Bonnie Whitmore Starts the Conversation with Last Will & Testament

Bonnie Whitmore’s Last Will & Testament uses pop energy and raging guitars to rip open the seal and confront deeply emotional issues like depression, rape culture, and suicide. It’s a 2020 album all the way, but the majority of the songs and certainly the sentiment have been gestating for quite some time. Considered a sequel to Whitmore’s revelatory 2016 release, Fuck With Sad Girls, LW&T opens the dialogue and unapologetically asks questions that are in danger of going unanswered while seemingly grander monsters continue to stalk the Earth. It’s an album designed to provoke, to expose, to challenge, and to heal.

AI- You and I spoke back in early March when everything was right on the cusp of going to hell in a handbasket. We had an opportunity to talk about Last Will & Testament and I’m glad that we got another opportunity to dig into it now. Although I have to admit at the time, I thought that we would be having a conversation under very different circumstances because we are living on a completely different planet than we were back then.

BW- I know! Seriously, everything just overnight completely rearranged itself. It’s going to be a brand new world now, you know? There’s just no coming out of it! I’m glad to catch up with you again. And we can go further on that discussion!

You told me initially that Last Will & Testament was really going to be a sequel to Fuck With Sad Girls— and I’m certainly feelin’ that. I think it definitely falls into, as far as sequels go, The Godfather Part II, Empire Strikes Back category. With the previous album, it had a very alternative feel to it– not only alternative rock but alternative country. And on this one, to me, it has a lot of garage and glitter influence on it.

I’ll take that. I think definitely there’s a weird combination of rock n’ roll and punk rock with vintage sounds interspersed in it, kind of a throwback theme on some stuff. But I feel like I approach songs as the songs that they are and let them become whatever it is that I feel like they want to be. I wanted to bring these songs together more for the substance of them. Not because they all sounded alike.

A lot of the music that’s been comin’ out in 2020 during the pandemic and even right before that happened… At first, everything that I was hearing, it all sounded very prophetic. Like, “How could people have possibly known that we were about to land in the situation we were in?” But then it kind of dawned on me that wasn’t the case. We’ve been here for a very long time. I think this has been one of my biggest takeaways this last six months as we’ve become more aware of how blind the country has been about so many issues and how broken many of our institutions have become. It’s really sobering to hear all of this music that predates the pandemic.

I feel like I’ve always had a little bit, I think a lot of songwriters do this, honestly, but I know that I personally have written a lot of songs where I wasn’t really sure where the inspiration came from. And then something happens in my life and I’m like, “Oh! This was a subconscious understanding of what I was gonna go through!” It was my way of dealing with it to some degree. I knew I wanted to release a record called Last Will & Testament in 2020, not really understanding exactly (laughs) what 2020 was gonna be, but I think some things are foretold. And I think that’s one thing that songwriters can tap into– the underlying themes that may not be apparent to a lot of other people but are more prevalent when they are released out in the world.

The title track, “Last Will & Testament”, you actually wrote that for a friend of yours, right?

Yeah. We had lost another friend to suicide in our music community here in Austin. Every time we lose somebody and whatever the circumstances may be– September being Suicide Awareness Month– it’s a really difficult thing to go through. Our music community is really pretty small and you can see exactly how small when a light goes out in somebody, how much that affects everyone else.

You bring up Suicide Prevention month. It’s also National Recovery Month. I’ve already tanked one interview this week by bringing this up… But do you mind, may I ask about Justin Earle?

Sure. This record is about being able to have difficult conversations. So I’m definitely not shying away from talking about anything, in particular, even Justin.

We were sittin’ around the dinner table. We’d just finished up and we were sittin’ there waitin’ on my daughter to finish up. My wife [looking up from her phone] looks at me and she goes, “Justin Earle’s dead.” Of course, nobody had any real answers, although there were many things that were swirling around about what could have happened. And immediately, my mind went to, “Is this because of COVID-19?” Not the disease, but because of so much of the depression that I know is affecting people from not being able to work, from not being able to be out…* What was your take on that? ‘Cause this was someone you knew.

