Deborah Bonham, an English rock and blues singer, chats with Kevin Cooper about how she coped with the pandemic, her close friend Robert Plant, her latest album Bonham–Bullick, and her current 2022 tour of Europe and her UK tour in 2023.

Deborah Bonham is an English rock and blues singer and the sister of the late John Bonham, the drummer for the band Led Zeppelin.  

Born in Redditch, Worcestershire, she lived with her father in The Old Hyde Farm, Cutnall Green (the location where John Bonham’s fantasy sequence was filmed for The Song Remains The Same).  Whilst living there, she started playing and recording music with her nephew Jason Bonham (John’s son) who has played drums on her two most recent studio releases.

She recorded her first demos at Robert Plant’s house when she was seventeen years of age.  Sending the demos out anonymously she landed her first record deal in 1985 and released her debut album, For You And The Moon.    

In 1989 she met and married lead and slide guitarist Pete Bullick, who continues to be a member of her band.  In 1996 Bonham spent some time putting together a new band which saw her tour America in 1997.

In 2004 she recorded her second album, The Old Hyde, and she again toured in support of it, as she did with her third album, Duchess, released in 2008.

Whilst currently promoting her latest album, Bonham–Bullick, she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.


Hi Deborah, how are you?

Hello Kevin, I’m fine thank you, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all, thank you for wanting to speak to me and check out what we are currently up to.

I have to ask you just how is life treating you?

It’s great.  Everything is really good at the moment.  We are very, very busy playing and more importantly playing some new songs off the album, which I have to say, is absolutely brilliant as it has given us all a new lease of life (laughter).  There is a bit more excitement whenever we are on stage now, because we are playing something new so all is great at the moment; life is good.

How did you manage to keep busy during lockdown?

Do you know what, I have to be totally honest with you and say that I didn’t find it extremely hard.  As you know we have a small farm, and I was very lucky to have that plus I have my rescue animals; my horses, donkey, and dogs, and actually I just kept telling myself in my head “this is the break that you have never taken”.  So, I played my guitar occasionally, wrote a few songs, drank some nice red wine, walked the dogs, grew some vegetables, and generally I did things that I hadn’t done for a very long time.  In fact, before lockdown I had never grown vegetables, so that was a start which I really did find exciting (laughter).  I really do sound like an old fart don’t I? (laughter).

I tried to do stuff that I had never done before, and I have to say that I really did get quite into it.  I started making potions, lotions, and perfume and all sorts of stuff.  I managed to get though it although the first part of it was really tough, simply because it was a realisation that I wasn’t going to see the band, which was hard because we are like a family.  It was a tough call that one, but we did lots of face times and things like that, so we made it work.  Pete (Bullick) built a bar outside (laughter) and we just got through it.  The first part was tough; I was very busy trying to raise money for PPE and what I realised was that I hadn’t slowed down for a very long time so for the first few weeks I simply couldn’t stop.

I was running around thinking ‘what am I going to do’ and ‘I’ve got to raise money’ and I found myself getting involved with all manner of schemes.  But then it slowly started to slow down, and it made me realise actually that it was a good time to reflect and think that actually we have been going at a ridiculous pace and maybe we haven’t seen or kept in touch with people that we should have done; things like that.  It did make me reflect so I really did try to turn it around.  I actually found the time to do zooms with my brother’s kids, and Pete still has all of his family over there in Belfast, so it was particularly tough on him not seeing his folks.  But it all came good, and we all got to finally meet up.  

I have to say that having the dogs really did make a difference; in fact all of my rescue lot really did make a huge difference to my life.  They really are grounding, and they are the priority you just have to get on with life.  There is no self-pity nor is there any time for any ‘oh woe is me’ moments, there is none of that (laughter).  The dogs really are perfect for that.  It doesn’t matter whether it is raining, sunny, pandemic, war, whatever is going on, the dogs are still constant and that in my life has been massive.

Moving onto the latest album Bonham-Bullick, I have been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and I have to say that I think that it is a great piece of work.

