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Q&A with Singer/Songwriter/Multi-Instrumentalist Rob Bonfiglio
Rob Bonfiglio may not be a household name, but he deserves to be.
The Berklee College of Music graduate is a multi-faceted quadruple threat: a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer.
Rob first came to national prominence in the mid ’90s as the guitarist and co-founder of power pop band Wanderlust, which released an album titled Prize in 1995 on RCA Records.
As a solo artist, Rob’s acclaimed work to date includes four albums to his credit in addition to his role as musical director for Wilson Phillips, a pop/rock band featuring Carnie and Wendy Wilson (the daughters of Beach Boy Brian Wilson), and Chynna Phillips (daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas). Notwithstanding his contributions to TV and film, Rob’s side work includes playing in a jazz combo and also a Badfinger tribute band, Straight Up — as Rob truly does it all.
And while Rob’s chops as an exceptional guitar player impress, it’s his outstanding work as singer/songwriter/producer on his four brilliant solo albums that mark his extraordinary gift as a formidable artist that merits your attention. Join us for a conversation with Rob Bonfiglio, a name that, with any luck, will be resonating soon on the charts.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you first realize music would be your life’s work?
Rob Bonfiglio: Probably [at] the moment I realized it could be a life choice. Then again I don’t think it ever was a conscious choice. It was more a matter of allowing myself to say, “This is who I am, this is what I do, please allow me the perseverance to be the best I can be.”
Tell us about how your Philly band Wanderlust came to sign with RCA Records and scored a radio hit with “I Walked,” which prominently featured your vocal hook in the infectious chorus.
Rob Bonfiglio: Whatever magical ingredient results in the making of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts, we found it. We were a band for less than 18 months before signing a major record deal. We played everywhere and anywhere we could in the Philadelphia/New York City area.
The combination of hard work, talent, luck, good timing, confidence, strong local radio support and a very devoted fan base which pushed us quickly in a successful direction. This was the mid-nineties and the momentum in the record business was still high from the whole “alt-rock” explosion of bands. We fell into the rock/power-pop niche quite nicely, our influences being The Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, The Who, and all the great classic rock bands of the previous decades.
First and foremost however, we appreciated good songs and showmanship, and were always wary of style over substance.
While in that band, you had an incredible opportunity to open for one of the greatest groups in rock history, The Who.
Rob Bonfiglio: That opportunity sort of fell out of the sky. We were booked by Premier Talent who also happened to represent the U.K. band Ocean Colour Scene, who were booked as The Who’s opening act for the 1996 Quadrophenia tour. As it happened, Ocean Colour Scene had a problem with a visa or something and couldn’t make it into the States for a portion of the tour, which is when we got the call. We were ecstatic and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our five years together.
We got to meet and hang for a bit with Roger, Pete and John, as well as Zak Starkey, Billy Idol, and Simon Townshend. A dream come true.
Upon Wanderlust’s demise, you embarked on a solo career. Take us through your solo albums and chart their evolution in style and approach.
Rob Bonfiglio: I left that band with an injured self-confidence. It didn’t turn out to be the safest harbor for my own creative growth and it took me some time to regain my artistic footing again. I always had an idea as to what I wanted to sound like as a solo artist, and I got to express a lot of the ideas I had ruminating in my head while I was with Wanderlust, ideas that I couldn’t fully present as a member of that band.
It was incredibly freeing to answer to no one and to record anything and everything that I wanted, when I wanted. I learned to be a one-man-band through the experiences of having made albums with Wanderlust and others, and also the inspiration of artists like Todd Rundgren and Paul McCartney who were renowned for their frequent DIY approach.
Shine (recorded as The Skies of America) was a representation of those first years after the breakup of Wanderlust. A lot of those songs were recorded at home on my trusty old VS880.
I eventually took those demos up to Weed, CA, and made the full album with the production assistance of Sylvia Massy, replacing some programmed drums with real drums and processing everything through some amazing pieces of gear, vintage Fairchild and LA2A compressors and a beautiful Neve 8038 console.
