A Review of Cilla Bonnie’s Debut CD and CD Release Party
Cilla Bonnie has been making a big splash in local music circles. From her first performances as a solo singer-songwriter just 18 months ago, she’s rapidly developed into an emerging artist to watch. Those first few times up at the Lizard Lounge Open Mic Challenge were notable for two reasons – first, her instrument of choice was the electric bass guitar and secondly, her songwriting is unique and fresh. This is the story of her debut CD On The Bax and the CD release party she held at The Burren in Somerville on July 25th.
Since those early days, Cilla has been busy. She started playing with Jeremy Ross in January Broke where she met Chris DeSanty. Then she became a member of Samantha Farrell‘s group. Add in performances with Ken Field‘s Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, Caged Birds with Qwill, Kaitlin Dibble and her latest gig, playing with Greg Klyma at his Toad residency this August. It’s a wonder she has any time to develop her own solo material at all. But earlier this year, she decided to turn up the effort on her own songwriting and recorded and released her debut CD, On The Bax, in under two months time. She’s had a chance to play her own material at several area gigs. In putting together her ensemble, she turned to Chris DeSanty for drums and Jeff Gaynor for keyboards. Cilla also plays piano, though, as evidenced by the songs she chose to close her set at the CD release party she threw at the Burren during the Sunday Songwriter Series on July 25th. For guitar, she has the solid chops of Boston guitarist Noah Maltsberger behind her.
I’ve known Cilla for almost as long as she’s been playing locally and have covered her with January Broke. I’ve talked to her throughout the process of her putting together her solo work as well asking a few more targeted questions after the CD release party. Those conversations are all incorporated into this story.
“I really wanted to make a disc that was made by hand — that was made in a humble way.” Cilla is being modest – the CD packaging and artwork is everything she set out to achieve and more. I showed it to songwriter and vocalist that I collaborate with and her jaw dropped. “That is the coolest CD I have seen,” she said. And it is. Take a look at just the outside.
There’s a bonus on the inside – a photograph, but I’m not going to show that – you should go out and buy one and get a little of Cilla’s humble energy for yourself. Yes, that is an actual rope tie that binds the CD case closed. I asked Cilla how the idea for the production of the CD came to be.
“I brought up the idea of making a fully handmade case to my father, who has always been super creative and handy. We bounced back little ideas for a few days, then he mailed me a prototype. I mean, we constructed over 500 units in my parents’ basement. It felt real and from the heart. I just hope that this translated to the feeling someone gets upon buying one.”
The CD, On The Bax, has six songs on it, mostly mid-tempo and upbeat tunes. It’s hard to define exactly what genre of music this is and that’s one of the delightful things about an effort like this. It’s notable because it’s unusual. It’s different. Certainly it has pop appeal, but there are also hints of jazz, indie and other genres mixed in as well. It opens with Cilla’s bass playing leading into the upbeat What’s The Good Word. Like a number of the songs on the CD, this song builds gradually but comfortably into a simple but effective arrangement of the song. And this is a key point to the CD – despite having the other players I mentioned above, Cilla went into the studio with only Chris DeSanty. He played the drums and Cilla played the bass, keyboards and all the vocals. So it’s even more enjoyable to listen to a song like What’s The Good Word and you are one minute into it and it feels very rich even though there are only drums, keyboard, bass and Cilla’s voice. Her songwriting talent really comes through. Given the number of times Cilla has performed with an ensemble, this was an interesting approach to the CD. Cilla responds, “I decided to record with Chris only, because I wanted to keep it simple. The focus of the EP is simplicity (as far as the arrangements). I hear so much music that’s overflowing with sounds & noises; I wanted to give people’s ears a chance to be able to focus.”
The stand-outs on the CD are probably Tuesday and Mooney Moon. Although Tuesday had been my favorite song up to the CD release party, I learned on that night that Mooney Moon is really the more remarkable song on the album. Mooney, you see, is the last name of a close friend of Cillas who passed away last year under very difficult circumstances. I recall that Cilla had a gig at the Lizard Lounge and had to drive down from Maine from the funeral in order to play. Although I had heard the song before, I hadn’t realized that’s what it was about. When I heard it at the Burren, I was really moved. I talked to Cilla about the song afterwards, because I had a hunch about it. I asked her if that song was fast to write. She nodded her head. “Yes, I sat down to write that one and it came right out. It wasn’t really an effort, once I started it just all flowed.” I remarked that it must be hard for her to sing it without getting emotional. She replied, “Well it was hard when I first wrote it – that was a hard time. But now I have some separation between myself and the song.”
