Interview: Haley Bonar

The Twin Cities based singer discusses making one of the year’s most acclaimed albums Impossible Dream and future projects. Plus info on US and UK tour dates

Interview: Haley Bonar Garlanded with universally positive reviews on release in August Impossible Dream, the seventh album by Haley Bonar has become the highest profile release by Twin Cities’ native to date. Following on from the acclaim previous LP Last War (2014) received, Impossible Dream corrals Bonar’s superlative lyrics into a myriad of genres running from New Wave, alt. country, 1980s pop and Bo Diddley beat driven indie rock. With a sold out tour and a debut UK TV appearance on Uncle Jools' Bunfight completed, Bonar has the Thanksgiving Holiday off before a tranche of dates Stateside. With the final night of the tour a support slot with Memphis Industries label mates, Sunderland orch-pop duo Field Music a pre-gig natter at palatial Manchester venue The Ritz is arranged.

Resembling a set of short stories, Impossible Dream’s album cover looks similar to a Penguin Modern Classics entry, what was the inspiration behind the sleeve artwork? ‘The photographer Alex Soth, he lives in Minneapolis and I love his work’ Haley explains, sat in a backstage dressing room. ‘The first time I saw his stuff I was in Brighton on vacation years ago and he had an exhibit at the museum there and I was desperate trying to figure out my artwork. I have a friend who works for the Weinstein Gallery and I asked if it would be possible for Alex to licence a photograph. He said yeah and let me licence it for free because he liked the record and I thought it went really nicely. Looking like a novel is intentional, for sure’ Haley nods.

Comprising ten songs that are done and dusted in under 35 minutes, in tandem with its changes in style and unfolding stories, the album is a model of brevity. ‘There were more songs originally but I didn’t want to put anything on there that wasn’t the best for the album' Haley explains. 'Some of them just didn’t end up working out, even though I really liked them I thought ‘This doesn’t belong here, it’s not the right family for it’. I like short records!’ Kismet Kill, a tale of two star crossed lovers where things head south was issued as the LPs first single. Where does the concept of Kismet come from? ‘I like Kismet better than serrendiptious, or fated and I really liked the idea of creating this story of this young love, when you feel that ‘This is kismet, we’re supposed to be together' and then in this song they have a child when they’re really young and it’s just sealed. You’re always gonna be with that person and that’s why the lyric ‘And the Kismet Kill nailed beside you’, Kismet is very ambiguous and fluffy and lovey-dovey in a lot of ways' Haley explains. 'You don’t say kismet in a negative connotation. So I like Kismet Kill, you’re blending all of that with reality’.

Elsewhere, live favourite Stupid Face drips with vitriol and regret in equal measure. ‘The saying, pointing a finger at someone and there’s three fingers pointing back at yourself, that song is about blame and about misplaced judgement on people' the singer states. 'I think it’s anger and resentment and things building up and reflecting on a time like with Kismet Kill when they weren’t really like that within a relationship of whatever sorts and maybe within your own life. I thought it was kinda interesting to use that judgement, that state of mind that we all do as adults. We all judge people and then to use the word Stupid Face which is so clearly adolescent because that’s what that judgement is essentially. You’re not in your mature state of mind when you’re laughing at somebody or pointing your finger and judging them’.

Recent single Called you Queen, backed with an impressive, offbeat video, written and directed by Haley’s sister Torey Hanson is one of the LPs most lyrically intriguing tracks, ‘Not bittersweet, the taste of living an/Impossible dream/But we both know your future wasn’t with me/Long before your body betrayed you’. What inspired the song? ‘I think the underlying story is just about hazing in school’ Haley explains. ‘The woman is in love with her friend who is gay and that love transcends into a different kind of thing. Maybe he’s transgender or something, so I thought maybe the idea of him being dressed as a really beautiful woman and being wasted because he’s such in such conflict. Maybe he was hurt in a violent act that’s insinuated in the last verse she sees him in such agony but looking so beautiful and deems him as royalty. Whereas the negative aspect is that ‘You’re queer, you’re nothing but a queen’ and she’s like ‘Yeah, you are, like royalty’. I was wondering if the song was partially inspired as a spin on Homecoming Queen. ‘I guess that’s kinda where my mind goes towards the visual, say he’s at a prom and he’s dressed as a woman' Haley states. While proms are commonplace in UK schools nowadays, prior to 2000 the best known example (and first exposure) most Brits had of the event was watching Carrie (1976), where Sissy Spacek takes part in a not-exactly-run of the mill version of the night. ‘I wish!’ Haley laughs riotously, preferring Stephen King’s vision. ‘That’d be amazing! If there was pig’s blood and fire at every prom they’d be sweeping the nation!’

Standout album track Skynz meanwhile (‘History is nothing but a memory/From someone paid to write it’) combines the dreaminess of shoegazing with the rhythmic undertow of 1980s pop. ‘That was one of the last ones that was written for the record, it was right before we went in to record I wrote that I think’ Haley recalls. ‘It’s kind of a scrapbook of lyrics in my mind. With the production of it Jacob (Hanson producer/multi-instrumentalist) and I were thinking of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. We totally listened to that and we were like ‘We should do that’, a lot of the songs are deceptively chill, they just seem like they’re fast cos of the drums. It’s trucking, but it’s never overly active and it's patient’.

