John Bunzow – Liberated from the dark
In 1995, singer-songwriter John Bunzow seemed on the verge of a career breakthrough. After years touring the rough-and-tumble bars of the northeastern United States, he’d moved to Nashville, inked a major-label deal, and was about to release his debut recording, the Pete Anderson-produced Stories Of The Years. Then his label, Liberty, imploded, the record was shelved, and Bunzow was faced with a series of personal challenges.
Now, seven years later, he’s resurfaced with a new disc on independent label Sideburn, appropriately titled Darkness And Light. Whereas the Liberty record was intended as a transition from the barroom stage to country radio airplay, Darkness And Light is a roots-rock, song-driven confrontation with life and a return to the perfect inconsistencies of a band playing live in the studio.
When Liberty morphed into Capitol Nashville, the new regime slashed the label’s roster, and Stories Of The Years, which had already been delivered to radio, was put back in the can. Shortly thereafter, Bunzow’s mother was killed in an automobile accident, and he also lost three close friends within a couple of months.
When Bunzow sings, “The weight upon my shoulders got so heavy they just gave in/’Till I could not lift my head up to face another day again,” on the new record’s “In Pieces On The Ground”, it’s painfully evident how hard those years must have been.
“It was not by choice,” he recalls, “but I unplugged for two full years. The record company stuff you could see coming a mile away, so it wasn’t any big surprise — but [the other], that was real sudden and unexpected. It really took the wind out of my sails, and at the same time I was going through this bloody divorce, so basically I just retreated. I was working two jobs, teaching and painting houses, but that was just what I had to do.”
Bunzow continued writing songs, eventually returning several times to his native Portland to play gigs with a gang of old friends. Though he had no plans to return to music full-time, he began to feel the urge to document some of his new material. Bunzow borrowed some money from his brother and made plans to record.
“It was really simple,” he recalls. “We just went in there to blow it out and help my spirits; it was nothing more than that. [The studio’s] got a bunch of old vintage gear, the kind of stuff I like, because I wanted it to have that rough-around-the-edges sound. I was so tired of the Music Row thing, so I got together this group of guys who I like to work with and said, ‘We’re gonna take two or three runs at [these songs] and if we don’t get it, forget it. I’m not going to torture these things.’ We had no endings worked out, and the engineer pointed out that there was tuning that was out, but I said, ‘As long as it feels good, fuck it.'”
The rough edges on Darkness And Light combine with Bunzow’s sophistication as a songwriter to leave the impression of an artist who’s come to realize there’s more to success than gold records and radio airplay. “I think that’s the reason that I keep going back to Portland to play,” he explains. “It’s because it’s always fun, just a bunch of guys I go back with 20 or 25 years playing in a bar. With this record coming out too, we were just going for it, just having fun with no agenda going on. Now I’m just trying to see if it will open a few doors for gigging. The trick is just to keep your expectations realistic.”