An interview with Why Bonnie before their SXSW and Comet Ping Pong shows.
From opening for Pinegrove this past summer to now soloing their own headline tour again, Why Bonnie is the band to watch. Nostalgia flows through the veins of this folksy, alternative rock quintet, with their debut album released last August, “90 in November,” feeling like grappling with childhood memories. Maybe there is a good reason to not feel like a heartbroken kid in the midst of the sweltering hot, Texas sun, but by listening to tracks like “Hot Car” and “Sailor Mouth,” you can kind of forget the pain for a little while and reminisce.
Blair Howerton, Sam Houdek, Kendall Powell, Chance Williams and Josh Malet are still reeling off of the release of “90 in November,” beginning their road trip for their second leg of a North American Tour. While being mostly settled in New York City now, the band is truly a Texas group at heart, with each member either growing up in Austin or living there for an extensive period of time. This South by Southwest is made all the more special for the band as they make a return to their hometown for a festival they grew up idolizing.
We spoke with lead vocalist Blair Howerton about Why Bonnie’s origin story, the band’s influences and sound, as well as their upcoming shows at SXSW and Comet Ping Pong on March 23.
District Fray: Where does the name Why Bonnie come from?
Blair Howerton: Originally, I got the name Bonnie from my friend’s cat. There was one specific time that she like, pooped outside of the litter box, and my friend was asking her why. And I thought it was kind of funny and cute. And I also just liked the way it sounded phonetically. And then as we started to take ourselves more seriously, I really liked the hat tip to Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde, this vigilante female archetype.
What brought you into music? How did you guys form your band together?
I started writing music at an early age, but I didn’t take it seriously until college. It wasn’t really something I was confident enough to really pursue. Once I was in college, I started recording my own stuff and putting it on SoundCloud. And when people really started having a response to it, that’s when I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna give this a go.” It’s always been like my secret dream.
I graduated college, moved down to Austin, and reconnected with Kendall, who’s my lifelong best friend. We’ve known each other since we were like two. And I just started playing around town. And we had a different band name at that time, Pony Boy and the Horse Girls. It was a pretty different vibe as well — a little more grungy. Through the years, we met Sam and then Chance and Josh through the music scene in Austin. At that time, everyone was active in their own projects in different bands. So, we all knew each other from that and decided to start playing together.
So I know you guys are all from Texas. But did you start writing most of your music in New York? When did New York enter the picture?
New York is the most recent chapter in the Why Bonnie book. I moved here in 2019. Right after that, Sam followed suit, and then Chance and then Josh. And it was just one of those things where we all felt the pull to move here and wanted to give it a go. We took the plunge and it’s worked out. Kendall is still living in Austin. She’s kind of our anchor there. It hasn’t been the easiest transition, but it was well worth it. We all really love it here.
I wanted to talk about your title song “90 in November” from your debut album “90 in November.” It seems to be this super nostalgic track, speaking to growing up specifically in Texas. Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process of that song or what it means to you and your band?
I was writing from my own experience of being from Texas and growing up there. A lot of the imagery used throughout the song is from those experiences, but I also wanted to nod at all of the experiences of growing up. I wanted it to be open-ended so a lot of people, even people that are not from Texas, could relate to it. It’s about being in that moment in your life where you’re looking back on the past, and you can feel yourself moving through the present to the future and being equally anxious and excited and wanting to capture that feeling. So there’s a lot of nostalgia involved, while also that nervous excitement for the future.
I also wanted to talk about your newest release, “Apple Tree.” I love the track. I think this song evokes a sense of reflectiveness especially as a sort of sad, bittersweet love song in a way. Can you tell me a little bit more about this track? Why did you guys decide to release it?
We recorded “Apple Tree” while recording “90 in November.” It was kind of a bonus track. Obviously, [it] didn’t make it onto the album, but we knew we wanted to release it at some point. The message behind the song is definitely bittersweet, like you said, like a bittersweet love story between two people and also, the love story you have between yourself and the outside world. We used a lot of religious imagery while writing it, sprinkled throughout the album itself, like on “Lot’s Wife.” While I’m not a Christian, I was raised Christian and wanted to use that biblical imagery because it was kind of a structure that I grew up with that influenced my worldview, whether I like it or not.
Are you working on any other projects or perhaps another record?
We happen to be in the studio working on the next record. Hopefully, we have something to show this year. We’re really excited about it.
What would be the biggest difference between “90 in November” and this upcoming project?
I think this album was a chance for us to explore our sound and try new sounds out, while “90 in November” was a little more raw and natural and stripped down — which is what we wanted out of it. But this go around, we have more time to sit with the songs and think about them. It was just more of an exploration of what we really wanted to sound like and what we want to grow into. And while also realizing that we’re always going to be growing, and I like that we can evolve with our sound and we don’t have to be tied down to one thing.
Are there bands or artists that have been significant for you as a group?
I think it changes, but a major songwriting influence for me is Angel Olsen. I will just forever be the biggest fan girl. She was one of the first artists I saw live that really made me want to pursue this. And I love her. The trajectory of her career to how she’s tried out new sounds while still being anchored in her own vibe, if you will. I would also say Big Thief – an incredible band. They really know how to highlight each of their strengths and instruments while just keeping it simple and not overdoing it, which I think is hard to do. Also, I love Cass McCombs as a songwriter. His lyrics are poignant, but not too specific. I kind of love that.
Being originally from Texas, how does it feel for you guys to be playing in South by Southwest?
It’s gonna feel pretty big, like full circle for us because we were actually at South in March of 2020. And, obviously, I flew home. That week, South by was canceled, and everything was crazy. So this is going to be a big celebration for us to be able to finally do it and be back in our hometown. And see a lot of like familiar faces, and also a lot of bands that we’ve met in recent years, so it’s gonna be fun. We’re really, really excited.
I think the first time I went to South by, I was like 15 or 16. And my dad took Kendall and I. We thought we were super cool. And we went to the showcase at Hotel San Jose and had an amazing time. And we are actually playing that showcase this year. Full circle.
Have you ever been or toured in D.C. before?
We went on tour with Thao and The Get Down, Stay Down and Becca Mencari last year in March, and we played at the 9:30 Club, which was awesome. Before that, we played at Comet Ping Pong —where we’re going to be playing this next go around. Great place, great pizza. You know, you can’t go wrong.
Why Bonnie will begin this leg of their North American Tour at SXSW. Tickets can be found here.
The band will continue their tour in D.C., making a stop at Comet Ping Pong March 23. Tickets are still available and can be found here. To learn more about Why Bonnie and their music, check out their website here and follow them on Instagram @whybonnie.
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