Ain't Too Late for Bonnie Bishop: Ain't Who I Was

Photo credit: Jason Lee Denton

If we can go ahead and choose the best album of the year, it's clearly Bonnie Bishop's Ain't Who I Was. From the very first groove—and groove is exactly right on for this sensual soul singer—of the album, the Muscle Shoals wah-wah of "Mercy" (recorded as "Have a Little Mercy" by the great Ann Sexton), you can feel the music coming right at you, grabbing your soul and not letting go. Bishop's vocals on "Mercy" sound as if Rita Coolidge, Bonnie Bramlett, Bonnie Raitt, and Aretha Franklin all got together to put out a new song.

Bishop delivers a soulful ache on the languid ballad, "Be with You," a tune so dripping with love and loss and hope and longing that it flows tenderly into our hearts, yet with a strength that stays with us long after the song is finished. "Looking for You" flies right out of the early 1960s soul scene, with its harmonies and resemblance to some of those early Carolina beach tunes. It most clearly hearkens back to Karla Bonoff's "Personally," and it delivers the same yearning for finding just that right someone. One of the highlights is the ferocious rocker, "Too Late," whose soaring lead guitars come straight out of Mountain's songs, with the lead riffs taking phrases from Leslie West's on "Theme from an Imaginary Western." If anyone ever needed to be convinced of Bonnie Bishop's raw vocal power, her blues and soul phrasing, and her commanding vocal presence, they need look no further than this song. On the title track, Muscle Shoals meets Rita Coolidge as Bishop croons "I'm finally proud of who I am now/'Cause it ain't who I was."

Every track on Ain't Who I Was floods over us with Bishop's energetic vocals and music that's straight out of an older time when soul moved us and stirred out hearts. On the song "Done Died," she funks it up with a Tony Joe White swamp sound, and Bishop uses the lyrics of this old spiritual to shout out her message to the world: "I done died one time/I ain't gonna die no more/I sure been born again/Ain't that good news?" It sure as hell is good news for us.

I caught up with Bishop by phone recently for a chat about her album and her music.

Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of this album; how did it happen?

Bonnie Bishop: Well, it came about by completely letting go and quitting this business. I made five records in twelve years; I was busting my ass all that time without a team, a manager, and I co-produced all my albums. I was approaching my 35th birthday, and I thought, "I've sacrificed enough for these twelve years, and I hit a dead end." I was living week to week on handfuls of cash I'd made at the merch table. So, I said God, you gave me the gift of song; you bring the opportunities. I got off the road and spent a year at my parents' ranch outside of Austin, crying and trying to heal myself. Then I started writing stories, and I had all these amazing stories from the road. I was really in love with the storywriting. After about a year of writing these stories, I decided to apply to graduate school at Sewanee, outside of Nashville.

HC: And this led to the album?

Bishop: I did this story and song series; fans could sign up for a year of the series and hear my stories as well as acoustic demos of my songs. I sent some of these demos to my friend David Macias, president at Thirty Tigers, and he said, "I think Dave Cobb is the guy for you," so he sent demos to Dave. Dave loved the demos, and told me, "I think you're a badass but you're a soul singer, not a country singer." He told me he had been wanting to make a Muscle Shoals-type album on a female. Here I was at the most vulnerable point of my career, and I had the biggest opportunity of my career. The way I got through was by letting go, trusting God, and singing into the microphone. After five days of recording, I found out that the album investor had bailed, and I wanted to run. My good friend and manager, Dave Claassen, told me just to show up; "you go in there and sing your ass off and it's gonna happen." Then David Macias heard "Broken," and he told me that Thirty Tigers would pay for the album and help get it out there. "I knew it; I knew you were supposed to make an album and that you were no through with music," David told me.

HC: How did you select the songs?

Bishop: I had three songs that I'd been holding onto: "Poor Man's Melody," "Looking for You," and "Be with You," which I sang at my friend Tim Krekel's memorial service, and which I found out he co-wrote with Chris Stapleton. Then we dug for covers. I think Paul Kennerly had sent Dave all these mix CDs, so Dave and I sat up one night, drinking tequila and choosing songs. [laughs] The only song that we found that we kept was "Mercy." Before I left that night, I was uncertain that I could sing it, and I kept telling Dave. "Music is supposed to be fun, Bonnie B," he said. That's when I realized maybe I'd just lost the joy of making music fun. Among the other songs Dave selected include "Done Died," by the Mississippi bluesman Boyd Rivers, a spiritual Dave had found on YouTube. He'd been saving it for someone special, he told me, and I cried when I heard it.

HC: What's your approach to songwriting?

Bishop: I generally write from inspiration. I get an idea and I chase it down. I'm a much better writer when I show up every day to the page, and I do that every day—except now when it's a little crazy with the release of the album—from 10am to 2pm. I'm inspired by writers like Steven Pressfield [The War of Art] and Julia Cameron [The Artist's Way], who taught me that artists have to have discipline; you can be successful when you prove you have the discipline to show up and do the writing.

HC: Who are your three greatest musical influences?

Bishop: Bonnie Raitt: I reached out to her when I thought I had given up music, because she went through the same thing when she was 35; she took two years away and changed her life and got happy. I told her I had left music, and she said, "what do you mean you left music; you are the music." Carole King: she's a huge influence as a lyricist, plus she's so genuine and comfortable with herself; Otis Redding: "Dreams"; Aretha Franklin; Patti Griffin: If I could make people cry like she made me cry when I heard her album, 1000 Kisses…; Darrell Scott.

HC: What was it like working with Dave Cobb?

Bishop: I could never have made a record without Dave Cobb without having spent a year and a half letting go. I was always very wary about trusting anybody. When we first met at Noshville in Nashville, I walked in and saw him, and he looked so cool. I was a little scared; he looked so cool, but then I thought he was the kind of guy I would have wanted to make music with. Dave pushed me; I needed someone to make me get back up and sing. Nobody had ever recorded me in such a vulnerable state before. In the studio when I would tell him I didn't like the way my voice sounded on a take, he'd tell me that "it's all in your head, Bonnie; get out of your head and sing." I've never worked with anybody so ballsy; he would go alone into a room with a song and come back out and say let's record it this way. But, Morgane Stapleton is the one who told him to make the record with me. She told him, "I love Bonnie Bishop's voice; you have to make a record on her." Dave Cobb had a vision for this album from the beginning; I'd been trying make a record like this for fourteen years, and he pulled it out of me.

HC: What's next for you?

Bishop: A long line of highways; I'm already seeing it. [laughs] The joy for me is being onstage with the band and feeling the power of music coming through me. I also worked on a screenplay during that year and a half about a woman folk singer; sort of "Inside Llewyn Davis Meets Little Miss Sunshine." [laughs] Also, there are so many great stories behind this album that I'm thinking about doing another series of stories and songs with these songs. In the end, I just want to be making great music and inspiring people.