Thank you so much.  And let me just say that it’s fantastic for me to be having the opportunity to talk to you about the album and I have to say that it is an album that is a slow burner.  It is still going to be there with me and the rest of the band pushing it which is the way of the music today or at least the way of the music that we make.  It is no longer a quick play on the playlist on Radio One and then it’s all crash and burn.  The album will just sit there and hopefully keep growing.  At least that’s the plan.

Are you happy with the reception the album has received?

Yes, I am, in fact I have to say that I was absolutely thrilled; it couldn’t have been better.  It’s the first time that we have taken a whole album of other people’s songs out on the road, plus it is the first time that I have fully produced an album, so I really did feel the weight on my shoulders.  I kept thinking, ‘oh my goodness, how is this album going to be received.’  However, having said all of that the reaction really has been phenomenal, it really has been fantastic.  I am really proud of the lads, I am proud of what we have achieved, and I really am thoroughly happy with it all.

A lot of people are already saying that it is your best work to date.  Would you agree with them?

I think so, yes, absolutely.  I think that it’s because we came at these songs as an equal band.  Whenever I write the stuff, and it’s great, I love our written work, and the live show is a mixture of all of it.  We have got a lot of the new album in there now, but there are still some favourites off the other albums, and I really do still love playing them.  But, when I have written a song, I have pretty much got an idea of just where it is going to go.  I will then give it to the band, the band will do their thing with it, we share everything so its equal song writing royalties, but it is always me that starts it and I know where it is going to go (laughter).So, the band do their thing and the song might go a little bit here and there, but it will generally end up where I thought that it was going to.

However, with the latest album, we all came in and none had any idea of just what we were going to do.  It was like, ‘okay, how are we going to make this happen because we have to do these songs differently’ because it would be silly for us just to do a straight copy of the songs because those artists have done that already, and they have done it incredibly.  Whenever you pick up a Sam Cooke song, for example, although he didn’t write Troubled Blues, that is always the song that I identify with Sam Cooke as I am a huge fan of his, then you really do have to dig deep.  We have covered the likes of Ann Peebles and Albert King, and let me tell you, you really do have to dig deep.

You can’t do what they have already done; you have got to bring yourself to it, your own passion, and your own spirit.  And that is the reason why you are recording these songs, because you love what they have done, you love the song.  So, you have to find a way and with this album, that wasn’t easy, because you naturally tend to drop into how the song was originally done and I had to say to the band, “look boys, we simply cannot do this because it has got to be us”.  We had to keep the respect together with the integrity of the song, but we had to make them ours.  So, yes, it was a massive challenge.  It really stretched us, and it stretched me further than I have ever been stretched before, and I absolutely loved that.  Having said all of that, whilst we were recording the album, I kept thinking to myself, ‘my God, what have I done’ (laughter).

I was, at one point, sitting on my own thinking ‘just how am I going to do this’ so I sent all of the lads off to the pub, with the exception of the drummer, and I just said, “let’s take it back to the drums, let’s find the grove, let’s get the drums going”.  For me, the drums are always where it starts, and I wanted to find the grove which was me.  I said, “you just play the drums, I will sing and we will find it” and that is how most of the songs on the album came together, just with the drums and a vocal.  The band would then come back from the pub, a little loosened up, and all of a sudden off we would go.  It was a real experience, most definitely.

As you know I am an old soulie and I have to say that I love what you have done to the Isaac Hayes track together with the two Ann Peebles tracks.  I think those three tracks really are fantastic.

One of the very first amazing women who I would listen to was Ann Peebles.  Many years later I got the chance to sing with her and I actually couldn’t believe it.  It was the first record that Robert Plant gave me when I was making my first little demos in his home studio in his barn, on a clunky old eight track recorder, and after we had recorded some stuff he disappeared and he came back and handed me the Ann Peebles album I Can’t Stand The Rain.  He said to me, “go away and listen to that.  Listen to how she has done it, the production, listen to all of that and you won’t go far wrong”’ (laughter).  And I did and I have to say that I was totally blown away.  I just thought, ‘yes, oh crikey, this really is it’.