Something that becomes immediately apparent with Bonar’s songs is the quality of the lyrics, each song a detailed vignette or mini-narrative. With no first drafts that somehow made it through to the final version or ‘Sod it, it rhymes, that’ll do’ couplets anywhere in earshot, i'ts clear how important the lyrics are to the singer. ‘I put a library up on my website. Every single one of my songs’ lyrics are on there because so many people get them wrong and sometimes it doesn’t really matter, then there’s been like ‘That is not even close to what it says!’ Haley laughs. ‘That’s my number one priority, I’m a writer before anything else, so when people misquote it I tend to take it a little bit more personally than I should probably!’ (laughs).

On the subject of which, what writers have inspired you as formative influences up to more recently? ‘I’m a huge Margaret Atwood fan. I read Cat’s Eye two or three times and that’s definitely influenced my writing in a lot of ways, I just love the story. It hits home because it’s about girls growing up together and I’m from a family of four girls' Haley replies. 'I was also obsessed with a lot of the Southern American writers. (Southern Gothic novelist) Cormac McCarthy influenced a lot of songs on my album three records ago (Big Star, 2008). There’s some direct lines from some of his books, where I can go, ‘That’s when I was reading this one’. I actually read so much of Cormac McCarthy I had to stop and I haven’t read him since, he was too dark. It’s beautiful and amazing, but’s it’s just bleak and after a while I was like (mock sobbing) ‘I feel like I have no love left and no hope left, I’ve got to stop reading this guy!’’

Alongside these a brilliant bit of serendipity occurred with Haley’s current reading material, which features another American musician visiting the North West, albeit on a more permanent basis. ‘I recently picked up Brix Smith Start’s book, The Rise and Fall and the Rise, I’ve just finished it actually. It’s amazing, it’s a weird coincidence, I’ve never listened to The Fall, I just love reading music bios, it doesn’t matter who it is, I just buy them and eat them like candy. I was in a record store in Brighton and I did an in-store and they had a really cool book selection so I picked up that and Kate Tempest’s book of short stories. I was like ‘Who is this, I dunno?’ so reading it and as we’re travelling through England and she’s making her journey to England and then Manchester, and then we’re in Manchester doing the Low Four thing the other day’. Taking place in the Old Granada Studios complex, where Factory Records/Hacienda co-founder Tony Wilson gave Joy Division their first TV performance, and later The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and fittingly The Fall who all appeared on Wilson's show The Other Side of Midnight, the legendary space has been revived for live sessions.

The links with Manchester extended into Haley's tourbus film of choice as well. ‘We put (Factory Records biopic) 24 Hour Party People on, we have a TV in the van that has some movies on it but it’s not our hard drive so we were like ‘What’s that?’ None of us had ever seen it, so we said ‘Let’s try it, fuck it’. And it was like ‘What are the odds?’’ Haley says. ‘I picked up this book and we watched this movie and now we’re in Manchester and there’s all this amazing history that I didn’t know. I love reading about Joy Division and New Order but I just didn’t really connect the dots, so it’s really fantastic’.

Highly prolific with a discography which almost stands at an album a year including new wave inspired side project Gramma's Boyfriend, 2017 will see a change in direction for the singer. ‘I’m working on a book of short stories and that’s my goal to finish that’ Haley states. ‘I’m gonna have a lot more touring in the first half of next year for this record (see UK dates below) so I don’t really know when those next songs will start. I have one so far, but I’d imagine it’d be the next year or the year after to go into the studio and record. That’s what I live for, recording. I just love the process of writing and producing a song and breathing life into it with other musicians and instrumentation. So it’s always working towards that but right now I’m in the aftermath of that which is just work, work, work. It’s oddly very scary for me to think about releasing them because it’s so much different than a three-minute condensed version of something, which is taking little bits from here and there and writing a cohesive story’ Haley says of the difference between the two disciplines. ‘I wrote a story that will probably be in my next book that’s about jealousy and then I read Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band, and that drove me to write Jealous Girls’.

One distinct advantage of becoming an author Haley explains is categorisation. 'I think the press assumes that your songs are your diary entry, why would you assume that? Do you assume that all directors are making movies about their lives? All screenwriters are writing about something that happened to them this year and this time?' Haley questions. 'With releasing a story I think even more people would think that, but the upside to that is I get to put it in the Fiction section. So, it is not a memoir, it is not my life, it’s fiction. ‘Everything based on... Whatever is purely coincidental!'’

Impossible Dream is out now through Memphis Industries

US tour dates Tickets

Tues Nov 29th – Dahl Arts Center, Rapid City, SD
Weds Nov 30th – Larimer Lounge Denver, CO
Thurs Dec 1st – Skylight Santa Fe, NM
Fri Dec 2nd – Valley Bar Phoenix, AZ
Sat Dec 3rd – Resident Los Angeles, CA
Sun Dec 4th – The Casbah San Diego, CA
Tues Dec 6th – Bottom of the Hill San Francisco, CA
Thurs Dec 8th – Barboza Seattle, WA
Fri Dec 9th – Analog Portland, OR
Thurs Dec 15th – Reif Center, Grand Rapids, MN

UK & Ireland dates 2017 Tickets

Mon 27th March – Komedia Brighton, Brighton
Tues 28 Mar – The Bodega Social Club, Nottingham
Weds 29th March – Night & Day Café, Manchester
Fri 31st March – The Workman's Club, Dublin
Sat 1st April – Central Library, Liverpool
Mon 3rd April – The Cluny, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Tues 4th April – Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich
Weds 5th April – Thekla, Bristol
Thurs 6th April – The Dome, Tufnell Park, London