Deborah Bonham – Interview

Set to release their new album on April 29, 2022, Bonham-Bullick is comprised of singer-songwriter Deborah Bonham, guitarist Peter Bullick, bass player Ian Rowley, keyboardist Gerald Lous and drummer Marco Giovino. The album contains 13 blues covers from well-known artists, which include Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Anne Peebles and O.V. Wright.

If you aren’t aware, Bonham is also the sister of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and aunt to Jason Bonham, who sometimes drums for the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin. She has established herself as one of the finest blues, rock and folk singers that the United Kingdom has generated. Bonham has played the Royal Albert Hall as well as the London Palladium as has released several critically acclaimed original album releases as well.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Bonham where we discussed her brother, musical influences, the new album release, how she keeps her voice strong and much more.

Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photograph courtesy of Deborah Bonham.

Carly Kutsup: Given that your brother John [Bonham] was the drummer for Led Zeppelin, when did you first realize you had a passion for music? Was it because of him or was it because of something else?

Deborah Bonham: According to my mom when she was pregnant with me, if the music went on, she could feel me kicking away. She almost thought I was dancing inside her. That must not have been pleasant for her, but I guess it’s always been there. My mom and dad loved music, so they always played lots of great stuff. No doubt watching John go to where he went, and the first time I saw Led Zeppelin, that was when my world changed. I thought “Yeah, that’s what I want to do”, but I was always singing anyway so I guess it was just always in me. It just had to come out at some point. Mom and dad weren’t very musical, but my mom had a lovely voice. She recorded her first song at 80. There was a group that was put together over in the UK called The Zimmers. I don’t know if it’s the same word out there in the states, but here old people can sometimes get a frame that they walk on, and they’re called the Zimmer frame. So, they called themselves The Zimmers and she made her first single, which was “Let It Be” by the Beatles. She wasn’t going to do it and I said “Mom, you’re 80. You’ve always wanted to sing. Come on!” So, she went into the studio and sang it with them. They sold a load of copies as well. It sold really well, and it went for Alzheimer’s. They were raising money for Alzheimer’s. So, she got her moment, but she was 80. I started a bit earlier.

CK: You mentioned your brother and seeing him perform with Led Zeppelin. What was it about their performing that you knew this was absolutely what you had wanted to do?

DB: It was another worldliness. I mean I just felt like I’ve been transported somewhere; it was just that. It was magical. There was some sort of being transported into another world and nothing mattered outside of seeing that band on stage and sitting there and watching it. You were in this special place. I think music does that. I think many bands, if you go to see a really great band play, you’re taken on a journey so that whatever’s behind or not behind you, whatever’s outside of that situation seems to fade into insignificance. You’re right in the moment of the band playing and it was that really. It was overwhelming and it engrossed the whole of you. I just thought ‘Wow, to have that ability to be able to do that to an audience or to one person, even if there’s just one person watching you, if you’re able to totally engross them and take them on this journey with you, I think that’s amazing!’

CK: How old were you when you saw Led Zeppelin perform?

DB: You know, I’ve been talking about this, and I can’t exactly remember. I do remember that Robert [Plant] and John played at my sixth birthday party. He joined Led Zeppelin around that time. I think I saw them when I was about seven at the Bath Festival. I went to see them at a theatre as well. They were only playing to about 2,000 people. It was right at the beginning so I would have been around seven-ish, up to ten maybe, somewhere around that.   

CK: A very impressionable age.

DB: Yeah, and certaintly when I was 10, I remember seeing them at the Birmingham Odeon.  Birmingham is in the center of the UK. They were playing the Birmingham and there was about two and a half thousand people. The place was going crazy. I remember looking up and there was a balcony area. It was 1972 and people were hanging over it and head banging. I was looking and thinking ‘Oh my goodness! The whole place can fall down’, but it was just fantastic. It was really great.

CK: Other than the genres of Blues, Soul and Gospel, have you explored other genres or are those your strong points?  

DB: That’s where my heart is, that’s where I’m rooted in. I’m rooted in Blues, Soul and Gospel because of the great singers that I grew up listening to. My dad always used to play things like Mahalia Jackson and Sarah Vaughan. They both loved Etta James. Mom and Dad played the big bands, as well Benny Goodman, and that’s where John’s love of Gene Cooper came from. John absolutely thought Gene Cooper was just one of the greatest drummers of all time. Him and Buddy Rich and Gene Cooper were in Benny Goodman’s band and my mom and dad used to play that all the time. I sort of got very much into hearing that sort of music like, Etta James. She was just an amazing voice.

