Songwriting savant Karla Bonoff recalls 1970s LA scene

Songwriting savant Karla Bonoff recalls 1970s LA scene
Karla Bonoff and Livingston Taylor will perform Christmas music from Bonoff’s 2020 holiday album along with their own songs December 12 at the Birchmere. (Courtesy photo)

By Denise Dunbar |

Karla Bonoff is an accomplished singer-songwriter whose work has been covered by a who’s-who list of female stars spanning the last 40 years, including Linda Ronstadt, Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt and Wynonna Judd. A native of Santa Monica, California, Bonoff knew early on she wanted to write songs and perform – and had the great good fortune to come of age in the Los Angeles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Bonoff was in a Fleetwood Mac-esque band before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac and turned it into a supergroup. Bonoff performed at open mic night at LA’s fabled Troubadour, along with Jackson Browne, Elton John, the Eagles and dozens of other hopefuls who were trying to make the big time. Her description of that scene is memorable. 

Bonoff is on a two-week tour with Livingston Taylor, no slouch in the songwriting department himself. They will perform at the Birchmere on December 12, playing songs from Bonoff’s excellent 2020 album of holiday classics featuring fresh arrangements, as well as from their individual repertoires. 

Times publisher Denise Dunbar recently spoke with Bonoff in a phone interview ahead of her tour. The questions and answers below have been edited for length. 

DD: You’ve been singing or playing guitar most of your life, right? 

KB: Yeah, since I was 11 or 12. I had kind of a funky nylon string guitar. I took some guitar lessons when I was 10 or 11 and I was pretty good at it. [I] started buying albums and learning kind of by ear how to play things off of Peter, Paul and Mary or Joan Baez or Judy Collins. From a very young age I found my path, and I’m lucky I think. 

I never did go to college. I was thrust into the music scene, but I think a lot of it has to do with growing up in LA. And also my parents were just really supportive of music in general and whatever instrument I wanted to play. They made sure I had access to that and piano lessons, guitar lessons. I was at the right place at the right time. I think if I’d been in some other city, I don’t know if that would have happened for me. 

It’s just so fascinating that you were part of that LA scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Most of us who were hanging around the Troubadour, none of us had record deals and we were all trying to get in bands or get signed. So at that time, Jackson Browne didn’t have a record deal and the Eagles were just forming. All of it was really just beginning. 

Was there a sense that these people were going to hit the big time? 

I think there was the sense that there was an incredible amount of opportunity. In some ways, I think a lot of us were there early and the music business was still a creative business. It wasn’t so corporate and people at record companies were interested in finding real artists and giving them time to develop. Maybe we were just young, but there was this sense of kind of empowerment that we could do it. 

So how did people get signed? 

At the Troubadour on Monday nights, I can remember watching people coming off stage and being rushed by record company people and getting record deals. I remember seeing Seals & Crofts play a few songs on one of those Monday nights … and getting a record deal that night. Anything could happen at that point. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was kind of magical then. We were writing our own road, really. There were no rules in a lot of ways. 

One of your big breaks was when Linda Ronstadt recorded several of your songs on one of her early albums. How did that come about? 

I was in a band called Bryndle with Kenny Edwards and he had been in the Stone Poneys with Linda, so he knew Linda really well. And when our band broke up, he and Andrew Gold – who was also in our band – went to play in Linda’s road band, and she was looking for songs. So I had an opportunity to sit backstage where there was a piano and play her [my] songs. It was kind of the right place at the right time. I was part of that circle and we all hung out together. 

You know, Linda was great at picking songs and finding undiscovered songwriters. That was part of her brilliance: Since she wasn’t a writer, she had to kind of find this material for herself that was original. She was mining all the songwriters around her for stuff. 

Linda Ronstadt covered your songs “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again” and “If He’s Ever Near” on her 1976 album, “Hasten Down the Wind.” Your versions – released within a year – are better, but hers are famous. How do you feel about that? 

I think the hard part of that was just that people were kind of confused. When I first went out on the road and opened for Jackson Browne, I realized a couple of days in that I would sing those songs and people would just think I was covering Linda Ronstadt songs. They didn’t know. And it was like, “Oh. My. God!” It was kind of a horrible realization people just think of those songs as her songs. I thought I would get all this credit for it and in some ways I didn’t because she was so big and the songs were really made known by her. 

At the time she went to record them, I was in a different position. I was not signed to a record label. I really wasn’t working. I had no money. And when an artist like that that’s selling a million records wants to do your songs, and you’ve been writing for 10 or 15 years, I mean there’s just no way you would say, “No.” Because I had no idea I would get a record deal ever or that anything would happen for me. 

