Having a famous name can only get you so far, having immense talent will take you further. Deborah Bonham has both. Now, along with guitarist Peter Bullick, she is about to release a new record as Bonham-Bullick featuring classic and lesser-known blues covers. Recently, Deborah and Peter both joined me to talk about it.
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On how they came together – Peter – We’ve made three albums together previously under the name Deborah Bonham or Deborah Bonham Band, and that’s what we’ve been touring for the last 25 years, probably. For this one, the record company and us and everybody decided to give the band a better sort of idea of being a band that with us and the guitar feature and a girl singer. So I’m basically just edging around it, it’ll be the Peter Bullick Band next year. Now, that was the idea. I guess I could actually trust that kind of thing and just to get kind of an idea of it being a band and there’s a guitar and it rather than just a girl singer. Deborah – I think I felt for quite a long time that it should have been a band, it should be a band name because we’ve always been a band, we’ve been together years and years. When we came to America in 2018 and Paul Rodgers picked Pete to be the guitarist in his band and the rest of the band, so Jared Lewis on keyboard, Richard Newman on drums, and Ian Rowley on bass, it just made sense for the next project. That’s when Quarto Valley Records saw us and sort of said, “Well, we would like to do something with you”, which was great at this point to have a record company really interested in doing something new with us. Then it would just make total sense to me for it to be a band name and to do a different project for me just from us writing our own material. So it’s sort of came around that way, didn’t it, Pete? The blues guitarist magazines might not interview a girl singer. That’s not the only reason. Come on. I mean, I’d already said to you, I want this to be a band because it is. If people think they’re just coming to see just Deborah Bonham, they’re not. They come in to see this incredible backside kicking, unbelievable swaggered band. It is a brilliant band, just to have that endorsement for Paul Rodgers says it all. So to me, it was just the time was right. The time is right now. :45
On how they decided what songs to cover – Well, we had a bunch of friends, Deborah mainly and then a bunch of friends helped contribute. We ended up with a pile of about 100 songs, at least through suggestions and stuff that we went through. Then it was finally whittled down to the 13 that we did. So by whittling it down from 100 to 13, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of album fillers. Every one, in my book, has got the most incredible attention from us to really work it hard and Deborah’s production and what it brought out of us all. So the 13 songs, there isn’t a filler there. I can’t pick a favorite. Yeah, Pete’s pretty much on the money. Exactly what he said, some friends, some that I wanted to do, and there was about 100 gathered, and it wasn’t a really difficult process actually picking the songs because I know what I can do, I know what I can sing and I know what the band can play, so they just jumped out, those are the ones. There was no struggle, these just came. The struggle and pushing us out of our comfort zones was when we went to do them, to bring our own interpretation, to bring our heart and soul to it. That weighed heavy and that really did stretch us, it pushed us out there, but it was great. We were due for a good old stretch. So it’s been great. It’s almost like if you do your own songs, which all our albums have been our own penned songs, it’s almost like that appears easy now compared to doing other people’s songs. We weren’t expecting to put in so much thought and love and emotion, and these 13 tracks really quite tore it out of us and tore it out of Deborah and the production and stuff. They got such a lot of attention because we were so aware of it being somebody else’s song and having been done before. We had to create something different. We had to give it respect and keep the integrity of the original song. For me, it was just the most important, and for Pete. When you take on Albert King, you have to mean it, it’s Albert King. You can’t just go in half-hearted on that, you’ve got to really mean it, and you can’t just copy him because Albert King is the best Albert King. So it was really a challenge, but it was a great one because we realized how far we can stretch ourselves, and we’ve never really done that on such a scale before. We’ve done interpretations of other people’s songs occasionally, on each album there’s been one maybe. But we’ve never done it on this scale, and I’ve done a fully produced. So it was out of our comfort zone, but gosh, am I glad we did it because it’s made us really grow as musicians