Ray Bonneville is returning to the Eastern Sierra to play a show at the Inyo Council for the Arts in Bishop on Thursday, April 4.
The Sheet interviewed Bonneville over the phone. He was at his home in Austin, TX.
Bonneville’s music has been described as blues and Americana. He’s usually a one-man band, singing, playing guitar and harmonica, and stomping a piece of plywood. But for this run he’s performing with friend Richie Lawrence.
“l let people call me a blues guy, because I can’t get them to stop doing it,” Bonneville said. “My genre is song and groove dipped in blues, dipped in humid weather and asphalt and thunderstorms.”
He released his eighth album in September 2018, “At King Electric”.
Since 1993, he’s released an album about every three years.
He was born in Hull, Quebec, but his family moved to Boston when he was young.
“I don’t have a solid sense of home in a traditional way. I’m somewhat nomadic. I’m home wherever I am.”
Sam Cooke wrote about this.
‘I was born by a river / and like the river I’ve been running ever since.’
-“Change is Gonna Come”
His first language was French, but his songs are in English.
Writing in his second language intimidated him, but he reads a lot.
“I am never without a book. I don’t care where I am.”
Lyrics from his first album “Easy Gone” don’t sound like someone speaking their second language.
From “Two Bends in the Road”:
“Some things are better off
darlin’, I got something
rolling ‘round in my head
I would tell you
if you really want to know
just that I never needed anybody so
two bends between us on that lonesome road”
Inspiration form that song came from Cormac McCarthey’s novel “Outer Dark”.
Bonneville didn’t start songwriting full-time until 1990, three years before the release of his first album.
“Between 1979 and 1990 I was a pilot, flying on the side of my music career. I wound up flying in the bush of Canada on a float plane. I had a very harrowing experience, which prompted me to give up the flying and take up songwriting seriously,” he said.
That experience involved Bonneville flying a critically wounded fifteen year-old boy and the parents out of the bush.
It’s become the white whale of his songwriting career.
“I’ve written a story about it, but I’ve yet to write a good song about it and I’ve tried about six different ways.”
He said that he would keep trying.
It’s not something he’s fighting. He writes like a child plays, without imposing meaning or structure.
“I’ll start writing and I won’t even know what the cadence of it is yet and I’ll just put some words down. When it’s time to make a record, I start looking at that stuff, and I start seeing what wants to come out of that. I’m a big fan of removing and removing. I’m always sort of rendering things down.”
The mystery of the muse entices. His idea for his song ‘Canary Yellow Car’ started from the words ‘canary yellow,’ just because he liked them.
“What I like about early [Bob] Dylan. He believes it so much even though it’s fiction that you believe it. Some of it doesn’t make a lot of sense but you still believe it because he believes it.”
His craft distilled: “I start with the truth. But then the truth becomes difficult to rhyme and that’s where the fiction comes in.”
Before 1990 when he began honing his lyrical style he worked and worked on performance.
“I went to Alaska to learn how to be a good solo act. I played five weeks every night in Valdez at the Pipeline Club for rowdy people.”
It wasn’t the roughest venue he’s played.
“I played in Nederland, Colorado when somebody came in and was shooting at somebody.”
The Sheet: Was that the end of the show?
Bonneville: “No! I kept on playing. When a fight breaks out, unless the stage is directly threatened, you keep playing. Of course these days I play concert venues and little concert halls, so there’s no fighting anymore.”
His lust for learning has been rewarded.
“Gust of Wind” (1999) won a Juno award (Canada’s Grammy’s) for best blues album. His other albums Rough Luck (2000) and Roll It Down (2003) were nominated for Juno’s Best blues album. In 2009, his song “I Am the Big Easy”, in which the speaker is New Orleans, won Folk Alliance International’s Song of the Year.
He’s played with the greats. He opened for Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Dr. John, and Robert King. He ate “supper” with Memphis Slim in Paris.
But those are society’s successes.
His success is writing, recording, and performing.
“I’ve been making a living playing music without having a day job for a very long time. Do I want a big house on the hill? No, I don’t think I do, because what would I do up there?”