Mashing sentimental authenticity with newly menacing instrumentation, the 31-year-old musician exorcises several demons — including the stresses of motherhood and the trials of the record industry.
“All of my songs are personal in some way,” Bonar said in a phone interview ahead of her album-release show Friday at the Varsity Theater. “But this is definitely a little deeper than my other stuff.”
The Canadian-born, South Dakota-reared singer was discovered by Low’s Alan Sparhawk at a northern Minnesota open-mic night when she was 19. She’s been making music at breakneck speed ever since. “Last War” is her fifth full-length album.
Bonar, 31, describes her catalog as “pretty dark,” but “Last War” is the first time that the instrumentation is as aggressive and “thrashy” as the feelings behind the songs.
“Instead of letting that sinister, dark tonality remain in the vocals and the stories, this record matches it sonically,” she said. “This record hits you over the head with drums and synth.”
The lyrics are punchy, too — though Bonar seems hesitant to say her songs are confessional.
“After you write a song, it’s literally not yours anymore. It can be interpreted in a million different ways,” she mused. Case in point: “Bad Reputation,” which, it turns out, wasn’t written from a place of concern about her public image.
“I was going through a lot of stuff, I had a brand-new baby at home, and I was being really hard on myself,” Bonar explained. “That definitely is the main voice behind that song and making fun — for lack of a better term — of the apocalypse.”
In “No Sensitive Man,” she calls out the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” that she’s encountered in the male-dominated music industry. “There are a lot of people who hide behind this ‘sensitive guy’ attitude,” Bonar said. “They’re just jocks underneath and they treat women with disrespect.”
Exempted from that category is her all-male band, as well as Justin Vernon, who lent his vocals to two of the tracks on “Last War.” The Grammy-winning indie star from Eau Claire, Wis., recorded vocals for “From a Cage” and “Eat for Free,” two of the softer tunes on the album.
Although “Last War” was born out of a trying period in Bonar’s life, she didn’t struggle to pen meaningful songs.
“I write when I’m sad and things are stressful just as much as I do when I’m happy,” she said. “Any form of intensified emotion is inspiring.”
Her daughter’s first concert
Aside from music, Bonar’s other love is Clementine, her 2-year-old daughter.
“She’s awesome,” Bonar said. “It’s been a crazy journey of figuring out how to take care of a human being as well as yourself, and how to divide your time between motherhood and being a creative person. I feel those two things have really worked well for me together.”
Friday’s show at the Varsity will be Clementine’s first concert.
“I think that will change her perspective a bit,” Bonar said. “She knows I play music and that’s what my job is. She loves the ‘Last War’ video and she always wants to watch it. She asks why I ran through fire, every time. I’m like, ‘I don’t know. ’Cause it looked cool?’ ”
Clementine will stay at home while Bonar tours the United States in May and June, but if European dates are added to the fall schedule, Bonar will likely take her daughter abroad.
“I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who have done that,” she said. “I think [Clementine] would love it — she’s a super social kid.”
Bonar seems to have found equilibrium between the demands of motherhood and the muse. The battle is over, and she emerged better for it, with a renewed resilience.
“Things die and you rebuild them,” Bonar said. “Things end and you continue on and grow from that.”