Music Out of North Carolina: An Interview with Bonnie of Sequoya

Sequoya is a music band emerging from Durham, North Carolina, USA, the same North Carolina-Virginia music belt that has produced a steady stream of terrific American musical artists, from Dave Matthews Band to Aimee Mann. Sequoya is a duo consisting of Bonnie singing a haunting, melodic lead vocal and playing guitar, and Matthew playing bass and banjo, and adding backing vocals.

Sequoya offers intelligent, thoughtful new compositions which, if one had to categorize them — well let me say I don’t believe in categorizing music, and I’m not good at it — too hard to remember all of the categories that have been dreamt up through the years. (“Wagnerian Rock” is a good one I heard recently, in reference to Meatloaf.) But if one had to categorize Sequoya’s music, one might call it “Good music.” “Really good music.” If you need categorization beyond that, I’d say they had ties to traditional American folk music. Alternative? For sure. Goth? I don’t know what Goth is. Indie? Sure why not..

So, Sequoya is Bonnie entrancing you with a haunting, melodic voice and Matthew combining to play songs that are intelligent, thoughtful new compositions of alternative, goth, indie, traditional American Folk music. If Matthew is playing banjo, the American Folk part percentage rises. [To have a listen yourself, click here (and we suggest you leave it on while you read this interview) or watch for the videos below.]

With Sequoya preparing for a major new cd release in winter of 2008, conducted the following email interview with Bonnie, who was good-natured enough to type out long responses to our questions. We felt like we were giving her a homework assignment, which she dutifully responded to with well-thought-out, interesting answers. We give her an A+ on the interview, and present it to you here.

Bonnie and Matthew of Sequoya. (Photo by Eleni Binge)

The Interview

PBN: When and how did Sequoya start?
Bonnie: Sequoya was formed in 1999. We are a duo performing here or there but always creating. Band members are: Bonnie on guitars and vocals and Matthew on banjo, bass, and backing vocals.

How did you come up with the name Sequoya?
When deliberating on a name we put together a few ideas and thought about it for a while. We chose Sequoya because it has many meanings. One for the tree which grows strong and tall, the other for the Cherokee who’s story speaks a broader lesson. Sequoyah created a written language from the ground up and is worth looking into.. We wanted to pick a name that had meaning, distanced by time, yet relevant today — Sequoya fit the bill.

The Recording Process

You are working on a new album right now. It seems so far to have a theme based around space. What is the background behind that?
We’ve recorded 5 albums so far and have released two in very limited pressings; 50 for our first, “Like Water”, and 30 for our second, “Villain Victim”. Both records were very DIY and given out to friends and sold at gigs.

This new record has been 4 years in the making and in the beginning my songwriting revolved around the topic of space. I’ve always been interested in astronauts and the overall vastness of space, so I found it leaking into my songs. Not every song on this new record is about outer space but each one is attributed to space in its many metaphors and meanings.

How is the album being made? Have you signed with a label?
We are lucky to live in a day and age where recording at home is a very viable opportunity. Home recording is where I got into song writing and music and I enjoy every aspect of it.

We have not signed to a label and plan to distribute our music independently. Joining a record label isn’t out of the question. There is another great example of the time we live in. There are so many great small labels supporting musicians like us.


Sequoya in February 2007 (Photo by Tommy Terrell)

Could you describe the recording process?
Sometimes we will play the song together and then add a little extra and other times we’ll build a song from the ground up recording each part separately. We’re halfway through recording and choose a different way to track each song. The songs we have left are mostly banjo and guitar, which is a new medium for us to work with.

We are always experimenting with different things and I was delighted to do an internet collaboration with KidAmp on our song “Rocket”. She really added a wonderful dynamic to this song and I look forward to working with her again.

What’s an Internet Collaboration like? What tools do you use? Do you use some sort of Collaboration software like WebEx or NetMeeting ?
We were working on a collaboration with our friends the ILLBOTZ, who live in Virginia. They e-mailed me the song, I recorded some backups and sent it back to them so they could listen to it. We were planning on recording it in the studio whenever we were in Virginia again, but they loved the version I sent them and ended up using it on their record “Illbotz 2: Electric Boogaloo”.

Sequoya at Duo Fest. (Photo by Eleni Binge)

After hearing how well that turned out I asked Alisha if she would like to do this with our song “Rocket”. I sent her the song in an e-mail, she listened to it, tracked her part, and then sent it back to me. I used Cubase to mix it and I was thrilled with the outcome. Never in my life would I have thought I could record a song with someone who lives a thousand miles away. It’s the best recording I have and Alisha was a crucial part of it.


