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An unplugged Bonham finds her voice.

Byline: LEWIS TAYLOR The Register-Guard

IN MANY WAYS, Eugene native Tracy Bonham has come full circle.

The classical violinist turned modern rock diva is undertaking a solo acoustic tour that has more in common with her early days as a classical performer than it does with her appearances on the Lilith Fair rock tour during the late 1990s.

Bonham, a 1985 South Eugene High School graduate, will return to her hometown for an intimate show on Saturday at the Lord Leebrick Theatre.

"I'm not a great guitar player, so I'm a little nervous about that," said Bonham, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "It's more about the songs and my voice."

Bonham, who once remarked that there was a "stupidity" to her guitar-playing that kept her fresh, said she is still less than fully accomplished on her instrument. The violin is, of course, another story, and Bonham also has a pitch-perfect voice.

When Bonham comes to Eugene, you can expect to hear a mix of new songs and acoustic versions of popular favorites. The newer songs reflect a difficult year for Bonham, who went through a divorce and in December separated from her record label, Island/Def Jam.

"A lot of the songs are about going back to basics," Bonham said. "They are about change and about going to the core of what you're really trying to say. They're about love and about how much I don't know about it. ...

`I really had to go back to a place where I was thinking about the music rather than thinking about selling records."

Bonham sold more than 500,000 copies of her debut record, the "The Burdens of Being Upright," when it was released in 1996. The album went gold and was nominated for a Grammy Award, and its signature hit, "Mother Mother," brought her emotionally driven rock to the fore.

Bonham's introspective songs were emotionally raw and yet musically refined. The record was part poetry, part primal scream therapy.

After "Upright," Bonham was primed to release a follow-up album, but the Island Records restructuring put the project on hold. By the time she received a green light to go ahead with a second album, nearly four years had passed.

Island has since merged with the hip-hop label Def Jam. Countless staff positions turned over or disappeared. And the new label came under the control of the Universal Music Group.

The result, from Bonham's perspective, was a label she no longer recognized. Once known as the home of PJ Harvey and Tom Waits, Island went from a haven for creative songwriters to a faceless conglomerate. Less established artists such as Bonham complained they suffered from a lack of attention.

Nevertheless, Bonham released her second album, "Down Here," a more classically influenced record that was overseen by the production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Critics praised the record, including the single "Behind Every Good Woman," as a hard and beautiful rock album.

Commercially, however, it was a flop.

Frustrated by the album's poor performance and the record label's indifference, Bonham was left feeling angry, insecure and uncertain about her future in the business.

"I played dead for a while," Bonham recalled. `When they asked me if I was writing, I'd say, `No, I'm really uninspired.' '

Eventually, Bonham overcame the self-doubts that had been plaguing her and began writing songs again. But without any real hope of support from her label, she was not at all anxious to return to the studio.

So when Island/Def Jam offered to buy out her contract late last year, Bonham said she breathed a sigh of relief.

"I've learned that nothing is forever, that nothing is permanent. Getting dropped and having a career that quickly shot up and quickly shot down made me think about what made me want to get into this in the first place."

Bonham said she always knew that she wanted to be a musician and a performer. As a child, she studied the violin, took voice lessons and was active in musical theater.

She said she wouldn't be doing what she's doing without the early encouragement she received from her instructors, including Dick Long (youth symphony), Wanda Rider (violin), Joe Zingo (community theater), Arnie Laferty (vocals, musical theater) and Rick Wolfgang (middle school band).

One of Bonham's earliest influences was her mother, Lee Anne Robertson. Robertson is a music teacher who encouraged her to pick up the violin and taught her how to play the guitar.

It was during a junior high school performance that Robertson realized her daughter could really sing. Bonham belted out a version of "It's Not Easy Being Green" that seemed too powerful to be coming from the petite singer on stage.

"Oh sure, I hoped that she could go off and be a concert violinist," Robertson said. "But in my heart of hearts, I always knew that she had a little devil in her that was calling."

The little devil showed its face again while Bonham was attending the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Caught smoking a cigarette, she was sent home.

As it turned out, the experience became a turning point in her life.

"I came home so angry," Bonham recalled. "I just wanted to get back at them, and so I started practicing four hours a day religiously.

`To prove to my teacher that I wasn't a screw-up, I practiced and I practiced, and that's what got me a scholarship."

Bonham's compulsive playing helped her to land a violin scholarship to the University of Southern California in 1985. Soon thereafter, she transferred to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and began to focus on her singing. Eventually, she dropped out and became a full-time member of the Boston club scene.

Singing radio jingles to pay the rent, Bonham wrote and sang music and soon scored a local radio hit with the song, "The One." In 1995, she released an EP, "The Liverpool Sessions," which won three Boston Music Awards: best new artist, best female vocalist and best indie single.

That same year, Bonham played violin on the Boston stop of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's tour, a gig that helped earn her the interest of several major record labels and eventually led to her contract with Island.

These days, Bonham seems to be enjoying her newfound freedom. She hopes to record a new album and is entertaining thoughts of relocating from Brooklyn to the West Coast.

Although she admitted she sometimes misses the security of being on stage with other musicians, she plans to continue her solo acoustic touring.

"I enjoyed the rock band, but it had its limitations," Bonham said. `You've got to be out there in front of this huge, powerful source and you've got to rise above all of that.'

One of the things Bonham enjoys most about being a solo performer is the fact that her voice is now more audible. Her mother, too, is excited to once again hear the unplugged version of Tracy Bonham.

`I love all of her songs, particularly `Mother, Mother' ' Robertson said. `But my husband and I always said, `We can't hear the words; there's too much drums and loud electric stuff.'

`So when she said, `You know, Mom, I'm kind of enjoying this acoustic thing. People can hear my voice and hear my words,' I thought, `Well, duh, this is what I've been trying to tell you for years.' '

TRACY BONHAM

WITH: Chris Arnold

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Lord Leebrick Theatre, 540 Charnelton St.

TICKETS: $12 in advance through Fastixx, (800) 992-8499

Entertainment reporter Lewis Taylor can be reached by phone at 338-2512 and by e-mail at ltaylor@guardnet.com.

CAPTION(S):

South Eugene alumna Tracy Bonham has graduated from scream-therapy rock to her current solo acoustic style.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 5, 2002
Words:1302
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