I had another brother as well, Michael. There was two years between John and him and they were close. They both got into Motown and James Brown, Four Tops, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and all those singers. All of that was getting played all of the time. I guess I’ve always been rooted in that. I love Folk music as well. Even though I am very much rooted in the Blues, Soul and Gospel, there’s a bit of Folk in there as well.  English sort of Folk. I love that sort of music.

I love Country too, but I’ve always steered a bit away from that because I’m English and I don’t think English people really do Country music great. So, I’ll leave it to those who do.

I also love Punk and Alternative music as well. When Ian Dury came out during Ian Dury and the Blockheads, I absolutely loved it. It was a real breath of fresh air in the UK. I really got into those bands. Tom Petty, he took off here before America because he hit the Alternative scene that we had here. He got grouped with the sort of Punk/Alternative scene music, which seems crazy when you think of Tom Petty. He hit our screens singing “Fooled Again” and he was really edgy. He had his little blazer on and it was edgy Alternative. It wasn’t Rock. I got really into Tom Petty in my teens. Tom Petty was just fantastic. We all loved him in the UK.

CK: You name a few musicians, like the Beatles, Tom Petty and Etta James, but are there any other musicians that have had a very strong influence on you and your music?

DB: Yeah, certainly when I first heard Janice Joplin, Fleetwood Mac [Stevie and Christine], Heart, I loved and still do love Anne Wilson and Nancy and I think possibly Little Queen is one of my all-time favorite albums. It’s certainly on the top five albums. Joanie Mitchell. I’m a big Joanie Mitchell fan so I’ve got a really eclectic mix of music. I absolutely love Little Feet. Steely Dan. All these bands. Bob Segar. The list goes on and on. I’ve just got this massive eclectic mix. Al Green and all the soul stuff as well. Isaac Hayes. Paul Rodgers, Bad Company and Free. Apart from obviously Robert [Plant], who was a big influence on me because I’ve watched him since I was six and he’s such an amazing performer and singer, Paul Rodgers who they signed to the Led Zeppelin label. I was very young when I got into Bad Company and then I found Free. Steve Marriott is another one from Humble Pie. All those vocalists and then there was Joanie, Stevie, Christine and Anne as well as Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Anne Peebles. It’s a mixed bag. And Carly Simon, of course. I’ve listened to a lot of music all my life and you just can’t help but absorb it from an early age. I became a bit of a sponge just absorbing all this different music. Of course, my brothers played everything from The Kinks to Marvin Gaye to James Brown to Jimi Hendricks. I had a great musical upbringing.

CK: That’s really a very eclectic range of music.

DB: Having two older brothers they really loved their music. It was great!

When I first heard Hendrix, I must have been about 16 and I was at my brother John’s house. My mom was babysitting for him and his wife, Pat. He had this amazing record collection of everything you can imagine. The most incredible collection of vinyl ever. He had them in alphabetical order and I thought “Great, I’m going to just go in there and I’m going to start with a.” I got to Hendrix when he came home, and I was playing it. He walked in and said, “Oh you’re listening to Hendrix” and I said “Oh yeah, I just started going through each album. I’ve never heard anything like this. It’s just so incredible.” He disappeared off and came back with this great big clunky thing that was huge with a big old tape in it. It was the beginning of video recorders, but it wasn’t VHS. He set it up and played the tape which was the Isle of Wight Festival from back in the 60s, which had Hendrix on there.  The pair of us just sat there and watched Hendrix. I was absolutely blown away. So, I became a Hendrix fan then.

I’ve had a great musical upbringing. It really opened me up to all manner of different bands.

CK: I’ve taken a listen to the new album and your vocals are very strong. What do you do to keep your vocals that strong? What is the key to keeping your voice that strong, especially as you age, and your vocal cords change due to age?

DB: I get asked this and I keep thinking I’m not going to tell the truth, that I’m going to say ‘Yeah, you know I keep a scarf on all the time, and I do vocal exercises.’ No, I don’t. I drink a bit of whiskey, I learned that from Frank Sinatra, although his was Jack Daniels. I just do one small whiskey before I go on stage, about a half an hour before I start singing. It relaxes your vocal cords. People say to me “No, no, no. Alcohol dries it out.” I’m like, ‘I’m telling you Frank and I… I’m going with Frank here.’ He absolutely believed that it relaxed his vocal cords so that they don’t stretch and break. Now you’re supposed to do steam. You’re supposed to exercise. You’re supposed to warm up because it’s a muscle, the same as any muscle, but the quick fix is a little slug of whiskey and wait half an hour. Touch wood. It’s not let me down yet.

CK: I’ve heard of wearing a scarf, steaming your face, that if you have a sore throat to take a shot of cayenne pepper and honey that’s mixed in hot water.

