It isn’t something that everybody has to deal with, but can you imagine being related to someone who is an important part of a seminal rock band that has ascertained legendary status? Juggling with the fallout of such circumstances is the situation that Deborah Bonham found herself confronted with. This isn’t a story of woe, but of a two-sided presentation.
The drummer for the mighty Led Zeppelin, John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham, was one-quarter of a band which went on to influence the world of rock music we hear today, and after selling over 300 million records worldwide and counting, you could say that he gained an insight into the music business. His advice to his younger sister was to pursue other careers or work and to avoid the music business completely.
As it transpired, his younger sister went with her instincts and is understandably gushing with pride over her 4th studio album Spirit. Prior to this latest album, Bonham’s solo musical venture took off in 1985 when she released For You and the Moon before following it many years later with The Old Hyde (2004) and the acclaimed Duchess (2008).
Was there a specific goal she had in mind when approaching Spirit, or did the album develop on a natural curve? “I know I wanted to go back to my roots, to where I started. Basically when I first started singing it was very much singer/songwriter, acoustic guitar, that sort of stuff. I was a very big Joni Mitchell fan and West Coast America. But I also had a wealth of music, you know I grew up in a household that loved and played music from the big bands that my Mum and Dad listened to like Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Harry James and all that – then we went straight through to the Motown with my brother John and my brother Michael, both huge Motown fans and then also with Hendrix – I just grew up with this amazing amount of music.”
After expressing how much of an influence Scottish vocalist Maggie Bell was on her creativity, Bonham confesses how her first album wasn’t necessarily where she was hoping to take her music, but Spirit is more about what she does. It is notable how Bonham’s tone changes with the various topics of conversation she tackles and how sincere the good lady is. Her tone becomes gentle and reflective, bordering understandably on fragile when she discusses the emotional circumstances surrounding the recording of Spirit.
“When we did this album and Marco (Giovino – drummer for Robert Plant’s Band of Joy) got involved, it was a strange time because I’d met Marco with my Mum and then he agreed to do the record and he was going to come over and record it over here. We booked his flight and he was coming over on the 20th of February, and on the 8th of February my Mum died. We had the funeral on the 17th, and Mum and I – she was my rock, she was everything you know, she was the most incredible woman to have survived two sons dying.” The strength and honesty are forefront as Bonham continues to share the background to this new album. “She was just there for me and she lived with me and the two of us got through the grief being together because my Dad had died as well, and we just carried on together. So for me, I really did suffer losing her and at the funeral I thought – oh my goodness, I’m not going to be able to record this record, I can’t do it! It was Robert (Plant) who said to me – listen, your Mum wouldn’t want you to walk away from this. He said – you’ve got Marco coming over, he’s a great guy and has amazing ideas. Just see where it goes Deb’ you know, if it doesn’t go anywhere well fair enough, but don’t walk away from this right now. I thought he’s right.”
Bonham takes a deep breath before summarising, “Bring all that emotion, that love and that spirit in to the album and I guess that’s where the title started to come from there.” When quizzed about the album being cathartic during these heavy times, Bonham admits that the process of making Spirit was very much of that journey to heal and to keep moving forward.
On the album there lurks a cover version in and amongst the original compositions. If you’re familiar with the 1998 album Good Morning Spider recorded by alternative rockers Sparklehorse, you may be interested in the Deborah Bonham interpretation of Painbirds. “I think, for me, that’s one of my favorite songs on the album purely because I love doing covers, and there’s always been a cover on any album that we’ve done. I wanted to do a cover on this album and there was so many great songs that I love I couldn’t really think about which one it should be. You know, should it be something that everyone knows or should it be this or be that?” The producer shared the song by Sparklehorse and Bonham was instantly hooked by its charms. I Need Love was another track that Bonham shared thoughts on. “That song has become a lot bigger live than it is on the album. I think on the album we’ve not gone too crazy with it you know, because when you’re in the studio you’re like feeling your feet a bit and you do what grabs you at the time, but live that song’s gone very big and it does seem to be a bit of a show stopper.”
If you take the time to explore Spirit, you’ll find lots to sink your teeth in to. Lead single Fly has a lumbering quality and plenty of soul. Robert Plant adds harmonica to the rock n’roll of What it Feels whilst Feel so Alive looks at the world with a positive eye complete with a contented bounce of acknowledgement for the here and now.
When the conversation moved on to Los Angeles and the U.S. in general, Bonham found herself galloping along with stories and experiences. “Brian Tichy is a huge fan of my brother and he decided on the 30th anniversary of John’s passing there was going to be a big show in L.A. He didn’t know about me and I didn’t know about him but through various people it got me, and would I go over there and this would have been about 2010. So I went over there and did the Key Club with a whole host of famous drummers. The thing was to have every famous drummer in the world get up and do a Led Zeppelin track and they had one house full of singers to sing all the songs with them. And then I run over and got up and did Since I’ve Been Loving You in the Key Club and it was absolutely amazing.”
Memories of her experiences in L.A. continued as she revisited 1997. “I didn’t go there to play [Whisky A Go Go], I’d gone there to see Jason, my nephew play. He rang me up and said – you never come over to L.A. and you never come and see me play, would you come over now? I was like, you know what I’m going to come over. When I got there, he then said – do you fancy singing? Well, what am I going to sing? Battle of Evermore.”
Bonham with a smile continues with the flow of her recollection. “Jase said – don’t worry about it, think about it and in the meantime before we do the gig I’m doing this radio show on Rockline Radio, it’s just like a small radio show thing, I’m just going to do a live session at. Okay, I’ll come and do that. I thought you’d like to come along and sing Battle of Evermore and I get there and three million listeners across America…” Bonham allows herself a giggle as she relays the overwhelming reality which became apparent. On both accounts Bonham radiated pride and joy as she told the stories and exclaimed how incredible and electric both events were.
Growing up in a family that adored music and having an older brother who was famous for playing drums has made quite a mark. “I still have a little moment when I like to play the drums. But listen, it was just not going to be for me the drums, that’s Jason’s bag. Vocally, I always knew I could sing. I always sang I guess from when I was about four years old. I’ve got old reel to reel tapes. One of my favorite songs for some reason when I was really young was I kept singing My Ding-a-Ling, I don’t know why that was. There’s an old tape of me, Raggle Taggle Gypsy and My Ding-a-Ling – Chuck Berry.”
Winding up the conversation, Bonham hypothesizes “I would have ended up in music. John seriously didn’t want me to do rock n’roll or go anywhere near that, but he had sort of accepted that I was singing at school.” Then she shares her philosophical side by saying “This is what life is made of. These are my moments and I’ve been very blessed. It’s what life is. It’s about the album; the music and everything you write. I never take it that seriously but what really matters to me are having moments like being on stage with Dan McCafferty, being on stage with Paul Rodgers, or being on stage with Robert Plant. There are moments where you look and you think yes, yes, this is alright, this is what it’s all about.”