Bring on the Happy was the first record I released under my own name and it was done entirely at home. Each subsequent album since then has been done in the same manner and really reflects my state of being at the time it was made. It’s hard to objectively self-evaluate my own artistic growth, but I feel I’ve been able to let loose and explore themes a bit more without so much of the ever-present critical voice in my head telling me what is right or what is wrong. I feel more confident in my lyrical output.
I’ve always been a bit perfectionistic and that hasn’t really helped as far as being prolific. I may spend months on a verse until it feels natural and really resonates.
One of your many strengths is as a vocal arranger. Who were the artists you gleaned primary inspiration from?
Rob Bonfiglio: I grew up with the sounds of Philly soul and classic rock: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, etc. The sounds of The Fifth Dimension and Burt Bacharach are in my DNA. I’m a huge fan of large jazz ensemble writing too, particularly that of Gil Evans, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Maria Schneider, Nelson Riddle, The Singers Unlimited, and especially Claus Ogerman. Hearing the way layers of sound can be manipulated to create a visceral emotional experience is really fascinating and inspiring to me.
Pick a few songs you wish you’d written.
Rob Bonfiglio: That’s easy: “Yesterday” or “I Will Always Love You,” or any other tune in the upper echelon of highest grossing songs…that way I could sit back comfortably and really approach the rewording of that question — as a writer, what songs do I aspire to?
Today’s choices: “Mercy on Broadway,” “Blackpatch” by Laura Nyro; “Love is the Answer,” “Marlene,” and “The Last Ride” by Todd Rundgren; most of the Tommy suite and all of Who’s Next; of course The Beatles and Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds era. Just about anything by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sometimes it’s only a bridge or a tag of a song.
Ask me again tomorrow!
In addition to your consummate skills as a songwriter, producer and singer, you’re also an accomplished and versatile guitar player. How did your background of being educated at Berklee School of Music in Boston shape you as a player?
Rob Bonfiglio: I started at Berklee with a vague notion of wanting to improve as much as possible as a musician and player. My ears were really opening up at the time and I was eager to absorb everything; in particular, anything jazz-related. My ambitions were far larger than my abilities and I humbled myself quickly. Most of the popular music happening at that time didn’t interest me and I submerged myself fully into jazz.
Berklee was the place to be for that. I realized very quickly that this place was serious; the degree of musicianship that some of the students brought was off-the-charts. World class. Just being there I absorbed by osmosis. Only after four years there did I begin to reemerge with a wider scope and appreciation for all good music. I started to dig what was termed as “alternative rock” or “indie” music, and at the time it really was just that. It became a bad cliché after a while, but in the late eighties/early nineties it was still fairly new and exciting.
You’re one of the rare indie artists who have made considerable headway getting your songs into major film and television shows. What have been your most noteworthy accomplishments in that realm?
Rob Bonfiglio: I’ve had a few good placements, including “Shine” in the Disney movie Bridge to Terabithia; “Get Up, Get On” in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder II; and a number of independent film placements and soundtracks. Every placement I’m fortunate enough to get is noteworthy to me. It’s an indescribable thrill to sit in the movie theater and hear your song in a film. I liken it to being a proud parent at a piano recital.
Speaking of your background at Berklee, you are also a major fan of jazz and work regularly with a jazz combo. Listening to your solo albums and slate of songs, which teem with interesting, sophisticated and complex melodies and chord progressions, how has your love of jazz impacted on your work as a songwriter in the pop idiom?
Rob Bonfiglio: Jazz, and jazz guitar in particular, is my Zen…I’ve led a duplicitous life as a jazz player forever now. I’ll be forever a student of the guitar and the art of jazz. It’s a language, plain and simple. If anything, I think any crossover is subconscious. I never rely on theory over innate substance. I judge artistic quality based on my personal emotional response which isn’t to say something technical is by default devoid of feeling to me.
Maybe the intricacies of jazz and the improvisational aspects have informed in me a certain degree of microscopic listening or something, but I’m not really sure and I’m not terribly interested in analyzing it.
You are married to Carnie Wilson and you have two wonderful daughters. You’re also musical director of Wilson Phillips; what does that role entail and what have your learned from the experience that you’ve applied to your work as a solo artist?
