Bonnie Whitmore Searches For Perspective With "Right/Wrong" (premiere + interview)
Bonnie Whitmore shares her latest single "Right/Wrong" ahead of upcoming LP, Last Will and Testament, which is a powerful and thought-provoking follow-up to her 2016 release.
Bonnie Whitmore's upcoming album, Last Will and Testament, releases on 2 October and it's a powerful and thought-provoking follow-up to 2016's Fuck With Sad Girls. There's a danger with topical songwriters that their material will become dated and although Whitmore tapes into the zeitgeist here, the material full transcends the moment in which it arrives. The subject matter ranges from a friend's suicide (the title track), to the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris ("None of My Business) to rape culture ("Asked for It"). There's also a breathtaking rendition of Centro-Matic's "Flashes and Cables" that may very well supplant the original. In all, Last Will and Testament is a confident, necessary statement from an artist whose time has come.
Also included on the LP is "Right/Wrong", which Whitmore co-wrote with co-producer Scott Davis. "He has two kids, [under ten], and I asked him how he discussed divisions in our country with them," she notes. Her mind turned to a television icon of the past, though she realized her view didn't necessarily jibe with his. "I was actually thinking about Mr. Rogers when we were writing the song. But I don't think I'm a nice enough person to be Mr. Rogers."
Another familiar figure from her childhood ultimate provided some inspiration: Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. "Miss Frizzle had this magic school bus, and the kids would go on these field trips. In order to learn about the anatomy, she would shrink the bus, and it would go into one of the kids, through the nose. You'd follow it around the body and learn about all kinds of stuff: Science and she'd tell kids, 'Go out there and experience life. Make messes!'" Whitmore recalls. "She always had this attitude of, 'Don't be afraid of adventure.' She wasn't necessarily just love and kindness like Mr. Rogers was, but she really would push boundaries, take something that might have seemed scary and turn it into something to be enjoyed. I always found her inspirational in that regard."
"So, in writing that song, we thought about what questions we wanted to ask people when things are so divided. The first verse starts with 'Who do you want to be?' Then, 'Where do you want to go' and 'What do you want to say?' I'm asking my audience. I'm not preaching to them. I'm genuinely asking them the question because I want them to try to answer it."
"Right/Wrong", like much of Last Will and Testament feels like one of those songs that have always existed. Taking a page from classic music of the 1960s and 1970s, it sinks its hooks into the listener early, not letting them go until well after the last notes have floated into the ether. But its lyrics ask much more of the listener than the average song, and they are ultimately one of the reasons we find ourselves returning to the track, to seek answers to the questions which it asks, and to bask in the comforting glow it provides. It is anthemic without being bombastic, thought-provoking without being didactic.
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What was the process for writing this album?
This record is a kind of sequel to Fuck With Sad Girls. When I went in to make that record, I wanted to have songs that were personalized stories of mine. I'd been trying to write songs that seemed sellable, and I feel like with the first two, I was trying to make the perfect Americana records. I wasn't necessarily getting where I wanted to. I had this epiphany that if I was going to continue making music, I wanted to include songs that included some of my vulnerabilities. I wanted to be more upfront with my depression and things of that nature.
It seemed to go really well for me. Writing a song like "Fuck With Sad Girls" is the reason I ended up going on tour with James McMurtry, who is a personal hero of mine. That gave me a push to put out this record with these kinds of songs. A lot of them are ones that I've had for a long time, "Asked For It", especially.
That's a good one.
I wrote it back when [former US Representative from Missouri, Todd Akin] was talking about "legitimate rape" [in 2012]. That was what inspired the song. When I tried to perform it, it was like the air was being sucked out of the room. People just weren't ready for a pop song about rape culture. With the #MeToo movement and the culture being more open about discussing these kinds of things, with people speaking up about what they think is wrong, broken, or needs to be fixed, [it seemed like the right time to release it].
One out of four women has been sexually assaulted or raped. That's a hard number to get through to yourself, especially when you have a society that doesn't want to talk about it. I've gotten a lot of inspiration from people like Brené Brown, who talks about shame and vulnerability and not being ruled by the fear that you have those things because that just gives it power.
I always felt that if I could write songs that helped the conversation start, then I was doing my part to try and help heal.
That strong really struck me because I don't know that I've heard what you're saying there said in that way on a record before.
It's one thing to think something. It's another to say it out loud. It becomes a totally different thing when you are being heard saying it. I make it an audience participation song at my shows. I ask people to repeat the phrase, "asked for it". By the end of the song, I feel like a lot of people who hadn't thought about it before don't want to say it anymore. That was the point. You understand that we shouldn't be blaming the victim. We should be able to allow the victim to communicate with us, even though it's really painful to hear it. It's the only way that we can get past these things.
I'm so delighted that the Chicks have a new record out. I've always been a huge fan of theirs, and when I first heard "Gaslighter", tears came out of my eyes. I hadn't heard their voices on the radio for so long. I didn't realize how detrimental that was for me. I play in Texas, I grew up here, and when I would go and play these podunk shows in rural places, I'd have a whole bunch of redneck, good ol' boys to shut up and sing and "Don't play that fucking Dixie Chicks music" and all that stuff.
I thought, "If you don't want me to talk about stuff, I'm going to sing about it." That's what I really try to do with these songs, which is to be able to have a conversation within the song.
I was also really struck by the song "Fine".
That's the first co-write I did with Jaimee Harris. She's an incredible singer-songwriter. We had this shared tendency to be non-committal sometimes. I had just gotten out of a relationship, and she was in a different place, but we discovered that we had similar approaches in terms of how we approach relationships. To me, it's about wanting to check in and see where you are and have some sort of understanding instead of having some things left unsaid.
As a woman, I'm always checking to see if everyone's OK. "What's going on? Is there something you need? Are you happy right now?" [Laughs.] It was such an easy co-write. Once we wrote it, we said, "This is pop gold." And I always like to say that there's a difference between "I am fine" and "I will be fine."
There's a thing that's been going on in the pandemic: I enjoy the solitude, but I have to check in with myself so that I don't become a total mess.
I remember having a day, I think, in April, where it was starting to set in, what this was and what it really meant. I was having one of those days where I meant to wash my face, and I grabbed hair conditioner. "What's wrong with you, Whitmore?" I did another thing that seemed really dumb, and then there was a click in my head, "Oh, that's your depression right there. It's OK."
Once I can call it out, then it's a lot easier. I think a lot of depression is just picking at yourself and tearing your self down so that no one else has to do it for you. "That's why I'm feeling angry right now. That's where this is coming from." Once you can identify it, see where it's coming from, it's not the villain that it was.
Tell me about covering Centro-Matic's "Flashes and Cables".
I grew up in Denton, and Centro-Matic was the band that I was in love with in high school. We used to have a thing called the Fry Street Fair. I wasn't old enough to get tickets because I think you had to be over 18. We would crawl onto the roof of this art supply store and see behind where the band was. You could watch the show outside of the festival but still be part of it. That was the first time I saw Centro-Matic play.
I saw them in Austin on their farewell tour. Then I also went up to Denton for their final show at Dan's Silverleaf. That's my original church. Music venues are churches to me, more so than just places to get drunk. It was just such an amazing, surreal moment, just being around these people who were completely in love with this band. There was so much joy, so many tears. It was such a beautiful thing.
"Flashes and Cables" seemed to be the perfect added thing to put on there. I did want to have a cover song on the album like I did with Fuck With Sad Girls. I was so glad that Will [Johnson, formerly of Centro-Matic] sang on it.