Deborah Bonham Discusses Family Members and Her New Album, ‘Duchess’
‘Duchess’ is your first North American release. How did end up hooking up with Rhino Records?
It’s an amazing story. It was a guy who was managing us at the time. He was more of a friend and agent. He took my demos to Robin Hurley, who is the VP [of A&R] at Rhino and he loved it. I was playing in Malta with Robert Plant at a festival and I did the support slot, and Robin flew over to see me perform there. It was amazing to me because at  to get a deal with a major label is fantastic.
Your first album, ‘For You and the Moon,’ was made in 1985 when you were a teenager, and the second, ‘The Old Hyde,’ in 2004. In between, did you leave the music business?
My first record, I got tied up contractually. It was really nasty. It ended up really horrible. I couldn’t do anything for about 10 years and it really did screw me up. I thought, “I can either sit and cry about this or I can just go out and learn the industry.” So I started working in an office capacity doing anything, at lots of different record companies on a temporary basis. I worked in marketing, distribution, A&R. I worked all across the board and I ended up working for Warner’s legal department and I worked on some contracts.
I learned what contracts are like ,and I went back and looked at my old contracts and I fought it through the legal system and won and got out of it, so I was able to record again. Then, I started again, but unfortunately because I had started pretty young, without a shadow of doubt, the industry is very ageist. It’s not easy when 10, 15 years later, you’re told, “Well, you’re a bit old now.” Now, age doesn’t actually matter to me at all because it’s all about the music. I’m not trying to be out there as a some young sex god [laughs].
Were you writing all that time as well?
Yeah. That’s where I got really the inspiration to do stuff for ‘The Old Hyde’ album, which hasn’t really been released. I think that we’re going to do that next.
You wrote a song called ‘The Old Hyde’ for that last album. Wasn’t that where you grew up, your family’s Old Hyde estate?
Yes, and it’s a song that I wrote about people I’ve loved and lost. I’m trying to be hopeful about the future and that we hopefully see our loved ones again. I believe that. It’s a very poignant song. I’d already lost John and I then I found my dad dead, which was pretty horrific, and then I lost my second brother Michael. So there was a lot of trauma in my life, which ['Duchess'] has seen me coming out of. It’s seen me coming from a position of strength. You just have to get through your trauma. There’s not much choice.
You have a powerful bluesy-rock voice. Has it been a problem for you that people might hear your last name and that’s why they are interested in speaking to you and seeing you live, but then they discover you can sing?
No. People have said to me before, “Why didn’t you change your name?” Why should I? I’m extremely proud of my brother and I’m one of the biggest Led Zeppelin fans. I love their music. It was a massive influence on me. I just thought it was down to me to make sure I could live up to that name. And I think that’s what I’ve done my best to do, by paying my dues, really, playing up and down the country, honing my live show, getting myself to a point where I’m quite happy in my own skin, to say, “Yeah, John is my brother, and, yeah, I’m absolutely so proud of what he achieved.” If I could achieve a smidgen of that, I’d be absolutely over the moon, and, at the same time, I do sing.
What did you tell your co-producer, Glenn Skinner, that you wanted to do for ‘Duchess’?
I’ve got very strong views myself and I didn’t really want someone walking in, taking over and not being able to have a say in the matter, which pretty much happened to me with the first record I did when I was young. So I wanted it to be a collaboration, and I wanted to have that English rock sound to it — sort of ’70s sound, but with a little bit of today’s sound on it. It was important to me that the person I was going to work with loved the type of music and the bands that I did it — Free, Little Feat, Steely Dan, all that stuff. I just wanted to know that someone understood where I was coming from and Glen did. I didn’t want it all compressed.
You put on ‘Led Zeppelin I’ and it still sounds as great today as it did back then, and I wanted that breath on it. I’ve got Jerry Shirley from Humble Pie on drums, and his drum sound was very important to me. It was a nice live sound, and Glen engineered it as well.
Musicians that the most people consider legends, you’ve grown up with or are related to. You mentioned you opened for Robert Plant in Malta, but demoed at his house when you were 17.
I did, but it sort of ended there. Even opening up for him in Malta, I got the gig independently. I’ve never used that angle, just because I owe the respect to my brother to be good enough to do it myself. But it was great opening up for Robert, but he just looked so shocked. I’ve got a DVD of it, and he watched me from the side of the stage, and he was so supportive. He was like, “I didn’t even get you the gig” And I said, “I know, but that’s what’s so great that I did get it myself.”
Your mother, Joan, is in that band the Zimmers, featuring all old age pensioners.
Yeah, she’s 83, which goes to prove you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll. She got up with us at a show that we did, and sang [Zeppelin's] ‘Rock and Roll’ of all things. So funny. The crowd went absolutely mental. They really did start screaming for her, bless her. She’s 83 and my mom still thinks she’s 18. She has a heart as big as a lion. She just loves life. She’s had a lot of tragedy. I think to lose both your sons in a lifetime is pretty horrific. She’s an inspiration to me because she gets back on with life, no matter what has been thrown at her, and, for me, it’s my mantra. No matter how bad it gets, you gotta keep going because it will get better and it did.
‘Hold On,’ a ballad on ‘Duchess,’ is about that.
‘Hold On’ is very much about my life. I went through a particularly very bad time, probably did everything I shouldn’t do, which is drink too much because I thought that was the only way you could kill the pain, and you realize that that’s not the way forward. You need to more forward in your life, and ‘Hold On’ is about opening your eyes and seeing that it’s not that bad. It was a good turning point for me, and I got the stunning Paul Rodgers [of Bad Company and Free fame] to sing with me.
You also got your nephew, John’s son, Jason Bonham, to play drums on it. Why such a light and laid back song?
Because it had Paul singing it and the connection was that Jason played for Paul years ago and did the Muddy Waters album with Paul, and just because the lyrics really affect the pair of us. It’s really what’s happened to us both in our lives. The other tracks would be perfect for Jason — just thrashing them out in the great way he plays, but there’s a lot more to Jason’s drumming. He’s an incredible subtle player that can just do something like that ballad, as well as ‘Kashmir.’ He’s got an incredible skill. It’s just the timing on that track is just fantastic, and although it seems really simple, the fact that he can hold that beat and hold that swagger and sexiness into it. So it just seemed right to me. It would have been too obvious to do another.
Are there any other Bonham nieces, nephews, aunts in music?
There’s my niece, Zoe. She’s off doing her music. She sings and writes her own songs and plays some guitar.
So no dentists, doctors, lawyers?
No. Zoe is on this album as well. She sang backing vocals on ‘Waiting So Long,’ which is song about my family, so it seemed the right song for her to sing with me. The only one we didn’t get on was my mom and I really had to draw a line at that. “You’ve got your own career. You just clear off with your Zimmers.”