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Bonnie Whitmore’s Testament

Singer-songwriter On Her New Album, Coming out Pan, and Much More

Photo by Eryn Brooke

By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer

Austin’s Bonnie Whitmore is more than a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist — she’s a force of nature. I first met Bonnie at acoustic late-night jam sessions with her sister Eleanor, Leslie Mendelson, and James Maddock in New York’s East Village, back in the late aughts. The evenings blur together, as so many of them went past dawn, but there were uncounted songs sung and fingers calloused. The times Bonnie would pass through town stand out as highlights; to this day, I remember the entire loud bar falling to silence when she’d sing.

Bonnie is blessed with a warm, emotive voice and an innate musical sensibility. Bonnie comes from an incredibly musical family — Eleanor is one-half of alt-country darlings The Mastersons; her mom, Marti, is a trained opera singer; and her dad, Alex, is a classic Texas troubadour (I remember Alex coming into that bar along with Bonnie and Eleanor one August night, and jamming with him, too.) I’ve followed Bonnie’s career closely since those days, and she has managed to live up to her family legacy. 

Over the last decade, Bonnie has been heard on bass and vocals backing up such luminaries as Hayes Carll, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Moreland, Eliza Gilkyson, Sunny Sweeney and Butch Hancock. As a solo artist, she’s held down a residency at Austin’s famed Continental Club and is also James McMurtry’s go-to opener. She was recently named Austin 360’s Artist of the Month.

Bonnie’s new album, Last Will and Testament, will be coming out on Aviatrix Records on October 2nd, and features Austin legends like BettySoo. Bonnie’s got a lot to say on this record, a jangly slice of Americana that doesn’t pull punches when it comes to subjects like self-harm, sexual assault, and revolution. We caught up with Bonnie over the phone for a quick chat about her new record, identity, collaborating with CQ pal Jaimee Harris.

MB: Howdy, Bonnie! Well, let’s start this off with a bang. So many people in the Americana scene just assume people are straight, and and while I know you’re a huge ally–and of course, we profile allies like Lily Hiatt–we’d love for you to be able to make a formal coming out statement on your terms, so that there’s no confusion.

BW: I’m very much an open book, and I’m wanting to lead by example. The best way to do that is just to be completely forthcoming with who I am and how I feel and think about things. The whole kind of thought process behind this record is wanting to create safe space, to have tough conversations. I identify most as pansexual. Initially, when I was younger, I considered myself to be more bisexual. I had a couple of scenarios where I was interested in a woman and basically, because I wasn’t willing to say that I was a lesbian, they weren’t interested in having a relationship with me. So it kind of deterred me from pursuing that, in a lot of ways. I do think that I fall in love with the person, no matter what the identity is. I’d never heard pansexual mentioned until recently, and thought, “Well, that makes sense to me,” because I don’t think it’s just also like a physicality of “female or male.” It’s the whole spectrum of which anyone can fall into.

MB: That’s cool. Right on.

BW: To me, sexuality is such a wonderful thing to be able to explore, and there’s so much shame that’s wrapped around it. And I’ve just always been interested and curious, and even if it wasn’t something that I could decide, like, “Maybe I don’t like that particular thing,” I was still open to understanding what it was and wanting to have the experience of it. I’m a kinesthetic learner in that way. I want to experience all of the things.

MB: Fantastic. Well, let’s get on to talking about Last Will and Testament. We’re really excited about the co-write with Jaimee Harris, “Fine.” Can you tell us a little about that and your hopes for it? I understand it will be the first radio single.

BW: That was our first attempt at sitting down and writing together. And we were newly formed friends, too. It’s the sort of thing that you can get away with when you don’t know each other all that well yet. I had recently gotten out of a relationship, and Jaimee and I were talking about when you become a “we”– when you’re having to think in terms of “we,” and not just yourself, and how confusing that can be within the relationship, because you don’t want to lose yourself either. I think some people, if the relationship does dissolve, they don’t know where they are anymore, who they are. 

So we were just kind of coming to the thought process of that conflict: “Regardless of what actually happens, whatever the outcome is, I know I’m going to be okay. I think I’m going to be fine, but I need to fix whatever is wrong right now–or I need to at least touch home base and check in with my partner in that regard.” I think Jaimee had a different perspective coming into it–we both have to create our own little sound bites for everything. And because we wrote it together, I asked her to contribute her narrative to it. And I understand hers too. It’s that ping-pong of not having an understanding, and not knowing where you are, and needing to find some stability in that fact. So I think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to; I think we’ve all kind of gone through something along those lines, and it’s also cathartic just to sing it. It’s got a really good pop feel, tribute-to-Tom Petty vibe to it.

MB: The current song that you’ve just released, “Right/Wrong”, is right in the pocket, right in the locus of classic R&B and Americana. And it’s under three minutes, which is fantastic! [Bonnie laughs.] It’s really one of the best statements on American society that I’ve heard coming out of our scene of recent note. The chorus is so great — “I would rather shake your hand / we won’t ever understand / and what’s the point of liberty / In the land of the free / without you and me?” 

BW: Thank you!

MB: You’re welcome. Have you received any pushback about it? 

BW: No, not as of yet; I was performing this when we were still able to tour. I think the only time when I’ve ever had–I wouldn’t even call it a conflict so much–I was opening up a show for James McMurtry in Kansas. It was a theater and the whole bottom floor was rented out by one particular group, a group of hunters. So that was kind of interesting, and I sang “Right/Wrong”. I always go out and sell the merch after the set, and this guy came up to me and said, “I want to shake your hand.” I shook his hand. Then he said, “There, I shook your hand!”  

And I took it as, “I’ll come up and shake your hand, but we definitely don’t see things the same way.” But what I appreciated is the fact that he made an effort, and I also know that he listened to the song. So maybe he doesn’t agree with my particular interpretation, but the conflict that may have ensued was still very cordial–it wasn’t elevated or a nasty interaction. I wrote that one with Scott Davis, who I co-produced the album with; he has two little kids, and it’s really hard to have those kinds of conversations of what’s going on [in the world] with them, and to explain to them why people are saying or acting a certain way. And I feel like one of the best ways in order to actually start these types of conversations with that somebody who doesn’t necessarily view things the same way is by asking questions. So that’s what that song does. 

MB: What track do you want everyone to listen to that might not be one of the singles? Obviously you want everybody to listen to all the tracks!

BW:  “Asked For It” and “Time to Shoot”. They are going to be featured, but I think that they’re very important. There’s another song though that’s on the record that’s a little bit more obscure, called “Imaginary.” I’m not very specific about what the topic is, but to me, it has a sentiment of “Let’s not just wait until everything’s gone and destroyed and then wish wistfully that it was still there.” We can’t ignore things that are actually present. It’s not doing anybody any good. So to me, “Imaginary” represents a need to realize what it is and then wanting to put the work in to make it at least better than you left it.