Why Bonnie Depart Toward Love

We spoke with Blair Howerton in an exclusive profile upon the announcement of her band’s sophomore LP, Wish on the Bone. Watch the visualizer for “Fake Out” below.

Music Features Why Bonnie
Why Bonnie Depart Toward Love

When you’re as influenced by Sheryl Crow and the Chicks as you are a “pop girly, through and through,” you’re bound to build a catalog that covers every base. For Blair Howerton and her band Why Bonnie, their second LP, Wish on the Bone, is the explosive, vivid sibling to their 2022 debut, 90 in November. Trading their cozy, minimalist twang in for a new wardrobe of electronica, kiss-off distortion, guitar-pop catchiness and bold, uncategorical post-rock. On their debut album, 90 in November, Why Bonnie (Howerton, Sam Houdek, Kendall Powell, Chance Williams and Josh Malett), followed their instincts and aimed for restraint. On Wish on the Bone, Howerton, Williams and Malett brought their individual flair and backgrounds to the sounds and threw “shit at the wall and hop[ed] it stuck.” “And a lot of it did, for us,” Howerton says. “We’re hoping that people like that. We wanted to go big or go home. We wanted to make something bold and adventurous and push the limit.”

Howerton started writing some of the tracks that would encompass Wish on the Bone while the band was still mid-cycle for 90 in November. “I think people are shocked to hear that artists do that,” she admits. “But, for me, I don’t really set out to write one cohesive album at a time. I’m constantly writing.” Release schedules and rollouts take a while, and Howerton refuses to put her creative life on pause for the sake of remaining fully in-service to one project at any given time. “I don’t have a very good practice going, so I sit and write when the mood strikes and whatever comes out, comes out. I like to keep the ball rolling, however it feels natural, and then, after a couple of songs, let those guide me in the direction of what the next album will be,” Howerton continues. The first song she wrote that made the final Wish on the Bone tracklist is its closer, “I Took the Shot,” a two-minute finale that is the verbatim, original demo that Howerton made in 2020, before 90 in November was finished.

But “Fake Out,” today’s lead single, was one of the first tracks she brought to her bandmates, and once that song started getting fleshed out, Why Bonnie knew they were encroaching upon a new sound to explore, while also remaining anchored in Howerton’s voice. “It encapsulated a lot of the sonic choices we were making on [Wish on the Bone],” she adds. “It gave us a point in the right direction.” And that direction points its anthemic arrow true north. “If I put my tongue to my teeth like this, would you tell me to stop opening my lips?” Howerton belts out, before skyscraping into a tectonic rapture of piling guitars, glitching drum machine and her own climbing vocals. In just four minute’s time, “Fake Out” captures Why Bonnie’s wide-eyed past, present and future—not a “return to form,” but a mirage of regeneration in gifted, swirling technicolor.

When Why Bonnie made 90 in November, they wanted the LP to sound as raw and stripped-down as it ended up sounding upon release. Howerton never has a plan for what direction a song or a record is going to go in, or how any project is going to turn out. She and the band often don’t see the intention until they’re halfway down the road and the world they’re building becomes legible. “I always knew that I was going to try and release different sounds. Whether or not I was going to do it successfully or people were going to like it, I didn’t know,” Howerton says. “[Country music] is a part of me—the Southerner in me—but that’s also just one part of me.”I love that we achieved a more country sound, to give a nod to Texas and to that era of my life.” But just as 90 in November was a big departure from their 2018 EPs In Water and Nightgown, which blended indie-pop and shoegaze, Wish on the Bone is a big departure from its predecessor’s “shoegazeicana” blends.

