Haley Bonar interview: 'You need to let people really see you on stage'

The American singer is excited about conquering her fears – and returning to the UK in spring

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The Independent Culture

“I feel like the phrase ‘slow and steady wins the race’ is something that constantly comes back to me,” says Canadian-born singer-songwriter Haley Bonar, as she talks about the gradual rise in attention she has experienced in the UK.

Bonar has just finished sound-checking at The Ritz in Manchester where, shortly after we meet, she will open for her Memphis Industries label-mates, Field Music.

The day after, she will fly home, to Minnesota, having shown off her new album – the incredible Impossible Dream, which came out in August – to sold out venues on this side of the Atlantic.

Her stock has risen so much – with years of hard work resulting in great demand – that she will return in spring 2017 for another run of UK and Ireland dates.

The 33-year-old was just 19 when she was spotted by musician Alan Sparhawk and invited to tour with his band, Low, prompting an immediate drop out of college to focus on her music.

“That feels like a lifetime ago – back then I had no responsibilities and no expectations whatsoever,” she says.

“I just did whatever the f**k I wanted and didn’t really take it seriously ‘cos it was just something that I liked to do for fun. But it evolved into a career for me and this is my work. This is my business.”

Bonar comes across as self-assured and is clearly enjoying touring her new record but this confidence was hard-won. Given the opportunity to go back in time, she knows exactly what advice she would impart to her younger self, slapping the roof of her Honda Civic, about to set off on that US tour with Low.

“I’d say let people see you,” she says. “I was very guarded and terrified of performing. For some tours, I didn’t even face the audience, I’d face the wall on the side of the stage. I was convinced that everybody hated me and there was no real joy in it until I got over that part, because it was crippling.”

She then proffers some more hypothetical guidance that could easily be mistaken for a lyric from one of her brilliant bittersweet numbers: “I would say: ‘You’re going to be doing this, you’re really good and you need to start valuing that so that people can start valuing you’.”

Since those early days, Bonar has found her way through that overwhelming stage-fright and built a prolific body of work fully deserving of the status it has earned her.

“It just feels like a relief,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting frustrated because I wasn’t getting as much attention, or getting my records out in the way I wanted. I would always be like, ‘Goddamit. What am I doing?’ but I’d keep doing it anyway because I can’t not do it.

“I feel really blessed because I have always been writing things. Whether that’s writing a story or a song or a journal entry or whatever – I don’t know how to not do that. It’s like breathing for me.”

The latest release in that impressive body of work, Impossible Dream, boasts a broad stylistic pallet, with Bonar confidently crossing genres with ease.

For the most part, the album was written last year before being recorded and co-produced in Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studios with her long-time collaborator Jacob Hansen (whose brother, Jeremy, now plays drums in Bonar’s band).

But some of its songs were written as 2014’s Last War LP was being released and, in fact, ‘Kismet Kill’ – an undisputed album highlight – began life well before that.

“‘Kismet Kill’ was a melody and a guitar part that I had been messing around with, without any lyrics, for probably about six years, off and on,” she says. “It would just come back to me and then one day it just made sense.”

It is a typical Bonar song: crystalline-voiced, brilliantly reverb-rich, flaunting her knack of matching infectious melody with sharp, affecting lyrics.

It sits pretty on the diverse Impossible Dream, complementing its slower moments, such as the achingly beautiful ‘I Can Change’ – a song that twinkles just as much as the punk-flecked ‘Called You Queen’ snarls.

The latter is the song from whose lyrics the album takes its title. “I feel like it really embodied, as much as a title can, the majority of the songs on the record,” she says.

“These songs are all going back and forth between that confidence and lack of confidence, and that humility, vulnerability and success. It’s all measured by how much you can grow and change and become a better person.”

And so the invitation to appear on BBC 2’s Later... with Jools Holland, where she performed  ‘Called You Queen’, is a testament to Bonar’s own growth as an artist.

It was a nerve-wracking but nonetheless highly enjoyable experience for the Minnesotan, who slotted it into her increasingly busy diary around interviews, radio sessions and concerts, split between sold-out headline dates and three support gigs for Field Music.

“When we rolled up to the studio I was feeling suddenly very anxious,” she says. “I’ve never done the live-TV thing to that extent. And then there’s The Temptations standing on the same stage as me and it all hit me.”

She has, at the time of this interview, only one show of her tour left to play – an amazing trip to the UK is drawing to a close and Bonar is excited to be flying home, before heading out for some US dates.

“It’s been very gruelling and we haven’t had a single day off,” she says, “but it’s been so cool and I love it here. I’m excited to come back in the spring.”

Slow and steady has served her well, it seems, but as Bonar’s ever-growing fanbase urges her to hurry back to UK venues, it is evident that she is one who loves the thrill of the chase.

Haley Bonar’s UK tour dates:

27 March 2017 - Brighton, Komedia

28 March 2017 - Nottingham, The Bodega Social Club

29 March 2017 - Manchester, Night & Day Cafe

31 March 2017 - Dublin, The Workman's Club

01 April 2017 - Liverpool, Central Library

03 April 2017 - Newcastle, The Cluny

04 April 2017 - Norwich, Norwich Arts Centre 

05 April 2017 - Bristol, Thekla

06 April 2017 - London, The Dome

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