Many years later, I got to meet Ann, and she came to stay at our house which I have to say was a complete fluke (laughter).  Ann had heard me sing I Can’t Stand The Rain at the Steve Marriott Memorial Concert, and Steve Marriott was a huge fan of Ann Peebles.  Ann’s keyboard player, Paul Brown, or Brother Paul as we called him is also in The Waterboys and has played with Bobby Rush, who is an amazing Blues guy, and Brother Paul is on the new album.   It has all managed to segue in; it has been a complete circle of my life certainly, starting from there and then ending up here.  It’s great that Paul is on the tracks, it was great, absolutely amazing.

You once told me that Robert (Plant) would come over to the house and play Tamla Motown and Northern Soul records.

Yes, I did, that’s right.  It was my brother John who was the big fan of Motown really.  Robert was at that time more into the Blues but he still loved it all, the stuff that John was listening to at that time.  Who doesn’t like Motown?  You can’t put Smokey Robinson on and say, “nah, I don’t like that” (laughter).  It just doesn’t happen does it (laughter).  Not so long ago we had a great night when I played The Rubberband Man by The Spinners.   That has to be one of my all-time favourites.  But I hadn’t realised that it was one of John’s all-time favourites.  I had always thought that it was me who had discovered The Spinners, but I obviously hadn’t.

It must have been in the back of my head somewhere after John and my brother Michael had been playing it.  Anyway, we were playing some other stuff and I said, “come on, let’s cheer this place up.  I am going to put on my all-time favourite record” and Ann Peebles said, “The Rubberband Man” and Robert just said, “oh my goodness, your brother” (laughter).  I asked him what he meant, and he said, “your brother and Jonesy (John Paul Jones) would always sound check to this at Led Zeppelin gigs, whatever they were playing it would always morph into The Rubberband Man” (laughter).  I really am so chuffed that it was one of John’s favourite records.

I have to say that Stephen Stills’ Sit Yourself Down really is a beautiful song, but you have managed to make it your own.

I have to say that looking back, that really was a strange choice (laughter).  I have always loved Stephen Stills, and I have always been a massive fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  I grew up listening to them and I absolutely adored them.  With Stephen Stills, firstly I thought that he was an incredible artist, and secondly, he is such an amazing song writer.  I just loved Sit Yourself Down.  We put the congas on it because I said to Marco Giovino, who played in The Band Of Joy with Robert, he is a totally different style of drummer, his rhythms are simply amazing, and we talked about this album and he came over and guested on it for me.  We also did a few live shows together.

I know that it doesn’t sound anything like it, but I kept going back to The Rubberband Man because I wanted that feeling of wanting to dance to it with a bit of a soul grove on it but also with a blues guitar.  Again, it was a tough track to bring us to it, but actually once I got the drums going again, it became easy.  Luckily, we are all into the same sort of stuff.  Marco and I both love The Brothers Johnson and I kept saying to him, “what about this kind of riff, I can hear it in my head” (laughter).  We were all on the same page, so it was good.

How many tracks did you begin with?

The ones that I was choosing I had about a hundred and twenty tracks simply because people were sending them to me (laughter).  A friend of ours who was helping us out in America, Gary Nesbitt, he was sending me lots of stuff.  Then there was Roy Williams who was Robert’s front of house sound engineer and tour manager for a while, who sadly passed away during Covid.  He sent me two CD’s full of everything.  And then Robert sent me some too.  He would ring me and say, “hey, what about this song and what about that one” (laughter).  So, the people who knew me, who knew the band and how we play, which was Gary, Roy and Robert were on the money with the songs because they knew where we were; so I just went through them.

I have now been with Pete (Bullick) for thirty-one years, and Ian (Rowley) has now been in the band for thirty years.  That really is a lot of years, and we now know each other inside out.  So, I know instantly whenever I listen to something whether we can bring something to it.  So, I was quite quick and quite good, and although I loved a hell of a lot of the songs that had been sent to me, I instantly knew which of the songs we wouldn’t be able to bring anything to.  So, I was quite ruthless in just going through them and the ones that I picked, that was it, there were thirteen songs; that was it.  I thought, ‘well, we have got thirteen, out of which we will most probably get eleven, and that will be fine’.  However, the whole thirteen songs worked so that is how the album came about.

How long did it take you to dwindle it down from well over a hundred songs to the final thirteen?