and producers, I think. The 13 songs seem to sound like they’ve all come from the same camp, the same plan, which was kind of a shock. No, it was a deliberate production endeavor…I think the difference with us is that from the get-go, we weren’t gonna do an out-and-out, straightforward blues record that was just a no-no. Because for me, it’s been done so many times, and I just didn’t wanna do all of those classics and do straight copies. So we did the twist from the beginning by picking some songs that really are rooted in blues, but also very soulful, and then added some rock to it, a bit of progressive rock as well. The ultimate thing is the blues, but I think just choosing songs that aren’t just the ones that everybody is picked before, was the slightly different approach we took. We wanted to keep the integrity of the song and a respect for these amazing artists that we love so much, but we didn’t wanna copy it. We wanted to bring us to it because if you don’t bring yourself to it, what’s the point? You’re not meaning it. You have to bring yourself. You have to bring your heart and soul and your own interpretation, just like Joe Cocker did with “A Little Help From My Friends”. That for me is the benchmark of all covers to take “A Little Help From My Friends”, Ringo Starr, and The Beatles, and do Joe Cocker. He made it Joe Cocker. To add another one there, “Don’t Pass Me By”, Georgia Satellites, doing another Ringo Starr song. Maybe only those two are better than the originals. I’m not saying whether it’s better than the original or not, what I’m saying is it’s so far different and what Joe Cocker did was, when he sang it, he meant that. He meant every inch of it, and he did it in a style that’s him, that soul blues rock, and that’s really where we were aiming with this album, where I was aiming, I just didn’t tell the band about that, I just let them find it. The kind of blues, rock, and soul of the late 60s and 70s, that’s what’s in our blood. 3:20
On recording “Bleeding Muddy Water” from the late Mark Lanegan – It gave me the shivers really. It gave me the shivers when we did it, because I just knew. There was a moment in the studio where I sat with the engineer, on my own with the engineer, and I just knew. I knew we’d got it right. When the song was playing back I went goosebumps and I knew we got it right. I was so excited to get in touch with him. I was thinking to myself, “I’m gonna find how I can get hold of Mark Lanegan because I really wanna play him this” because I think he’s quite an underrated singer-songwriter. He’s big as the Screaming Trees vocalist but as a singer-songwriter, the guy’s phenomenal. I think it’s quite underrated how great he was, so I thought I’ve got to let him know, and then he passed away and it was shocking. It was so, so very, very sad because the song and the lyrics in the song and because they resonate with everything about Mississippi, and also it resonates with Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”. So it’s got all of that going on in it. For me, as soon as I heard it from his Blues Funeral album, I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can have a go with this one”. 10:35
On whether it was easier or harder to share her mourning with the world when her brother John Bonham died – It’s a great question, and it’s a tough one because I’ve lost both my brothers, John and Michael, and Michael was only 49, and I don’t know. The grief is equal. It really is equal. I think you never can bury, you can never totally bury somebody who’s completely that famous because there’s always something. To us, John’s almost constantly alive because they’ll be a new remaster album or there’ll be a film, or they’ll be a book. I’m always talking about it, I’ll be honest with you, after a few weeks of doing quite a few interviews, sometimes I have a little breakdown because it gets quite emotional talking about him because it’s still there and it still hurts. What I found was, that when we went out and played live, and I’d written a song called “The Old Hyde” from our The Old Hyde album. The old hyde was the farm that John bought and built with my dad just after like Led Zeppelin II, I think it’s a beautiful place and my sister-in-law still lives there. I wrote the song about it, and what I found was when I went out and sang it, and it was all about the farm, it was about John and Dad and losing them, Michael had passed then. But it was all about that, but it was a song, to quote a famous expression from Mr. Plant, it was “a song of hope” because I’d like to think I will see them again. They’ve gone, but they’re never really gone, so we’ve got to keep going and do our best in life as much as we can. When I sang that on the stage, I was amazed at the amount of people I met afterward at the merch table meet & greets or whatever, that had all gone through so much stuff, so I found it really cathartic