VIDEO FEATURE & WEB-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Musician: BONNIE BISHOP
Video: “Poor Man’s Melody”
Songwriters: Bonnie Bishop & Jimmy Wallace
BONNIE BISHOP Web-Exclusive Interview
with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David
“Dreams are lifetime visions,” says Grammy-winning songwriter Bonnie Bishop. “And life is valleys and mountains. And if you can accept that, you’ll be fine.” Bishop should know, she’s lived it, and come up with an incredible album of strong songs that reflect the experiences of her life—that allow her to keep dreaming.
Bishop started her career as a country rock singer-songwriter from Houston, Texas, and later moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she immediately began writing and performing—receiving awards and recognition for her songwriting. In 2012, Bishop’s idol Bonnie Raitt recorded her song “Not Cause I Wanted To” (which she co-wrote with NRBQ’s “Big Al” Anderson). The song won Bishop her first Grammy in 2013 when Raitt’s Slipstream won Best Americana Album that year. Raitt later recorded another Bishop song, “Undone.” In 2013, another Bishop song, “The Best Songs Come from Broken Hearts” made its television debut on ABC’s hit show Nashville.
After spending 200 nights a year on the road—loading her own gear, running her own sound, and sleeping in her van—Bishop took a break from the music scene. She was in a graduate creative writing program at University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and it helped give her a new perspective after many years on the road. While studying at Sewanee, award-winning producer David Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson) heard her demos. Cobb helped Bishop create a more soulful sound for her new album, Ain’t Who I Was—which was released on Thirty Tigers earlier this year. This strong collection of Memphis-style soul tunes works incredibly well with her bluesy voice—and it brings these 10 songs to life. With six originals on this new album, Bishop continues on her journey of lifetime visions.
Though Bishop’s songs have been covered by others, she still loves to sing, and she is now back on the road—energized with a new passion for her music. And it truly shows in her live performance. I was fortunate to see Bishop perform at Sweetwater GearFest in June 2016, and with each note she sings, one could feel the intensity of the lyrics of her songs—which truly come to life in her live performance. We spoke with Bishop about her renewed love for playing and the life experiences that continue to ignite her creative inspiration.
How did the idea of “Poor Man’s Melody” come to you?
The song came to me after I had to decide to either keep my apartment on Music Row in Nashville or keep my van. I couldn’t afford both wheels and a roof over my head at the time. Yes, I was that poor. (Laughs) I needed to pay off my loan. So, I sold my van to songwriter Ben Elkins of the band ELEL—he needed a 15-passenger van for his band and their trip to SXSW!
Tell us about the inspiration behind your new album Ain’t Who I Was—and how it evolved.
This album is the album that almost wasn’t. I had left the music business and was living in Texas, trying to give up my dream of being a musician after twelve years of struggling as an indie artist on the road. I had started writing stories as a way of processing everything that had happened over the course of my life on the road, and from that—had gone back to graduate school to pursue a new path in creative writing.
How did the recording come about?
Somewhere in the middle of all that, David Macias of Thirty Tigers in Nashville sent Dave Cobb a couple of those demos after running into me at a party and hearing that I had quit music. Dave Cobb was incredibly intuitive in that he heard the soulfulness in my voice and said he wanted to make a soul record on me. I had always wanted to make a soul record, but I had been playing bars and honkytonks for all those years and had always steered my music more towards “Country” in order to make a living. When Macias put Cobb and me in the studio together, it was the first studio experience where I was able to just sing and let the music inside flow through me. Here I’d been thinking my music dream was dead. And somehow by letting go and walking away from the whole thing—it came back to me. After the record was finished, Macias signed me to my first record deal at the age of 36.
What is your creative process for writing songs?
I try to show up at the page every day and practice my craft for a set number of hours. But honestly the best songs come from inspiration. I am overwhelmed with an emotion, or maybe a melody comes to me that won’t let go until I sit down and write it. I tend to think songs come through us—it is my job as the writer to make myself available for the inspiration to flow through me.
What songwriting tip would you like to offer?
Set aside a time every day to practice your craft—creativity. I like to turn off phones, email, TV, etc. and have no distractions from about 10-2 or 11-3 every day—to just sit at the page. Some days, songs come to me—some days, stories. Sometimes nothing happens. But by doing the sheer act of “showing up,” I find that the inspiration comes more frequently and the process flows much easier when I am in the habit of writing.
How do you keep song ideas fresh—and continue to think of new song ideas?
Like I said, songs tend to come through me as opposed to me making them up. Inspiration is a spiritual force that touches me when it wants to. However, just by living life I feel inspired on a daily basis. Someone says something that is catchy or I see something play out in my real life, and I feel called to write about it. I get most of my inspiration from things that happen in my own life.
How has co-writing shaped your music?