“With 90 in November, I had been writing songs in peak pandemic, without a band, on an acoustic guitar and really getting back to my roots of all these really great Americana, raw ‘90s sounds that I had grown up with,” Howerton explains. “I was like, ‘This is a part of me I really want to be able to express.’ With Wish on the Bone, it was also another facet of myself, of my personality. Sometimes I feel like I just want to get back home and listen to the raw sounds that I was raised with, and then this album feels a bit more like my journey of growing up in the current space [of my life]—might be a little more polished, a little more adventurous. It was fun to play around with that side of myself, because I hadn’t really gotten to do that on the last album.”

There are still country elements on Wish on the Bone. “Three Big Moons” is a post-COVID, bar-band lament packed with a crying fiddle, as Howerton sings about “coming up on a year in my own little world, I’m the king here and the prettiest girl.” On “Headlight Sun,” she plays up the meta of her own elemental pursuits: “Like a poetic line in a standard country song, I thought that something I could give you could be something you could keep,” she sings. But what Wish on the Bone executes more than anything is furthering the band’s penchant for massive hooks. If 90 in November was a perfect soundtrack for road trips, then Wish on the Bone is an apt companion mix for summer nights in big venues. “I’m a sucker for a good hook,” Howerton nods. “I don’t want to release something unless I feel like it would make me sing along to it, too.” And thus, tracks like “Dotted Line,” “Fake Out,” “Headlight Sun” and “All the Money” are hued with epic, earwormy distortion (the guitar on “All the Money” is so toe-curling it’ll break your ankles) and shoegazing colossus, while slower, more brick-and-mortar ballasts get moored in-between, like “Rhyme or Reason,” “Green Things” and “Weather Song.”

Wish on the Bone is the second album Why Bonnie have made with Jonathan Schenke, who co-produced 90 in November alongside Howerton. Schenke has made a name for himself over the last decade-and-change, doing engineering, mixing and production on albums like Parquet Courts’ Light Up Gold, Snail Mail’s Lush, the Drums’ Abysmal Thoughts and Kenneth Anger’s Constant Smiles. And while Light Up Gold is likely his most well-known work, his collaborative efforts with pop musicians and minimal singer-songwriters make for a perfect resumé for a songwriter and instrumentalist like Howerton. “It’s cool to look back on his works and feel comfortable that he knows how to develop different sounds and that he has those techniques,” she adds, “because I have an internal ear of how I want something to sound, but he finishes the sentence for me in a way that feels really natural and cohesive. He is always down to try stuff out, and it’s a really good environment to work in—because I’m not having to second-guess myself. He builds me up as a songwriter and as a producer.”

Though painting visceral pictures with imagery in her lyrics is a non-negotiable, ever-crucial task for Howerton (“Took a swan dive into nothing, they pinned a note to my collar—it said ‘we couldn’t save her’ and dropped down the American flag like it was a favor” is a grand slam), because she pushes herself “to write songs that will, ultimately, really make people feel something deeply,” her compass is directed by the unearthliness of song in its most holistic form. “Music itself is a form of communication that is just magical beyond any kind of reality that we can understand,” Howerton says. “I don’t try to worry too much about the future or about things that I can’t control, because I want to focus on the things that matter—and that’s love, equality and making sure that people are feeling taken care of, because everybody deserves that.”

Where Austin, Texas played a crucial part in 90 in November, Howerton returns to her hometown of Houston often on Wish on the Bone. “Houston, we have a problem,” she sings on “Three Big Moons,” “so many that I just can’t solve them”; “I remember when I thought this place would be my home, our friends all in the backyard we let get overgrown,” she sings on “I Took the Shot.” “Turns out, I don’t hate you. And, believe me, I did try, but as winter thawed, so did my heart, and I don’t wonder why.” What’s unique about this geographical turn in her songwriting is that Space City becomes its own character—a living, breathing thing worth yearning for—on the record. That’s why I and many others related to the sentimentality of 90 in November so much, because it was Howerton’s “being a 20-something New Yorker dreaming about being back home in Texas” kind of album. The crescendos of cardboard cutout cowboys, $2 fill-ups and “black lungs and a heart of gold” will stand the test of time; this idea of reckoning with where we come from and how it might begin shaping who we are decades later, Howerton has had a front-row seat to just how palpable and formative a relationship like that can be.

