Photo by Will Parson
Bonnie Wright is selfish, and she knows it. Her label, Henceforth Records, deals in experimental, improvised, electronic and contemporary classical music, from haunting guitar melodies to experimental jazz to trippy vocalists. And absolutely nothing mainstream.
“Everything on the label is quite different, but it's all selfishly music that appeals to me,” Wright confesses. “I say that it's music that I want to hear again.”
Much like the music she produces, a conversation with Wright jumps around easily in topic and time. It could be confusing, but the mother and grandmother steers her memories and thoughts well, connecting this story with that one seamlessly and with a few laughs along the way. She's instantly likeable and full of the kind of energy that pulls you in quickly, like the hook in a popular song.
For Wright, her love of music began as a teenager growing up in San Diego, listening to music on her transistor radio.
“Because of the transistor in the late '40s and early '50s, teenagers for the first time had control over their own music,” she notes, recounting both her research and personal experience. “There were car radios, and we had radios in our bedrooms instead of these great big boxy radios and Victrolas where our parents had control over the music.”
She listened to underground broadcaster Wolfman Jack out of Long Beach and discovered genres such as rhythm and blues.
“Black music was and is, in my view, the very, very best,” Wright says. “All the good music comes from that. The rhythms are different; they're better.”
She still has to finish her graduate degree in literature from UCSD, but she's already titled her thesis: “The effect of rhythm and blues on white girls in the 1950s.”
When asked why she listens to music, why she makes it her life, why she's willing to lose money over it (Henceforth doesn't pull in much revenue), she answers thoughtfully. She talks about the time she decided to go back to school to complete her bachelor's degree.
“I asked myself a question I think everyone should ask themselves every now and then: What do you do when no one is looking? When you don't have to be charming, you don't have to be interesting, you don't have to be anything. What is it?”
The way she tells it, Wright's answer is music. She never lost her teenage soul—while many grow out of the phases they went through as youngsters, she never did. Despite her age, she still goes to concerts—she loved it when her grandson recently called her about Thievery Corporation and she told him she saw them at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival three years ago. She still cusses easily, too.
“My daughter is so cute. She said, ‘Oh, mom, I'm so glad you say fuck,'” Wright laughs. “People don't realize how important self-expression is.”
Wright first started promoting music in the mid-'90s with the Spruce Street Forum. When her father passed away, she was left a large rental property. In taking over the family business, Wright created an internationally acclaimed venue unlike any other in town at the time.
“My idea was to give a forum to present things to San Diego, things they wouldn't ordinarily see or hear.”
Through Spruce Street Forum, she hosted community events, lectures and music. It's also where Wright met some of Henceforth's artists, like Carla Kihlstedt and Satoko Fujii, whose improvised jazz album Minamo is Henceforth's best-selling to date.
Spruce Street Forum also led her to Sushi Performance and Visual Art. With Sushi, Wright continued her ear-opening work after selling the forum's property in 2002. As curator of music for the avant-garde organization, which is headquartered in East Village, Wright continues to bring contemporary music artists to San Diego, including James Moore, one fourth of the group Dither. The electronic guitar quartet's self-titled, Henceforth-produced album debuts this month.
“It's really great to meet somebody who's so generally supportive of interesting, weird art and music, who's willing to put her own energy into stuff,” Moore says of Wright.
Based in New York, Dither had options.
“In New York, there's a lot of new music, experimental music going on, so there are probably more outlets in New York than anywhere else in the United States.”
Photo by Will Parson
But Moore and his bandmates ultimately chose Henceforth because of Wright.
“To get your stuff out there, to get reviewed, to get publicity is a lot of work. So having a support system, having a team to work with is really important to us,” Moore says. “And Bonnie is a great example of that—a team member who really cares about the music and is really willing to push herself and push us to do things right.”
Despite the ageism Wright experiences—the 72-year-old says there's always a halo of personal space around her whenever she goes to a show, like people are afraid to come too close to her—Moore sees it as an asset.
“It might be a novelty—this stylish older woman who supports crazy music,” Moore explains. “But, she has great taste, and she has been doing great things, and she's built all these things from the ground up. What starts as a novelty becomes this totally engaging thing for people. I think it's actually a great in for her.”
Thankfully for contemporary music aficionados, Wright has no plans to quit any time soon. With eight records currently in Henceforth's catalog, she has a few new ones in the works.
She's also planning a new Fresh Sound music series for Sushi, which will focus on reeds. It's a timely choice in light of the Museum of Making Music's exhibition on the same topic this fall. Expect everything from saxophones and clarinets to accordions and bagpipes. Until then, see if you can keep up with Wright on her blog at henceforthrecords.com.