With a folksinger’s head and a rocker’s heart, Beth Bombara has built her career on an evolving sound that blurs the lines between genres. To those who make their living onstage, she’s a musician’s musician — a road warrior who writes her own exemplary material, plays multiple instruments, and fronts her own band, often a duo with her husband. With 2017’s Map & No Direction, Bombara’s songs take aim at a larger audience with melodic hooks that showcase a love not only for roots-rock, but the irresistible punch of classic pop, too.
“We’ve played in 22 states, and driven through every one except South Dakota, Florida, Vermont, and Maine,” Beth notes. The hard work paid off, with American Songwriter, Pop Matters, St. Louis Magazine, The Bluegrass Situation and WBEZ all devoting coverage to Beth’s music. During months on the road after her 2015 release, though, Beth found herself battling a deep depression that shook her confidence and crushed her creativity. Unable to write a song and barely able to get out of bed, she spent some time as a side-woman once again, this time hopping on a tour bus to play bass on a national dance/pop tour. Taking the spotlight off of herself followed by a period of rest in her hometown of St. Louis restarted her engines.
So naturally, she left town once again, this time heading to the Pacific Northwest with her partner, co-writer, and musical right-hand man Kit Hamon. For her, travel often provides inspiration (witness her song “Mountain Sun”) and there, during a residency in Portland, OR, the two tested out some new, collaboratively-written material, a high water mark for her songwriting. Before heading back east, they recorded those tunes at Portland studio A/D Agency with producer/engineer Karl Kling.
The songs sounded different this time around, layered with Kit’s lush string arrangements, polished to a light shine by Karl, and influenced by more than a half-century’s worth of British pop classics and rock home runs. The result is Map & No Direction, an album that casts the widest net of Beth’s career, from the George Harrison-worthy guitar riffs of the kickoff track, “I Tried (You’re Too Late),” to the sad, sparse beauty of the piano ballad “What We’re Giving.” It’s the sound of Beth rediscovering her own abilities as a songwriter — and expanding them, too.
Seeds of that sound were planted in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a teenaged Beth landed her first gig as the frontwoman of a touring punk band. From there, she branched out, traveling the country as a side-woman for critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter and Ramseur Records artist Samantha Crain. “Playing with Sam was my introduction to touring on a national scale,” remembers Bombara, who juggled multiple roles as Crain’s lead guitarist, percussionist, and backup singer.
Along the way, she learned how to work a crowd and communicate onstage. The biggest lesson, though, was the realization that Beth wanted to write and perform her own songs, not just participate in someone else’s lineup. After moving to St. Louis, she launched a solo career, kicking things off with a batch of songs that owed less to the fury of her punk beginnings and more to the finesse of Gillian Welch, Tom Petty, and Aimee Mann.
More songs followed, along with a string of solo albums that shone a light not only on Bombara’s voice, but her collaboration with Kit. “Sonically, he’s the backbone of my rhythm section, and we’ve started co-writing more and more. Our personalities and the ways we approach music are very different, and working through those differences has led to some great collaborations,” says Beth. Meanwhile, her adopted hometown of St. Louis took notice of her sound, with publications like The Riverfront Times naming Beth the city’s best Americana artist for several years running.
“There is a really raw artistic energy in St. Louis right now,” Beth says of her adopted hometown, “and a lot of creative people collaborating on projects across different mediums. There’s also a certain freedom to be able to try things because of a lower cost of living — a freedom to focus more time on creation rather than just getting by.” Even so, Bombara has always kept a broader focus that reaches beyond St. Louis’ city limits, behind releases like Wish I Were You, Raise Your Flag and 2015’s self-titled Beth Bombara, and of course, behind her omnipresent desire to pack up the van, grab a map, and head north, east, south, or west.