Classic Rock magazine glows over her warm and fulsome voice”; Blues Revue describes her as “the Duchess of Blues-Rock”; Firework calls her “amazing woman”; and when Blues Matters caught her duetting with Dan McCafferty, it was “a vocal marriage made in Heaven.”
Onstage over the last few years, she has sung, too, with Paul Rodgers and Robert Plant, and all of that is just for starters. Deborah Bonham brings the superlatives out of everyone, and one listen to Spirit, her newly-released fourth album, will tell you why. And send you scurrying back to listen to its predecessors.
From the slow-burning (and almost Joplin-esque) “I Need Love” to the soaring “Spirit In Me”; from the pounding “What It Feels” to the gloriously flirtatious “I Won’t Let You Down”; from the sort-of-folky “Stop Now” to the ReverbNation chart-topping “Take Me Down”... Spirit is nothing if not an album of shifting emotion and electricity, one of those so-rare sets that hits you round the head from the opening cut then keeps on hitting you through until the end - and that includes the moments when it’s salving the bruises as well.
Backed by a band (long-time collaborators bassist Ian Rowley, keyboardist Gerard Louis and guitarist Peter Bullick) that can shift mood and momentum as easily as blinking, and possessed of the finest female British blues voice since the heyday of Maggie Bell, Bonham has a musical versatility that has seen her win over crowds as diverse as Fairport Convention’s Cropredy festival, the multi-metal Monsters of Rock show earlier this year; and even a RipFest bill shared with Ozzy and Korn in the Czech republic. Each of which, she laughingly admits, caused her to call up her manager to ask, “are you sure they meant to book me?”
Yep, they’re sure.
Spirit (released this month through the Spectra Music Group) has already been on the receiving end of some truly barnstorming reviews; her latest UK tour is selling out everywhere; and she’s on the verge of becoming a superstar in France, too - where Spirit is delivered bearing two songs sung in the audience’s native language. Well sung, as well, as opposed to being recited parrot fashion in the style of so many past pop linguists. And for that, Bonham is adamant, we should thank brother John.
Deborah Bonham was born in 1962, by which time her brother was already fourteen. She was always his kid sister, then; so when, around the time she was sixteen, he sat her down to talk about her future, she knew exactly how he’d react when she told him what she wanted to do.
“John did not want me to do music. He was absolutely adamant that I was not going to do that. I remember sitting with him one day, and he said ‘you’ve done your [final exams], what do you figure on doing? He thought I was going to be a vet or a lawyer or something... and, to be honest with you, if I’d gone down either of those routes, with all the animals I’ve got and all the dreadful record contracts I’ve had, I could have saved myself a fortune. Anyway, he said what are you going to do, and I said I sort of fancy singing. And my goodness, he just went into a head spin of complete, gigantic proportions, and that was sort of the end of that... well, that’s not going to happen.”
Of course, she still knew it would, “but to appease him, and my mum and dad, I did study hard at school, I did French and Spanish... and that has just reared its head over the past year. We did a show in France, and of course I was speaking to the audience in French, not brilliant but good enough. Our agent was thrilled and the audience was thrilled and we started to do really really well in France.
“I’ve gone back a few times, the shows have got bigger; and the last show we did, I thought I’m speaking in French, why don’t I sing in French? So we did the two songs for the new album - and it was one of those moments that did bring a tear to my eye, because... both my brothers, John and Michael, have gone, and both my mum and dad have as well, they’re all gone, and there was just a moment when this whole French thing was happening, I really wish they were here, because at least they’d say ‘okay, alright...’.”
She’s done okay... and she’s used her education!
Having released her first album, For You and the Moon in 1985, Bonham was then forced out of the spotlight for the next decade as she fought for release from a stultifying record deal - signed, she admits, in a fit of exuberant naivety when she was just twenty-two. A one-off comeback single (for RPM) marked her re-emergence in 1995, and over the next few years, Bonham gigged furiously both in Europe and the US. All preceding a new deal with the latest incarnation of Track Records, and a new album, 2004‘s The Old Hyde - named for brother John’s farm, where Deborah had grown up. Four years later, Duchess arrived through Rhino; and six years later, Spirit. Which, she admits, in many ways takes her full circle back to the first demos she ever recorded, in near-neighbor Robert Plant’s barn.
