Haley Bonar needs a coffee, but not too badly. Clementine, her six-month-old daughter, is a good sleeper. “I don’t feel like I’ve been run over by a truck or anything,” she says one afternoon, settling into a back table at Kopplin’s, the artisan coffee shop a few blocks from her St. Paul home. She smiles—broadly, disarmingly—so you can see it’s true: nothing could put her off this good mood.
It began with an album, Golder, which she mostly wrote in Portland, recorded at the famed Pachyderm studio (Nirvana, Jayhawks) in Cannon Falls, and self-released last year. Backed by a punchy pop band, it’s her richest, most confident album yet, which explains all the airplay on 89.3 The Current. And the sold-out show this past December with Andrew Bird. And the gig that same month backing Kevin Kling. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she says—and we’re not even talking about Clementine.
It wasn’t always like this. The singer-songwriter, who turns 29 this month, was born on the Canadian prairie and grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, where rock bands played the local 4-H. The city was perfectly positioned, it seems, for touring acts like Green Day and Fugazi to stop the bus and stretch on their way across the country. Bonar saw as many of them as she could. She liked punk rock as it was everything Rapid City was not. It got her out of her head. Then she got out of Rapid City. “It was a great place to grow up,” she says. “But like most teenagers, I couldn’t wait to get out.”
She moved to Duluth, for reasons she can no longer recall, and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. She planned to become an English teacher. But she was already writing and performing her own music, and, after a gig at the former Nor-Shor Theatre, she met Alan Sparhawk, the lead singer for Low, who invited her to open for them and eventually recorded her. “Suddenly,” she says, “I had a reason to take a music career seriously.”
That first album, The Size of Planets, came out in 2003 and featured a 20-year-old Bonar on the cover with a petite guitar and a retro A-line skirt. She was an indie-folk darling in the making. People pegged her quiet music and poetic lyrics, about love and death, as melancholy—Emily Dickinson with a six-string. They pegged her, after a couple more albums and interviews in which she talked about depression, as fragile, a sensitive female singer, the next Joni Mitchell (whom she vaguely resembles). And she hated it—still does. “You’re never an artist, you’re a female artist,” she moans. “I’m so sick of it.”
So, in 2009, she left. Or rather, during a West Coast tour, she simply stayed, settling in Portland and working as a nanny (save your Portlandia jokes). Mostly, she wrote. The songs for Golder groove with a laidback confidence that helps everything—the louder riffs, the faster tempos, the thoughtful lyrics about maturation—snap into place. For perhaps the first time, Bonar is consistently in possession of the material, not the other way around. It’s the album not of an ingénue, but an artist.
When Bonar returned to St. Paul in 2010, she raised the money to record her new music on Kickstarter, the micro-funding website that’s especially useful, Bonar says, for female musicians. “People used to mistake confident women for being full of themselves,” she says. “Now that they’re able to promote themselves on something like Kickstarter, it’s not seen as shameless—it’s business.”
Still, Bonar has become rather careful about the photography on her album covers. “You want to be confident and not shy away from being a woman,” she says, “but you don’t just want to be an image.” She may not need to worry. Her high, haunting voice is now in demand for all manner of projects, from Minnesota Public Radio’s Wits program (singing with the actor John C. Reilly) to Kevin Kling’s recent holiday show, Of Mirth and Mischief. She is also expanding her image with a side project, Gramma’s Boyfriend, a raucous and surreal band that she’s described as “playing the prom at Twin Peaks high school.”
If she can help it, she won’t tour much this year. She has a family now. Asked what advice she would offer Clementine when she’s older, Bonar says, “Don’t try to fit in. Being teased does not matter at all.” Then, as though speaking of herself, she adds, “See, you’re going to be great.”
On her daughter’s name: My partner has been singing “Oh My Darling, Clementine” since he was little. She looks like a Clementine, too.
On her first concert: The Steve Miller Band. I was nine. They rocked.
On her childhood musical diet: I refused to listen to ’80s music. I was a Beatles maniac. Then in the ’90s: Nirvana, Elliott Smith, Billie Holiday, TLC, Ace of Base.
On Portland: Full of 20-year-olds figuring out their art. I was one of them.
On Portlandia: Haven’t seen it.
On the music industry: Everyone’s like, “Boo-hoo, the music industry is no more.” Please. People will never stop listening to music, just like people never stop growing hair.
Haley Bonar plays her annual birthday show at the Cedar Cultural Center on April 27.
Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.