What songwriter or rock musician wouldn’t dream of having Elton John spin their song with high praise on his Beats 1 radio show? When it happened for Haley Bonar, however, she was mortified.
“My heart was pounding, I was so excited,” she said. “But then he started joking about my name, and my heart just sank.”
As most Twin Cities music lovers know by now, the singer/songwriter’s last name rhymes with Donner the reindeer, not with “loner,” the same pronunciation frequently heard among tee-hee-heeing sixth-grade boys. Sir Elton apparently did not get the memo, though, and tee-heed away.
“I was super-pissed,” Bonar continued, “but then one of my friends said, ‘Dude, I would give my left leg to have Elton John mispronounce my name.’ ”
With her latest and quite possibly greatest album, “Impossible Dream,” Bonar’s name is coming up more than ever, it seems.
The NPR and BBC radio networks and influential music blogs Pitchfork and Stereogum have shown the record a lot of love in the month and a half since its release. She taped one of NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concerts” last week and is headed to England next month to appear on TV in “Later ... With Jools Holland.” There’s talk of a U.S. national TV gig coming soon, too.
As much as she likes hearing her name in those cases — if pronounced correctly! — Bonar doesn’t want people to automatically think about her when they’re listening to the vividly detailed but sometimes intentionally ambiguous songs on the new album.
“I really wanted this record to be more a work of fiction,” she said. “There’s always going to be your own story mixed into a song, but a lot of these songs are based on good stories from the lives of other people.”
Take “Kismet Kill,” the frazzled, fuzzed-out single that has been in heavy rotation locally at 89.3 the Current. “Now we’re the kids who got kids at parties,” Bonar sings, a line that could certainly pertain to her life of late as the mother of a 4-year-old daughter. But then there’s the follow-up line, “Now cartoon tattoos don’t seem so funny.”
The tattoo in question doesn’t belong to Bonar. That line was inspired by the Woody Woodpecker-like tat on Nicolas Cage in one of her favorite movies, “Raising Arizona,” and by the many Tasmanian devil-inscribed arms she remembers seeing on people around the Sturgis, S.D., biker scene near where she grew up in Rapid City.
“There’s a lot of the people and the things I grew up seeing on this record,” Bonar explained, calling Rapid City “not your typical Midwest city. It’s so close to the Black Hills and Badlands, it feels very different there. It’s close to nature, and remote. I still always need that closeness to nature in my life to this day.”
“[Your] hometown goes wherever you go,” Bonar declares in the new album’s slow, jangly opening track, “Hometown.” The hazy penultimate song “Better Than Me” also sounds like a clear nod to Rapid City but universally reflects anybody’s restless teen years, as she sings, “We love the hills, but we hate the town / Everybody tries to shut us down.”
There’s even a certain homage to Bonar’s youth on the cover of the record, which features a photo of a couch-turned-bed surrounded by a dizzying array of colorful, draping decorations. The cover image is actually the work of world-renowned Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth.
“I sort of half-jokingly asked if [Soth] ever licenses his images out to record covers, and found out he actually does,” Bonar recounted. “That photo reminds me of my bedroom when I was a teenager, just all bright and crazy like that.”
With an impressive seven albums to her name — plus two more by her punkier side band Gramma’s Boyfriend — Bonar might seem farther away from her teen years than she actually is. Now 33, she self-released her first record at age 18, around the time she moved to Duluth. She garnered her first press and radio play just two years later when Low’s Alan Sparhawk produced her subsequent album, “The Size of Planets.”
For her past two albums, including 2014’s “Last War,” Bonar has helped shape a rockier, darker sonic backdrop with help from Gramma’s Boyfriend bandmates Jeremy Ylvisaker and Jacob Hanson. The latter guitarist co-produced “Impossible Dream” with Bonar, and his brother Jeremy Hanson serving as drummer.
“We all just work together really well in the studio; it’s easy with them,” she said, offering a similarly simple explanation for why she returned to the fabled Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls to do most of the recording. “I like to make my records as close as I can to the way we play live, and that’s the best place to do it. You can’t get that great drum sound anywhere else.”
Except for Jeremy Hanson, Bonar’s usual bandmates weren’t free to tour this fall, so she hired new players. The group will make its local debut at a special afternoon set Sunday at Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis, which is doubling as her local release party. The lineup includes guitarist Matthew Vannelli of Warehouse Eyes, keyboardist Jordan Meyers and bassist Jef Sundquist. Please hold the requests for Elton John covers.