“Some of the shows I’ve been doing recently, people have turned up with the first album and I’ve gone ‘oh no, not that one’; and they’ll be ‘I thought this was a great record!’ Okay. But that’s the whole point of this new record. I’ve really gone back to where I was back then; I was really doing sort of acoustic-y country rock blues back then... the label then took over and did this 80s rock production on them. But if you heard the originals of some of the songs, they wouldn’t be amiss on the new album.”
And the new album wouldn’t be amiss on any Best British Blues lists you could compile. I mention Maggie Bell; Deborah lets out a whoop of joy. “I grew up listening to Maggie Bell! I totally adore the woman, [and] she was a major influence on me, even more than... I was a big Aretha fan, I loved all the soul and Motown, Otis Redding was one of my all time favorites, but when it came to female rock vocalists, lets say, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks... it was always Maggie Bell for me.
“Another one I absolutely adore is Elkie Brooks, I still love her voice, but Maggie without a doubt, she’s one of my mentors, I would say; she’s a fantastic vocalist who really should have gone on to be huge. They’re both still doing the circuit in the UK and Europe so I get to see them whenever I can. In fact, I got to see Elkie in London not so long ago and I was stood with tears rolling down my face; she did this bluesy number, just her vocal and a piano, and honestly.... she was incredible. And the same with Maggie; I saw her at a festival, and she just walked out and okay, yep, she’s still got it. It’s a joy to watch them.”
And a joy for anyone who remembers the glory days of Vinegar Joe and Stone the Crows, of Suicide Sal and Rich Man’s Woman, to wake up today and find Spirit both revisiting and reinvigorating the spirit of those gems... an album that both physically and emotionally needed to be made, as opposed to one that was simply knocked out because it was time.
Bonham’s own credo has always been the insistence that she makes music because she loves it, because “there’s something really great about writing and singing something, playing it live and you see that people really like it, you’ve touched somebody with it. That’s what music has always been for me, I have to do it my own way for better or worse, so when it came to Spirit, I knew exactly the kind of record I wanted to make....”
Work began several years ago, in the home studio Bonham has built in her own barn. “I set about just doing the demos, but I didn’t have a drummer, which was a pain. Jason, my nephew, said he really wanted to do it and for me he was the only drummer I really wanted to work with. But we just couldn’t get the time together to do it; he was doing his own stuff, or he was in the States, and time went on and on and more projects for Jason came up and I thought I don’t know when I’ll ever get this done....
“Then I took my mum up to Birmingham to see Robert Plant and the Band of Joy play, and a few days before the show, I got an e-mail that tickled me to death from the drummer, Marco Giovino, and he said he was a bit of a fan, he had my last album, and would I come back stage to meet up? So we watched the show; I was knocked out by his drumming, and by the whole show, it was really, really cool, and we went backstage and my mom... Robert’s always called her his second momma, so they were just engrossed in stories; she was holding court, stories of Robert and John when they were young, and Marco came over to me and we got talking and he asked are you going to do another record?
“I told him yes, I’ve done some tracks, but I just haven’t got a drummer... and I gave him that look, and said ‘you can always do it if you fancy it.’ And to my amazement, he said he’d love to. So he came over from Nashville, and we just completely locked in. He brought a whole different vibe to my music; we did the drums in a chapel down the road from me, then I carried on doing stuff in the barn, and then I went over to Nashville, and we finished off recording in his home studio. We mixed with Mike Poole [who also handled the Band of Joy album], mastered it out there and that’s how I did it....”
That was then, this is now. Touring is consuming much of Bonham’s time right now... this interview took place during a few days break between shows in England... and gigs are already lined up through until November. But she’s hoping to shoehorn some American dates into the schedule as well; she was here last year, opening for Bad Company, but her own headlining outing is long overdue.
But to tide us all over while we wait... Spirit is out on download now, with the CD to follow at the end of April, and a vinyl pressing in mid-May.
You really ought to pick one of them up....