For young musicians, “potential” is a weighted word, simultaneously carrying tantalizing hope and the possibility of squandered talent. It may have made sense to use the P-word when local folkstress Haley Bonar first gained prominence at 19, but with the release this week of the fully realized and boldly confident Big Star—produced by Bonar herself—it’s flat-out silly. At 24, Bonar is a fully formed songwriter, at turns brassily defiant and joyfully innocent, and the possessor of a set of pipes that rival Chan Marshall or Lucinda Williams, depending on her mood. Bonar took time to chat with The A.V. Club about Big Star’s birth.
The A.V. Club: Compared to your previous records, there are a lot more ambient sounds highlighted in the mix on Big Star. Was that a product of Tchad Blake’s involvement as a mixer?
Haley Bonar: It’s mostly a result of the musical contributions of the guys I’ve been playing with for a couple of years. Mike Michel really knows how to paint with different colors on the guitar. I feel like every musician that played on it is awesome, and I respect the hell out of them. I didn’t try and give them too much direction. It was the same thing with Tchad Blake. I just kind of handed the record over to him with a few suggestions and knew that whatever he would do would be great.
AVC: Were the songs fully mapped out before you brought them in to the studio?
HB: A lot of them were worked out ahead of time but a few, like “Mayday,” were basically first takes that we ended up liking a lot. I sort of went into the whole process this time having no idea where I wanted it to head, which I think was ultimately a good thing because it kept me really open to new ideas.
AVC: Lyrically, Big Star feels more direct and personal than its predecessor, Lure The Fox. Would you agree?
HB: I think that’s fair. I’m really not good at talking about what my lyrics are about. Compared to my other records it’s definitely written from a more personal and first-person perspective. There’s a lot more “I” in there. But at the same time, a lot of it’s pretty tongue-in-cheek; I wanted to leave some room for interpretation on the part of the listener.
AVC: Some of the songs on the album deal pretty explicitly with the perceptions surrounding the lifestyle of a musician.
HB: There’s definitely an element of commenting on the music industry in songs like “Big Star” and “Better Half.” They’re sort of broad interpretations of what it’s like to live with music—either being a musician, or just a person who constantly listens. I wanted to look at both the fame and industry side of that equation, and also what it’s like to be an innocent 14-year-old at a punk-rock show who’s just had their mind blown. None of it’s meant to be taken too specifically.
AVC: None of the songs on this record are very long—they jump in, make their point and move on, usually in less than three minutes. That’s a pretty big change from prior records, which usually had some lengthier ballads.
HB: I wish that I could write a song longer than three minutes these days, but my ADD has gotten so bad I just can’t. [Laughs.] I wasn’t even conscious of it and then I got the finished record back and freaked out how short it was. There was never a plan to have it turn out that way. I can’t really worry about it. That’s the way it happened and how it was written—I don’t write 30-minute symphonies. I stopped feeling weird about it after I started listening to Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, because that’s a great album where all of the songs are about two minutes long. It helped me realize it’s okay to write short songs.
AVC: You moved to the Twin Cities from Duluth a little over three years ago. Does it feel like home yet?
HB: I’ve lived in St. Paul for three years and I love it. The more I travel and return to it, the more it feels like home. The community of musicians here in the Cities is amazing. It’s so important to have, because if I didn’t hang out with musicians and artists I would just think I was nuts. It helps to be around a bunch of other fucking crazy people who are focused on doing their music. That support of one another is so important, especially when people go out on tours and lose money, or put out records that don’t do very well—you help keep each other afloat. I’ve gotten a sense of the music scene in bigger cities from touring and it’s so much more disconnected. Here it’s just six degrees of separation between everybody. I can go out most nights and get inspired by seeing my friends play music, it’s an electric feeling.