Up-and-coming singer gave up classical music to pursue rock & roll

By Chris Willman
Updated June 21, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Is Tracy Bonham headed for the mother of all laryngitis diagnoses? The good news is that her song ”Mother Mother” is No. 1 on Billboard‘s alternative radio chart. Counterbalancing that slightly is the fact that the chorus of her seriocomic signature hit — the one kids will be demanding at every show well into the next millennium — requires this classically trained musician with the perfectly lovely singing voice to scream at the top of her lungs. ”I’ve been dealing with some vocal problems,” admits the violinist-cum-guitarist. ”It is a weird irony, that the one song I have to do — have to do — is the one that’s messing me up.”

The five-footer’s big bellow has created perception problems, too. ”If people think ‘Mother Mother’ is a hate-your-parents rant,” she says, ”then somebody obviously didn’t get the joke. Maybe just because they hear a voice that’s raised, they immediately think, ‘Oh, I know that feeling; that’s anger!’ I feel like I’m constantly trying to prove to people that I’m not angry.” Actually, the song is an amusing soliloquy from a daughter who doesn’t quite want to admit in her letter home that all her folks’ worst fears have come true. And just how irate can Bonham be when in the suddenly ubiquitous video, the role of her oblivious, vacuum-cleaning mom is played by…her mom? You oughta know, better.

”You don’t get that me-against-the-world feeling from her that you get from Alanis Morissette,” says producer Sean Slade (Hole’s Live Through This), who co-helmed Bonham’s ferociously wry debut, The Burdens of Being Upright, one of the year’s best. ”She’s so not showbiz; she doesn’t have that phony melodramatic quality.” Think Liz Phair with pitch.

Like another edgy pop chanteuse, Bonham — a onetime student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — gave up ”classical geekdom” to take up rock & roll. But unlike Tori Amos, she doesn’t dis her rigid prerock regimen, even if she did have a tendency to show up for violin lessons hung over. ”Maybe I haven’t ‘lived the punk-rock lifestyle,”’ she responds to critics. ”But I’m completely psyched I have that training — thank God I’ll have something to fall back on.” Till then, scream on.