Co-writing forces you to be more patient with the writing process because it’s not just you in the room—you have to be open to someone else’s ideas, their own creative/thought process, their ideas. More often than not, co-writing makes my songs better. If a song isn’t resonating or making sense with my co-writer, then I know it won’t resonate with a listening audience. And for me, that’s what music is all about—experiencing a shared emotion. Co-writing also helps you push through to the end of a song, where you might have otherwise wanted to give up. A writing partner can be the motivator to keep digging for the sentiment, or help you edit lyrics until you have the thought completely fleshed out, and both people can finally say, “Yes! It is finished!”
Who influenced you to pick up an instrument and write?
My real father was a great piano player, and I used to sit at the keys and pick out melodies I heard on the radio when I was six years old. But I didn’t play an instrument seriously, nor did I even start writing songs until college. Actually, it happened by accident—a song fell out of the sky when I was walking my dog one day. Like I said, I couldn’t play an instrument, but I’d always been a good singer. So after that first song came to me, I just started making up melodies and writing down the words to the songs I was hearing. Eventually I met a guitar player who helped me figure out what chords I was singing. I fronted my own band for five years before I ever learned to play guitar. I also didn’t pick my piano up again until I was almost 30. Now I play both guitar and piano in my live shows.
Top 5 Musicians or Songwriters who inspired you to become a musician?
Otis Redding, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Carole King, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott. Sorry, that’s 7. (Laughs)
What instruments/equipment can you not live without—that helps you write, record or perform?
I’m old school. I write with a pen and paper. Something about the motion of moving my writing device across the page seems to loosen me up and allow the creativity to flow. As for instruments, I can create on piano or guitar, but sometimes it’s easier to write songs without either of them. I find melodies in the ether and just start singing them out loud, which is easier than taking the time to figure out what chords I’m hearing. So as long as I have my voice, pen and paper, I can create.
What PRO are you with?
I’m with BMI, and my publishing company is Plan BB (BMI)..
The song “Poor Man’s Melody” seems to be a song that resonates with a lot of musicians. So we asked Bonnie to tell us The Story Behind the Song:
It’s hard to explain the relationship between a touring artist and a 15-passenger van. It’s more than just a vehicle to carry the band around—it’s your entire life. Having a van means having the ability to hit the road, to get to the gig and to do what you do—to be who you are. It is the vehicle by which you make your living, and it is the place you spend the majority of your time. You call your van “home,” and it goes with you everywhere you go. There is a sense of power knowing you’re never really in danger of being homeless when you have a 15-passenger van. It’s big enough to carry all your clothes and all your instruments. You can put a mattress in the back. It’s even roomy enough to take the dogs. Hell, my cat George rode across country with my band in a van—a couple of times.
I’ve been driving a big white van since 2004, when I was 25 years old—ever since I somehow got started making a living playing music on the road. I’ve seen the whole country from my van, lived through some of the best and worst moments of my life behind the wheel. I also slept more soundly on the back bench of my van, while we were rolling down the highway through the middle of the night, than I’ve ever slept in a real bed. It is synonymous not only with my career, but with me as a person. Everyone in Nashville knows who it is when I pull up to the coffee shop with my Texas plates. “There’s Bonnie Bishop. She’s that girl from Texas who drives the big white van.”
To say I don’t know who I am without it would be an understatement.
But now it has come down to this: How I am going to eat? It has come down to deciding between keeping my apartment on Music Row and keeping my van. I can’t afford both wheels and a roof over my head. Yes, I am that poor. I need to pay off my loan. I need to not be spending almost $1,000 a month on insurance, a car payment, and gas for a van that I am not going to need anymore. I have only played a handful of band shows in the last year-and-a-half. A few weeks earlier, I got my letter of acceptance to Sewanee School of Letters. I am going to be starting graduate school in the summer to pursue my new career in creative writing. Obviously, creative writing does not require the same mode of transportation as my old dream did.
The fact that I am currently living on Music Row makes this decision even easier. Going without wheels in Nashville would be virtually impossible, but my apartment being where it is, I can walk to Hillsboro Village, Belmont or Vanderbilt in a matter of minutes. It also helps that Uber just started up in Nashville and downtown is just a $5 Uber ride away. I tell myself that not having a car is a brilliant way of keeping me disciplined. When you have no TV and no wheels, there isn’t much left to do but write. I also figure I can bum rides from my friends if there is anywhere I really need to go. I explain my rationale to my Aussie friend Sam, asking him if he thinks I can handle not having a car. Sam says, “I’m sure Bonnie Bishop can handle anything—but can Bonnie Bishop’s friends handle her not having a car?”
I have already mapped out a plan for getting back and forth to the gym and the grocery store, which are the only two places I consistently ever go in this town. I will jog to the Green Hills YMCA, which is a mere 2.7 miles from my apartment, so that can be cardio for the day. Then I’ll do my grocery shopping at Whole Foods next door and get an Uber to take me back home with my groceries. It seems like the perfect plan.