“I’ve had a really difficult relationship with my hometown, with childhood and growing into adulthood,” she says. “I struggled a lot as a kid, and my family did, too. Having to go through some of those challenges and emotional turmoil, it made me want to run away from home for a long time. I think, for a lot of my adolescent and young-adult life, in my early 20s, I was trying to build a whole new life and pave a road for myself that allowed me to go far away. Now, being at the age I am and at the stage of life that I’m in, I really appreciate a lot of the stuff that I went through and the lessons that I learned. All of those happened in a place Houston, that is a bustling, diverse, swampy, crazy city. It’s not a city like New York or Los Angeles, that has a very far-reaching personality. That city raised me, and it taught me a lot about accepting others and being your true self. I think, now, I look back on it with a lot of love and respect.”

So what place is Howerton in now, on Wish on the Bone? “Definitely a lot more forward-thinking, while still taking into account past experiences,” she says. “But, really, I’m focusing on how those past experiences are going to color my future, the future of those around me and the future of our world in general.” Songs like “Wish on the Bone” and “Rhyme or Reason,” in turn, are philosophically fortified by Howerton’s internal Q&As about what hope exists within failing tomorrows. Wish on the Bone tackles the micro and macro, offering cinematic-yet-grounded vignettes of a world ravaged by capitalism yet cushioned by love. “I don’t know how we’re going to fix this, and I don’t have the answer—because the future is so scary in the world that we live in right now—but there’s always been a part of me, and I see this in others and I see this in my loved ones, that is like, ‘No matter how scary it gets, we’re all still trying to make it work and we’re all still trying to make it good,’” she says. “I think that’s something that should be celebrated.”

Howerton references the Virginia Woolf “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think” quote, a rallying echo of Wish on the Bone’s thesis statement about “choosing hope, beauty and love every day, because nothing is worth it if you don’t believe in those things.” “We need to take it upon ourselves to create that future, which makes it more open and exciting and hopeful—hope is the ultimate theme I had when I was really putting [Wish on the Bone] together, because the world is going to shit around us and there are all these terrible things happening every day,” she furthers. “But, without hope, there’s no point in trying yet. Here we are, still trying.”

But that thesis statement for Wish on the Bone isn’t meant to signify that the record is some happy-go-lucky, “choose joy” type of document. On “Fake Out,” Howerton’s writing is entrenched in frustration and tinges of anger. The “it’s not my face, I imitate” chorus bleeds ire, while the “I wouldn’t give it up just to fade out” couplet sounds like a lived experience. “I think that those kinds of realizations are necessary to be truly hopeful,” Howerton says. “You can’t just be blind to the evil of the world. You have to face it and then, from there, make your choice of ‘Am I going to succumb to this, or am I going to take a stand against it and try better for myself, for my loved ones and for everyone?’—because it’s up to us, how we choose to spend our time and our energy.”

The best Why Bonnie song yet, “Rhyme or Reason” is destined to be a big track upon its eventual release. Its tonal weight rests on that of Howerton’s long, complicated relationship with spirituality, something she explored on 90 in November, too (including the story of Genesis 19 on “Lot’s Wife”; “Looked like we had just won, but you’ll turn all to salt if you ever look back”). “The disappearing warmth of love, like Halley’s Comet, I’ve only heard of it,” she sings. “I’ve never seen its streak, but I have heard it comes fast and you’ll miss it if you blink.” Those lines, like many in the Why Bonnie catalog, were inspired through Howerton’s grief of losing her brother Bristol (whom the band’s first EP was dedicated to in 2018) to drug addiction in 26. “I was freshly 23 at the time, and it really shaped my worldview, and my view on spirituality, as well,” she says. “It’s something that I still like to discover more about every day. I have worn many spiritual hats, if you will. I’ve tried to take in different bits of different dogmas but, ultimately, what I come back to is that we’re not ever gonna know the mechanics of the world that we live in and the reason why we lose people and why it hurts so bad.”