Justin and I had a personal relationship. He was one of the first people that I really knew when I was establishing myself in Nashville, and he really brought a lot of people into my life. That was the first thing… So when I heard the news, my first instinct was to go down a list of all those people that I wanted to reach out to. Losing somebody always hurts, no matter the circumstances, and it’s really the only fortunate side effect of loss I like, that instinct that makes us want to reach out to one another and reconnect. That’s part of the healing aspect of it. And that’s the thing that, at least at the end of the day, makes me feel love and compassion and empathy with my friends. I think in the sense of when Justin’s light went out, it got really dark for a lot of different people. And by being able to reconnect with a lot of different people, we were able to brighten ourselves back up.

I was just having a really nice conversation with Lilly Hiatt about him. We knew him in different ways and a lot of other people connected to him in various ways, but after it happened, it was as if we could have told him “See, look how many people love and were touched by you!” I think he did know it to some degree, but I don’t think he always remembered that.

Is this something that you have seen more of as we’ve been navigatin’ COVID-19? People struggling? Other musicians, other artists struggling?

I’ve definitely seen that in a lot of different people, but I think most people are reaching out. I’m checking in on people to see how they’re doin’. I’m gonna steal a story from Jon Dee Graham. He was driving by his friend’s house and [the friend] was standin’ in the front yard with a piece of rope and lookin’ up at the tree branch. Jon Dee was like, “Hey brother, how you doin’? What are you doin’?” And his friend was like, “I’m tryin’ to see if this branch will hold this rope.” It was evident his friend was in a dark place, and Jon Dee was just like, “Hey, let’s go get a cup of coffee and talk.” And they did.

I felt like I understand a little bit more about suicide in that regard. There’s a lot of reactions that people have to it and a lot of people have a lot of anger about it. But then we don’t actually discuss why a person gets to that point. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Talking to Strangers, has a theory– it’s not just the fact that somebody has these thoughts, it’s the coupling. It’s the desire and the ability to do it. Take the suicide rate on the [Golden Gate] Bridge. They’ve known for years that they could do a preventative net sort of thing in order to discourage people from going to San Francisco [to jump off the bridge]. The argument being that if they’re gonna kill themselves, they’re gonna kill themselves. It doesn’t matter if it’s on that bridge or not. The argument in Gladwell’s book is that sometimes it does matter. It not just the desire, but also the opportunity as well. So at least for me, that gives me a different way of thinking about it. I think the best thing and the only thing you can really do is just check in and be there for your friends any way that you can. And know that the outcome is not in your control.

The word provocative gets thrown around a lot when talkin’ about your music. And that’s just one of the subjects that you open up to talk about in your songs. Another one, the song “Asked For It” that we spoke about back in March, I finally had an opportunity to hear that song. And again, we were listenin’ to it at the dinner table! I’m talkin’ to my wife about it, and then that huge chorus comes on and you got the call back in the chorus, and I’m rememberin’ you tellin’ me about getting people to sing it. And I looked at my wife and I said, “Wow. Imagine how angry you have to get in order to work people up for that every night during the show.” And my wife just plainly looked me in the eye and said, “When it comes to rape we’re always angry.”

Yeah. That’s another thing. Because there’s so much shame around it, we don’t talk about it. And those are the things that I really wanna implore people to do. We have so much shame and so much fear wrapped around this stuff that it keeps us from being able to actually get through to the healing aspect of it. When I wrote that song, I wrote it after a representative of Missouri [Todd Akin] had some shitty thing to say about women– if they’re legitimately raped, [they] can’t get pregnant. I was mad and I wrote the song and I played the song. It was before Me Too had become normal, and it still was not something acceptable for people to openly discussed, especially in that kind of public way. I played it and it was like the air in the room got sucked out of it!

That’s how deeply hurtful and unfortunate [it is] that we cannot talk about something that is so prevalent in our lives. But yeah, I have a lot of anger around that issue, and the fact that the statistic is 1 in 4 to 5 women has been sexually abused or assaulted. There’s just a lot of romanticizing that goes into the perception and toxic masculinity is at the root. There’s a lot of things to unpack in that, but what I’m wanting to give is a place where survivors feel welcomed to talk about it, to discuss it, and to share their story and their situation without feeling shame that it happened to them. I’ve heard that said before, “She asked for it,” and I just have never understood how someone can have that reaction! Because I don’t believe anybody asks to be assaulted. You don’t question when somebody’s house gets broken into, “Well, did you leave the door unlocked? You shouldn’t have had that television if you didn’t want to have it stolen!” Those are not arguments that are helpful or relevant, honestly, to what actually happened. We as a culture don’t want to feel like a victim so much that we’d rather blame them for what happens to them than deal with our own vulnerability. That’s just nuts to me.