One day, I decide to try out my new routine. It’s a perfectly nice morning for a jog, and I even have energy to lift a few weights once I get to the Y. Then I cross the street to Whole Foods, pick up a couple bags of fresh veggies and fruits to make my juice, and then call an Uber to pick me up. As I’m getting in the car with my groceries, the driver says to me, “You are the first person I have ever picked up from the grocery store.” I tell her that I am on an adventure, that I am learning to let go and that I’m selling my car to follow in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps. She says she doesn’t know who that is, so I try to tell her about the book I am reading, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”—explaining how Thoreau retreated from society in order to pursue a life of simplicity, and how his book had fallen into my hands by way of a series of tiny synchronistic miracles, thus making the path very clear to me.
But my Uber driver isn’t listening to my rant. She is too busy texting and driving.
I have known this moment was coming for a while now, the time to say goodbye. Letting go of the dream was the hardest part, but I don’t feel sad today. I have gotten all my crying out. It is time to move on and there is nothing else left to do but execute the plan.
And today the plan is this: I am selling my big white van.
I drive her down to the nice carwash on Broadway, have them give the seats a good shampooing and put a shine on her wheels. The inside smells like Nu-Car when I pick her up later that afternoon, and I tip the guy for making the inside so clean. “She looks like she did the day I bought her!” As soon as I get home, I take pics of the inside and outside and put the ad up on Craigslist, and within the hour, I have a message from someone wanting to see it immediately.
It’s a dude with a band. How original.
We agree to meet at the Taco Mamacita down the street from my apartment on Music Row. I know I am in the driver’s seat because in a town full of musicians, a good deal on a 15-passenger van doesn’t last long and mine is priced to sell. I need to get as much money as I possibly can for it, and I am fully prepared to play tough—until I see this guy walking up with a baby.
“Who’s baby is that?” I say, laughing, thinking he must be trying to play to my softer side. The guy’s name is Ben and he finds this question incredibly amusing as well—and we become instant friends. He tells me his wife works during the day, so he decided to just bring his daughter along. “Nice sales tactic,” I say.
Ben is a sweet guy. So is his baby, whose name is Van, no joke, short for Sullivan. Ben is the lead singer of a band called ELEL, and he is in a tough spot. They are supposed to be leaving for SXSW in three days and they plan to head out from there on a two-week tour of the West Coast, but Ben doesn’t feel comfortable taking his current vehicle out on such a long road trip. I can see why. The van he pulled up in is at least fifteen years older than mine, and there is a very noticeable knocking sound coming from under the hood. It also has about 250,000 miles on it, and a bad spray paint job that makes my van look like a Rolls Royce next to his.
We take my van for a spin and I let Ben drive while I sit in the backseat making funny faces at his son—to keep him entertained. He circles the block, tries out the breaks, then comments on how smoothly my van rides, how easily it steers. “Yeah it’s been a great vehicle,” I tell him, “Never had any problems with her. She’s always kept me safe on the road.” I think of all the years I somehow made it to the gig without so much as a flat tire, and an ache tries to rise up in my chest but I push it back down.
Ben tells me about his band ELEL. Things are going really well for them. They are starting to get some lucky breaks. They just got a business manager and they have a booking agent too. I tell him I don’t have any of those things and that I just can’t keep doing it all by myself anymore. That’s why I’m selling my wheels. Ben nods sympathetically. He works at Trader Joe’s part-time, just for some sort of steady paycheck, when he and the band aren’t touring. He understands the strain of being on the road, the constant struggle of coming and going, of disengaging and then re-assimilating. He tells me his wife encourages him not to give up on his dream, and I tell him how lucky he is to have a family he loves—waiting for him when he gets back the road.
“They make it all worth it, don’t they?” Ben asks me. I smile back at him in the rearview mirror but say nothing. I am playing with his baby in the backseat.
Ben asks if it’s alright to take my van out on the highway. He wants to see how it drives at 70 mph. I say sure, no problem, but then it dawns on me as he is accelerating onto the freeway that I don’t even know this person. He could be a total liar. This may not even be his baby. What if he is kidnapping me just like he did her? Baby Van smiles up at me in the backseat as Ben gets the van up to 80 mph, and it doesn’t even start to shake. It’s a solid vehicle. Then he starts hinting about the price.
“Yeah I don’t know if we can really afford this right now. It wasn’t really in the plan to buy a new van this week.” I tell him I completely understand and then we talk about the fact that the band has to leave in less than 72 hours, that the cost of renting wheels for a three-week tour is almost the cost of buying one. I realize these guys are in a jam and I am in the driver’s seat (fiscally speaking, not technically) but I like this guy Ben. I like his baby and I like his band, and I’ve never even heard them. I think I like them just for the sheer fact that they are out there on the road doing it.
