Shonali Bhowmik's current tour through the Southeast is something of a homecoming trip.
Bhowmik grew up in Nashville and attended law school in Atlanta, where she fronted the regionally popular Ultrababyfat. Back then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she and her band played in Knoxville every few months. Now, since she moved to New York in 2003, appearances back down South are less and less frequent. Bhowmik splits her time between a law practice and her new band, Tigers and Monkeys, but road trips just don't figure in her life the way they did a decade ago.
"It's been awesome," she says of her first tour down this way since 2007. "It's crazy. After you play music for a while you really have a network—it's almost like family—in the music world. So every town we've been in, I've seen musicians I've known in the past.... I'm psyched about the Longbranch still being alive and willing to host bands. That's a blast from the past! I'm happy to be in an old club I've known for a while."
Part of the reason for this tour is to reintroduce Bhowmik as a solo performer. Though she's still working with Tigers and Monkeys, she has just released her first solo album, and it's been a perfect excuse to hit the road again.
"I miss rock 'n' roll tours," she says. "This is a gift to myself."
The new album, 100 Oaks Revival, is also a gift. After more than 20 years of playing music in bands—she and Ultrababyfat partner Michelle Dubois started writing songs together when they were 8—the new disc is her first solo project, and she says it has been an important step in her creative development.
"I connect so much to the rock 'n' roll band force," she says. "I wasn't ready to reveal that side of me. But I have this backlog of songs that I kept writing.
"Also, there's a part of it that had to do with being a woman. I had this attitude—‘I'm a ferocious rock 'n' roll chick and I can't let this protective shield down.' Even as a kid I was like, ‘I like blue! I don't like pink!' There was a part of me that was like, ‘I don't think anybody wants to hear me write a love song.' There was part of me that didn't want to be cliche. And I think that finally I matured enough where I could be like, ‘This is who I am and this is what I'm thinking, and who gives a shit?' I can share it."
On first listen, 100 Oaks Revival isn't a significant departure from Bhowmik's rock songs with Ultrababyfat or Tigers and Monkeys. Songs like "What's the Standstill" feature fuzzy '90s guitar and a chorus borrowed from the Shangri-Las. Only one of the disc's nine songs is truly solo—the disc features a full studio band and contributions from producer Paul Burch, whose Nashville studio was used for the sessions. But there is a cryptic intimacy to the lyrics ("You had to share your sense of sweat and smell/In order for the demons to subside," from "Shake It Rock-N-Roller") that sounds new.
"I‘ve never had stage fright," Bhowmik says. "I'm pretty fearless in a rock 'n' roll band setting, and in this lineup now I have four people who are playing with me. But it's still feels like I'm so much more naked. It's strange. It's therapeutic, but it also feels like I'm teetering on this whole other place. It's strange to me. I've said it before, but it's good for the soul. You've got to face those hurdles."
As for Ultrababyfat, the band has been on hiatus since Bhowmik moved to New York, though they did reunite for a tour and new album, No Ringo No, in 2006.
"It still seems like it was so recent," Bhowmik says of the band. "Michelle and I are very close. Our dream was to put out a record together at age 80. We talked about that when we were 13. ‘Wouldn't that be rad?' It would be so hilarious. Even if nobody else liked it, it would just be these old ladies who just rocked. So anytime anyone asks if that band still exists, I say, ‘Oh, yeah. It's going to exist until we're dead. We're just doing other things now."