DB: In all fairness, I do drink those teas. I’ll drink a ginger tea and honey and all of that. I will do that and a bit of cayenne in it. That was something that Steve Marriott [from Humble Pie] used to do all the time. I do that and especially if I’m blocked up, steam. Steam’s one of the best things to open you up and clear out everything, but without a doubt every time I go on stage, I have a shot of whiskey and that just seems to do the trick. I’m not advocating that to any of you reading but I’m just going to tell the truth.

CK: Given that your brother played the drums and is considered one of the greats, did you learn to play them as well or did you pick up any other instruments?

DB: No, I didn’t learn to play them. I can have a go. I know some of the things he did, and I will have a go, but no I didn’t want to play drums. I’ve got a drum kit and a studio and sometimes I will have a go. I know different rhythms so I’m able to tell our drummer what I’m thinking of. I play a little bit of guitar; it’s nothing great, but I will play a bit of rhythm sometimes on stage. I write my songs on a bit of piano. I play a bit of piano, but it’s mostly chords. Looking back, I wish I’ve done a bit more, but everything’s by ear for me. I just picked it up so I never really did music per say.

CK: Is your voice also all by ear of did you have any formal vocal training?

DB: Yes, I did at school. I sang a lot at school and then I ended up doing some opera. I had a fantastic vocal coach at school, and she taught me to sing not from the throat, but from your diaphragm, to sing from the gut really. I think that’s another thing that doesn’t put stress on my vocal cords. If you sing from the throat, you really are straining your voice all the time. I’m going back a long time; this was probably in in my early teens and then through mid-teens and later teens. I was still at school. I stayed on at school and did quite a lot of competitions for the school and some opera. I think that without a doubt has helped going forward.

CK: Speaking of schooling and music programs, I’m sure you’re aware that there had been a lot of budget cuts to the arts and music programs. What do you say to a school whose music and art program might be on the chopping block and they’re trying to decide if they should really cut it or not?

DB: It’s possibly one of the worst things to do. I’m a patron of a music charity for kids. It’s not about us telling children or trying to make them into superstars and all of that. What we found with all children is that when they must work as a team, as in a music group, or they must express themselves if they’re really shy, once they start working with an instrument, then they get a part and they can do it and then they work with like-minded kids in the same group, their confidence soars. It’s all about helping them to have that self-confidence. Some kids that have been bullied or have come from bad backgrounds and have been introverted, it makes such a big difference. We’ve had children that have gone through all manner of difficulties. With our charity, we have yearly concerts throughout the year. I’ve had kids open up for us when we’ve played. They must learn to be able to deal with going on a stage and all of that. We deal with children that might not want to do that as well, but they’d like to work the sound, or the lights and it’s been fantastic. Then we have a yearly proper big concert for them. It’s about integration and it’s about listening to other people. They’ve had to learn to be a team player instead of just being an introvert or getting their own way with anything. With music, even if you’re a solo artist, you still rely on your sound engineer. You still must work with people otherwise you soon become known as a bit of an idiot and then nobody wants to work with you. The children learn team skills. We’ve had kids go on to university that didn’t have a hope in the heck of doing that. They’ve started to apply themselves more at school because they have this outlet. I think it’s any team building, even with sports. I think music is just so important. It really is. It gives them a sense of well-being as well. It’s a shame that things are getting cut, and they are here as well, so that’s why people are setting up these types of charities or groups where people are still trying to make like we are and give kids these chances to get together. Some children never get these experiences because they come from such poor backgrounds. One child had a terrible, terrible time. Mother was a drug addict and killed herself and the father beat him up. The child was in such a mess and was from home to home and going down the wrong road. Since he joined in with this, he’s been fantastic.

That’s what we need to do as as governments no matter what part of the world. We need to nurture it early before it’s too late when it’s all gone wrong. If you nurture them now when they’re young and get them on the right path, they’ve got a better chance. I would tell any school don’t cut that.     

CK:  In regard to this specific album, how did you go about choosing what songs you wanted to record and which ones you didn’t? Walk me through that process.

DB: It was quite challenging. I had a couple of friends that all knew that we were doing this project, so they sent me songs. I had my own ideas as well, but I had a couple of friends send me all these different songs. One friend in Princeton, New Jersey who I was working with, Gary Nesbitt, he sent me so many songs. Then my other friend Roy Williams, who was the sound engineer for Robert [Plant] for years, sent me a bunch of songs. Roy, who sadly passed and will never get to hear the album, sent me song after song. Robert did as well. So, in the end, I had about 100 to 150 songs to go through and narrow it down to 13. It wasn’t that difficult.

