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Bonnie Dobson Interview

Director Tony Trigwell-Jones catches up with Bonnie Dobson ahead of her performance at Arlington Arts on Friday 30 January.

Hi Bonnie,

I understand that this must be the question everyone asks so please excuse my lack of originality but does it bother you that people focus on the 25 years you weren’t in music, rather than the wonderful 30 year career you had beforehand?

No, it doesn’t bother me at all.  I set out on my first tour in May, 1960 and I gave what I thought at the time was my last concert in Chicago in October, 1989.  So, I had been singing for 29 years when I decided to go back to university.

What can you tell us about the Bonnie Dobson at the start of that 20 years and towards the of it?

Well, I had never planned on singing as a career. Folk music had been my hobby (and great love) since I was eleven years old, In March 1960, I was introduced to an agent from Detroit who heard me sing and subsequently offered me a tour with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. At the time, I was on a break of studies from the University of Toronto and I remember thinking that it would be a fun way to spend the summer before going back to college in the autumn.  And, it was! But, I never made it back to the U of T.  As for my feelings by the time 1989 rolled around, it was complicated. Musically and personally, I’d lost my sense of direction. 

Lots of artists and bands say that they are quitting lots of times – Chas and Dave have had a good many final tours – but you had obviously made up your mind and were quite focussed on not writing or releasing any more new material or performing live. Were there moments within that 25 year break where you had regrets?

Not really.  Occasionally though, when I thought about all that I’d done in those 29 years, it did, sometimes, seem unreal. I think the philosophers might say it fell into the category of ‘personal identity through time’. Having said that, I loved the time I spent studying and working at Birkbeck College here in London.

TV talent shows have, compared to the Bob Knocks of the 70s/80s, reached fever pitch and thousands of young wannabes dreaming of pop stardom risk total humiliation to come within grasping distance of that dream. As someone who had that dream, lived that life and chose to walk away, what advice would you give these young vocalists?

I’m not sure I ever did have ‘that dream’.  I just loved singing  and it was very different time. As for advice?  Don’t be fooled by the strobe lights.

The PR about your return to music reads as though Jarvis Cocker called you up out of the blue and convinced you to play Meltdown in 2007. Was this how it happened or were you already considering a return to music?

No, it wasn’t at all on the horizon.  At that time, I had a house in Ontario, in the village where my grandmother had lived and where I had spent my summers as a child.  I was there when I received an email from Andy Votel, on behalf of Jarvis Cocker, asking if I’d be interested in singing at Meltdown. Jarvis was rather partial to ‘Winter’s Going’. The concert was called ‘The Lost Ladies of Folk’. I didn’t regard myself as ‘lost’, but I couldn’t resist as I am a huge fan of Jarvis.

Even following this, you still waited a full five years before going into the studio (except for one or two cameo performances including with Robert Plant) what kept you?

Meltdown was wonderful, but nothing came of it. And I wasn’t really fussed.  After all those years in between, it was enough to know that I could still sing.  I never thought I would record again and I wasn’t looking either.  Hornbeam Recordings found me and all the great musicians I am lucky to have in my band. We started recording in the summer of 2013 and our CD came out in June 2014. The concert with Robert Plant happened half way between the two. It has all been a big surprise for me.

In the late sixties/early seventies it was quite common for popular psychedelic/folk musicians to explore darker material – in your song Winter’s Going (1969) you talk about autumn killing a baby and conversation killing thought. Do you think that modern popular music has become anodyne?

Thankfully, ‘Winter’s Going ‘ is not typical of the songs I sing and write. I admit that its tendency to psychosis scares me too.

 Is modern popular music anodyne? Yipes!  What is modern popular music? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that.

There’s a brilliant singer/song writer named Susan Werner.  She’s American and, to the best of my knowledge, she has never toured in the UK.  I heard her for the first time about ten years ago in Canada and she probably wouldn’t be classed as ’modern popular’, but she can write and sing and is most definitely not ‘anodyne’. I can provide a list of others too, if you like.

So the new album? You could easily have got your name on some more high-profile shows, rereleased your back catalogue and enjoyed some renewed success – why go to all the bother of forming a new band and writing lots of brilliant new songs?

There was no bother at all in forming the band.  As I mentioned earlier, it all came together very naturally and, for my part, very unexpectedly too. Not only that, it’s a first for me. I’ve never had a band and, if someone had told me two or three years ago, I’d be touring, I would have thought that someone was seriously hallucinating.

Obviously we would like people to come out and see you at the end of this month (30 January). What can our audience expect?

Some very good music played by some very good musicians.

Thank you very, very much for your time.

Thank you.  I look forward to meeting you

Tickets for Bonnie’s performance are available here https://tickets.arlingtonarts.co.uk/show.asp or from the box office on 01635 244246

Bonnie talks about her new album and return to music here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kuthcPb-kg