Interview: Bonnie Bishop Talks Giving Up Music — and Finding Her Way Back Again
Bonnie Bishop has never been one to take the short -- or easy -- route. Whether she's stepping away from music to help herself get her "big break" or traveling all the way to Texas to (unexpectedly) find her dream car, Bishop's life is full of great stories.
Bishop spent the early 2010s writing and performing around Nashville -- Bonnie Raitt recorded one of her songs; another earned a spot on Nashville -- but her career never quite seemed to take off. And so, in early 2015, Bishop was ready to try something new: graduate school a couple hours south of Nashville. She had decided that her time in the music business was over, sold her tour van and planned to buy a cheap car to take down to school -- but that's not how everything worked out.
"I was just going to spend $3,000 and get a piece of s--t and just drive it until it died," Bishop tells The Boot when she calls from the road, somewhere between Tennessee and Texas. "I had always wanted an old Mercedes because my mom had one when I was growing up -- so I learned to drive in a Mercedes, took my driver's test in a Mercedes; I'd been sitting in my mom's lab in her Mercedes when I was little -- so there was this whole nostalgic thing about it, but that's just a side part of the story."
Bishop's original plan went out the window when she found that Mercedes, by chance, while in Waco, Texas, for her grandmother's funeral.
"I flew down to Waco for her funeral, and at the funeral, I learned that her middle name was Lavelle. She had yellow roses on her casket ... and on the way from the funeral, I was getting my mind off things, so I decided I was going to flip through Craigslist and see if I could find a car," Bishop recalls. "I see an ad for a '91 Mercedes Benz for only $4,000, and I was like, 'Wouldn't that be crazy if I was planning on just getting a clunker car, and I end up finding my dream car?' And sure enough, it was."
The car seemed perfect: It only had 129,000 miles on it, and it's one-and-only owner had kept pristine records of the work he'd done to it -- a dream come true for Bishop. But that wasn't what sealed the deal.
"The clincher is, Lois Lavelle, my grandmother -- her husband, my grandfather's, name -- a strange name -- it's Leland. And when I looked in the glove compartment of this car and saw the owner's records, the owner's name was Leland," Bishop explains. "So, I put the yellow rose from my grandmother's casket on the dashboard, and I paid $3,500 cash for this car, and the next day, I drove it all the way back to Nashville without getting anything checked on it or anything. I just knew that was my car.
"So, I named the car Lavelle, and I got it back to Nashville, and the transmission basically went kaput," Bishop adds with a laugh. "It took me about a year to get it fixed."
But while Lavelle's transmission "went kaput" when Bishop got back to Nashville, her music career did the opposite. She worked on herself and changed her life -- advice she received from Raitt backstage at a gig a few years ago -- which helped prepare her to return to the industry.
"[Raitt] was giving me life lessons about how to handle the music business through your 30s and into your 40s: She said, 'Get healthy,'" Bishop remembers. "At kind of the same age as when I walked away, 35-37, she walked away from the business as well and got sober and got healthy and changed. Change your life, change your mind, change what you eat, change your mind, change your life."
We can't control what's going to happen in our lives. We can make plans all we want, but as soon as something comes in and changes it, you find out just how we're vulnerable.
Bishop's transition away from and back to music helped her gain a better perspective on what failure means to her, but she says that it's a word that she doesn't use often: "That's an 'F-word' that I've been trying to eliminate from my vocabulary," she admits.
"Coming back, I'd already survived what I was always so afraid of; I already went through that failure and the loss of the dream," Bishop continues. "We can't control what's going to happen in our lives. We can make plans all we want, but as soon as something comes in and changes it, you find out just how we're vulnerable. We can't hold on to anything too tightly, but at the same time, we have to appreciate and be able to show up in that moment ...
"Now that I have an opportunity to play music again, I want to live in that space of not having the answers and that being okay," she adds. "It's like, 'Who cares about failing? All you have to do is get up and sing.'"
Bishop sees her recent success -- recording her 2016 release Ain't Who I Was with Dave Cobb and releasing it to much critical acclaim -- and her entire journey, really, as a gift from a higher power, despite all of the rocky and difficult times she's experienced.
"It's the grace of God; I see the grace of God as the thread in my life from beginning to end," Bishop muses. "All the rockiness and the uphill climb of being in this business -- I needed that, I deserved that; I needed to learn to work hard, I needed to find out what I was made of, I needed to learn how to have faith, I needed to learn how to live without. That whole journey made me who I am, and I think that it took walking away from all of it and thinking I had failed and letting it go in order to come to some kind of terms with it and to see the beauty in that story ...
"For me, everything that's happened in the last year and a half has felt like I'm living out the redemption story: My faith in God, I'm seeing the fruit ... I see things working out in my favor, I see opportunities that have never been available to me suddenly opening up ... It's just been a really beautiful story that has just made me believe so much more in the beauty and the mystery of life," she adds. "It's hard for me to put it into words because, you know, we talk about our faith a lot, and then when you're actually living it ... Now I'm kind of getting over that and just enjoying all the fruit and seeing the promises pay off. It's really incredible."
Bishop's belief that things have finally come full circle has made her more confident in all aspects of her music. From songwriting to performing to going on the road, she has taken on an attitude of ease about her career without losing her drive to work hard for what she wants.
"I think I'm much more rooted this time around than I was the first 12 years, the first five records of my career ... and I'm seeing the fun and the joy of the story unfolding." Bishop confesses. "The old version of my music was very -- I sang a lot harder, I felt like I was trying really hard onstage all the time, and I would say now I've tapped into a much more vulnerable side of myself. I'm okay with being vulnerable onstage, as opposed to putting on a show and acting like I have it all together ... On the creative level, as far as writing songs, I basically didn't write for a year and a half; I let myself not write at all, and now I'm allowing myself to write when I feel inspired, and I'm starting to feel inspired again."
I want to live in that space of not having the answers and that being okay. It's like, 'Who cares about failing? All you have to do is get up and sing.'
Bishop's personal journey of dealing with the pressures of being an artist has made her more aware of the things that many other aspiring musicians deal with internally and the pressures that they put on themselves to be a certain way. She saw a need for more community-building among her fellow musicians in Nashville, so she started a monthly "revival" where musicians gather and sing together, and hopes to "continue to foster healthy, supportive communities around these issues."
"I didn't realize it was a problem until it was a problem," she says of the pressure she was putting on herself. "I knew I felt pressure to succeed, but I thought that was what I was supposed to feel -- this kind of anxiety, trying to make things happen ... I've talked to a lot of musicians who go through that, and I've actually participated in some awesome musician recovery programs and support groups where we get together and we all share this enormous amount of pressure that we feel as artists to prove ourselves and to be heard, and the heartbreak of the business and the way things are ... We need each other; we need to know we're not alone and we all are messy in the same way."
Although Bishop only just released Ain't What I Was in May, she's already looking toward her next project. She's been writing again, as she mentioned, but she also has a number of songs saved up -- some from her most recent release, some from friends, some from her old catalog.
"I'm going to keep writing songs and ending up having to make albums for the rest of my life because there's still a lot of great songs to record," Bishop says, "and now that the recording process has been made fun again, and the whole performing thing is fun again, it's kind of like, I'm not putting any limits on myself."
What Is Americana? Its Artists Define the Genre