January 23, 1980
By Sharisse Zeff
Patience and Luck pull Karla through "Restless Nights"
A little bit of luck, has often spelled the difference between victory and defeat for many artists in the music business. Karla Bonoff, singer/songwriter/performer, is perhaps a testimony to that fact,
A relatively unknown, unseen, unheard of songwriter three years ago, she has emerged today as one of the brightest, most promising female performers that the 1980s can look forward too.
A native of Los Angeles, she grew up with the music industry of this bustling city. She learned at an early age what it would take to become a solo artist in a business so many people dreamed about, but so few ever achieved.
At age 19, Karla, along with her then boyfriend, Kenny Edwards, formed a group called Bryndle that also included Andrew Gold and Wendy Waldman. The group disbanded in 1971, and Bonoff set about the task of working on her songwriting over the next few years. Her patience and perseverance finally paid off when Linda Ronstadt decided to record three of her songs for her now classic album, Hasten Down The Wind. The three songs that Ronstadt recorded, "Someone To Lay Down Beside Me," "Lose Again," and "If He's Ever Near," all became big hits for Ronstadt, and launched Bonoff's career as a songwriter.
Two years ago, Karla opened for Jackson Brown on his tour through the Midwest part of the country. That exposure gave Bonoff the confidence she needed as well as opening the eyes of thousands of people to one of the most talented singer/ songwriters to come around in a long time.
Now, with her second album, Restless Nights, nearing the gold status in sales, and two singles sweeping the national charts, Bonoff is embarking on a month long tour of the Midwest, beginning Jan. 23, in Oklahoma City. Here, in a candid interview with JAM's Sharisse Zeff, Bonoff discusses her career, her views and influences on songwriting, and her relationship with other female singers.
JAM: Do you listen to other female vocalists do your songs?
"Yeah. When Linda (Ronstadt) did my songs, obviously I listened to that. And, I was around when she was recording them. When Bonnie (Raitt) did the one song, I heard it after it came out. Generally, when somebody records your song, you are interested in hearing it."
JAM: Does it affect the way you perform them?
"I think with Linda it did because she recorded it before I did so l was conscious of how her record sounded. With Bonnie. I was already doing the songs the way I was doing them. So, mostly with Linda it did. Usually you keep to the way you are doing them anyway unless you feel that somebody has really improved something, then you take it from there."
JAM: Do you feel that you get compared to Linda Ronstadt a lot?
"I used to a lot, but not so much anymore. When my record came out shortly after hers, and it had the same three songs, there was a lot of comparison then. I think it was only because we did the same songs. Now, I don't get so much of it anymore."
JAM: Do you feel that you get confused with her on the radio?
"Well, I think yes. I think there's people out there that still don't know who's who sometimes when they hear, like "Someone To Lay Down Beside Me." I was at the radio station one day and they were playing my version, and some girl calls up and says, 'Is that Linda Ronstadt?' they said no, that was Karla Bonoff, and she goes, 'Oh, shoot!'"
JAM: How did it feel to have her recording your songs when you knew you could sing them too?
"Well, at the place that I was at, see, you don't have a record deal yet and you don't really know if you’re going to be a solo artist. And, you also don't have any money. It's really something that you are going to want to do. Having her record three of my songs was a real big break for me. It wasn't anything that I ever hesitated about at all."
JAM: When did you decide you were ready to make your own album?
"Shortly after that, like six months. I had been working towards that for a long time. But, it all came together because I didn't really push for it. I was playing in a club, like on a hot night, at the Troubadour, and this guy from CBS heard me, and that's sort of how it started. It kind of happened naturally."
JAM: And it was what you wanted all along?"
"I think so, yeah, because I was in the music business for ten years at that time."
JAM: What's your opinion of Restless Nights, as compared to the first album?
"It's a lot better in a way. I think that the singing is better, I think that the songwriting in a lot of ways is a lot better. I think that I have gotten better at writing. In a way, there is a lot of magic to the first record that came out of the fact that the songs are written out of so many years, and I had a lot to choose from. Restless Nights, was really put together in a much smaller period of time."
JAM: Do you feel that you write better when you have more time or when you are under pressure - pressure to produce an album?
"I think that a certain amount of pressure is good. If it is too much, then it just makes you really inhibited, and you can't do anything. So, I had a little trouble with that because there was so much pressure that I just couldn't' write for a couple of months. But, I think the thing you have to do is take as much lime as you need, and not worry about deadlines, whether other people are making an album a year or not. I just have to take longer, as long as it takes."
JAM: Were you concerned during the two months you were unable to write?
