Haley Bonar emerges with new album

The enigmatic singer-songwriter is pinched by growing pains

Jenna Ross

Of course Haley Bonar grew up. Too bad her music grew up with her.

Back on her 2003 album, “The Size of Planets,” Bonar lilted and laughed about whiskey and cowboys. She whispered of deep, mysterious waters. She ached for a dying port town.

“It’s pretty,” she said of the album. “But it’s really young.”

That youth is what made the album good. Bonar seemed like a little girl who read so much and spoke so little that her hued imagination didn’t quite match the world’s reality. How lovely.

But if Bonar’s first albums were other-worldly, her new one is weighted to the unyielding ground.

Her voice on “Lure the Fox,” she agreed, sounds different, and her songs are more complex. The first track is so slow and her voice so lifeless that it’s difficult to understand much more than snippets such as “So angry / half empty.”

She’s matured, she said.

When she finished “The Size of Planets,” the 19-year-old basked in the pleasure of simply being done. She never imagined anyone would actually hear the CD, she said.

Turns out lots of people did. Alan Sparhawk of Duluth’s most well-known band, Low, released the album under his label Chairkickers.

Bonar became Duluth’s second-most talked about export. Alternative and mainstream media hailed her as a “siren” singer of a different era. She toured with big names. She got sort-of-famous, fast.

And then came the follow-up album, which neither she nor the big-time record label considering her were very happy with.

So she scrapped it. Things were just too much, so she hid in her hometown, Rapid City, S.D., for a while.

And she began the album anew.

“I’m so happier with the album,” she said. “It’s bigger and scarier sounding.”

Bonar is 22 now – almost 23, she pointed out. But in person, her eyes and words still are open and trusting. She’s a vegetarian so she can be “nice to animals.” Her boyfriend and bassist had a “big crush” on her, and soon they started “liking” each other.

In these moments, as she clutches a cup of coffee and plays with her pixie hair, she’s much like her first album – genuine and unassuming.

But it seems the too-big, too-fast phenomenon of her first album changed how she thinks about her music.

She’s releasing “Lure the Fox” without a label. She isn’t quite sure where or how people will buy it. She has no tour plans.

“I’m trying to take it one day at a time,” she said.

The songs come to Bonar after many of such days. She will go “six months without writing anything,” she said. And in the past few months, she’s probably put together no more than a couple melodies.

In much of “Lure the Fox,” those melodies are substantially subdued. Her voice lifts with less Rhodes keyboard, instead tugging at a heavy bass.

She sings oh-so-slowly about religion and other weighty worlds: “Wearing cloaks of God while drinking devil’s water / Living in my dreams and waking to disaster.”

Her best stuff ñ in this album and in general – is specific. She describes towns’ quirks using a voice with its own idiosyncrasies. While this album’s lyrics mention the Midwest and its chilling northern sky, they do so in a song titled “Hawaii.” She tells fewer tales of sad cities.

Bonar now works, lives and hangs with her cat Pete in St. Paul now. She spends her time at two part-time coffee shop gigs, which she loves because of the community, coffee and flexible schedules.

She’s gotten smarter, she said. She understands her priorities. And she refuses to buy into the hype surrounding even the local music scene.

When she released “The Size of Planets,” she was caught off-guard by reviewers comparing her to Jewel or Tracy Chapman or another random singer-songwriter. Now she has a retort.

She’s never heard a male artist compared to one of his contemporaries, she said. Such ridiculousness is reserved for women.

“We all have boobs,” she said of her and Jewel, “but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.”

So this is Haley Bonar now – a little older, a little wiser. It’s a natural change. But it’s a little sad to listen to.