THOUGH AN immensely talented vocalist and performer in her own right—as you'll see this Monday night at the Mars—Bonoff is perhaps best known as a go-to songwriter who's contributed hits to the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Wynonna Judd.
From her self-titled 1977 debut, Bonoff became an influential presence in the Southern California recording scene, especially with her work alongside longtime collaborator Kenny Edwards, who sadly passed away in 2010.
Bonoff continues a vigorous touring schedule however, and comes to Effingham County with another old friend, Nina Gerber, accompanying her on guitar.
Does it seem like that golden period of ‘70s singer-songwriters, which you come out of, is finally getting the appreciation it deserves?
Karla Bonoff: It's hard to say. I lean towards that time period as far as songwriting goes, but certainly a lot of good songs have been written since then. It has gotten more diluted over time. A lot of what we were doing was coming out of folk music and blues and creating our own songs. It hadn't been done that much up to that point. Of course people were writing show tunes and standards, but that was sort of a new genre.
A lot of times I’ll hear something recent and I’ll think, wow I can hear Joni Mitchell or Sean Colvin. You can’t tell how many generations down someone’s been influenced by something. But I can see the ancestry of all that.
You’re a folk writer mainly, but what’s the extent of how the Motown/Soul explosion of the ‘60s influenced you?
Karla Bonoff: Well, when I was a young girl of maybe 11 or 12, that's the music we listened to on the radio. It was the current hit music here in California. I can remember just laying on the beach at Santa Monica and listening to those songs. They formed my early sense of pop music. The music I ended up writing came out of folk music and soul music. That all had a huge influence on me.
That time period when you hit it big was in itself an amazing time in Southern California, with Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, all the rest, all writing and playing and partying together.
Karla Bonoff: To some extent it's still kind of a mystery to me in hindsight. How'd all those people end up in that tiny square mile of area at the same time and coming from all over the place? Arizona, Texas, Detroit. I guess probably the biggest reason is the record industry was there. If you wanted a record deal in those days you had to come to LA or New York City, that was it.
But beyond that I don’t profess to completely understand it. A huge percentage of people from that time and place became successful. Some really incredible talent.
But unlike most of them, you’re actually from California.
Karla Bonoff: My grandfather came from Chicago to Hollywood when the movie business was just starting. There were dirt roads. People from all over came down to the movie business. It was definitely the new frontier.
Being a strong and independent woman artist yourself, are you noticing sort of a backlash today against very empowered young female singer/songwriters such as Taylor Swift?
Karla Bonoff: I'm not so much aware of a backlash. It's more about when people get overexposed, whether it's Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift, people get sick of them. It's not so much that it's a backlash about her being a great songwriter, which she is. She's just making the most of her moment—you have to admire that.
But I was asked this question 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve never felt discrimination in this business because I’m a woman or ever felt I had to work harder because I was a woman. I thought we all had a pretty even playing field. I always felt totally empowered, but of course felt like I could have done a lot more. The main difference is that a lot of us were more timid then than today.
In some ways there was so much less competition then, too. There really weren’t a lot of women in the business, so you could sort of write your own script. Now there’s so much out there, so much competition. Everyone’s competent, everyone has a home studio.
So what’s the snapshot of what you’re up to these days?
Karla Bonoff: I've been touring basically nonstop since the 1980s. I'm still playing with Nina Gerber. Kenny Edwards recently passed away, of course. I decided not to try and actually replace him—I decided to just do it this time as the girls.
I haven’t done a lot of recording lately. I did take part in that Jackson Brown tribute album last year, and contributed a song to that.
Tell us what we can expect at the show.
Karla Bonoff: We'll be playing stuff from my favorite three or four or five albums. We'll play the Jackson Browne tune ("Something Fine"). Basically a retrospective, with my favorite stuff out of everything I've written. Plus a couple of new songs!