Haley Bonar has not one, but two ways of deflecting questions about the seemingly personal nature of “Hometown,” the first song on her excellent new album, Impossible Dream.
“All grown up, saving up for my exit,” she sings in a breathy echo. “Let it burn in the rearview mirror.” And later: “The further that I get, the deeper my regrets. Hometown goes wherever you go.”
The second stop on Bonar’s current tour of the Western United States is in Denver, but the first is Rapid City, South Dakota, where she grew up and where her parents still live. She will probably play “Hometown” there, she says in a telephone interview with Westword. So perhaps it’s no surprise that she plays coy when asked about the song.
“[It’s] a polyamorous love affair, because I have multiple hometowns,” Bonar says. “All my family is based out of Brandon, Manitoba [Canada], so that’s kind of the original hometown. I grew up in Rapid City and spent the bulk of my youth there, but then I moved to Duluth [Minnesota] for three or four years and kind of cut my teeth on the music scene there. And I’ve been been living in St. Paul for almost a decade now. So this is my hometown to me.”
People in each of those places claim Bonar as one of their own. Still, “Hometown” isn’t even about any one of them, she says: “Everybody has a hometown, so it’s about everybody’s hometown. The message is pretty universal. It’s not necessarily just speaking for myself.”
That sentiment echoes something Bonar (rhymes with “honor”) has been saying all along about Impossible Dream, her seventh full-length studio album. Ahead of its August release, she put a statement on her website distancing herself from the meaning behind these songs. Here’s part of that statement:
“... what I write is born of my own set of memories and ideas, and once they are released into the world, they do not belong to me anymore. The interpretation is all yours, therefore these stories are yours.”
Fair enough. Overall, Impossible Dream is another confident step forward for Bonar, who was famously discovered at an open mic by Low’s Alan Sparhawk many years ago. She has since evolved from an evocative folk-rock singer to an ambitious artist with a gift for pairing stirring melodies and bittersweet pop-rock.
Sonically, Impossible Dream is her most aggressive album, paced by quicker tempos and draped in more guitar effects than ever before. Lyrically, Bonar sounds like a woman who is grappling with many things: the past, the future, heartbreak, her art, her career, getting older, other stuff. She sees it differently.
“I’m constantly grappling with the fact that everybody thinks that my songs are a diary entry,” Bonar says, her voice breaking into a mildly annoyed half-laugh. “Everybody says, ‘What’s wrong with you? What’s going on in your life?’ and all this stuff, and I’m like, why do people think that songwriters are just putting some chords to their journal entries?”
Bonar is convinced that female songwriters are more subject to this sort of artistic analysis than their male counterparts. And she wonders why fiction writers get to write without automatically being inserted into their stories, when other kinds of writers don’t get the same leeway.
“For all you know, it could’ve happened to them [or] it’s completely pulled out of their ass and you’d never know the difference and it doesn’t really matter because it’s fiction. So you just think, ‘Wow, what an imagination you have!’” she says. “But when it’s nonfiction or it’s billed as a memoir people are like, ‘Wow, this is all you. Okay. I get it.’”
Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned statement on her website has done little to stop people from picking apart Bonar’s songs and applying them to her life. She can try and try and try to transfer ownership of their interpretations to the listener, but the listener’s interest in not only the work of art, but also the brain and the personality and the life behind the art, is a powerful thing.
“When I’m reading fiction, I never think, like, ‘I wonder if this really happened to this author?’ I just kind of go with it and you’re taken to that place,” Bonar says. “It’s really interesting, and I like thinking about it in a different perspective, so I’m trying to talk to people about it so that maybe they can, too.”
Haley Bonar, 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 30, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, 303-291-1007, $10.