Track by Track is a recurring new music feature in which an artist offers a comprehensive rundown of their new album.
On March 19th, 1996, the world was introduced to one of alternative rock’s most steadfast and powerful singer-songwriters, Tracy Bonham. That’s the day she released her debut album, The Burdens of Being Upright, a record that would go Gold and produce “Mother Mother”, the only single by a female solo artist to top the Billboard Alternative Songs chart until Lorde’s “Royals” 17 years later. An inspiration for many and a historically important release, Burdens holds a special place in many music fans’ hearts even today.
Now, to celebrate her debut’s 20th anniversary, Bonham has re-recorded the entire thing as Modern Burdens. This is more than a self-tribute album, however, as the lyrics of Burdens have as much resonance today as they did two decades ago. “This album was written about an abusive ex-boyfriend more than twenty years ago,” Bonham said in her announcement of the project, “and the lyrics are finding their way into present day conversations I am/we are having about misogyny, making themselves relevant again.”
She chose to highlight that fight by releasing Modern Burdens today, October 11th, aka International Day of the Girl. It’s also why she brought aboard a number of other women to help her reimagine the tracks in their new, stripped down setting. Tanya Donelly (Belly, The Breeders), Rachel Yamagata, New Pornagraphers’ Kathryn Calder, Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, Australian pop singer Angie Hart, Nicole Atkins, and Speedy Ortiz/Sad13’s Sadie Dupuis all appear throughout the record. “I am forever grateful to have these seven amazing and talented women in my life and on my new Modern Burdens album,” Bonham tells Consequence of Sound. “I wanted to re-record my debut album with a new twist, but I never imagined that I would have such a cast of generous, beautiful, spiritual women by my side.”
You can order the record for yourself here, and stream the whole thing below.
For more insight on what it was like re-recording such a beloved debut with so many talented female artists, Bonham has broken down Modern Burdens for our latest Track by Track. Read on to learn how prominent a role Twitter had in the collaborations, how the songs’ meanings changed with time, and what it was like reflecting on these tracks 20 years later.
After becoming a mother myself, I wanted to rewrite the lyrics to say, “Mom, WTF, you didn’t tell me motherhood would be this hard…. Everything’s FINE!” But we are also celebrating twenty years of change for everyone. So, I felt it necessary to make it less personal and more relevant to today’s news. When I call home these days, I try to remain calm but I end up screaming, “Everything’s FINE” and this time it’s not about being hungry or dirty, it’s about being scared shitless for everyone’s safety and well-being.
In the early 90’s I was a classical violinist turned rocker girl, touring around in a van, wearing Converse shoes, being ironic with my electric guitar whenever possible. “Navy Bean” was one of those songs where I thumbed my nose at my classical education. The simple chord structure, with the rapid fire drumming and the complicated song form made the song interesting, but it was tight and hemmed-in and the song wasn’t allowed to breathe or exude sexuality. The cryptic lyrics and the quick tempo was my way of hiding from the truth at that time — that I had been sexually and emotionally abused by an ex-boyfriend. Today, I sing the song differently, as a mother and as a woman who has healed from the injuries of the past, and as a woman who can sing and play the guitar with sexuality not just irony.
“Tell It To The Sky” (featuring Nicole Atkins):
Nicole was one of the first women my producer, John Wlaysewski (Late Cambrian), and I had reached out to sing on my album. I love Nicole’s voice and I love her artistry. I am lucky enough to I know her as a friend too. She immediately responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” and told me about how The Burdens Of Being Upright had inspired her. We sent her two song choices that we thought might be appropriate for her and she immediately said “I love ‘Tell It To The Sky’.” Nicole was gracious enough to fly to Brooklyn from Nashville to record her vocals in John’s home studio in between tour dates promoting her new (and amazing) album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee.
“Kisses” (featuring Rachel Yamagata):
Rachael is a dear friend of mine. John and I felt her deep, sultry voice would sound amazing on Kisses. While taking a break from touring her wonderful Tightrope Walker album, she came over to my studio in Woodstock, NY and we recorded her vocals to my scratch guitar track. The track morphed into something completely different as John and I arranged it for ambient guitar and violin section instead of the lonely desert guitar sound it was created with. Rachael’s voice was the glue that held it together as we tried other versions around the single vocal track.
