Emily Bonn never comes out and says it, but the longer we talk with the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the San Francisco-based The Vivants, the more we get the sense that she'd be up for time-traveling if the opportunity ever presents itself.
"I have a fantasy about living in another time," she laughs. "I think if you are interested in music that was made before 1970, it's hard not to imagine what that must have been like as far as the bands and the dancing and everything."
Given this fascination with music from a bygone era, it makes sense that her band's style of music is steeped in old-time swing and honky tonk, a fact which is on full display on The Vivants' most recent album, last year's Western Addition. The country-swing track "All in All," for example, sounds like a classic vaudevillian number from the early 20th century, and "Simple Thing" is a subtly groovy piece of jazz and ragtime. Toss in some raw percussion on old-time numbers like "Long Hot Summer Day" and the piano-led finale "Touzel Twofer" — which sounds like it was tailor-made for a saloon scene in a classic Western film — and you will easily be transported to another time and place. But the band doesn't simply sound like they're from another time — their live performances further the effect.
"We love to pull out all the stops and wear vintage clothes on stage and really evoke that period," Bonn says. But that's not all.
"[Fiddler] Jody Richardson is an amazing tap dancer, so she brings an element of showmanship to the concerts," Bonn adds. "She's a showstopper, so our live shows are really entertaining when she gets up there and starts busting out her tap dancing skills."
So given the band's flair for dressing and playing the part, it should come as no surprise that the music follows suit. "All in All" makes reference to the Bay Area's famed gold rushers of 1849, and the album's title comes from a neighborhood in San Francisco that Bonn lives in. An ethnically diverse 'hood nestled in central San Fran, Western Addition has a storied musical history that Bonn cannot help but be influenced by.
"It's right next to the Fillmore, and at one time [the Western Addition] was called the Harlem of the West," she explains. "There were a lot of great jazz, blues, R&B, and swing musicians who used to come through here. So we decided to call the album Western Addition, primarily because the songs were written by me here in the Western Addition, and it felt like a good match."
But if there is one song on the album that completely encapsulates the band's interest in the not-so-recent past, it is "Happy Sally." The Western swing number is stylistically vintage, and the lyrics were inspired by true events from over a century ago. But for this one, Bonn had to do something different with the writing. A number of tracks on the album have an autobiographical slant to them, but she says "Happy Sally" needed a new angle.
"I gave myself a task wherein I would say, 'OK, I want to write a rockabilly song,' and I put myself in the position of being a female moonshiner," she says. "I found this big article from The New York Times from like 1908, and it was about this woman who was arrested in Tennessee because she had a still and the whole thing, and I was like 'Wow, that's fascinating.' So I wrote 'Happy Sally.'
She adds, "It was really fun."
But it's not enough for Bonn that she makes music, so she's made it her day job, too.
"Music is part of my daily life because I teach music to preschoolers and infants, and I just love sharing music with people of all ages," says Bonn. "I found with this band and the music we play, that it's a great way to connect to people. The music just balances me in a way that I can't find in any other avenue of my life. It's a magical thing."