I know this band inside out. Pete Bullock, the guitarist, is also my husband. We’ve been together 31 years and we’ve been playing in a band that long as well. Then the bass player, Ian Rowley, I’ve known him since I was 16. We’ve been playing together forever.  Jared Lewis, on keyboards, has been in the band at least 20 years. The drummer, Rich Newman, he’s the new boy and I think he’s been with us for about 13 or 14 years. He’s still the new boy and we call him that. So, I know this band inside out and I know what they can bring, how far they can go and how far I can push them. I know exactly where they’re at. I know my voice and how I can interpret a song. I was listening to all the different songs and thinking “What can I bring to this?” because you can’t just do a straight copy. You have to do your own thing on it. It has to be organic, and it has to it has to work for you, but you’ have to keep the respect for the writer and the original performer all the time. For me, that was paramount. The respect had to be there. I was quite ruthless in finding the songs that I knew we could take somewhere ourselves. There’ll be some songs that I absolutely loved and couple of my favorite songs ever, but I knew I couldn’t make it any different and I couldn’t bring anything to it. So, the ones I picked were really the ones that I knew I could take somewhere else and that we could really bring us in to it so it’s our interpretation of it. It still has to retain the soul and the heart of the original and keep the respect there.

CK: Now compared to the previous albums, how would you say this album separates itself and stands alone?

DB: I think because it’s a bit more rooted in the Blues. This one is more bluesy rather. All the albums have been rooted in it. Rooted in Blues, Rock and Roll, a bit of Folk and Gospel, but this one is a little bit more obvious. We’ve just taken it that step further because that’s where I felt it needed to go. I think that’s the difference. I also think, even in the few years from the last album to this one, we’ve matured even more. I think we’re right at our right at our best right now. I’ve noticed that on stage as well because we’ve just got back to playing live in the UK and we’ve just really hit the point where 2 weeks ago in London I came off the stage and I just looked at the lads and said, “Oh my God, what just happened?!?!” There was a bit of magic and I think we’ve all become so confident in our own skin. I mean we’re all much older now and at long last I think that’s where we’re at. We’ve suddenly hit that sweet spot of confidence in what we’re doing, and we know what we’re doing. We’ve sort of grown into that and thank goodness for that. It’s been a long time coming. This album, I think, is the best work we’ve ever done and with saying that I think it’s because we’re right now at our best.

CK: Talking about live performances, what has been your all-time favorite performance or even a place to perform?

DB: Oh, that’s hard, but I probably would say, with the lack of not playing Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall, it would have to be the Royal Albert Hall in London. That would be the one because of all the people that have stepped on those boards before us. Talk about goosebumps. I walked out there at soundcheck and honestly, I was like ‘Oh my goodness. It’s the Royal Albert Hall and all the players that had stepped out here including my brother.’ Even telling you now about it I still get those goosebumps. It never fails to hit the sweet spot. I have always wanted to play Madison Square Garden just because of Led Zeppelin. I’ve always had this thing that I would love to play there. And Carnegie Hall. Maybe one day.

CK: So, would you say that the feeling you got from performing at the Royal Albert Hall is like the feeling a country music artist would get from stepping foot in the circle and performing at the Grand Ole Opry?

DB: I would say it has to be very similar.

CK: Now, what do you prefer: performing in a large venue or an intimate setting?

DB: I don’t mind. Intimate’s great. It’s more nerve-wracking than a large venue. Intimate is fantastic.

In 2018 my band and I went across America with Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck and Anne Wilson. My band was the backing band for Paul Rodgers. I opened up the show with my friend Ian Hatton who I’ve known forever. He was just on guitar, so it was just guitar and vocals. We were playing amphitheaters where there were thousands upon thousands of people. Ian was in a band called Bonham with my nephew Jason Bonham. I said to him ‘Look, my band’s playing with Paul. Would you come and do this with me?’ He said, “What? Just me, you and thousands upon thousands of people in an amphitheater?” I replied, ‘Yeah!’ So, the first night we walked out, which was in Utah, we looked out and we were like “Oh no, oh no.” There were just rows upon rows; it just went back forever. I think people either sitting or standing in their seats were thinking “My God these two have got some guts.” It went down a storm. We were so nervous about it, but it went down a storm. It actually became quite easy, but when you’re in a small venue and it’s intimate, you have nowhere to escape. You can’t look elsewhere. If there’s a sea of people, you can sort of lose yourself a bit, but when you’re in an intimate place, the audience is just looking at you and they’re so close. You end up thinking “Oh my God, oh my God”, but I don’t mind. I just love playing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a large venue or a small one.