"Yes. You have a first album that was relatively successful and you go, 'Uh oh, I can't write now. What am I going to do?' It scared me, but the good thing about it was I had to re-learn my writing process and put some discipline into it. So, it was a big hurdle for me to learn how to write under a certain amount of pressure. I had a feeling that some of the songs maybe wouldn't have come out good if I couldn't wait for it to come naturally. I found that that wasn't true. A lot of it is just hard work. There is a certain amount of inspiration for a writer, but there is discipline. You have to make yourself work at it."
JAM: Did anybody help you during the period you were having difficulties, or was it lust you alone?
"My producer Kenny Edwards helped with some of it somewhat, and friends obviously helped to try and encourage me. But ultimately, it is something that you have to deal with yourself because most of it comes from you."
JAM: The split with Kenny Edwards, was it before the Restless Nights, came out?
"Yes. It was actually before we started working together."
JAM: Did this effect your writing?
"Well, a lot of the subject matter, that is what it is about. Sort of going through a breaking up with somebody, so it effected my writing in a sense that it gave me a lot to write about. Yeah, it definitely makes it more difficult also if you are going through a transition in your life and you are trying to get a lot of work done."
JAM: The music on Restless Nights gives the impression that you were very sad. How much of it reflects your real personality?
"I think that with writing, everybody has a certain genre they write best in. I write best in that kind of genre, so people think that my life must be real depressing. But, it is just a part of my life. I think that it reflects maybe 40 percent of what my life is like."
JAM: Are you involved with anybody right now, or is it important to you to be in love?
"Oh, it is real important to me, but, I think that I have such a high standard set for what I think is good. I don't come across it too often. Plus, after coming from a relationship that lasted nine years, I feel that it is time to be out on my own at this point. With making records, being on the road, being out of town, I don't feel as though I could have much of a real personal relationship with anybody."
JAM: Is it a growing experience being on your own? Is this going to reflect your future writing?
"Definitely. I think that my writing reflects what happened. All of my next songs will definitely reflect what I felt for the last year."
JAM: Do you think that you need to be feeling pain to be more productive?
"I don't think that you need to be feeling it to be more productive. But, I think that a lot of artists use writing to kind of understand - in the sense that if you are going through some things and you have some problems, writing about it gets it out of your system. You may end up being more productive when you are going through some problems. I don't think that that is necessary to have that to write."
JAM: In an article you were quoted as saying you wanted Restless Nights to be more humorous and less dreamy. What happened? This one seems be more emotional than the first.
"I think that it is, and it isn't. There's a song on the album, 'Loving You,' and 'Walk Into The Room,' that even though those songs seem sad, actually on the outside, I think that ultimately, there is a much more optimistic kind of view on things than there was on my first one. I think that songs like 'Lose Again,' - I mean I am really the victim there. You know, like there is no escape, but it you have songs on there like 'Never Stop My Head,' - what I am saying is no matter what this guy does or what happens in my life, you can't stop what it is what I am doing. It is something from the heart and nothing is ever going to be able to stop it. So, if you examine those songs a little more carefully, you will find that it is really not all that sad. Sad things have happened to me, but, I am looking at them and coming out of them."
JAM: "Trouble Again," and "Loving You," are two of the more upbeat songs on the album, and two of the most popular. Are you writing more in this fashion, like rock 'n' roll perhaps?
"I hope so, it is real fun to play those types of songs on stage I think that the more that you start performing, and you get out there, the more you tend to write like that."
JAM: Your songs all tell stories, and you have a lot of emphasis on words. Is this how you Intend to continue, or are you going to change your style of writing?
"I don't think that I would ever drastically change my style of writing. I think basically what I do, is write pop songs and ballads, And, there is a basic kind of structure to that and so. I don't think that I will ever try to change that. It is hard to tell until you sit down and write because you don't know what you are going to write. It just comes out."
JAM: Do your songs affect the listener?
"Oh, definitely. Everybody in their life is always in a relationship or out of a relationship. I think.no matter what you do, or what your work is, you are always faced with those kinds of personal relationships. I think that people listen to a lot of those songs and they feel that they can relate to them. They have been through those situations where they just came out of one like that, and I think that people relate to them in this way."
JAM: Do you feel that your songs make an important contribution, that they have a message to convey?
"I think that mostly what it is, is just when people see what other people go through, those same kinds of things, it makes them feel more comfortable about their own lives. As far as I can see, that's how I really identify. In terms of real important contributions, I don't know. It is hard for somebody to judge their own work like that."
JAM: Do you feel that under certain circumstances, your songs can be rather depressing?
"Yes, sometimes. But, I mean, life can be rather depressing too."
JAM: For you, is it a release?
"Of course. I think that instead of walking around holding something inside of yourself, and never working it out, or never really talking to anyone about it, the one thing that you can do when you write songs is you can really get something out of your system. Whether it was a bad experience or a good one, you somehow made use of it, or you were able to turn it into some kind of art. I think that in that sense, it is an excellent way for me to be able to express myself."
