“If I’m good enough for Paul Rodgers to sing with, then in my eyes I’ve made it no matter how many records I sell.” Sweetly soulful and powerful (think Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin), blues-rock singer-songwriter Deborah Bonham chats with PopMatters 20 Questions about Rodgers, a beautiful ex-racehorse named Jack, and other inspirations in her life and music. Well known and fully appreciated in the UK, those living stateside get a chance to hear why in her third album, Duchess, debuted in the US 24 June, which is sure to inspire music lovers to catch her on tour in the US in August and September.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The book would have to be Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It’s a very moving, terrifying and ultimately bizarrely uplifting real life account of a young girl’s struggle in Chairman’s Mao’s China. Her father believes and fights for communism and Mao, but ultimately, the family is destroyed.
It’s harrowing and it’s difficult for me/anyone to comprehend just how horrific it must have been for those people trying to survive in a regime where human life, the arts, history—everything that we take for granted—counted for nothing. And yet my main memory of the book is that of unbelievable courage. Jung is triumphant and now teaches at the London University—a true inspiration.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Well I’d like to say Snow White—living in the woods with all her little animals and little people, but I’m under no illusion whatsoever of how my character is and I’m only too aware of how I can be! So being honest, I would have to say the lead character in the Jerry Lewis version of The Nutty Professor. I can definitely be two people; quiet and unassuming during daylight hours, Buddy Love when night falls. (I only say the Jerry Lewis version ‘cause I don’t believe my backside is as big as the Eddie Murphy character’s is!)
3. The greatest album, ever?
There is no ‘one’ great album for me, but many… Certain albums during my life stand out—each one connected to a certain time, a certain incident, a certain love— Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Free’s Fire and Water, Bad Company’s Bad Co and Straight Shooter, Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood, Little Feet’s Sailin’ Shoes, Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, most Led Zeppelin albums, but especially IV and Physical Graffiti, Maggie Bell’s Suicide Sal, Janis Joplin’s Pearl, Brothers Johnson’s Strawberry Letter 23, virtually anything by Otis Redding, Al Green, Smokey Robinson…
I could be here forever but I’ll finish with the great, great Aretha Franklin song, “I Ain’t Never Loved a Man”. She’s Aretha Louise Franklin, I’m Deborah Louise Bonham. Now, if only I could share her voice, heart and soul as I do her middle name…
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Definitely early Star Trek for me. Big fan of Captain Kirk. My husband/ guitarist Peter, however, thinks he’s a Jedi Knight…
5. Your ideal brain food?
Equine psychology. I’m very interested in natural horsemanship and have been following the teachings of Monty Roberts, “the man who listens to horses”. He grew up watching the wild mustangs on the plains of Nevada and studying their behavior, then using that knowledge for his interaction with domestic horses. He seems to be a great and kind man, and his methods have definitely helped me with my troubled, rescued ex-racehorse, Jack.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Singing with Paul Rodgers on my album. Paul has always been a hero of mine, his voice is/was an inspiration to me. When I got the chance to go on tour with him as the opening act I couldn’t believe my luck. Without this sounding sycophantic, he really is as beautiful in person as his voice.
Paul, his wife Cynthia, and their team could not have been lovelier to me, which in this business is so very very rare. On the last night of the show, he invited me up to sing “Can’t Get Enough” with him. I think I got hysterical in the dressing room! He asked me if I knew the words… Did I? I’d worn the grooves off my record (yes I had it on vinyl).
I remember when Bad Company signed to Swan Song, the record label of Led Zeppelin. When the single “Can’t Get Enough” came out and was on Top of The Pops, my brother John got us all round the telly to watch it. He was really proud of the fact that Swan Song had signed this band. My love affair with Paul Rodger’s voice began.
The night of the show with him, I walked on stage and it felt like all my Christmases and birthdays had come at once. It was fanf**ingtastic! After that, we got together to duet on a song I had written for my new album, Duchess, called “Hold On”. Whenever I hear it now I get goosebumps. I’m so very proud of that moment. If I’m good enough for Paul Rodgers to sing with, then in my eyes I’ve made it no matter how many records I sell.
Also, Paul has supported my charity, The Racehorse Sanctuary, which gives homes and hope to racehorses that would otherwise be destroyed, sometimes under horrific circumstances. Some of the royalties from “Hold On” will go to that charity, as well.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Never giving up.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
I try not to covet. There are so many masterpieces throughout the world—from the heights of the Sisteen Chapel down to the beautiful pond in my garden. I prefer to think of such things as inspirational. Let those who have created such things bask in the glory.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I’d like to think I’m an accomplished horsewoman. I also speak French and Spanish, although I’m a bit rusty.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Always remove your makeup and drink a pint of water before bed. I follow this advice—but it’s usually not until I remember to, the next morning!
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
An all-in-one body shaper. It hides a multitude of sins—until you decide to bring someone home with you.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Charity shop clothes. I love rummaging and finding bargains like an Yves Saint Laurent jacket I acquired for £4 and knowing the money is going to a good cause. It’s recycling at its best!
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad. He sent my racehorse charity a fabulous, specially-made horse box. It’s been invaluable in transporting sick, injured horses to the vet and for fundraising at certain racecourses. I’d like to thank him over dinner at the Ritz. I’d hope he’d be the total gentleman and pay the bill for dinner, though!
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
At long last, I live in the here and now. I’ve spent years living in the past. I think we all have done that, when we’ve had tragedy in our lives. I’ve lost both my dear brothers and found my father dead. I used to time travel in my mind to when we were all together and happy. But I found that not only was I living in a fantasy world, but that my real life and the people in it were suffering.
I had to learn to let go and appreciate what I have now and live my life the best I can. I enjoy and embrace this time now, I have no interest in traveling to another time.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
The company of my ex-racehorses Jack, Winnie and Bash, and the dogs, Sally and Freddy.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Friends, animals, music and good red wine.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I live in the country, on a small farm in West Sussex, Southern England. You can just about see the sea from our bedroom window, which I love.
There is something beautiful about living on the coast—a sense of freedom. The wildlife is amazing and the sea, of course, is a magnificent creature. We have the best of both worlds here, as we are situated at the foot of the beautiful South Downs, which I can access from the bridle path that runs adjacent to our farm. I’m definitely blessed.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I think you should probably leave now. And to the next one: No more war.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m working on promoting my new album, Duchess, on Rhino Records. We have various shows and tours lined up and I’m very excited about going to America.