All of those discussions on the album… And then you get to the song “Right/Wrong”. That encompasses, for me personally, what I’m dealing with. Whether it’s suicide, whether it’s sexual assault, whether it’s racism and Black Lives Matter but trying to have these conversations with my 3 about to be 4-year-old. My wife and I both are, particularly when it comes to sexual assault and racism. At first, I’ll admit that I didn’t want to have a conversation with her or try to talk about it because I thought, “She’s too young. She doesn’t understand.” Which is wrong because she does.

The second thing I didn’t understand was [the philosophy], “If we don’t teach her racism, she won’t be racist.” And that in itself is one of the main reasons we are in the position that we’re in right now because we’re not having that conversation with our children. So hearing that song and knowing that’s wrapped around what it is, finding a way to have these conversations with children. That’s the one that really hit me.

I’m so glad. When I wrote that song with Scott Davis, that was our thought process. ‘Cause he has two little kids and it is hard to have those conversations– and they absorb all of it. His 3-year-old, this quarantine is like a third of his life. It is traumatizing and especially when you can have that perspective of it. We do need to be spending more time empathizing with one another, but also really teaching our kids how to process what they are learning. It’s not like you need to go have an in-depth conversation about a lot of different things to a three-year-old. But I don’t know how going to school and not actually learning what the Civil War was about is a smart thing for us to be doing to our children either. Or not allowing them to have some sort of understanding of what a healthy sexual relationship is and what love really means. Our inability to have these conversations is essentially suggesting to them to find the answers on the internet. And what do you get with that? We need to be really teaching kids empathy and understanding more so than anything else, but not sugarcoat or just blatantly not allow them to learn things so then they become adults and have no idea what their history is or human compassion. They have no concept of other cultures and things of that nature. It’s detrimental. Especially when a young boy’s only reference of what sex is, is porn. And we wonder why we have rape culture.

I know it’s hard conversations to have, but it’s also conversations that do need to be spoken with kids. I’ve always been a kinesthetic learner, I really needed multiple stimulations in order to really learn. I couldn’t just do it by reading the book or listening to someone tell the story. Although, audibly helps me retain it faster than most ways. That’s a good thing about being able to write a song. I took that “shut up and sing” thing literally! Like, “Okay, so you don’t want me to talk about something? I won’t talk about it, but I’m damn well gonna sing about it!” I know that I suffered from depression at a very young age and my parents really did try to find ways to help me. Music is something that is always going to be either helping or healing to somebody. That’s always been my feeling about that. So if these songs help create a conversation with your little ones, then they’re a success.

On the album, you do a cover of Centro-Matic’s “Flashes and Cables”. I know that you were, or rather, I should say are a big fan of that band. Where did the idea of including that come from?

With it being the sequel to Fuck With Sad Girls, I put a cover of Drivin N Cryin on that record (“Ain’t Waitin’ On Tomorrow”] and I wanted it to have a similarity to it. To me, Fuck With Sad Girls was a lot of different things, but it was definitely my personal stories that I was putting out there. And it was kind of like a mixed tape of, “Here’s what I am. Love me or don’t.”I felt like the Drivin N Cryin song really encompassed the intent. This record is still very personal, but it’s not necessarily my story but about what I see affecting us all. And in fact, a lot of the songs, I’m imploring the listener to answer my questions, which is why I feel like I’m not trying to preach. I’m simply wanting to start that conversation. And the best way I know is to actually ask questions of people.

With “Flashes and Cables”, there’s a lot of melancholy joy for that song. Centro-Matic was from my hometown (Denton, TX). They were one of my favorite bands. And they’re not a band that plays out anymore. I was lucky to be able to go to their last couple of shows, which was an incredible thing. And it was really a cathartic experience to be in a room full of people, a lot of them strangers, and we all just loved each other because of the love for this band and we knew this was it. No more Centro-Matic. I’ve never cried so hard collectively with so many people in my life! I woke up the next morning, my eyes were swollen shut because there was just so much love and appreciation for their music. I’ve asked Will [Johnson] what “Flashes and Cables” was about. He wouldn’t tell me, but I definitely feel like it’s a song of reflection on loss, and that need to still celebrate it even when you’re in the mourning of it.