Not that long actually, because I was quite ruthless with it, because I know us.  I know at this age now, crikey, if I don’t know what we can do and what we can’t do, and the same with the band.  I know what we can do.  It wasn’t hard for me to do, I whittled them down, then I went through them again, and I thought, ‘you know what, I’m not naturally hearing us doing that one, I’m hearing us do this, I’m hearing us do that’ so all in all it didn’t take me that long.  The hard part was once I had got the songs, I thought, ’now what are we going to do with them’ (laughter).  So, I would have to say that finding the songs really wasn’t that difficult.

Putting you firmly on the spot, are there any songs that missed the cut that you now wish were on the album?

No, not at all.  If there were any songs that I didn’t feel at that moment, then if we ever do another album like this, I will go back through them and see if this time, now I have done it, I might listen again now and I might say, “you know what, I can hear that one now but I couldn’t hear it at the time”.  Now that I have had the experience of that, I would most probably have a different take on it, if I listen to them all again.  But you never know, for the next album we might do another one like this.  I think that we are considering it, but that all depends upon the record label and this, that and the other, so we will just have to wait and see where it all goes.   

You haven’t released the album on vinyl this time.  Is there any particular reason for that?

(Laughter) don’t panic, stay calm, it’s coming, it is coming.  I very much want the album to be available on vinyl, but this time we are doing things in stages.  There has been such a backlog of vinyl as well.  All hell broke loose with the rising prices, even back during Covid.  Over in America it was taking over a year for us to get vinyl pressed.  So, we took the decision back then that we would hold fire.  Pete and I have a company called Sound Discs Manufacturing Ltd and we manufacture CD’s and vinyl, so we were very aware of the situation, and let me tell you it is still difficult but it is getting easier and the lead times are getting shorter.  I certainly feel that the vinyl will be available sometime later this year.  Things are finally coming back together now.

I have to say that, in my opinion, your voice is getting better.  Would you agree with me on that?

Oh, thank you for saying that, thank you very much.  I think that it’s down to age; age and perhaps a little bit of whiskey (laughter).  Having said that, I didn’t drink any whiskey at all when I was in the studio singing, so it might be down to all of the years beforehand (laughter).

There is a warmth about your voice.

Thank you but I can’t take all of the credit for that; they really did record the album exceptionally well.  That is another part for me, getting involved with the production.  I have always been extremely critical with the way that my voice is recorded.  I don’t like all of the compression, there are lots of things that I don’t like.  I like it to breathe, with lots of air around it.  I have to have it just perfect in the headphones and that has eluded me several times.  So, I worked really hard on this album, and I said to the engineer, “I am going to be difficult, because I am producing it, and I know just how I want this to sound” and we worked really hard in getting the right sound.  Once he had got it, I said, “there it is” and he recorded it beautifully.  Once you have got that sound in your headphones, it inspires you.

If you are feeling like it is difficult to sing, then there is a problem.  It’s not coming through the mic; it’s being compressed or whatever it is, and it makes it feel like it is difficult to sing.  You don’t want that, you want to be able to just lose yourself in it, and to do that you have got to have exactly the right mix in your headphones, exactly the right sound and on the right mic.  We tried out several mic’s and, of course, we ended up with a Neumann, which really was phenomenal.  Then, when I took the album over to Tim Oliver at Real World Studios, down at Peter Gabriel’s place in Bath, for him to mix, Tim had done stuff for Robert and The Sensational Space Shifters and every time that I heard Robert’s voice, I said, “I just love the way that you are making it breathe”.

When Tim heard me, he replied, “well there is compression contrary to you thinking that there is no compression, but it is all about using the right compressor; it is about using it the right way, so that it doesn’t sound like it is there” (laughter).  So, I told Tim, “this is what I want” and gosh, he just got it immediately, which was great.  So, yes, I totally agree with you, there is most definitely a lot more warmth in there, which has always sort of been my voice, but that would have been mixed out a little bit by making it either louder or more prominent by compression or whatever.  However, this time I feel that it just sounds very natural.

Are there any thoughts regarding a new studio album of original songs?