JAM: Writing is a personal thing. Do you ever feel shy about your music or fear rejection? From an audience in general? Having people hear songs that you wrote that come from Inside of you?
"Well, there is a point in which when you write something and it becomes a song, or it is on a record, or it becomes art, then it starts to become detached from you a little bit. And anytime that I sing a song, or anytime that I hear one of my records on the radio, I don't feel like I am exposing myself anymore. There is that initial feeling when you first write it. But, like I said, it's still creative, it is an art. So, I have been able to kind of detach myself."
JAM: They say that there is safety in numbers. How does it feel being a soloist?
"It is a lot of responsibility in the sense that all of the focus is on you. You have to sing every song. When l used to be in a band, it was different because you would have a couple of songs where the responsibility was on you, but then you could be in the background. There is a lot of responsibility, but as with anything, the more responsibility that you take, the more prospect there is for a lot of enjoyment and fulfillment."
JAM: How does it feel being a headliner?
"It is the same thing. It is more responsibility, but it is also a lot more fun. When you open for someone else, and you are playing a half hour, nobody ever expects the opening act to be any good anyway. When you ARE, then it is exciting to the people and it is easy for me. But it is a lot more fun to get up on stage and play over an hour and really run through the material, really challenge yourself. At this point, it would be hard for me to go back to being an opening act. In fact, one day out of this tour, we opened for Steven Stills, and played like 35 minutes. It seemed really strange to me after doing a whole tour headlining. It is not anywhere near satisfying."
JAM: Do you enjoy touring?
"Yes, as long as it is not too long at a time. I think for me, four weeks is as much as I can do, and then I need a break for a while. Then I can go back out. You get a little disoriented after a while. You need to come home."
JAM: How did you happen to be asked to open the Jackson Browne tour a couple of years ago?
"I have known Jackson for a long time because he used to do the same Monday nights at the Troubadour, like I did, starting in the late 60s. So, we have been friends for a long time. I think that he was going out to do this tour, and my first record had just come out. He always wanted to have like a female singer open for him, so it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It worked out great. It was one of the best tours that I have ever done."
JAM: Why didn't you sing with him when you were on tour?
"We were going to. We kept meaning to work out a song that we'd do at the end of the show. We never got time, he was so busy rehearsing his band for the tour. Once you get out on the road, there is so little extra time to pull those things together. We kept talking about it but we never did. It is too bad."
JAM: You are a singer and a songwriter. There are female performers that don't write and are famous. Do you have any feelings about that?
"Well, I really enjoy being a writer because I feel that I am providing my own material for myself, and I think of myself still as more of a writer than a singer. If I wasn't a writer. I don't know if I would be out there trying to compete as a vocalist, because I don't think that I can. If you can write your own material, you always have a source for it. I know somebody like Linda really has to search for good songs, has to find new songs. That is why a lot of people are doing oldies and stuff, because it is really difficult to find a whole batch of new songs that nobody's heard. Most of the writers are making their own records and not giving their songs away. Even though writing is real tough, I would rather be in the position I am in because it really makes it easy on me. Plus, if I ever decide to stop touring, or making my own records, I can still continue to write forever and make a living. So, it is a nice thing to have to fall back on."
JAM: What If you were no longer able to write?
"Gosh, if I was no longer able to write, I don't think that I would be able to sing either. I can't imagine what would happen though, if I couldn't write. Like, I said, I don't think of myself as a vocalist like Linda Ronstadt. I don't think that I could compete in that world if I was just going to be a singer. So, I don't think that I would sing if I couldn't write."
JAM: When did you start writing?
"My sister and I use to play together. I used to write melodies and she used to write lyrics as teenagers. That orientation really did start as a writer rather than a singer. I sang very little in that situation. And later on I was in a band called Bryndle. I was writing in that band too. Wendy Waldman was doing most of the vocals then."
JAM: So you were writing first and happened to have a beautiful voice?
"Well, it took a while to develop my voice. It was a year or two before I made my first record. I really didn't feel like I could sing well enough to record. That's most of the reason that I waited to make that record. I just didn't wake up when I was twelve years old and start singing. I really had to work on it. Most of it is just singing a lot, singing every day. I took some lessons, and getting on the road with Jackson ultimately is what developed my voice."
JAM: What was the reason for Bryndle splitting up in '71?
"Well, we made an album, and they (record company) didn't know what to do with it. They were confused by the music on it. At that point, Wendy had a lot of songs and really felt that she was ready to make her own record, and the band just kind of fell apart because it wasn't doing well. So, she went ahead to make her first album for Warner Brothers. We split up."
JAM: Were you sad about that happening?
