Karla Bonoff: A Seasoned Songwriter of Heartache & Love


Karla Bonoff may not have been in the spotlight much through her long career, but her songs have. (Photo: Erin Fiedler)

Singer songwriter Karla Bonoff is best known by music fans as the person who penned three of the hits from  Linda Ronstadt’s seminal 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind: “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “If He’s Ever Near,” and “Lose Again.” Strangely, Bonoff’s biggest hit record was one she did not write. Her version of “Personally” made it to number three on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart back in the summer of 1982.

“The weird thing about it is that people either know me from that song, or they do not know that song and know me for the material covered by Linda,” Bonoff said over the phone from her California home. “There’s something schizophrenic about the situation.”

She explained that “Personally” is what those in the music industry call a “faithless” hit. “It’s kind of like a novelty song. It’s not associated with a particular artist. While the single sold lots of copies, it was not the kind of song that sold albums. It exists on an odd island of strangeness and really didn’t do much for me or my career.” Still, Bonoff said she liked singing it and still sings it live.

Bonoff has enjoyed other success as both a singer and a songwriter. She hit the top ten in 1994 with a single from the film 8 Seconds called “Standing Right Next to Me” and in the same decade penned the  Grammy-winning duet between Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville “All My Life.” Other notable covers of Bonoff’s material include “Home” by Bonnie Raitt, “Tell Me Why” by Wynonna Judd, and “Isn’t It Always Love” by Lynn Anderson.

However, Bonoff finds performing live still gives her a thrill and goes out on mini-tours of regions of the United States or Australia to invigorate her musical chops. She’ll return to CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, March 31, accompanied by guitarist Linda Gerber. She noted that Gerber is a wonderful musician in her own right with CDs of her own and that the audience will get a treat by hearing her open the show.

“Ever since I was 13 or 14, all I ever wanted to do was write and play songs. I would rush home from school, do my homework, and just get out the guitar and breathe,” Bonoff said. Her early influences were the popular artists of the day: the Beatles, Motown, Bob Dylan, and such. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, she began hanging out at the now legendary Troubadour and heard such artists as James Taylor and Jackson Browne before they even had record deals.

Bonoff went to UCLA for one quarter, but dropped out as she already had a record deal with a band comprised of her, Wendy Waldman, Kenny Edwards, and Andrew Gold. “Being in school during the day and going to the studio or playing a show at night wasn’t working out, so I quit school. I mostly did it to please my parents. They were supportive, but of course they were worried about me.”

Now that Bonoff has been in the business for more than five decades, she sees life differently than she did back then. “You know, I have always written about love and relationships and all the stuff that entails since the beginning. I haven’t changed a whole lot in terms of subjects, but as time passes I have become more reflective. What does a young person really know about life? As parents die, friends pass on and move away, and you start thinking about what it means to be on the planet in a deeper way, you approach songwriting and performing differently.”

That said, Bonoff considers her first solo album, her eponymous 1977 release, her greatest musical achievement. “There was something fantastic in the air during its creation, and while it was a long haul getting to that place and time, things just fell together in the right way.”

Bonoff employed some of Los Angeles’ best-known session musicians, such as guitarist Waddy Wachtel and the rhythm section of Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel, as well as having guest appearances by Ronstadt, Eagles’ Don Henley, and J.D. Souther, to make what is now considered a classic Southern California record.

“I’m still writing songs,” Bonoff said, “And I always hope my next one will be my best, but I am glad to have the memories that I have made. They comfort me when I am feeling low.” She knows that when people come out to hear her, they want to hear the old songs that they enjoyed when they were young, or that they heard on their mom and dad’s records when they were playing around. That doesn’t bother her.
“Good music is timeless,” Bonoff explained. When she was a teenager she listened to the music of her generation on the radio, and only later discovered the music of the past. “I realized I had missed so much by not hearing that music that came before me—or even music older than that. There are so many great songs waiting to be discovered,” she said.

“And there are still so many fine tunes being performed by members of my generation,” Bonoff continued. “If I could be any other musician from any time period, I think I know what I would chose. I would like to be James Taylor as a guitar player.Not to knock his many other talents, but Taylor’s guitar playing blew me away when I first heard him as a teenager at the Troubador and still blows me away today. That stuff is the real deal.”