It’s good that you have asked me that because at the moment we are contemplating putting out a live album.  The reason for that is that we have been playing these songs live now through the summer, Bleeding Muddy Water really is sublime when performed live, and it has taken on a life of its own live which is great.  I loved it on the album; the recorded version, but it really does have a life of its own whenever we perform it live.  So, we really are considering releasing a live album.  Regarding the next studio album, is it going to be an album of other peoples songs, like this album is, the simple answer is, I don’t know.  It very well could be but I have been writing as well, so I really don’t know yet.  I can’t make my mind up.  We possibly might follow this but we will see.  That will all happen sometime next year anyway.

Technically, you are still out on tour.  How has it been so far?

It really has been fantastic.  We have all got a new spring in our step, simply because we are playing the new songs.  We are so seated with the other songs, that we then tend to move them a bit in order to give ourselves a bit of excitement on stage.  However, the new songs have put us on the edge.  It has really been brilliant to have that connection with the band.  We are all very vibey on the stage at the minute because we are playing these new songs by the seat of our pants, and it’s all very cool at this age to have that excitement on stage (laughter).  The new album has been translating over to the audiences because, I have to say, that it has been going down a storm.

Will you be adding more dates to the tour next year?

Yes, we will. In fact, we have already got more dates booked in for January with another bunch to follow in April.  After that we will be playing a number of Festivals in Europe; so yes, it is all looking good at the moment.  The ultimate plan is for us to go over to America.  We were going to go over this year but with the way things have been, we made the decision to hold off because with the easing of the pandemic rules over in America, and they were an awfully long way behind the UK, every band and their mother were on tour.  So, as you can imagine, it was really difficult for us to nail down venues simply because there were so many bands that had already got holds on the venues.  So, we just said, “you know what, let’s keep the pressure off and go over next year”.  We have got a fantastic agent over there now, and they are currently looking at Festivals and shows for us over there for next year.  2023 is already lining up to be a very busy year.  

How many of the new songs have made it onto the set list?

I think that we are currently up to eight now.  So, as you can see, it’s quite a few and it grows every time.  We have just added in It Ain’t Easy; I want to add in the Patti Griffin song When It Don’t Come Easy; that being one of my personal favourites off the album.  That was something that Robert had suggested to me.  Patti is a fantastic song writer; her lyrics are just superb.  That song resonated with me instantly, because of the lyric, but she had done it in a completely different way; the way that she had written it, sang it, everything.  I took the song and put it into a ¾ time, into a more bluesy type of thing.  I found myself crying when I was halfway through singing it, because the lyrics really did resonate with me.  So, I think that it is another one which is just there, ready for us to think about putting it into the set.

I think that every song on the album has its own legs and its own merits, so much so that you could just go out there and perform the whole album.

It’s a funny thing because when you write the songs, I probably wouldn’t be as brash to say, “‘I totally agree with you”, or be as brazened to say that (laughter).  I’d be more like, “thank you so much”, a bit more laid back about that (laughter).  Because these are other people’s songs, songs that I absolutely love, and I am so thrilled and proud to sing them every night and do them our way, whilst still paying homage and tipping my hat to the great artists who wrote and recorded them.  For me, I’m never going to get tired of it, simply because these are songs that I absolutely love.

Testing your memory now, what was the first record that you bought?

All Day And All Of the Night by The Kinks.

Silly question I know but who did you first see performing live?

(Laughter).  That would have been Led Zeppelin back in 1968 at the Bath Festival.  Thinking about it, I think that Robert and John played at my sixth birthday party (laughter).  So you could say that I half saw them just before they joined Led Zeppelin (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh crikey.  That was the other night; it was John’s anniversary and we played Since I’ve Been Loving You and yes, I did have a weep.

What is currently on Deborah Bonham’s rider?

That’s easy; whatever I can get (laughter).  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good.  It’s all vegetarian sandwiches, still water, and if the venue would like to stretch to a nice bottle of red wine, and a few beers, then we are all very happy.

On that note Deborah, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me; it’s been absolutely delightful.

Thank you, Kevin; it’s lovely to have caught up with you.  I have really enjoyed our chat.  You will be on the guest list for Lowdham so please do come along as I would really love to see you again.  Bye for now.