Have you continued to write through the pandemic?

I have been. Yeah, actually. Amazingly enough, some of them have been love songs, which always surprise me when they come around!

You have some love songs on Last Will & Testament. You kinda got your Emmylou Harris hat on with “Fine”.

I wrote that one with Jaimee Harris. She’s gonna LOVE that you just said Emmylou in the process of that! She has a kinship and a love for that woman! I do too of mind you, but they share a birthday (laughs)! That one was a good one. I liked that aspect of just wanting to check in with each other. It’s like, “Where are we? What’s going on?” And really understanding what the “we” is. There’s also “Love Worth Remembering”, I think as a love song too, even though it’s more in reflection after the loss, looking back. But the realization that I came to understand is that the love never disappears.

When you kind of grow up past the rom-com aspect of relationships, you realize love is something that you do. It’s not just something that you feel, and regardless of whether it’s returned to you in kind, the point is to give it and to put it out there in the world. I feel that even when I haven’t been loved in returned by someone the way that I was hoping, I do know that I have felt loved by a lot of people. My source of worth is not beholden only to one person’s returned affection. Remembering that perspective helps keeps me in a good mental health space.

What do you think that the next round of music and albums is going to sound like? You’re writing right now. I’ve spoken to lots of people that have hit some serious blocks during this point in time. But after Vietnam and Watergate, we got punk and disc– two polar opposites– and actually I can’t imagine what the next phase of music would be! Because whatever we considered normal, I don’t think can exist going forward.

I think there will be some aspects of wanting to try to recapture it. Like I said, I don’t conform the song to what I want it to be. I let it be whatever it chooses. I have a country record that I want to make after this. I still have an electronic record that I need to release…

You do?

I have this friend of mine that I went to high school with, and he [Juicy The Emissary] makes these really amazing beats. I call it Coyotes: Life and After Life. The one side is just the creation of the song with me and the guitar. The other side is the same song but with his electronic treatment to it. That was a way of me branching out into something that I’d never done before– gone into a more R&B or electronic music sound. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. It was a fun adventure, and that’s something that I’m always interested in. I feel like we’re slowly taking away the genres and just allowing music to be whatever the hell it wants to be. And I’m all for that. Whatever creation takes you into whatever direction, I would love to see the art of music becoming more forthright. ‘Cause we’ve definitely seen the effect of having most radio stations being bought over by a car dealership and turned into Clear Channel…

But not this one, kid!

I know! I love you guys for that, but I just mean in the grand scheme of what radio was and what it has now become. I think we all have a rebellious nature, so when something is lacking and you see a resurgence of it coming in from a different direction, the scope of [that] is gonna be new and interesting. At least that’s my hope. I like songs that really matter and have a deep connection. I think we’re getting at least a little bit more of that now. People willing to share their true feelings through art. Being a kid of the early ’90s and getting into grunge rock, plus there was a huge amount of female artists that were really present during that time with Lilith Fair and things of that nature… It was really something and it was really depressing to watch– to see it be completely dismantled and taken away. I feel like it hasn’t been until the past few years that it seems like a resurgence and that brings me a lot of joy.

I agree. And I don’t want to lay it all on the shoulders of Americana or what people perceive to be the Americana genre, but it does appear to me that there is an abundance of excellent female artists out there right now making fantastic records and being heard. Certainly more so than there was in between that time you’re talkin’ about and now.

For sure. And Americana, of the genres to be part of, it’s one of the most inclusive. Some people would be like, “What is Americana anymore when it essentially has polarizing sounding music?” But that’s the reason why I’m glad to have this type of genre. Because it does allow the art to be what it wants to be.

Celebrate the release of Last Will & Testament with Bonnie Whitmore in the Virtual Gallery on Thursday, October 1st! Last Will & Testament will be available everywhere on October 2nd! Pre-order now!

*This interview took place on 9.3.2020 and as of the publication date, there has been no official cause of death released in connection with Justin Townes Earle. Any speculation or opinion implied is simply that.