“Brain Crack” (featuring Kathryn Calder):
Kathryn’s voice is a beautiful thing to behold. I have always been a fan of the New Pornographers and became a bigger fan when she joined the band. She adds her cautious beauty to everything she touches. Her solo work is excellent too, and her videos have an irony I totally enjoy. I met her through Twitter (yes, I Tweeted at her) and she wrote back an excited message saying The Burdens Of Being Upright was an influential album for her. We spoke on the phone and I knew she and I would be friends. She chose “Brain Crack” from a short list. John transformed the 30-second odd little ditty that I had previously recorded on the violin for the Burdens album, and he made it into a vibey, sexy song that I cannot stop listening to. Kathryn recorded all the vocals and harmonies in her recording studio at home in British Columbia and emailed the tracks to us, along with additional piano and keyboard tracks. She and my producer, John, turned this quirky snippet into a full blown Zero-7 like track.
Originally, this song was supposed to be the “big hit” back in the ’90s. The ill-fated plan was that “Mother Mother” would be the set up and this one would be the slam dunk. It had swirling electric guitars, massive drums, a screaming pop chorus and a rushed tempo of youth in the ’90s. Today it is a contemplative piano ballad reminiscent of a 1970s singer-songwriter. “You’re the one, the one that froze the sun…” having been written about an intimidating and misogynist ex-boyfriend at the time, is now about allowing someone to take the reins of your life and ride it into darkness.
“One Hit Wonder”:
This song was my preemptive strike against anyone who might call me a “one hit wonder.” I must have had some intuition and probably felt pretty insecure about it back in the day. Re-recording this one with a pop sensibility and a bland pop vocal was intentional.
“Sharks Can’t Sleep” (Featuring Tanya Donelly):
I have always been a fan of Tanya’s work in Throwing Muses and Belly. I felt somewhat nervous reaching out to her (yes, via Twitter, again) because I assumed she was just too cool to even know the Burdens album. Something I should say about her and all of the women I came up with in the ’90s — we were pitted against each other. We were compared to each other. There wasn’t enough room for all of us so we felt competitive toward each other. So, I was happily surprised to receive her warm reaction: “I love the song ‘Sharks Can’t Sleep’.” She then wrote a direct message to me (via Twitter) telling me her heartwarming story how she had heard “Mother Mother” on a transistor radio while stranded in a foreign country and how it made her feel at home. We immediately became friends. She recorded her vocals in Massachusetts with the help of Scott Janowitz. I love how this album is a collaboration of so many incredibly talented people.
This song used to be my least favorite song on the album with its simple structure, its pop/wannabe-punk sensibility and it’s edgy lyrics about a misogynist boyfriend who only thought with his dick. Now it might be one of my favorite tracks. I can’t help but smile when I hear this song. This has to do with the production and I CANNOT thank John Wlaysewski enough for breathing new life into this song, as well as all the others.
“Every Breath” (Featuring Kay Hanley):
Kay and I basically cut our teeth in Boston together. She is one of the reasons why I wanted to start a band. I would go to Letters To Cleo shows in the early ’90s and study how it was done. I didn’t know how to be in a band. Kay certainly did. She could hold the entire room in the palm of her hand. Asking her to be on this album was a no brainer, and this song, in particular, screamed for her vocals. When I hear this version of “Every Breath” it takes me back to those Letters To Cleo shows at the Paradise, or TT The Bears, or The Middle East where the world was right in front of us.
“30 Seconds” (featuring Angie Hart):
Being in Boston in the ’90s was like going to alternative rock school. WFNX alternative radio station introduced me to many amazing bands and artists and Frente! was one of them. John Wlaysewski, producer for Modern Burdens, personally knew Angie, the singer for Frente!. He suggested that she sing one of the songs and of course, being a fan I said, “Yes!” The obvious fit for her voice was the song “30 Seconds”. This song is a sad but beautiful song about fame and the transient nature of it all. Angie’s beautiful voice glides and shimmers and brings me back to a time when female alternative rock singers had style. She recorded her vocal tracks in Melbourne, Australia where she lives and sent them to John via email.
“The Real” (Featuring Sadie Dupuis):
Sadie was actually the first person I reached out to (ok, yes, via Twitter again) to sing on this album. Her guitar playing, her writing, and her arrangements, totally reminded me of a young me. There is a naiveté, or rather, there is an I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that I responded to immediately. There is abandon. There is authenticity. There is much irony. I love that. When I tweeted (is that an actual verb now?) she wrote back within seconds saying something like, “How often is it that you get a tweet from your hero and you happen to be listening to their album in the van!?” She told us she wanted to record “The Real” and it seemed obvious to us that this would become her song from now on.