then. It wasn’t so much that everybody else was grieving about John, it was about how many people just were going through what I went through on every level. Then you realize you’re not alone. So in that way, yeah, it worked for me. I found it cathartic. But Pete’s been through the same thing, he lost his wonderful uncle, only a few years older than him. Paul Rowan was his name and he was a big noise in Belfast. So whenever Pete goes back to Belfast, it’s a different scale to John, of course, I mean John like worldwide. But Paul was the same thing in Belfast. So what would you say about that question? Do you find it helpful that so many people in Belfast (mourn with you?) I would say when Paul died, who was a local hero, three years old older than me, a guitarist, we played since I was seven years old, he was 10 years old. We started playing guitar together, finding his big sister’s records or babysitter’s records, which would be the Stones and Free, which is why I’m such a Free fan and how that sort sat in my playing, and then Bad Company and stuff like that. So we do all that together all the way through, and then he ended up going a little bit sort of punky and stuff when I left and moved over to England. He had a bit of success with a glam-punk band. So I’d come back and we had a lovely after-funeral wake and stuff for him, and it was just all his band friends and lots of other local bands, and we all played his songs and we set the stage up, and I find it actually helpful, that public grief. But what I also find was I wasn’t actually grieving, I was having a party, and it was after it all shut down and the next day that the grief set it. Whenever I was on my own again. But at that time, it’s almost like he was the only one missing at this great party or this great gig, and you just assumed he was there. Unfortunately, that does still happen. As much as I know how much the world misses John and how much Belfast and all of his dear friends miss Paul, and my brother Michael, his funeral was incredible, there was people lining up in the street because everybody loved him in his home town of Redditch, you do take up that on board, but then they’ll be those moments where you just think about them and you just want them back. It’s not possible, and that’s part of life. And I know we just have to get along with that and carry on. 12:36
On her relationships with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin – With Robert (Plant) definitely. He’s one of my closest friends. We’re very close, he’s like a big brother, really. Without a doubt, his musical knowledge has just been fantastic. He is incredible, I love talking to him about music, and we sit for ages and he’ll play stuff, and he’ll suddenly send me an album for my birthday and I’ve never heard of the guy, and I put it on and it’s absolutely amazing. A guy called Robert Finley absolutely blew me away. He knows music. Him and Pete will play for hours. He’s very close, Jimmy (Page), if I see him once a year, then it’s always lovely. I haven’t seen John Paul Jones for quite a while. But when we were doing the John Bonham memorial, we were raising money for the event, because I’d already raised some money for the bronze statue that we did, we were raising the money for the event for Teenage Cancer Trust, and he jumped straight in there and was fantastic donating. It’s a very nice amount of money for them. All three of them are great guys. So yeah, I do see them. 18:27
On upcoming touring – We go on the road here in the UK and Europe, we start on the 28th of April, so we’re doing a bunch of shows in some nice theaters and stuff. Then a few festivals in Europe and the UK through the summer. We’re chatting with some sort of agents in America that have shown some interest in it, hopefully by the end of this year. I hope so. I really want to get back to America, you’re really having withdrawal symptoms, what is it that you love? The chicken wings in the American beer. Me and the band find our perfect diet, chicken wings…We’re desperate to be there. We had such a great time when we were there last in 2019 at the Cutting Room in New York and up to Daryl Hall’s place, Daryl’s House. The guy doing our sound was Daryl’s engineer as well. We did Levon Helm’s place as well when we were there. In 2018 we did the Stars Align Tour with Jeff Beck, Ann Wilson, and Paul Rodgers and Deborah opened up the shows. We did that tour, Deborah, Ann Wilson, and then Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers would switch the headline. Deborah’s band backed Paul Rodgers every night as well. So we got to do all the Free and Bad Company stuff then. I had to go on in front of Ann Wilson, she stayed at the side of the stage every night. In equal measure, she had to sing in front of Ann Wilson and I had to play guitar in front of Jeff Beck. All of a sudden I had to leave out my trademark bum notes. 21:00