Today is the day I said goodbye to my mooney moon
Now it’s dark and I can’t see her face but she leaves so soon
But I’ll take another walk with her right before I go to bed
Don’t care if she walks beside me, no, don’t care if she’s overhead
Cause I want to know she’s ok
Cause there’s no sunshine in my day
Hey only moonbeams fill my room
With my mooney mooney moon
Samantha Farrell was at Cilla’s CD release as well, so I took the opportunity to talk to her and to ask her about Cilla’s CD. “I am just so happy because she’s been thinking about this for such a long time,” Samantha says. She continues, “when she got into the studio, it was so relaxed and chill – it really was so simple. It was brave of her to just have bass and drums, but her songs are strong. She turned out a beautiful album that is sparse and lush. I’m so proud of her.” I ask her what her favorite song it. Without hesitation, she says, “Sympathize. It has a strong melody and bass line and it’s one of my favorite songs in general. Cilla has such a great ear for pop and R&B and brings her own unique phrasing and vocal lines – she doesn’t sound like anyone else.” Cilla has been playing bass for Samantha Farrell for quite a while now, and I wondered if there had been any conflicts between her role in Samantha’s band and her own effort.
Cilla replied, “You know, it can be a tricky situation when musicians overlap each other in groups. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t so. I’m having a good time playing around, being busy and spreading myself thin, but I am my own artist. This disk is, I believe, my first real step in my own direction; not as someone’s backup, or someone’s bassist or even a bassist in general, but as an original artist. I now have something to offer, something to really give people. I believe in hard work, and I believe as long as I’ve got that, the good stuff will follow.”
The CD release party was held at the Burren during the Sunday Singer Songwriter series in the back room. ILYAIMY opened up with a high energy set of ballads and The Baker Thomas band closed the evening. It was quite a party at the Burren with tons of local musicians showing up. Hugh McGowan tends bar at the Burren on Sunday, but I also saw Greg Klyma, Samantha Farrell and a bunch of other musicians in attendance. Cilla’s lineup included regulars Chris DeSanty and Jeff Gaynor and a great sit-in performance on guitar by Noah Maltsberger.
Cilla played a strong set, including all the songs from the CD. During the middle of the set, Tom Bianchi came out. During the performances, he passes around a tip bucket and explains that all the proceeds go directly to the band. But he took a moment to talk a little about Cilla since she has been a regular at his open mike at the Lizard Lounge on Mondays. Cilla also took some time to talk to Tom. She was effusing in describing his support for the local music scene and the performers trying to break in and get gigs in the area.
And it is true, Tom lives and breathes music and has helped countless local performers get both venues and visibility in the local scene. The evidence of that could be seen simply by her band, all of whom have put countless hours practicing and playing in local clubs. Jeff Gaynor is a good example of this – he turned in another fine performance, both added texture and depth to the music and banging out sweet, rocking solos on his keyboard when called upon.
Noah Maltsberger showed his impressive ability on guitar. He just sat in for this one gig, but it sounded like they had been practicing for months. Yeah, he’s that good. He knows how to fill in the melodic lines with understated but perfectly appropriate rhythm. His solo work is excellent – he can move all over the chord changes and pop heartfelt, complex and compelling solos into the songs when called upon. At one point, at the end of the song, he took the lost chord and moved it up and down a fret, creating a natural decay as the last notes of the song faded out. He looked over at Cilla and Jeff with his infectious smile and had everyone smiling and laughing with what turned into a great improvisation. It’s a little thing, really, and it was one of those moments where at first you weren’t sure it was all going to line up. But as the sounds of the ensemble dampened, you heard his little oscillation ringing just barely above the other instruments and could feel that it tied everything together in a great musical moment.
Cilla doesn’t take for granted the support she’s gotten from other local musicians. “Playing with other groups has been a huge benefit, mostly just because I’ve gotten to meet people. And different people have heard me play with different groups, all in contrast of my solo material. I can’t say enough of the local support from musicians, it’s crazy, I’m a lucky girl.”
Chris DeSanty turned in a fine performance as well. His drumming has only strengthened over the last year and a half I’ve been watching him. He’s extremely comfortable with these musicians as well, but he is able to lay down just the right beats for these songs – a complex fill here and there, space when needed and great dynamics to follow the mood of each song. But towards the end of the set, Cilla needed to play some songs solo. She got behind Jeff Gaynor’s keyboard and played the stirring Mooney Moon. Then she did something even more remarkable. With the audience cheering and looking for another song, she sang the latest tune she’s working on a cappella. That is not something you are likely to see that often and it was a great moment – showcasing Cilla’s style, ability and motivation to please her fans.
So what’s next for Cilla Bonnie? Her own words sum it up the best:
“My plan as of now is to get my music out the best I can. I’m hoping on setting up some more solo gigs around New England. I also plan on starting to play in the subway and on the street. I’m already brewing up ideas for my first full-length album. I’m hoping to have it finished by this time next year.”
And we can’t wait to hear it Cilla.
You can see Cilla Bonnie playing bass for Greg Klyma every Tuesday in August at Toad, with Samantha Farrell at the Lizard Lounge on Wednesday, August 11, and with her own band at the Lizard Lounge on Saturday, September 3rd. She’ll be doing a solo set at Bloc 11 on Wednesday, September 29th and a duo with Noah Maltsberger on Thursday, September 9th at the Plough and Stars.
Also, check out Jess Phaneuf’s review of On The Bax at her blog, pH Balanced.