you feel? Does it add pressure at all?
Alan Bonner: It doesn’t add pressure for me because I will never be as great as them anyway, so to compare myself to them or feel pressured to be that good is pointless. It’s a great compliment as they are both great artists and I am huge fan of both – but I’m not on par with them! I just do what I do and try and do it to the best of my ability. I’m not deluded enough to ever compare myself to them. They are musical gods.
Q. Which artists inspire you?
Alan Bonner: God, so many. John Grant inspires me. The honesty of his work is really inspiring. He lays himself bare in his songs and you can really feel a vulnerability in his music. I really connect to it. Bowie, of course. In his 60s and still an innovator. There’s a London band called Orphans and Vandals who had a record out a few years ago. Their music is sexy, depraved, poetic, sensitive and brutal all at the same time. I’ve only just discovered them, even though they’ve been off the radar a couple of years but it’s the most exciting record I’ve heard in ages.
Q. How do you go about picking your wardrobe – it’s something that even Time Out has commented upon?
Alan Bonner: Hahaha! It’s ironic that Time Out said they wanted to steal my outfits because most of my clothes are stolen from a vintage boutique I used to work in in Camden Town! I’ve always had a passion for vintage clothing, and am really inspired by ’60s and ’70s fashion. I tend to dress up more when I’m on stage. If you bumped into me in Tesco’s I wouldn’t be in full dandy regalia. Not everyone likes it though. One critic recently wrote that while he liked my record he thought I looked like a tit! I guess you can’t please everyone. Fuck them. I like dressing up. It’s fun.
Q. How was leaving Suffolk to come to London at the age of 18? Did it take long to adjust? What prompted the move at that age?
Alan Bonner: Growing up gay and closeted with dreams of being an artist in a tiny conservative village in rural Suffolk in the ’90s was no walk in the park. I knew from the age of about 14 that if I was going stand any chance of living the kind of life I wanted I’d have to leave for the city at the first opportunity. I knew I wanted to be creative, I knew I wanted to make music and sing. It was tough at first. I was incredibly clueless about everything. In fairness, I think I’ve spent most of my 20’s being clueless about most things. I feel like I’m getting my shit together now though, finally, for now at least. Ive been lucky because I’ve met some amazing people along the way. I had delusions that I’d be rich and famous by the time I was 21. Like I said, I was clueless and very naive and the road has been rocky but the journey has been amazing.
Q. What do you like about playing the London circuit? Which are your favourite venues and concert memories?
Alan Bonner: London has some great venues. I always love playing The Troubadour. There’s something really amazing about standing on the same tiny stage as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix did back in the early ’60s right at the start of their careers. There’s something magical about that.
I also love playing the little room upstairs at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm. It’s tiny and a little scuzzy (in a good way) and was one of my favourite boozers when I used to live in Camden years ago. I’m still at the stage in my career where I’m playing smaller venues, but there’s an intimacy to that which I really love.
Q. Do you think the folk scene is thriving at the moment?
Alan Bonner: I think folk tinged music has been having a revival over the last few years which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think that kind of music never really goes away.
Q. What made you want to become a singer and a songwriter in the first place? And how easy was it to achieve that dream?
Alan Bonner: There were times growing up when I felt incredibly scared and lonely and frightened and when I put on certain records while sat alone in my room I felt like I was less alone. Like that person singing on the record was singing to me and felt my pain. I wanted to make records that spoke to people the same way that they had spoken to me through music. To throw them a rope when they are sinking. Also, like most kids I was music obsessed so it was always going to happen. Somebody said to me recently that you don’t choose music, but that music chooses you. I agree with that. It’s a calling.
It’s not easy to achieve that dream. Two albums and multiple tours into my career I’m still trying to achieve it. It offers you little if any financial security and you often face rejection or harsh criticism when you have poured your heart and soul into your work that can hurt. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Q. How would you describe the journey to this point and what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Alan Bonner: A magical, tragic, inspirational, unpredictable. messy, seemingly impossible at times, adventure that is by no means over yet. The biggest lesson I learnt? Try and be kind to yourself and kind to everyone else in everything that you do… and never give up. No matter how many people tell you you’re shit or that your chance has passed, no matter how tired you might get of the struggle at times. Keep in the game and the powers that be will always throw you a lifeline every time.
Q. How are you looking forward to your first American tour? How is your music received over there so far?
Alan Bonner: I’m so excited to be going to America! I have no idea how my music is received over there, I guess I’ll find that out at the shows. It’s going to be a blast! America to me is like this weird and wonderful place that only exists in the movies. I’m gonna love it I know it.
Q. If you could cover any track, what would it be?
Alan Bonner: There are too many to choose from but today I’ll go for Roxy Music’s 2HB.
Q. And if you could share the stage with anyone, who would be your first choice?
Alan Bonner: Stevie Nicks.
Q. Can you tell us one interesting fact about yourselves that we may not already know?
Alan Bonner: I once got naked on national television.
Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod players at the moment?
Alan Bonner: Orphans and Vandals – Mysterious Skin
David Bowie – Five Years
Fanfarlo – Shiny Things
John Grant – TC and Honeybees
PJ Harvey – We Float
Madonna – Drowned World (Substitute for Love)
Roxy Music – Virginia Plain
Steven Grossman – Caravan Tonight
Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Alan Bonner’s Balladeer is available to buy now.