Band: Bonnie Bishop with special guest Ross Newell
Date: Wednesday, May 31, 7 p.m.
Venue: Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, 916 Charleston St., www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com
Tickets: $25 (limited to 50), available at Callaghan’s
Bonnie Bishop was an accomplished Nashville songwriter and performer. She’d penned “Not Cause I Wanted To,” and Bonnie Raitt’s performance of the song earned Bishop a Grammy. Her tune “The Best Songs Come From Broken Hearts” was performed by actress Connie Britton’s character Rayna James on the NBC television show “Nashville.” Even in the light of success, Bishop was not satisfied with her career or the effects it had on her life on and off the road.
Eventually, Bishop took a break from music and returned to graduate school to pursue creative writing studies. Then, she met producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell). Cobb did not see Bishop as a country artist — rather, he saw her as a soul singer.
Bishop and Cobb worked together to create a collection of smooth soul grooves accented by Bishop’s satiny voice. Lagniappe recently spoke with Bishop about the details behind this sonic transformation.
Stephen Centanni: You put your music career on hold to go back to graduate school. What was it like making that transition from the road and music back to the classroom?
Bonnie Bishop: I’ll put it this way: I never intended to go back to college. I was ready for a change. I was ready for a break from being on the road, and I learned a lot about myself through that process. I found a routine that really works for me, as far as being a creative person and making time to create and work and sit down and take work seriously. As a songwriter in Nashville, I took the songwriting process seriously.
When I removed playing live as my main gig and was considering a different career, it took a lot mentally to just let go of the music training that I had. That was the hardest part. Once I actually got to school, I was so happy to be there, and being in a different environment and being in a learning environment surrounded by people who were so well-read and on their own journey figuring out what they were doing with their lives. We were all in the same process together pursuing creative writing. It was a wonderful experience. I never finished my degree. I only got a little bit done. When I made the record with Dave Cobb, it fired everything back up.
Centanni: You mentioned Dave Cobb as one of the main factors in your return to music. What was it about Cobb’s input that made you want to rededicate yourself to music?
Bishop: He said, “You’re not a country artist. You’re a soul singer, and we’re going to make a soul record.” Up to that point, I was living in Nashville, which is a commercial country industry town and always had been. Living there, everyone had their opinion on how I could adapt my style to fit more what country music was doing. That never worked for me. I came from Texas, so I had country sensibilities, but I wasn’t really a country artist.
I really threw out singing soul music. I just didn’t know how to play soul music. I sang country music very soulfully. It was liberating when I sat down across from Dave, and he created this new lane for me to run in. He was like, “We’re going to do something completely different from what you’ve done before.” I guess it gave me a sense of hope that things could be different, and there may be a way to present myself and my music that I haven’t tried yet. It was a wide-open opportunity that I thought was worth taking.
Centanni: As a songwriter, what was it like making the shift from country to soul?
Bishop: There was no shift. I didn’t write anything differently. I didn’t change any of the music. It was just arranged differently. I wrote several songs leading up to that record, but I have a lot of older songs that we cut. So, I didn’t change my writing style at all.
I really didn’t change my singing style. It was more just a matter of framing the songs in a different genre and not trying to make them sound country or make me sound country. It was putting simple music around the soulful melodies that I was already singing. So, I didn’t change at all. That was the brilliance of Dave Cobb as a producer. He told me to keep doing what I’m doing, and he would frame it to where people would hear me differently.
Centanni: What kind of reaction have you been getting from people who were familiar or were fans of your previous work? Has the feedback been positive?
Bishop: Oh, yeah! Everybody loves it. They say it’s the best record that I’ve ever made and sounds amazing. I didn’t get any negative feedback at all. In fact, my fans that have been around forever have said, “This is the record that we’ve been waiting for from you. We’ve always known that you were a soul singer.”
Centanni: It seems like “Ain’t Who I Was” was almost an exercise in self-therapy from all the life events that made you second guess music. How did pouring your emotions into your songs help you as a person?
Bishop: Well, I’ve always written from personal experience. I’m trying to write songs from other people’s point of view, because I feel like I’ve limited myself as a writer from writing strictly from my own point of you. It’s not unusual to pour my emotions into songs. That’s what I’m best at. That’s why I think people are drawn to my music. They feel something. I use music to feel myself and bring to light those things that we don’t say or want to express or admit. Writing songs is a healing thing for me, but I’ll tell you something about “Ain’t Who I Was,” specifically. That’s one of the ones that I did not write on this album, and that song has the best story behind it.
We were in the studio finishing that record. We were looking for one or two more songs. I told Dave Cobb, “I really feel like I haven’t written the story of what happened with me with letting go and continuing on this path that I’m on and not knowing where I’m going, but walking away from music and the struggle and trying to return. I don’t know how to write that journey.” He said, “Let me call my buddy Brent Cobb [his cousin] and see if he has any songs. He’s a great writer and might have something.” I was like, ‘“OK, if we’re calling people, I’m calling Adam Hood.”
Dave went to one room to call Brent, and I went to one room to call Adam. At that exact moment that we called them, they were sitting down together to write a song. It was one of those “Wow!” moments. They said they would work on something and call in a couple of hours. Three hours later, they called us with this song, and they wanted to come to the studio to play it for us.
Right at the top, he said that line, “Well, it’s true/All you’ve heard/I’m living like a gypsy/And I can’t be cured of this homesick blues.” It makes me weep to think about. It’s not only this beautiful song, but it also has this toughness to it and a vulnerability. It’s like, “This is who I am. I can’t apologize for it. I’m a road dog. I’m a gypsy. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. It’s the way I’m made.” It was said in a way that I would’ve never said it like that, because it was written by two dudes. I’m like a dude in a woman’s body, because I’ve been on the road with dudes for so long. It just fit.
That was one of the most emotional parts of making that record. I allowed somebody to write something for me by friends who knew me. I think that song means more to me than any other song on the record, and I didn’t write it. So, I think that’s a beautiful experience as a songwriter to admit that somebody else could actually say something for you that you couldn’t say for yourself.
Like you mentioned, I was in graduate school. When we made that record, I was two weeks out of my first semester in graduate school. I was letting go of my music training. So, I didn’t know who I was. I was a totally different person, and then, I was making a record again. That’s why it was so poetic that the album was called “Ain’t Who I Was.”