CK: Regarding gaining an audience, as you are aware of a lot of musicians have been discovered on social media, places such as Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and even Instagram. In your opinion, how has it affected the music industry as a whole and do you think it’s easier or harder to get discovered and signed?

DB: That’s a tough question. The industry now is alien to me. I’ve come from a very different world so it’s completely different now. I’m trying to get to terms with social media. I just find that people are so busy doing social media that they are missing out on life. I’ve been in places where everyone’s on their phone. They say there’s a generation that will have spinal problems now because they always have their necks downwards and are staring into their phones. They’ll be at something and in the moment and instead of enjoying that moment, they have their phone out and they’re either filming it or selfieing. Then they have to immediately go on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and post whatever they filmed or photographed. I find that really difficult. For me, I’m too busy enjoying it and I forget about it. So, I’m a pretty rubbish social media person, but I do think it has opened a lot of doors a lot of opportunities. Before it was always about record labels picking whether you were going to get a record deal or not. Now that’s been opened up to everyone now because of YouTube, CD Baby and all of these types of things where people can do their own music and get it up there. That I think is a great thing because it enables people to do what they want and if it takes off great, if it doesn’t well who cares, it’s fine. They’re being creative; they’re doing their own thing and I think that is a good thing.

As far as the music industry is concerned, what I don’t think is a good thing is things like Spotify and all of these other platforms like Spotify. We’ve made music so cheap now that it’s impossible for an artist to make money from record sales. It’s just impossible and it’s not the like old days of like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney and all of that. Unless you’re someone like Adele, who has had mega sales that of course she’s made money, that really doesn’t happen now. For bands that are sort of mid-range, but still make a make a great living and go out and play, it’s impossible to make money from record sales other than at your show. You must go on tour, and you have to sell your wares. That’s how you sell your albums because of things like Spotify. I just don’t understand it. I don’t know how they can play all your music and not pay you. I just always thought that if you went into a shop and you bought a loaf of bread, you’d need to pay for it. So, why is that music has become so cheap? Giveaway albums on newspapers has been a big thing here as well so people start to think that music is free and that it should be free. The problem is it costs a lot to make an album if you’re going to do it properly. I know there is all the software to make it dirty, but if you are going to go the proper route, the old-fashioned route of going into the studio it costs money. Even to then advertise it, promote it, manufacture it, distribute it, it all costs money. So, music isn’t free. It isn’t free at all. Then you also have all the people that are making the music. Shouldn’t they deserve to be paid for that if someone’s buying the music?

Back in the 70s and 80s rock stars were making fortunes, but I think it has totally gone the other way now. So, although I think it’s great that it’s all opened up and it’s made it a much fairer playing ground out there, it’s difficult. It’s not easy in the industry anymore.

CK: Would you say it’s more like a double-edged sword?

DB: Yeah, I would. It’s okay getting 20-25 million plays on YouTube, but you’re not getting paid for those so how is that sustainable? How could you become an artist doing that? You have to hope you get picked up by a record label and so it goes on. It’s a very different industry now, that’s for sure.

CK: Like you’ve mentioned, it’s become easier to get discovered, but there’s so much out there. What advice would you give to someone who wants that record deal in order for them to set themselves apart from everything and everyone else that is out there?

DB: I think you’ve just have to be true to yourself. I don’t think there’s any one thing you can do. I think your music has to come from your soul. It has to be you. You’ve got to mean it and love it because if you’re not convinced about what you’re doing, you’ll never ever convince anybody else. Going back to Adele, when I saw her YouTube clip of when she first started, she was just singing at a little club, which had maybe about three of four people. Somebody filmed it and put it up on YouTube. She was just playing her guitar and singing. It floored me. She was that good. She meant it. It didn’t matter whether she was playing to two or thousands. She knew who she was and what she was doing. I think that’s the most important thing; you’ve got to just believe in what you do and not try to be something else or try and find a gimmick that’s going to make it happen for you. If you do that, it’s short-lived.

The longevity for musicians is really the people that believed it, what they were doing from the start and never wavered off that path. That’s what I would say. I don’t think there’s any one thing that you can do; just believe in what you do. Trust what you’re doing and what you hear. If you feel it in your gut and it’s moving you, then it will move somebody else. That’s the thing. If it’s not moving you, if you’ve recorded something and it’s not giving you goosebumps, then try again. Talking about our album, the Bonham- Bullock album, when I was playing it back all the time with whatever we had recorded, it had to get me because if it didn’t, there was no point. There were a few things that I scrapped and started again because it just wasn’t working for me. I had thought ‘No, that isn’t doing it’ and then looked at another way of doing it and bang there it was. You’ve really got to be true to yourself and believe in what you do.