Even in a time rife with diminished returns and dashed expectations, Tracy Bonham struggles to make sense of her music career.
Over the past nine years she's been a young rocker with a hit song, a rising star who imploded, and a mature artist unceremoniously dropped by her label. She was rescued by performance artists and reinvented with the help of spiritual study. In a business that prefers its product niche-friendly, Bonham can be found in a bizarre selection of bins: as a member of the progressive Americana collective Wayfaring Strangers, featured vocalist on Aerosmith's ''Honkin' On Bobo," violinist with Page & Plant, and lead singer with Blue Man Group.
Curled in a chair in a conference room at Rounder Records, Bonham's new musical home, the singer, songwriter, and classically trained multi-instrumentalist is valiantly trying to trace the crooked line that has led from international concert tours to a Cambridge indie label, from the seething anthem ''Mother Mother" to ''Something Beautiful," the uplifting first single and opening track from her third album, ''Blink the Brightest."
The disc, released on Rounder's pop-oriented Zoe imprint, will be in stores Tuesday.
''I used to have a problem blurring the lines," says Bonham. At 37, she's as tiny and fresh-faced as a child. ''My biggest concern and my main goal for the new album was to make it sound like one thing. Some songs are old. Some were recorded as demos when I was signed to Island and rehashed and performed live for years. Some are brand new. I didn't know if I could make it all fit together, but I think I've realized that maybe there's just a spirit to it. I think there's a lot of hope and strength in there."
If survival is the thematic glue on ''Blink the Brightest," Bonham's smart, artful feel for a pop song holds this broad collection together. ''Eyes" is a wily rock tune. ''And the World Has the Nerve to Keep Turning" wouldn't be out of place on Stevie Wonder's ''Innervisions." ''Whether You Fall" bobs in a timeless, jazzy ether. All of the tracks fall loosely under the heading of adult alternative pop, meaning the songs are refined, melodic, and contemplative. But Bonham stamps them with her blunt alto and haunted violin, with bursts of soul and bountiful quirks. Just when ''Something Beautiful" seems to be sailing off on a swell of effusive choruses, Bonham orchestrates a wild note that throws the whole tune into a momentary tailspin. In other words, she's accomplished the rather remarkable feat of making a radio-friendly disc that doesn't sacrifice personality, or invention, or art.
Following in the footsteps of other major-label refugees who found their voices after losing their deals, Bonham made her album on a shoestring with no label and no manager.
''I would go up and ask a potential coproducer, 'Would you like to do this for hardly any money?' " she says. ''And if they said no that was OK. That was the very nature of this, putting myself on the line. It was awesome and it was scary. I've never had so much fun."
Bonham began the project with Joey Waronker, a producer and drummer best known for his work with Beck, at the helm. After four songs they hit a wall, which Bonham confesses is partly her fault.
''I conveyed the message that I wanted to make a bedroom record," she says. ''I thought I wanted to make an Elliott Smith record. Then I compared the tracks to my old demos, and I thought, 'God, these want to be rock songs.' They don't want to be about bongos and beating on a table."
She finished the album in collaboration with Greg Collins, a seasoned engineer who's worked with No Doubt, Santana, and matchbox twenty. The pair, who joined forces after a chance meeting at a party at Bonham's home in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles, shared a vision: to capture the fanciful spirit of Bonham's home recordings and flesh them out into full-bodied songs.
''I was completely in control for the first time," Bonham says, ''and I feel like it was finally coming from the heart."
It's been a long time coming for Bonham, who moved from her native Oregon to Boston in 1987 to attend Berklee College of Music. She was, by her own admission, mixed up with the wrong people, making bad choices, and involved in a horribly destructive relationship, which her first record, 1996's ''The Burdens of Being Upright," is about. Bonham dropped out of school and worked at the Famous Atlantic Fish Company while systematically dismantling her classical music training.
''My 20s were rough," she says. ''I had so much trouble communicating when I was younger, whether it was with my mom or in relationships. I was so afraid of conflict, and so over-accommodating that I kept all of my anger and resentment inside. The only way I could express that was through music, which is why my early writing was so aggressive and hard."
Bonham signed to Island in the mid-'90s and was thrust instantly into the spotlight on the strength of her first single, ''Mother Mother," a song that fused keen intelligence with raw abandon and earned the singer comparisons to Liz Phair. After 11 years in Boston she moved to New York.
''I didn't feel comfortable here," Bonham says. ''I think it was the tall poppy syndrome. You know, when a poppy grows a little taller than the others, people want to whack it down. I maybe have been a little paranoid, but I felt it from other artists."
She had a hard time adjusting to her sudden notoriety in other ways, too.
''My ego was really involved," Bonham says. ''When I listen to my second record [2000's ''Down Here"], I sound so inside myself. I wanted to be considered a serious artist, and I thought the way to do that was to be completely cryptic and veiled and not let any emotion out. It's hard to listen to."
Following a string of traumas, including a divorce from her husband of three years, her mother's breast cancer diagnosis, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Island released Bonham from her contract in December of 2001. That's when Rounder president and CEO John Virant began what he calls the longest courtship in the label's history. A fan since discovering her 1995 ''Liverpool Sessions" EP as a Harvard Law School student, Virant spent three years waiting for Bonham to say yes.
''She'd been burned, and she was gun shy," Virant says. ''After we heard the demos for this album I told her there was no pressure but we weren't going away. I said we would be here when she was ready."
Meanwhile, Bonham bought a house in LA with the money Island paid her to go away, wrote a new batch of songs, and contemplated a future singing jingles to pay the mortgage. Then Blue Man Group asked her to contribute to their 2003 album, ''The Complex," and invited her to accompany the ensemble on a tour as featured vocalist and opening act. She pressed 500 copies of a hastily-recorded EP to sell on the road; six months later she'd sold 12,000. Bonham returned to LA and began work, in 2003, on what would become ''Blink the Brightest." Virant kept calling.
Bonham, fortified with a reexamined assortment of hopes and dreams, signed with Rounder last fall.
''It's hard for me to tell someone like John Virant that I don't really want to be famous," Bonham says, ''but mainly it's about surviving right now. I've been knocked off my horse. This album is about getting back on my feet, and with it I'd like to create a momentum. I'd like to have a more steady flow instead of always having to go back to the drawing table."
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com