‘Tis the season for holiday shows, and Karla Bonhoff has a fun one lined up for you.
The chanteuse has been entertaining audiences for decades. Native to Southern California, she came up in the L.A. circuit of the hippie era, where artists such as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and so many others were continuously floating in and out of one another’s orbits—inspiring their friends to write and record some of the great music of the era.
“It felt really magical…like anything was possible,” Bonoff says of the musical echoes that emanated up and down Laurel Canyon—as well as at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where everyone hung out and played. “There was a sense that we were doing something special, and it was being recognized by record companies and fans.
“We were given this opportunity to do our art. I was lucky that I was a part of that time.”
Indeed, Bonoff started hitting up the Troubadour as a teenager, absorbing as much music as she could while finding her own voice. She eschewed college and decided the life of the road musician was to be her calling. She’s had a string of successful songs, including “Personally” from 1982, which hit No. 3 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts.
Bonoff and singer/songwriter Livingston Taylor will jointly perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria Dec. 11. Together, they will tackle new and established variations on Christmas favorites, as well as toss in their original tunes. Bonoff will be trotting out some tracks from her 2019 disc “Carry Me Home” as well as tunes from 2020’s “Silent Night,” which she released in December 2020—when it was extremely difficult for families and friends to gather together.
“I think by May [of 2020], my [collaborator] Sean [McCue] and I said maybe we should record some Christmas songs—just to have something to do,” Bonoff said, adding that she likely wouldn’t have put out an album of holiday music were it not for the pandemic.
Still, thanks to Bonoff’s spirited interpretations of such favorites as “Silent Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and others, the album “Silent Night” wound up on the New York Times list of the top Christmas albums that year.
“You just never know when life takes some turn, and you get to do something completely different,” Bonoff said of her Christmas album, whose seasonal strains she will bring to the Birchmere alongside Taylor. (McCue will also back the duo up on guitar.)
Bonoff and Taylor discussed the show frequently over Zoom to iron out the setlist. They each suggested some of their individual favorite holiday tunes for their “Home for the Holidays” tour, which entails a string of East Coast dates before the duo flies back west for a run of shows leading up to Christmas itself.
Following the covid closures, Bonoff was able to return to touring last spring, even if the scene had changed from those oh-so-innocent pre-pandemic days.
“I was glad to get back on the road,” Bonoff said, adding, “It’s still weird out there. There’s still people who don’t want to come indoors. Our audience is in their 60s and maybe even older, so for some of them it’s just too risky.
“Even apart from that, we don’t want to cancel shows. If one of us tests positive, the whole thing shuts down. So we’re still really masking on planes and airports and hotels. Right up until I’m singing, I’m masking.”
Having two artists on the bill allows Bonoff some respite from having to carry an entire evening, she said. She turns 71 on Dec. 27—and, by her own admission, she can’t bounce back the same as when she was 25.
“Hotels can be gross, especially the ones sprayed [with] all this fragrance everywhere,” Bonoff said of her life on the road. “At least bringing your own pillow, you don’t have to sleep on the one that they’ve sprayed with all that crap,” she said with a laugh of those “cleaning” solutions.
In addition to having found success with her own songs, Bonoff has written many that other artists have made famous. “Home” was a hit for Bonnie Raitt, “Isn’t It Always Love” found success as interpreted by Lynn Anderson, and Wynonna Judd did well with the Bonoff-penned “Tell My Why.” But perhaps no collaboration was as fruitful as Bonoff’s with Linda Ronstadt, who included “Lose Again,” “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” and “If He’s Ever Near”—all written by Bonoff—on her 1976 album “Hasten Down the Wind.”
Despite such a successful partnership, Bonoff said she hasn’t spoken to Ronstadt in some time.
“We were never like really tight friends, we were work friends,” she said, “so I didn’t ever really talk to her on a regular basis.”
When asked what sage wisdom she might have to share with the next generation of singer-songwriters, Bonoff shrugs and says that the industry she knew coming up has essentially ceased to be. But there are advantages in the digital era.
“People now…they can make a record on their computer and [upload it] on SoundCloud,” she said. “But what are the chances that you are going to be the one who [goes to] the top?”
A glutted marketplace can also obscure quality, Bonoff believes. In her day, you had to play live, in front of an audience, not only to record but to become better as performers before anyone would even consider setting your material to acetate.
“I would still advise artists to go out and play live,” she said. “Even if it’s just an open mic night in a restaurant where they have music and you can set up in a corner.”
Asked if she still has aspirations as a musician, Bonoff said she would rather focus on gratitude for her health and the fact she is still able to play in front of fans.
“I think my goal right now is to do this as long as I can,” she said, “because I know it’s not going to go on forever.”
Meantime, she is excited to hit the Birchmere Dec. 11, after having previously assayed the stage at its former location earlier in her career. This time, she and Taylor are intent on bringing to Alexandria all of the holiday cheer.
“We just want to show up and have a good time,” Bonoff said. “Our goal is to get people out and have a kind of happy holiday time.”
Tickets for Karla Bonoff and Livingston Taylor’s “Home for the Holidays” show are available at Birchmere.com.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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