"Yeah, it really was because it was a great band. It was real fun to be in. It was real fun performing on stage. We sounded great, all four of us. Between the four of us writing and stuff, it was a great band. It was Fleetwood Mac ten years ago. Unfortunately, I think we were ahead of our time, and you know, we really couldn't get the record company to believe in what we were doing. We were starving, so we really had to split up. I was real disappointed about that because it was a real fun situation."
JAM: Was it a little frightening for you. One minute there is a band, and the next it Is gone?
"Yes. I was 18 or 19, and I thought, 'Oh, tomorrow I will be rich and famous with this band' And then they split up. I said, 'Oh oh. What am I going to do now? I was really posed with a problem then of, 'Okay, I'm going to have to work really hard if I want to be a solo artist.' I was not a real exalted singer, not a particularly great writer either. I was certainly not as developed as Wendy was then. I was not ready to make a record, so up until that point, I really had to spend the next three years really working on it."
JAM: Was Ronstadt recording your three songs on Hasten Down The Wind the turning point in your writing career?
"I think that there was two. I had done a little performing before I made my album, and then I couldn't really start to support myself. But I think that the biggest turning point came after I went on the road with Jackson. Until you go on tour, you never really have that kind of experience of singing every single night, thirty or forty minutes for a month or two. That is the one thing that really changed the singing, and I think that that was probably the biggest turning point for me was my first tour. I have been very lucky in my career in terms of the things that have happened to me. The people that I have been able to meet: the fact that I have grown up in Los Angeles and I have been in contact with a lot of people. I have been lucky, and I haven't had to struggle all that much. You know, making those connections."
JAM: Do you enjoy doing other people's music as well as your own?
"I feel that the songs that I have done of other people have been so right for my voice, so right for me, that I don't think of them as not my style or my song. It just seems as though it is all a part of my music. There are a lot of songs that I couldn't obviously do. But, the ones that I have done have just felt that they fit into my repertoire. I don't mind throwing in someone else's songs because it takes a load off of me a little. I don't write real fast, so it is tough for me to write nine or ten songs in a year that I think are really great. So instead of having some of mine not be as good, I'd rather do somebody else's."
JAM: Do you ever worry that one of these days you won't be able to write?
"Well, I think that once you have written one thing, you have proven to yourself that you can always write. Sometimes it is going to be harder or easier, depending on what your psychological state is at the time. Everybody goes through writer's slumps for different kinds of reasons, and I think that once you have gone through one serious writer's slump and gotten through it, you just have to remember that you did that and that it is possible. It is never going to be easy. Writing is not easy. I don't worry about the fact that sometimes I will stop writing unless I decided consciously I didn't want to do it anymore."
JAM: And what do you want for your future?
"I don't know. I am doing this a day at a time. At this point, I would like the albums to do well and each album to do better than the one before. I'd like to keep on building an audience, so I can keep on touring and going out-and playing. I got into this business because it was real and fun, and not because I set a goal on how famous I wanted to be or how much money I wanted to have. It's because it is real fun and an exciting way to live your life. So, I am just trying to maintain that kind of feeling. I'm really going an album at a time. But like I say, you need a certain amount of success at it and feedback in order to continue feeling good about it and doing it. Otherwise, you feel that maybe you are taking the wrong path. I would like to continue writing always, like I say, whether I am touring, recording, or whatever. I know I can't spend the next ten years being on the road six months of the year.
JAM: Has Restless Nights had an effect on you after going through such an emotional period while getting the album out? Will it have an effect on your future?
"Well, it's funny. You go, 'If I could just write this record, if I could just make this record, everything will be okay.' A year ago, I thought if I could just get these tunes done, get this record done. You find that you do that and you get it done. Then you go, 'Oh. okay. What's next?' It's like you are always faced with a new challenge and I think that what I found is that I got through the period, I'm a lot stronger, I have learned to be on my own, and how to deal with it. But, this time. I would really like to get a lot better at what I do. It's not just a point, it's not just a matter, 'If I can just write these songs and make this record.' Now I know that I can do that. And, what I would like to do is just get really, really good at songwriting and singing and have my next record be a step forward in terms of art."
JAM: Being a woman, is it harder being Independent, than say it would be for a man?
"Well, I think that whether you are a man or a woman, you have to learn to feel good about yourself, and feel good about being on your own. Being strong on your own. I am just a person like anybody else, looking for whatever you look for in your life to make you happy, to work, personal relationships, being in love, a family. I see myself as actually a pretty normal person. I don't think that I can carry on any kind of a decent relationship with anybody unless you can learn how to be yourself. Then you don't get into problems of depending on other people. You know to be on my own. But in the end, you are the only one to control your own life. You can't get that from anybody else."