Country music singer Bonner Rhae is set to release her first album in April. (Photo by Brooke Stevens Photography)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Bonner Rhae is a country singer from Alvin, Texas whose first album Forward Address releases on April 21, 2023. Enjoy our conversation about Taylor Swift impersonation, country music archetypes, and emotional clairvoyance, below. 

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and your relationship to singing and songwriting? How did you find yourself about to release an album?

Bonner Rhae: I grew up in a house where music was encouraged. My mom in particular was just the kind of person who always wanted us to feel comfortable trying new things. And so growing up she made sure we did lots of different things. We took dance, we took gymnastics, and we were all required to take six years of piano, which I hated at the time. But she always told us that if we ever wanted to learn another instrument, we would be glad that we knew how to read music. So later Taylor Swift came out with her first album and I thought she was so cool. And she played the guitar and I was like, I’m gonna learn to play the guitar.

DY: I had that same impulse, but I was not successful.

BR: I really tried to teach myself a few times before and I just did not have the drive. Because what I really love is singing. I mean, playing the guitar is more of a means for me. It’s not really my big passion. My passion is singing and storytelling. And my guitar is a necessary component of that for me. So I’m grateful for it and that I know how to play but I like it because of what it allows me to do. I found myself playing guitar when I was maybe 15 or so in high school, and I grew up singing, doing solos in the church choir and eventually in the youth group band. So I just literally came out singing. It’s kind of funny, you know, so many people that are great singers think that they can’t sing. But I can’t say I ever had that problem. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t think that I could sing. I just kind of assumed that I could.

DY: Looking back on that, do you think you were ever wrong?

BR: I’m sure as a small child, I was probably not at peak performance. But I was always doing the whole nine yards, stereotypical stuff like standing on my grandmother’s coffee table making everybody listen to me singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for everybody else to hear that. And they encouraged that. Luckily, I had a family that has always encouraged me.

So yeah, once I taught myself to play guitar it wasn’t too long after that I had a little boyfriend in high school who cheated on me. I was never very attached to boyfriends growing up or anything, but, you know, obviously you get cheated on and that’s at the bare minimum annoying. And I just felt like I could write a song about it. I’ve always loved writing and I’ve always enjoyed my English classes and stuff like that. So I was like, “I feel like I could do this,” and I sat down and I wrote a song called “Trail of Dust.” That song used to be online. But I pulled it when I kind of got my branding figured out and whatnot. But it was fun to get to release the first song that I ever wrote just for posterity’s sake, I guess.

DY: Well if you recorded it, you must have reflected on it at least a little bit fondly. How do you think about that first song or those first attempts at songwriting?

Photo: Brooke Stevens Photography

BR: It’s a good song. It’s not my best song by any means. But it’s a good song. To me, it was kind of cool just that the first time that I ever sat down and wrote was good enough to feel like I could record it at some point in my life. I recorded it in 2018 or something and I hadn’t played or sang in a long time. I was in a situation where I had stepped back from music and didn’t really feel like it was something that I could pursue.

And then I just kind of woke up one day and I was approaching 30 and I felt like, you know, this is something that I’ve wanted for forever. And I’m 30 now but once you start getting into your upper 20s, start approaching 30, you start realizing like, “if I want to do things, I need to get on it.” And I always wanted to do it so I was like, “You know what, I’m going to get back into the guitar and I’m gonna start writing again. I’m just gonna go for it.” That was when I recorded that song. Because I hated not having something to point people to if they heard me play in a bar or something, so I just recorded it. I didn’t have a producer or anything. I had no idea what I was doing. I never heard any of my songs played with a full band. At that point, anything sounds cool. But about six months after I released it, I had a better grip on my style and what I wanted to sound like.

DY: So how would you describe your current style?

BR: It’s been described as unpretentious country music, which I thought was a really beautiful way of putting it. I think what’s more important to me, even aside from the sound, is the words. Like I really, I really try to make sure that the words that I put out into the world are meaningful, and are hopefully going to be helpful for somebody.