Some people say, “Don’t you think you should have saved them for you?” But you know what, if I’d saved them for me and put them on some record, people might have never paid any attention to them. 

The song “Tell me Why” is a departure from a lot of your songs in that it’s a bit more rocking. How did you approach that, and how did Wynonna Judd come to record it? 

If I could make an album of all ballads, I would. But that’s not how it works. You need songs that are up-tempo and you need to try and have a single or whatever, so there’s always a desire to try and write some up-tempo stuff. I had to push myself to do that. 

It was on an album and on a small label and that particular album didn’t do all that well, but it had these songs on it that got recorded by other people a lot. In the end, it was kind of a resurgence for me. 

We had met Wynonna’s producer Tony Brown because he was a fan of our band Bryndle, and he had Wendy [Waldman] and I writing some stuff for movies. He was producing Wynonna and looking for stuff and I just said, “Hey I think this would be great for Wynonna.” And I sent it to Tony and they recorded it. It was really easy! 

“Lose Again” is such an emotionally resonant song. What do you think about what Alison Krauss did with her version to turn it more up-tempo with a banjo. 

That was mind-blowing to hear that bluegrass version of it. That was so cool. I’m such a big fan of hers and then to have her do that was wonderful. That was the first song of mine that Linda did and I heard her do it live before she ever recorded it and it was pretty mind-blowing. I mean, she could just really sing that song. 

There are so many covers of your song “Home.” Bonnie Raitt’s was remarkable, but so was the cover by Bridgett Ball. There are around 10 different covers of “Home” listed online. 

I don’t think I’ve heard [Bridgett Ball’s] cover. I do think that probably is my most covered song. Once a song is out there, it’s public domain. So anyone really can record them. Sometimes I’m surprised by them. 

Which is your favorite song that you’ve done? 

I think the song that holds up best is “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.” That one’s kind of felt like it came out of the ether. It just arrived as a gift. Sometimes when I’m playing it I just go, “Wow, where did this come from?” The piano lick, it’s just one of those magical moments that just kind of happened. It was not hard work. It just kind of came. When I’m playing that I tend to just get lost in it. 

What’s your approach to songwriting? 

I think we all have that great creative streak in there and most of the time we just get in the way of it with our own censoring or editing or doubtfulness. Every now and then, in my career, when I just got out of my way, maybe not even realizing I was doing it, and just turned off that editor up there and just let myself be a vessel for whatever was going on in my subconscious – that’s how some of my best songs came to me. I mean you still have to show up for your job and play and find chords. It’s not like you can never do anything and then just sit down and write a song. It’s a process. 

How do you keep your songs fresh for yourself? 

I think a big part of it is energy from the people who really want to hear it. That gives you a lot of energy to play it. Just because people are excited about it. It’s like anything else, sometimes it’s not fresh. Other nights when the musicians are great and it sounds really good and the audience is great, it lifts everybody up. The music kind of takes you down this river and you go with it. I lose myself in the music and then I’m happy. 

You’re about to play the Birchmere again. What’s it like? 

I’ve lost count [how many times I’ve played the Birchmere] but I would say at least 15 or 20. The Birchmere is one of the few that goes [back to the 1980s] and has that incredible history of acoustic music. I’m just so happy that it’s still there. It’s a pretty hallowed hall, so it’s a great place to play because of that. 

You’re currently touring with a holiday album. 

During [the COVID-19 pandemic], I kind of accidentally made a holiday album. We were just kind of messing around with a tune or two and we just kept going and it turned into a whole album, which was really not something I’d planned. And then the people I work with said, “Well, maybe you should go out and do a holiday show.” And I thought “OK, I can do that.” 

But I didn’t feel that was something I’d like to do by myself. It would be more fun to share that with somebody. I thought of Liv[ingston Taylor] because he’s so up and cheerful and easy to work with. I suggested it to him and he was like, “Yeah, I’m in. Let’s do it.” 

What can people expect from this show? 

So our first run was last Christmas, holiday season and it went really well. So this is our second year. This will be a really fun show. Liv is really fun and up and we’ll do a lot of stuff together and I think for this time of year it’ll be a nice, positive, fun, kind of funny … it’ll be a good time. It might be a little more uplifting than my normal show just because Livingston adds a great sense of humor to the whole thing. 

How does it feel knowing your songs mean so much to a lot of people? 

If I was able to be on this planet for the small amount of time that we’re here and to mean something to somebody, that makes me feel like my life was worthwhile. So I’m incredibly grateful if I’ve made a tiny bit of difference for people. That’s really awesome. I have that as a legacy, and I’m proud of that.