In composing the songs, do you write as a team or alone?
We usually write alone and then play them for each other during the writing process. We offer each other suggestions on the lyrics or music. Sometimes Matthew will help me with a lyric I’m having trouble with or he’ll play a riff that inspires me to write a whole song around. I sing songs Matthew wrote entirely like “Weary” and I help him out with his solo material by singing and playing on them. I think that’s why we are a good team; we support each other’s creativity and have our own musical identity.

What comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?
I usually write them both at the same time. When writing a song I will choose a subject that I want to talk about and build a story line around it. If I have some music first, I will go through my books and choose words that I’ve written previously to inspire me.

I’ve read about other artists who, when they’re writing new songs, basically don’t listen to other music. When you are writing music, do you listen to other music, or do you shut it all down.
I don’t stop listening to music while writing. I am inspired by other artists and hearing their songs urges me to create. I like to listen to music while I’m recording because I can learn a lot from different techniques and recording situations that I hear in a song.

Where’s your favorite place to write new music?
On my couch or during our practices. I used to write better in the mornings but that has changed. I never know when the creative moment will hit, I just hope I remember it again later.

Matthew on bass guitar; Bonnie on guitar and vocals — Sequoya at the Cave in 2006 (Photo by Charles Latham)

Playing Guitar

How long have you been playing guitar?
I’ve been playing guitar for 9 years. I used to walk to work early, around 5am, every morning and would take along my walkman player and listen to mix tapes. I had been writing poetry for years and on one of those walks I just decided that getting a guitar and learning how to play was what I needed to do to share it. I was 22 then and I thought it might be too late since most guitarists start early, in their teens.

Who are your musical influences?
Well the moment I decided to start playing guitar I was listening to a Joni Mitchell song “Little Green” so yes she was a big influence. I have been inspired by so many musicians it would be hard to name them all but here is a small list: Crass, Aimee Mann, Ani Difranco, Cyndi Lauper, Gillian Welch, Damon and Naomi, Ghost, Woody Guthrie, and Billy Bragg.

The biggest influences to my music are all of my creative friends that I’ve met through the years who have been making music and writing songs. Playing with them, going to gigs, and talking with them about their musical life inspires us to keep moving forward.

At what point did you feel confident enough to start playing live? Did it come right away?
When I first started playing guitar performing live was very important. I joined a rock band called the Wyld Stallyns. None of us knew how to play our instruments at first but we planned on playing shows as soon as we were able. Our first live gig was 6 months after I began playing and I remember how dizzy and self-conscious I felt. I started going to open mic’s after that to help get over my stage fright.

At what point did you feel confident enough to start writing songs? Did it come right away?
I started writing immediately and I still play some of those songs to this day. The best thing I ever did was buy a Yamaha 4 track at a pawn shop. I started recording these songs and really learning how to write and play. The process was fun and often included practices and little sessions with my friends in my living room.

Villian Victim Insert 2004

Some artists don’t go anywhere without their favorite guitar. What guitar do you play with? Do you have a favorite guitar? Is there a guitar that you dream about owning, or are you content with what you have?
Shortly after I started playing I bought a Taylor 410 series guitar. It’s easy to play and sounds so beautiful. It’s still the guitar I use but I’m open to all brands and styles of guitar. My electric guitar is by Cort and is called “The Effector”. I love this guitar because it has wonderful tone and never goes out of tune.

I’m dreaming of owning a Tenor guitar. It has only four strings and caters to a melodious style of playing. I’ve only seen one for sale in a guitar shop and that was about 4 years ago.

I have a friend who’s an engineer, and when he goes over to his relatives’ houses, he says he’s always getting asked to fix the refrigerator, or their computer, or some other household appliance that needs fixing. When you go over to your relatives’ houses, do you get asked to sing a song?
This is a cute question and yeah that happens. A lot of times people will invite us to a party and ask us to bring our instruments. It’s fun to play with other people and hear their songs in an open environment.

The Live Gigs

You’re based in the Durham, North Carolina area. What’s your favorite place to play?
Bull City Head Quarters is our favorite place to play in Durham, but there are other great venues here as well. 305 South, Broad St. Cafe, and 307 Knox Salon. Living in a tri-city area our options aren’t limited to Durham. We’ve played at some great venues in Raleigh and Chapel Hill like The Cave, The Cat’s Cradle, and The Pour House.

As an independent group, are you booking your own gigs? How much of your time does that take?
Booking gigs is surprisingly easy. A lot of the time, a traveling musician will ask the venue to place them with a local artist similar in style, then the venue or the artist will contact us. There are some clubs that are harder to get into. If that’s the case all you need to do is put together a good CD of your songs and most importantly frequent the venue and talk to the person who does the booking.

