“Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” -Andy Warhol
When Beth Bombara and I chat, the songwriter is taking a breather at home in St. Louis, Missouri. The down time has given the musician some days to contemplate her artistic journey. The above quote from famed American pop artist weighs on her mind. She saw these prophetic words scribbled on the wall of a green room during a recent tour and it struck a chord.
“This is the new mindset I’m trying to adopt,” Bombara says.
Getting it done – and making great art – is what the Americana artist has been up to lately. Over the past couple of years, she’s hit the road with her partner, co-writer, and bandmate Kit Hamon and taken her music to the masses, playing in 22 states and driving through every other one except South Dakota, Florida, Vermont and Maine. One of these tours saw the songwriter supporting fellow Americana artist, and St. Louis resident Pokey LaFarge. He had nothing but glowing things to say about his tour mate. “Beth Bombara’s words and the desperation with which she honestly conveys them will leap like sunshine into your heart.”
It wasn’t that long ago when there was little sunshine reaching Bombara’s heart. Following her 2015 self-titled release, and months travelling the highway’s white lines, the songwriter fell into a deep depression. Unable to write a song and barely able to get out of bed, she decided to take the spotlight off herself and hit the road for a while as a side woman – playing bass on tour, opening up for the dance-pop project RAC. Some rest back in St. Louis followed before Bombara was rejuvenated and ready to record again.
“That’s where some of the songs on the album started … they were born out of that,” she explains. “I’ve never struggled with depression; it’s something I didn’t even realize I had until it snuck up on me and figured what was wrong. Writing was my meditation. It was my way of figuring out what was going on.”
The result of these meandering thoughts and meditations is the fine new album Map & No Direction, produced by Karl Kling (RAC). The eight-song collection that dropped March 3 speaks to the here and now and the turbulent, troubled world where it’s hard to push politics aside. “It’s always something that is in the back of my mind,” Bombara says. “Especially living in St. Louis and experiencing everything that went on in Ferguson. It’s taken me a while to process that and it definitely worked its way into one of the songs.”
The song that specifically speaks to the Ferguson situation is “Lonely Few.” Bombara says this composition was her way of saying and acknowledging all of these things that are happening. “I don’t know what to do,” she explains. “I am just one person, but I see it happening and I’m acknowledging that. We need to come together and make sure this doesn’t happen anymore. It speaks specifically to police violence and people who are being marginalized because of where they are from or what they look like.”
The bulk of the songs for this record really started to bloom during a weeklong residency in Portland, Oregon. “There was a recording studio down the street that one of our friends worked out of and we wanted to use the residency to play and work on new material,” she recalls. “We were playing new songs at our residency and during the day we would go down the street and start to record the songs in the studio. That’s how it all started.
“I was really thinking a lot about older music for this record,” she adds. “I wanted to capture a more old-school, vintage vibe and was trying to interpret all the songs in that way.”
Bombara thought they might lay down four songs, but as the recording continued the creative energy took off and unexpectedly she ended up with enough material for an album. The songwriter’s musical journey began in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a teenager, she was raised on punk and the harder-edged rock emanating from the basements of her Michigan youth.
More recently, the musical relationship with her husband has had a direct, positive effect on her muse. “Our personalities and perspectives on music are very different and I think that can be an asset when writing and arranging songs,” Bombara explains. “He’s definitely got a producer’s mind. When I have ideas floating around in my head he’s been really good at helping me refine them, and even see them from a different angle. This is the first time on an album that I haven’t relied on other band members; it was pretty much just me and Kit playing everything. I came away from it with more confidence in my guitar playing and writing individual parts.
“We had to learn how to work together in this creative space, which also taught us how to communicate better in our relationship,” she adds. “That’s been a good thing … to take two different ideas and make it into something that is better.”
Asked for an example of this collaboration, Bombara cites the infectious first cut on the record (“I Tried”).
“That is the first one we finished writing together for the album,” she says. “That was one instance where I had started something and wasn’t sure how to finish it. I had some ideas, so we worked on it and finished it together. In terms of that whole idea of working together, the song, ‘Sweet Time’ is my meditation on that. It’s about being in a relationship with somebody long-term and experiencing a lot of ups and downs. I was just meditating on that whole process of being in a partnership with somebody and coming out with something so much better than if you were a loner by yourself.”
One of the most arresting songs on Map & No Direction is a brooding, sultry reworking of Bob Dylan’s classic “Blind Willie McTell,” marked by lush string arrangements. The seeds for this cover were planted once again while Bombara was on tour last year. “You have so much time to pass while on the road and we were listening to some Dylan B cuts and this was one of them,” she explains. “I had heard the song before, but something about hearing it this time – driving through the Arizona desert – struck me. Partially, it was the lyrics, which still seemed relevant to things I was thinking about going on today. It just struck me in that way and I said, ‘I’ve got to sing this song, but interpret it in my own way.'”
One wonders whether Bombara thinks of herself as fitting into the Americana category – whatever that word means these days. “It’s a really broad genre,” she says. “It grew out of this space of where people were doing music that doesn’t fit into the established commercial categories. Now, there’s this whole other genre that is Americana. In that broad sense, I feel at home describing my music in that way. On the flipside, I feel like people sometimes have a predetermined idea about what you do. I’m trying not to let that limit myself creatively. It’s interesting because I grew up in Grand Rapids and when I was growing up it was during the whole Detroit rock scene. I was going to sweaty basement shows with loud music … it was a very organic experience. That’s always informed me and is still informing what I do in some small way, so I’m trying to stay true to that.”
These days Bombara is finding inspiration in her local scene and the rich music community -past and present – in the Gateway City.
“There is a diverse scene going on here,” she concludes. “From the classic historic blues scene, which is great because I never got a lot of exposure to blues music until I moved here. Similarly, I never even listened to Wilco until I moved to St. Louis. Now, living here, everyone talks about the good old days when Uncle Tupelo were a local band. They’ve had a huge influence on the local scene and I’ve definitely experienced that. There really is this sense of music being tied to a place and a genre and how that informs that.”
Watch a premiere of the official video for the lead-off single: