Bonzie Longs for a Post-Pandemic ‘Reincarnation’
Bonzie Longs for a Post-Pandemic ‘Reincarnation’
Nina Ferraro, the songwriter who records as Bonzie, had been working since 2018 on her third album, “Reincarnation.” It would be the continuation of a fully independent career that has consistently yielded richly melodic and mysterious songs. Then Covid-19 hit, and, like everyone else, she had to change her plans. She moved from Los Angeles to Chicago, where she had lived before; she learned how to be her own recording engineer; she immersed herself in studying Japanese. The centerpiece of her album-in-progress became a song she wrote during quarantine: “Alone,” an understated, haunted, not quite acoustic ballad that she released in 2020.
As she continued writing and recording, the songs for the album — released on March 16 — converged into a narrative arc from separation to reconnection, pondering mortality and tenacity. “Either you want to die or you don’t want to die/Both are so lethal/Me, I’m stuck in the middle of the glorious combat,” she sings, gently and matter-of-factly, in “Lethal.” It’s a song she wrote before the pandemic.
“That’s just the nature of this unstable rock that we’re on,” Bonzie said on a Skype video call from her home in Chicago. “We feel some of these things very strongly right now, but they have always been there. It’s impossible not to be affected by the world situation, but a lot of things are constant for me.”
Bonzie, 25, was wearing a hoodie with a design by one of her favorite songwriters, Daniel Johnston. It showed the “Silver Sufferer” (a skull-faced parody of the Marvel superhero Silver Surfer) singing the opening line of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” An electric bass and an electric guitar leaned against the walls; her Yorkie, Kiraki (“Sunday” in Armenian), spent time in her lap.
Behind her was a large picture frame holding a small yellow rectangle: a sketch on a Post-it note made by the prolific Chicago producer Steve Albini, one of Bonzie’s early supporters. It showed a bell curve of creativity — a burst of inspiration and work followed by quickly diminishing returns.
“I just thought it was funny,” she said. “There are two people in you at all times. One is this endless spirit soul, that’s just creative and will go forever. And then the other one is trying to gently guide that person, to remind you that you’re physical material. The curve represents time spent creatively, and then the X represents where you stop.”
On the new album, Bonzie’s music merges the singer-songwriter staples of guitar, piano and finely turned melodies with synthesizers and programmed beats. For most of the album, Bonzie worked with a co-producer, DJ Camper, who has extensive credits in hip-hop and R&B. One song, the trap-tinged “Up to U,” was co-produced by Yeti Beats, better known for working with Doja Cat. The album’s title song, “Reincarnation,” envisions a post-pandemic renaissance: “We will change, I swear we’re gonna change,” its chorus insists.
Bonzie was 12 when she began singing her own songs weekly at a coffeehouse in her hometown, Racine, Wis. She didn’t want to use her own name, and eventually chose Bonzie as an abstract word that also looked good graphically in capital letters. Using a stage name “just felt better to be able to say everything I wanted to say,” she said, “and not be worried when I was singing about all of these dark, deep secrets that I wouldn’t tell anybody.”
She moved with her family to Chicago, where, as a high schooler, she performed at well-known clubs like Schubas Tavern and Beat Kitchen. She self-released a debut EP as Nina Ferraro when she was 15, followed by her full-length debut album as Bonzie, “Rift Into the Secret of Things” — a phrase from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” — in 2013. She had already begun to mingle folky coffeehouse basics with electronic experimentation, and she found fans among the city’s indie musicians.
“I was impressed by her drive and her seriousness at a very early age,” Albini said by phone from his Chicago studio, Electrical Audio. “She was more serious about her decisions and about her aesthetic than a lot of people her age. It was clear that she had listened and thought very deeply about what she was doing. And the thing that made her stand out immediately was just a singular drive — not to get famous, not just to become known, but to express herself in a way that meant something to her.”
Bonzie’s music grew more elaborate on her second album, “Zone on Nine,” released in 2017. It roved from straightforward acoustic strumming to the delicate sonic apparitions and intricate backup vocals of freak-folk to the crunch of hard-rock guitars; her lyrics could be startlingly direct or poetic and elusive. Now, with “Reincarnation,” she has stripped back her music. “I wanted it to be more personal,” she said.
Her interest in Japanese culture — which began with high-school exposure to Pokémon and anime — led her to the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the idea that “artifacts that come from your medium, that you didn’t intend, are what you highlight and you keep,” she said. “You preserve these natural imperfections that are actually beautiful details. It’s accepting the nature of your imperfect humanness. When producing this record, I thought about that a lot. Like, that’s not perfect with my voice, and that’s not like the most shiny, brilliant, beautiful take, but loving that imperfection that we all have.”
She was also seeking what she had heard in gospel music. “Some of the best voices in the world are gospel singers,” she said. “And I like the way that it feels like there’s nothing that’s unneeded in gospel production.”
She came across the productions of DJ Camper — who has worked with Brandy, Drake, Jay-Z, Tamar Braxton and H.E.R. — while living in Los Angeles. By coincidence, she found his Twitter account on his birthday, which was also her older brother’s birthday. She contacted him. “We kind of felt like we’d known each other for a really long time,” she said. “He’s a musician’s musician. We related on that level where we would be producing and we didn’t even talk at all. We would find something and we’d just, like, look at each other for a second. And then that would mean like, yeah.”
“Reincarnation” begins with “Caves,” which has psychedelia-tinged electric guitars and lyrics that could be about obsessive love or addiction. “I’ve been waiting my whole life/To feel this good for just one night,” Bonzie sings.
She said, “You have to start off in a place of letting go of stuff, and then you can explore other things.”
In “Slated,” she sings about a lonely oblivion, intoning, “I hope that you will find me,” as electronic tones ripple around her; in “Eternity,” she fingerpicks quietly and repeats, “I wish that you could stay, but these things fade,” as harp, orchestral strings and electronics materialize and vanish around her lustrous voice. But she ends the album with a hymnlike affirmation: “Come to Me.” Floating on synthesizers and organ chords, she sings, “Hold you up/No fear/We are free.”
She said, “I feel like so much has changed so fast, and we’re still adapting to the pandemic. We’re still in a shock period. Once we get out of it, I think it’s inevitably going to birth a new type of life. I think that there could be a lot of positive things that come on the other side of this era of humanity.”
Like Bonzie’s other songs, “Come to Me” isn’t simply topical, conceptual or autobiographical. “A lot of things go into the pot,” she said. “And then there’s some alchemy, and then the song comes out.”