Ben asks me if the price is firm, and I tell him, “yes”—that I have to pay off my loan. He asks me what I will drive after I sell my van and I tell him about my plan to jog to Whole Foods twice a week and live like Henry David Thoreau. “I’m kind of on a new journey,” I say. “I’m not really sure where I’m going, but I know I’m going to be on foot for a while.” Ben nods, and I wonder if that last bit makes me sound like a quack. But he isn’t really listening—he’s trying to figure out whether or not he can afford to buy a van and trailer.
Then something prompts me to tell him that I also have a cargo trailer I don’t need anymore. For the last year or so, it’s just been a holding place for extra clothes and old Bonnie Bishop merchandise that I’m too sentimental to get rid of. Ben’s eyes spark up at the mention of a deal. “How big is the trailer?” he asks me. Big enough to carry a five-piece band and all their gear down the road, I tell him.
We pull back up to Taco Mamacita, and the smell of a poopy diaper signals the end of our negotiations for the day. Ben takes Baby Van from my arms and says he will call me tomorrow. He wants to talk things over with his band and their new big deal manager. I tell him I have someone else coming to look at it, but really I just want him to feel a sense of urgency. From the look on his face, I realize that Ben couldn’t feel a bigger sense of urgency than he already does.
Lord knows, if I was about to leave on tour for three weeks and didn’t have reliable transportation, I would be soiling my pants just like Baby Van.
Two mornings later, Ben and his new business manager show up to make the exchange. The manager is wearing a suit and tie and Ben is looking very nervous as the manager lays all the discussed agreements out on my kitchen table. The manager is also a notary, how professional indeed.
Ben called me the night after we met at Taco Mamacita to tell me he wanted the van. He was willing to pay the price I was asking as long as the trailer was included and I said, yes, I was pleased to have the sale over so fast—until he asked me if I would be willing to take half the money up front. Ben and his band were still waiting on some big royalty check that was supposed to have come in by now. It sounded like a total scam and had it been anyone else, I probably would have said, “Hell no, are you crazy?!”
But these were musicians, and this is the reality of a musician’s world. It is almost impossible to purchase things like vehicles and houses because banks and lending agents laugh in our faces when we bring them our tax returns. Our entire business runs on cash. We write off almost everything we spend. So while we are sometimes able to make a decent living, on paper we look like welfare candidates.
And honestly, most of us are.
Nobody understands the pickle that Ben and his band are in better than I do, and the thought of my van and trailer keeping their dreams moving down the road, as romantic and stupid as it may sound, somehow makes me feel like I am still a part of the dream. I agreed to Ben’s request to give me half the money now, but I made his business manager draw up legal documentation stating the remainder will be paid within seven days. Hence the reason he’s wearing the suit and tie. “Nice touch by the way,” I say as he sits down at my kitchen table.
We sign all the documents and Ben has a sick look on his face, almost like he’s not sure he wants to be doing this. I have a similar feeling in the pit of my stomach, but it’s too late. This is already happening. I pat him on the shoulder. “You need a good van, dude. This one never let me down.”
I hand him the keys and we go outside. I ask if we can take a picture and Ben stands next to me with his new van, my old one, and we smile for the camera. Then I help him hook up the trailer, which impresses both him and his manager to no end. “I’ve never met a chick singer who could hook up a trailer before,” Ben says. I tell him he ain’t never met a woman like me.
Ben is getting behind the wheel of my van when he stops, “Oh! I almost forgot.” He runs over to his car and pulls out a grocery bag from Trader Joe’s. The night before he had asked me if I wanted him to bring me anything from the store before he officially left me without wheels. I said I’d love a bag of those Quinoa-and-Chia Tortilla Chips and maybe some roasted pumpkin seeds, if they still had them. And when he hands me the bag full of goodies beside the van the next morning he says, “I hope you can get to the store soon. You’re not gonna last long on this.”
This time when Ben pulls out of my driveway, it feels like I’m losing a limb. I watch him drive down the street in my big white van, my livelihood, my home. It’s the only life I’ve ever known, and now it belongs to another band. I’m standing there holding my tortilla chips and pumpkin seeds—when it hits me: I have no way to escape. Gone are the days of being able to throw everything I own into the back of my van, and just drive away. That was always my safety net – knowing that I could leave any time I wanted to. But not anymore. Now I can’t run away, and it’s the strangest feeling in the world.
For the first time in my life, I am still.
Where can your new fans get more info and stay updated?
Ain’t Who I Was Track Listing:
- Be With You
- Looking For You
- Done Died
- Poor Man’s Melody
- Too Late
- Ain’t Who I Was
- Not Cause I Wanted To
- You Will Be Loved