Two years ago Karla Bonoff toured the U.S. as the opening act for Jackson Browne. It was a fabulous break for an unknown—but frustrating too. Audiences would nod knowingly when she sang such heart-wrenching tunes as Someone to Lay Down Beside Me, Lose Again and If He’s Ever Near, but Bonoff’s problem “was that people thought I was just some girl who learned those songs off Linda Ronstadt’s Hasten Down the Wind album. I had to explain to them that I wrote those songs. They would ask me later,” she adds, “why I gave my best songs to Linda—they just didn’t realize that I was a starving writer, and it was like a dream to have her record them.”
So much for ancient history. Bonoff sold 400,000 copies of her own first LP (Ronstadt loyally sang backup), and now her second, Restless Nights, has been on the charts for five months. Meanwhile Karla, 28, and her own five-man backup band have been drawing well on the road (without Jackson Browne) since August, and her just-released single, Baby Don’t Go, is expected to be her first chart buster.
But success has proved dangerous in the past. Though universally praised, that first album threw Karla into songwriter’s block. “You can get intimidated by your own work. I wasn’t sure I could live up to it,” Bonoff says of the yearlong struggle to finish Restless Nights. She finds her mostly autobiographical lyrics “the best therapy” for occasional insecurities, but resents criticism that her songs of faithlessness and unrequited love are too maudlin. “People ask me if I’m embarrassed by revealing so much, but it’s not satisfying unless you go all the way with it. Besides, when I’m in a good mood I usually don’t feel like writing.”
Her achingly personal Restless Nights certainly proves that point. As she began recording sessions, she ended her liaison with her mentor and producer, rock bassist Kenny Edwards, 33. “Three days after we broke up, we were back in the studio recutting tracks,” says Bonoff. “There were some rough times, but the music was important enough for us to work through the other things.”
She and Edwards had been together nine years. Karla had come from affluent Westwood, the daughter of a radiologist and a schoolmarm. Early piano lessons didn’t take (though she now plays keyboards and guitar), but by 15 Karla and older sister Lisa “were ’60s hippie girls playing acoustic guitars” at the Troubadour’s amateur-hour Hoot Nights. Lisa dropped out after two years (she now has a Ph.D. and teaches history at Los Angeles Valley College), and Karla says, “I was scared to death, but eventually I realized I could earn my living singing and song-writing.” That feeling grew stronger after a 1968 TM lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at UCLA. “I went thinking maybe I’d meet George Harrison.” Instead, she met Edwards, formerly of Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys, who later persuaded her to help form a new band, Bryndle, with Andrew Gold and Wendy Waldman. Bryndle didn’t last, but Edwards became a sideman for Ronstadt, and Bonoff traveled with them.
Though she still sees Edwards and dates others, Karla says, “I’m committed to not focusing my attention on any one person. I’m still young and have lots of time.” The only regulars at her airy Hollywood Hills place overlooking Sunset Strip are alley cats Tex and Rhubarb. She drives a 10-year-old green BMW and spends her nontouring time recuperating at home. “I’m still lonely at times,” says Bonoff, “but the next album will definitely reflect a new period in my life.” Of course, for a master balladeer of lost love there’s always one big danger: What happens when she meets Mr. Right? Smiles Karla: “I’ll probably retire.”