“The journey to Hong Kong is 19 days total, 14 days of that without seeing land. I am 22, heading to a university job in Northeast China. My traveling companion is a boyfriend of two months, who also has a job there. We will stay in the spare officer’s cabin, No. 3, for the voyage. The goal is to stay on the surface of the Earth from Little Rock, Arkansas, to China, taking only cars, boats and trains.” So begins Bonnie Montgomery’s piano-centric travelogue album, “Boat Songs 2002.” For ears that have been quarantining in landlocked Arkansas for a solid year now, the White County-born, Austin-based composer’s lo-fi pandemic album is a balm, spinning visions of sticky tropical air, the pristine Aleutian Islands and the heady electricity of romance’s first spark.
I have to wonder, too, if this album connects some dots for newer fans of Montgomery’s, adding some context to the parlor feel behind tunes like “Cruel” or the west Texas operatic cadenzas in “Comets.” Maybe it fills in some dots for fans who know Montgomery as a honky tonk queen, those who haven’t loved “Spill” for more than a decade, back when Montgomery Trucking was playing it for a half-drunk crowd at the bygone Speakeasy piano bar on Louisiana Street in downtown Little Rock. However the record finds you, here’s hoping it finds you.
The thing I love about “Boat Songs” is, first, that it’s all you, but also how much of the production sound there is, like the little thump when you release the sustain pedal at the end of “Keep Quiet.”
Yeah! You totally knew.
In normal times, it might be a sound that would get edited out, but here, after a year in isolation, it’s exactly what we crave: the physical sound of music being made. Can you talk a little about how you put the record together from your home in Texas?
The first thing was that I had to get a four-track cassette recorder like the one I recorded it on in ’03 so that I could transfer the analog into a digital format. So that was a whole ordeal. I got a TASCAM that was pretty similar to the one I had used back then —I got it off Facebook Marketplace at Christmas. [Laughs.] And then I have a friend who runs a studio who sent me all the other equipment to set up at home to transfer to a computer that was like, really old and barely working, that would read the information, because it was all coming from antiquated equipment. All this back-in-time technology. It was a really interesting process in the pandemic, to sort of feel timeless or mixed up in a different time frame.
Then the piano vignettes, I got a microphone that plugs into my phone. It’s like an SM58 for the phone. So I just set that up on my piano and used GarageBand on my phone.
There’s a point in the record where you talk about the feeling of being at sea for so long, and missing Arkansas, and being on the water starting to feel like normalcy. And it’s here, I think, that we can hear exactly why this is a pandemic album, right? What’s similar between those two times for you?
I think it’s about time, and how we measure time in different ways. The past being like a mirage that sort of comes and goes in these mists, and you can really go different places in your past while you’re still in the same place physically. And there’s no real tangible end to it. At least on the boat, I knew how many days long it was supposed to be and everything, but all that was lifted and there was a suspension of time after I’d been out for nine or 10 days.
The songs on the record are ones you’ve played live for years, and which you recorded on a live record in 2011 called “Live at the Cake Shop.” And I couldn’t help but notice that even on that album art, you’re floating on the water. I think it’s sort of interesting the way Arkansans, myself included, relate to water, and I wonder if you could just talk about your relationship with water as you’ve experienced it here in Arkansas, like in Hot Springs, or abroad and of course, at Standing Rock.
I am a water snob. I’m also a water protector, I guess. I’m obsessed with Mountain Valley Spring Water. I think it’s an elixir. I’ve spent many hours in the thermal waters of Hot Springs. Instead of doing other kinds of therapy, I would just drop everything and go to Hot Springs and get in the water when I had all kinds of struggles in my life, where I probably would have been recommended to go get talk therapy. To me, the water heals parts of me that no other thing can heal. I’m just very aware of how precious water is in my life now, and especially after Standing Rock. Because it is life. Water is life. Without water, we don’t have life, and it’s the thing that differentiates Earth from other planets.
Right. I mean, we’re sort of always talking from this land-centric perspective, but when you zoom out, water is most of what there is.
Right. I love that you asked me this as an Arkansan, because even though we are a landlocked state, I feel like I just grew up in water. Creeks and swimming holes. I grew up in Searcy and Greers Ferry was right there, and I went to school in Arkadelphia and DeGray was right there. People don’t realize how much water we have.
I’m also talking to you on International Women’s Day, as it turns out. How have your thoughts evolved about moving through the world as a woman, especially in an industry historically dominated by men, since you wrote these diary entries at sea? What’s changed, and what’s sort of eternally the same for you as a woman?
Well, I curated what I used from the writing. There was a lot of text from the boat, and I focused on the little romance because I thought it would be fun for everybody. But there was a lot of stuff in there about being very uncomfortable being the only woman on that boat. I think at the time, I thought, ‘Well, you know what you’re getting into, just have to fight ’em off with a stick” kinda attitude. There are actual parts of the journal that I edited out, when I felt a cold sweat come over me and I felt very exposed and very observed and definitely felt an element of danger. I just thought that was part of life. Expected behavior from them.
Nowadays, I think it would be really interesting to revisit and go back at this age, and where we are with women’s rights, and sort of observe that scene. I think I would expect more from the men. I’d have a different perspective for sure.
Lastly, I just want to ask you, as we mark the year that’s passed since the pandemic began, what is it that you hope for most out of the next year?
That’s a fun question. I hope that when we re-emerge that we have a greater appreciation for the arts in general, and in live music. There’s no substitute for sitting in the same room with the musician that you’re listening to. So I hope people will understand how valuable that is, and how much we sacrifice to make that available, but that our currency is different from the rest of society’s. We live for that. I hope that people start to see it as musicians have seen it all along, which is that there’s tremendous value in the live music experience.
And I hope I’m doing some more multi-genre kind of work. I think there’s some cabaret kind of work ahead of me. I wrote a string quartet during the pandemic that I’d love to have premiered. I’d love to do a showcase of just classical works and then think about touring in a different way around that, too.