Rob Bonfiglio: Touring with and producing Wilson Phillips has been a great experience, and I can’t say enough about having the opportunity to work with my wife onstage and in the studio. It’s a chance for us to share our mutual love of music and entertaining. Our kids see us together, and they love it. We’ve had them out onstage and in the studio many times, and music is second nature to them.
Aside from the full band shows we do regularly with Wilson Phillips, the ladies play a number of track dates in which they sing to pre-recorded backing tracks of their songs, and I’ve had the pleasure of recording those tracks myself. It’s been a kind of extension to my work as a producer…I produced their 2012 Sony/Masterworks release, Dedicated, which entailed assembling the musicians and overseeing the song arrangements, budgets, logistics, etc. Each and every song involved varying degrees of complex vocal harmony parts and I, as producer, oversaw the arranging and recording of each part.
Speaking of Carnie, didn’t you have chance to produce a session with her father, Brian Wilson?
Rob Bonfiglio: There was a brief moment in time when Brian would come by our house and simply want to have fun in the studio without any pretense. Kind of a mini “Basement Tapes” sort of thing. I have the recordings we did, and they really evoke a sort of Love You-era Beach Boys vibe. Brian would say, “Do you have such and such a sound on this keyboard?” and I’d dial it up for him, and we’d build a track like that, add percussion and he’d sing, Carnie would sing, and I would sing, and a track would be born. Needless to say, I’d love to someday finish what we started!
Opening for The Who in a 20,000-seat arena is mind-blowing, but you also pulled off another high profile gig performing at the Hollywood Bowl, too.
Rob Bonfiglio: Yes, I performed solo acoustic accompaniment to Wilson Phillips in a tribute to Brian a few years back…I’m a huge Bee Gees fan, and Robin Gibb was on that bill as well.
Speaking of performing, share the experience of being a key member of The Tribe, whose past shows have saluted The Beach Boys and the California Sound.
Rob Bonfiglio: The Tribe is an ever-evolving collective of L.A.-based professional touring and session musicians and singers spearheaded by executive producer Kevin Wachs, a very giving individual and real Renaissance man. The goal of the group is to present theme-based, high-profile concert performances with proceeds going to various charities. We’ve successfully produced several shows over the past two years with themes such as the music of The Beach Boys; the California Saga — a journey through the California Sound of the ’60s and ’70s; a Rock & Roll Christmas show last December, and a relief concert for the victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, where many of us had the opportunity to share some of our original material. We’ll be doing our second annual holiday show in early December; the theme is Peace, Love & Understanding. It’s been a great experience being part of The Tribe. I’ve made some wonderful new friends in the process.
You’re a man who juggles a multitude of musical projects. Run us through all of your current endeavors.
Rob Bonfiglio: Aside from my work with Wilson Phillips and The Tribe, I perform solo gigs around Los Angeles quite a bit, including at the E Spot Lounge as part of Lauri Reimer’s Songwriter Showcase series. I plan to augment my setup with a full band in the next month or two. I’m currently at work writing and recording a new album, and I have been lending a hand as guest musician and producer for various other musical projects. I play several small ensemble jazz gigs every month.
I’ve been holding down the guitar duties for a number of great musicians, including John Pratt, Ken Sharp, Rosemary Butler, Jon Mullane, etc. I’ve played with the Surf City Allstars and I am involved in a Badfinger cover band called Straight Up, featuring Jeff Alan Ross, another Tribe compatriot. I’m involved in the Wild Honey Orchestra collective as well. I like to keep busy and I am always on the lookout for fulfilling musical opportunities.
Lastly, what are your main goals and ambitions for the next 5 to 10 years?
Rob Bonfiglio: My goal as a musician has always been to grow, evolve and challenge myself, to continue to write and record albums and explore new musical possibilities in whatever situation or genre they happen to be, and to do so in a way that is honest and true to myself. If I’m able to communicate the joy and beauty that music has given me, then I’ve achieved an awful lot.
Shop Rob Bonfiglio’s albums in the Rock Cellar Store (click album cover):
Bring on the Happy