ABOVE: BONZIE. PHOTO BY ELLIE PRITTS
On a sweltering June afternoon in Chicago's Buena Park neighborhood at approximately 4:03 p.m., Nina Ferraro is running just a tad late. Speedwalking into Dollop, the agreed coffee rendezvous point, she gracefully motions her way past a maze of dimly glowing Macbooks and iced soy lattes. Lowering and folding her sunglasses—the same round spectacles made fashionable by Kate Hudson in Almost Famous—Ferraro reveals worn-out eyes.
It's been a long but thrilling week for the 17-year-old Wisconsin native, who only hours before was a time zone away in California, opening for Iron & Wine. Tomorrow she will meet and record with famed producer Steve Albini, best known for his work on Nirvana's swan song In Utero, a record that, released in 1993, is three years Ferraro's senior.
"The first thing that came to mind was 'Edge of Seventeen' by Stevie Nicks," she says when the subject of age comes up. "Obviously, there are things that you have to be older to fully grasp, but I think there's something to be said for what you can understand before you get into that world."
Rift into the Secret of Things, Ferraro's debut offering under nom de guerre Bonzie, may very well be the spark that catapults the diligent songstress into the spotlight that she's worked half a decade for. Layering waves of strings, electronic hiccups, spiky guitar, and unexpected instrumental breaks upon a foundation of gentle coffeehouse folk, Rift beams with confidence. We're excited to exclusively premiere a track from the album, "Convert," below.
Periodically aligning and realigning her weathered copy of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, Ferraro answers questions with startling composure; even as conversation veers from the technical intricacies of songwriting to Armenian family reunions to ornithology—the latter, her ideal career path were music not a part of the picture.
"Maybe..." she says with a pause before erupting into laughter. "But there's no money in ornithology!"
NAME: Nina Ferraro
HOMETOWN: Racine, Wisconsin
WHAT'S IN A NAME: Bonzie is a combination of sounds and letters that doesn't associate itself with anything. I didn't want to add to the list of band names in the world that are just words. We live in an age where it's an infinite Google search, and reading things on the Internet is just words and content, forever. A black hole. Bonzie is an abstract word, an abstract idea. With Bonzie, I can be protected, like in a bubble in some way.
LIVING ROOM SESSIONS: I was six, and I had a little miniature karaoke machine. A small amp and mic. And I would just drag it around with me throughout the house. Especially if we had company over, I would just pull it out and start singing, just because it was fun. And of course [my family] is going to geek out about it! It's a little kid singing!
BONZIE BEGINS: I started writing when I was nine. And, my family is not musical; none of my friends are musical; I didn't have like a really influential aunt in a band or something. When I first started playing for my family, I would finish and then say, "Oh this is by [a made-up band name]" and they would say, "Oh, that's pretty good!" It wasn't until I was 11 or so that I started playing them and telling people that they were my own. My mom's favorite thing to say was, "Music is not a job; it's a hobby," but once my parents saw it was something I was passionate about, they caved. They were like, "She's not going to be a lawyer. That's okay."
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: I decided when I was 12 that I really wanted to perform. There was a coffee shop in my hometown that I thought would be good to perform at, and I told my mom. She said, "I'll drive you, but I'm not going to go in and help you get a show there." So she dropped me off and I walked into the coffee shop and asked for the manager. I was pretty nervous. But I really, really wanted to do it, so I mustered up the courage and said, "I would really love to perform here." and he said, "I need to hear you play." So I had my guitar, and I played a song. We became friends, and I played there every week for the next year. I learned about myself and wrote a ton of music. Since then it's just been inertia. It's just grown.
PERFORMING AT AN ARMENIAN FAMILY REUNION: I'm half-Armenian, half-German and Italian. My Armenian side is pretty large; they're mostly just loud. [laughs] When I started performing the place would be packed, the coffee shop Java Vino. The first time I played, there were a couple hundred people and they were all Armenian. Some of them were relatives, and some of them were friends of relatives. They go nuts. They love it. I would sometimes ask my family members, "Please don't come to my performance..." [laughs] It just made me so nervous to play in front of my family. Like, 200 people and they're all your family, just staring at you. Completely focused, not even blinking. One of my relatives, one time, was like, "Is this something you're really serious about or are you just going through a phase?"
...AND A WHOLE FOODS: People are just there to get their groceries, like, "Oh, there's a band playing, there's music happening!" I've actually played there twice now. It's really great. And then you get free groceries, which is a plus. They tell you your budget, and you just have to walk around and pick up some kale and stuff. It was such a weird, unique out-of-body experience, because you just feel like out of place being with your whole band and playing really loud in a grocery store. But everyone's really into it. And afterwards I signed CDs.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: It's just where everything comes from. It's reality. I'm glad that I grew up living in a place that was more rural, because you start to feel like you're not an animal. We're all animals. There's no such thing as a citizen. It's a made-up concept of what we are. There's something very humbling and physical about nature that's great. There's a really cool area of the forest preserve that runs along a bike path, and it's a really nice area. Sometimes I go there to write.
RIFT INTO THE SECRET OF THINGS: Walden is one of my favorite books ever. The album title is actually from a paragraph within the book. "Time is a stream I go fishing in... The intellect is a cleaver, it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things." I love that passage. It's about how intellect and logic can a lot of times be detrimental to understanding what you want to understand. Sometimes logic isn't useful.
ANGER MANAGEMENT: If I'm really upset, I'll read something. Usually when I'm upset it's about something I'm thinking about and it's an issue or problem that I can't solve. Books are already solved for you. Right now I'm reading a couple articles by Friedrich Nietzsche. I find that reading that kind of literature in particular can be very therapeutic.
FOR THE BIRDS: When I was 14, I helped out at a wildlife rehabilitation place in Wisconsin. It's a really hard job to do because it's hard to see those animals in that position. A lot of times it's human interference that puts them in that position. I feel like we have a responsibility to the rest of life that we influence with our presence. I've seen a number of hawks and different birds. I've seen foxes. I saw a vulture one time. I actually saw a red-tailed hawk get released back into the wild. It had an injured wing, so it was in captivity for a couple months before it could be released. I just think that we have such a responsibility to what we affect with our presence. It's just amazing to me that people can just forget about everything that we share the world with. There are a lot of different species out there and it's forever. There are thousands of species that we don't even know about.
THE FUTURE: I don't know if I'm scared or not. Now I'm scared, now that you've asked me. [laughs] I'm scared! The future is a question I don't feel like I have the power to answer. It's the question, "Are you the controller of your destiny or is it laid out for you in the stars?" I just want to keep doing music. Hopefully I'm still doing that tomorrow.
RIFT INTO THE SECRET OF THINGS IS OUT AUGUST 13. BONZIE IS CURRENTLY ON TOUR, INCLUDING FOUR SHOWS IN NEW YORK FROM AUGUST 21 to 24. FOR TOUR DATES AND MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.