“But what I do know is that, when you love someone and they pass away, the love doesn’t stop,” she continues. “The love is still very much there and it’s still very much real and plays a big part in my life. Coming to terms with that, as a growing adult, has been an ongoing lesson for me and something I don’t want to lose sight of, either. I don’t want to harden through grief; I want to stay curious and stay hopeful. All of these things that I love, I’m eventually going to lose one day. There’s no reason not to love them. It’s all the more reason to love them, because it’s a really powerful thing to love someone who’s gone and to piece the world back together yourself.” With that context, the “Just tell me when and I’ll be waitin’” refrain in “Rhyme or Reason” is about 10 pounds heavier.

While she’s not explicitly navigating the grief of losing her brother in her work, his passing has shaped Howerton’s songwriting and, as fate would have it, has transformed other parts of her life and the intentionality she puts into the act of processing and the grace she gives herself when doing so. “I think that losing him was a big wake-up call for me of what’s really important,” she says. “And what’s really important, at the end of the day, really, is all the simple things that they tell you about when you’re younger and you’re like, ‘That can’t be more important than fame and fortune,’ or any of these external markers of success that capitalism really tries to drill into you—being beautiful, being cool, being admired. All of these outside forces are not nearly as important as the love that you feel in your heart for yourself and the love that you feel for the ones around you—because all of those things fall away in the end, and what’s left is the love. I know for me, as a listener, music has been a source of that love. It’s been a source of inspiration, and it speaks to you in a way that words fall short of.”

Capitalism plays a huge part in the contour of Wish on the Bone’s makeup. It’s the present force trespassing into “Dotted Line,” which was released last month (and landed on our recent Best Songs of 2024 So Far list). Though the track’s “I should’ve known better than to sign on the dotted line” chorus coincidentally dropped alongside the announcement of Why Bonnie’s signing with Fire Talk, “Dotted Line” focus is affixed to a period of Howerton’s life when she was “broke as hell” and, broadly, “selling her soul to something that capitalism says is worth selling your soul to” (“It’s easy as 1, 2, 3 if you just put your faith in me, let all your problems melt away,” she sings. “Good days ahead, after you pay”).

Howerton’s focus was not on any explicit contract, but on the expectations of being raised a woman in the South and in 21st century America by poking fun at herself “for having fallen into those traps” capitalism sets for her “time and time again.” “I have had to do so much rewiring of my own brain—because I have been told I have to look a certain way, I have to act a certain way if I want to be successful,” she says. “In reality, they’re all so mundane and stupid and fleeting. None of that is going to last, but we’re taught to focus on it so much. We just exert ourselves to the ends of our beings so that we can achieve some kind of momentary success. I’ve definitely learned it the hard way.”

Just as Howerton has worn a lot of spiritual hats, Why Bonnie are beholden to just as many musical hats on Wish on the Bone. The album hustles and promises, deals get made and bucks stop short. The songs are as candid (“All the money in the world wouldn’t buy what you want”) as they are affectionate (“I feel you like a song that is just meant for us”). “I was somewhere in-between a vision and a dream,” Howerton sings during the record’s coda, a nod to her Texas roots and her Brooklyn bloom. The music is cinematic, immune to failure winning out and far more in the mood to untangle its own measures of hard-fought catharsis than bemoan its shadowing. People come and go on these 11 songs, but their bodies and hearts leave outlines in the doorways. If 90 in November is what first cast Howerton’s talents as a songwriter in stone, then Wish on the Bone is her Rushmore.

Watch Why Bonnie’s performance at the Paste Party in Austin in 2023 here, and check out the visualizer for “Fake Out” below. Wish on the Bone is out August 30th via Fire Talk.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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