NAC Presents: Powerful third album is the charm for singer-songwriter Megan Bonnell

Megan Bonnell is seen here on the cover of her new CD Separate Rooms.

Singer-songwriter Megan Bonnell is returning to Ottawa in a show with The Once at the National Arts Centre. Separate Rooms deals with some difficult subjects including mental illness, early pregnancy loss, and the dissolution of love. She talks about the album and her career in this interview with ARTSFILE.

Q. You have just released your third album. Can you tell me about what you are trying to accomplish with Separate Rooms?

A. I wanted this album to have more pop sensibilities than my previous two albums. There are still stark moments on the album where the songs get stripped back to the basics, but I love that the band is very present throughout. I wanted it to embrace many moods and feel sonically explorative because that excites me. I think of this album as a natural evolution from my previous releases. By the time we got to recording Separate Rooms, I felt more confident both in the studio and as an artist. I believe that also had to do with the fact that I was now in my 30s and more aware of who I am and what I want to say as an artist. It freed me up from trying to be anything and allowed me to be vulnerable, direct and adventurous.

Q. Your production team has stayed the same. Why?

A. Chris (Stringer) and Josh(Van Tassel) have been highly involved in my music since we started working together on my first album, Hunt and Chase. Not only are they my producers but they are my bandmates. We’ve grown as a team over the past seven years and it’s really cool to reconvene at the beginning of each album with a lot more individual experience to bring to the table.

I am a solo artist, so when I bring my songs to the studio, they are more stripped down versions of themselves. Josh and Chris are such visionaries and they know how to bring my music into a fully realized state. Each album has become more stylized in its production. Josh and Chris are meticulous to detail, and passionate about being explorative and boundary pushing. I’ve learned a lot from watching them in the studio and they are always pushing me as an artist and encouraging my production skills. We’re a team through and through. I’m lucky to have them in my corner. 

Co-writing the title track with Donovan Woods was an incredible experience. I’ve been a fan of his music for years and I had a specific idea in mind that I wanted to bring to him. It can be intimidating sitting down with someone you don’t know very well to write a song. Donovan is such a professional and an easy guy to be around. We had a lot of fun spending the day working on Separate Rooms. It felt natural and conversational. It was also informative, watching him push us through road blocks along the way. When I might usually think to call it a day and come back to it when inspiration struck again, he stuck with it and led us to breakthrough moments with the song. 

Q. The themes of the songs are pointed and pretty strong: mental illness, loss, the idea that an emotional woman is an hysterical woman. Are these issues that you have confronted or have observed?

A. A large part of why I felt inspired to go there on this album was because I was so moved by this incredible movement of women coming together and speaking up. I continue to feel most powerful as a woman when I’m being honest and vulnerable about my emotional experiences. I have been emboldened by the female artists I’ve grown up listening to like Fiona Apple, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette and Stevie Nicks. I’ve always been inspired by edgy female artists; the ones who refuse to sand down the edges of their message to make it more gentle and polite.

We’re in a time where all of us are starting to lean into the difficult subject matter and talk about it. As a result, we’re shattering the old taboos. It is very important as an artist to be conscious of what message we are sending out. It wouldn’t have been an honest album if I tried to steer away from the tough stuff, because the tough stuff is what inspired me to write it. My hope is that it serves as something people can connect to and hopefully as a result feel less alone in what they’re going through.

Q. You studied political science at U of T. Are you still interested in politics and does that come out in your music?

A. I did a double major in Political Science and English. At the time it was important for me to get my degree even though I think deep down I always knew I would never use it directly. I was pursuing music at the same time, so U of T allowed me to be in the big city playing shows and getting familiar with the Toronto music scene. I think these days, we have no choice but to be interested in politics if we care about humanity. The troubling times are weighing heavily on all of us. For me, music is something I can turn towards to help express myself in darker times.

Q. Even though Toronto is where you live today I’m wondering if it is home?

A. Toronto is home. I’ve lived in this city for 13 years. I love the hustle and bustle, but, because it is such a neighbourhood based city, it often feels like a series of small towns to me. I love how I can’t take my dog for a walk without running into four or five people I know. It encompasses such a vibrant community of musicians.

However, if I’m in the city for too long I can always feel the country calling. Caledon is my home too. It’s like a warm hug. My family is still there so I am always up there visiting. Being there with my family, surrounded by nature is the ultimate soul massage. I find it very grounding. The calm and serenity of it makes space in my mind for writing. Luckily my parents have a big old piano in their living room that I get to write on when I’m there. 

Q. You talk about starting singing in front of people in a Caledon Idol contest. Tell me more about doing that?

A. Caledon Idol was my first time performing for an audience in any official capacity. I was in high school at the time studying classical voice. This was my first chance to sing some songs that I loved at the time, like by Jewel and the Dixie Chicks. All of my friends and family would come out and sit at the pub. It was such a fun experience. It was a very safe environment for me to get comfortable on stage because everyone was rooting for me. I have no doubt that’s where my appetite for performance was born.

Q. Who are your musical influences?

A. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young never fail to light me up. There is something calming and romantic about it being slightly removed in time from me. They are poets. I think it’s their lyrics that speak to me on a deep level and serve as a reminder to not take a single word for granted when writing a song. You have to be intentional at every turn. 

Q. Now that Separate Rooms is out and you are touring it… are you getting a new record ready?

A. I am beginning to write again! It’s been such a fun and  busy year with Separate Rooms that the thought excites me to be writing again. Early days, but I can feel stuff brewing.

NAC Presents The Once and Megan Bonnell
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m..
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.