DY: About the unpretentious country music thing, I think that that’s a really apt description because one of the things that I really love about country music and that I think a lot of people really love about country music is its ability to sort of play with the same characters over and over. Like a lot of songs contain these few archetypes and do something different with them every time. That was something I was thinking about when I was listening to your song “Small Town Beauty Queen.” Do you have any reflections on taking that character that shows up in so many different songs, especially by female country music singers, and making her your own?

BR: Yeah, I think so. One time Sean McConnell, who’s a very talented singer-songwriter and one of my idols, posted on his Instagram, and somebody was like, “What’s your best advice for songwriters?” And he said, “Don’t try to sound cool. Just try to be honest.” And that really resonated with me. And so I think that a lot of country music songwriters, we’re writing for ourselves. And you know, at the end of the day, people really are similar. I mean, when it really comes down to it, everybody’s so similar in their feelings and what hurts them and what brings them joy. And you know, “Small Town Beauty Queen” in particular, I pulled from very different parts of my life and I tried to write something unique. It’s a song about vanity, which isn’t necessarily something written about a lot. That song is not exactly my story or anything but I just pulled pieces of my upbringing and of high school together. Because I think we’re all just writing for ourselves, you know, and it’s about just being really honest with yourself. I think that’s why that character shows up throughout country songs. Because at the end of the day we all hurt for the same reasons and we all smile for the same reasons. I think that’s why it feels that way.

DY: It’s clear that that song is borne of really close observation. Can you talk a little about  your hometown and how your upbringing shows up in your music?

BR: I grew up very well-behaved. You know, my parents are still married, which is not something that everyone gets to experience. I’m very blessed to have parents that are together. My family’s very close and I get a lot of encouragement and support from them. My hat goes off to people who make it in this kind of career and don’t have that. I don’t know what I would do without it. I also think, growing up in a town that was smaller, I had a supportive environment. When you grow up in a small town, going to a small church where everyone knows everyone and like you get to sing in the youth band every Sunday and Wednesday and everyone’s super supportive and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’re such a good singer.” I really felt empowered by that, which I think is something kind of unique to small town life. For all of the gossip and people putting their noses in other people’s business that can happen in a small town, there’s also a lot of good.

DY: I’ve read you elsewhere saying that a lot of these songs ended up being kind of clairvoyant in nature, like they didn’t necessarily apply to you when you wrote them and then all of a sudden they did. Can you elaborate on that?

BR: Usually I write music because I have some sort of inspiration. There’s some people out there who have the talent to just literally sit down and write about anything. I am not one of those people – I write from inspiration. But then sometimes I think that I write almost unknowingly. I think that I write things that I just need for myself, things that I’m avoiding subconsciously, shutting away and not thinking about. I ended up going through divorce, and that’s not something that I ever thought I would do. I grew up in a Christian home and grew up in the Christian bubble, for better or for worse, where divorce is one of those taboo subjects. But one day somebody who I knew who had gone through a divorce told me “You know, I just decided that I think Jesus loves me more than he hates divorce.” So I ended up getting a divorce and the first time I was playing a show after I filed, I got to “Forward Address,” which was this song that I wrote because I got this idea in my head like, “What if there was somewhere you could send all the hurt away and just get rid of it?” Obviously, you can’t just send things away, you have to deal with them and do the hard work yourself. I wrote that song not really with the intention of it being such a breakup song, I guess. But, again, sometimes I think you write what you need unconsciously.

Once I was onstage and I started singing that song and the first words of it are “fresh face in a wooden frame hanging up in a new hallway.” And I had recently moved out of the house I had lived in with my ex-husband, and had literally just been hanging up frames and ordering new photos and throwing out old photos. I was like “oh my god I literally wrote this song for me. I wrote this song for future me.” It was so weird. And the beautiful thing about that song is that it’s about looking to the future, but also respecting the past. Playing the song on stage, I almost started crying. I’m getting teary right now thinking about it. It became so special because past me was just like writing the perfect thing for what my heart needed in the future, which was just a cool experience.

Listen to Bonner Rhae’s latest single, “My Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” on Spotify.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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