Sequoya at the Cats Cradle 2005

What are the difficulties involved in playing live?

I would have to say sound is the toughest part of playing live. You never know what you’re going to get. There are times that you won’t hear anything on the stage and that’s completely different from what the audience is hearing. You may feel that no one can hear you so you shout your songs or play too hard to compensate and end up sounding terrible. I feel that it is best to play intuitively and utilize any feedback the audience may give you. If the crowd is really noisy, then play with your heart and realize that they are having fun and so should you. I don’t spend much time analyzing our performance after a set. Being critical of yourself ruins the fun for yourself and others.

Another difficulty with playing live is the anticipation I feel a few weeks before the gig. There’s always the chance that people won’t show up and I worry about disappointing a venue or a band we are booked with. Even if that happens I have found that things always work out in the end. Some of the most enjoyable gigs we’ve played had the fewest people in attendance.

What do you find are the joys about playing live?
Putting away our instruments and chatting with people there, or listening to the next act set to play. Interaction and witnessing live music is the best benefit. People are more inclined to talk to us after we’ve played and it’s surprising to find out how much you have in common.

I also love sharing our music with people. When you’re writing a song you rarely think about how it will come across to others. You’re more concerned on how you feel about the music or storyline. Some songs don’t translate well live and then there are songs you don’t really like that audiences groove with and will ask you to play them more often.

I’d love to hear St. James Infirmary live. What’s your favorite song(s) to play live?
There is a great example of a song I didn’t think would go over well live but it has ended up being one of our most requested songs. We always open with songs we enjoy playing because it helps us get into our performance. It also depends on what kind of mood we want to set. A few of those songs would be “Rocket”, “This Time”, “Barren the Sea”, and “Wasting”.

Matthew at Broad Street 2007 (Photo_By_Ruth_Eckels)

Do you do any covers?
Yes, we love to and used to play a lot more than we do now. Usually our set contains at least one cover which acts as a comment inspired by the nature of the gig we’re playing, or a homage to an artist we admire. A few songs we like to play are “The L&N” by Jean Ritchie, “Voices Carry” by Aimee Mann, “Jesus Christ” by Woody Guthrie, and “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley blended with “Strange Fruit” written for Billie Holiday.

Do you typically close with a particular song?
Not always — we try to vary our set lists and have a different one each time. When we choose a song to close with we usually go with something up-tempo like “Weary”, “Insofar”, or “Slaves to the Mine”. However if we’ve written a new song or want to set a more introspective mood, we’ll play those songs last.

The Videos

“Cosmonaut’s Wife” — wonderful song; wonderful video. The video has a home-made feel to it, and yet the way the pacing of the slideshow matches the tone of the music, and the subtle things that are done with color changes and zooming, makes the video come alive. Who created that video? How painstaking was that to put together?
That was the very first video I made and it was very enjoyable to create. I had been collecting photos from space for a few years, most of which were taken by the Hubble Telescope. Much of the video was me experimenting with the effects available and I learned a lot about editing while making it. Thank you so much for your kind thoughts on the video and song. I am very proud of them both.

The video to Rocket is another wonderful video. Who created the video? Who’s phonograph is that?
I wanted to see if I could make a music video. I have been watching them all my life and felt it was time to try it. We spent most of the day filming and I spent the later part editing it. There is a painting of a house in the “Rocket” video created by Matthew’s Grandfather in the 60’s and a mirror I had painted a week earlier.

The phonograph was a recent purchase from a friend of ours. We have several 78 players but this was the first wind-up and we were very excited when we got it. We have a fairly large record collection but we didn’t start collecting 78’s until we acquired several records from The Carter Family. Some were the very first records they ever recorded in Bristol Tennessee in 1927.

Sequoya at Farm Dysfunction 2003 (Photo by Kent Moore)

Do you guys have any band t-shirts yet?
No, we don’t have any merchandise yet. That’s something we’ve been researching to coincide with the release of our new record. Everything happens very slowly for us. All these years we’ve been playing music because we love it and it brings us joy. Only recently have we considered broadening our horizons and taking it to the next level. We’re still keeping the day jobs, but there is no reason why we can’t do both.

When are we going to see you in the NYC area?
We’ve never toured before and plan to start short regional tours in the next year. NYC isn’t that far away so it’s also a consideration. We’d love to see the city and meet musicians in the area.

We’d like to finish by thanking Bonnie for taking the time to type out her thoughtful answers, and can’t wait for the new album.





Bonnie & Matthew of Sequoya


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