Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, which includes Lisa Bodnar’s home city of Allentown, has certainly seen some trying times. Famously, the region has long faced the economic downturn brought on by the decline of its industries. But somehow the area’s managed to triumphantly emerge from the darkness—stronger and more resilient than before. Lisa, who’s endured some trying times of her own, has inherited some of that defiantly optimistic, won’t-be-beaten-down Lehigh Valley grit, weaving it into the moving, beautifully crafted songs that make up 40 Years in the Desert, her long-awaited third album.
“I’ve definitely been in a dark place at times,” says the singer-songwriter, who’s not only made it through the ups and downs of life and relationships and the unrelenting workaday grind most of us face, but also through a series of merciless floods that destroyed her home. “Somehow, I stayed positive. And I got some good songs out of it.”
Great songs, actually. The songs on 40 Years in the Desert—the album’s title inspired by a transformative trip to Joshua Tree National Park in California—are some of Lisa’s best. “Feeding Time,” a haunting, mid-tempo burner, was inspired by her dealings with the predatory sharks so common in the music and business worlds: “I don’t wanna be around / When it’s feeding time,” she sings with unwavering resolve. The twangy, country-pop ballad “Best That I Can” finds the songstress reflecting on “the one that got away” and is rich with imagery that’s both tactile and poetic: “Dog-eared pages in the Book of Job / I’m cleansing my conscience in a hotel robe.” But the album’s not all Brechtian bittersweetness: “I Love You Friend” is an upbeat, mariachi-flavored gem that captures the nervous warmth felt when friendship becomes something more.
“‘I Love You Friend’ came to me in a dream,” recalls Lisa. “When I woke up, I sang it into my phone so I wouldn’t forget it. It’s kind of a barroom tune, about looking across the floor at someone you’ve known and realizing you’re in love with them. And that you have to tell them, even though you’re not sure if it’ll work out.”
Born to violin-playing parents who met in their high school orchestra, Lisa began her lifelong love of music via her mother’s record collection. “The Eagles and all that other California music,” she says. “That’s what did it for me. A lot of soundtrack music, too.” Although she started on piano at age five, she was “always writing songs, as far back as I can remember. I just start playing…a melody will come to me, then maybe some lyrics. Or I’ll sort of carry around a melody in my head for a while and write lyrics to it. It’s really a perfect storm, when it all comes together like that.”
The perfect storm of Lisa’s musical career came together in the late 1990s and early 2000s locally and in Philadelphia, where she was a featured artist on WXPN. Her debut, Maybe I Did, was released in 2003 to instant acclaim and even charted on college and triple-A radio (the disc was reissued with bonus tracks in 2005). In the mid-2000s, Lisa relocated to the New York area, where she recorded 2007’s glossier Come Hell or High Water. The sophomore set fared even better, garnering four Grammy nominations (Best New Artist; Best Pop Vocal Album; Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical; and Producer of the Year) and winning praise in the music and mainstream press.
“Bodnar sings with an undefeated strength of spirit in a voice that soars with hope and passion,” writes Dave Howell of The Morning Call, while Adam Harrington of Whisperinandhollerin.com says, “With such delicious singing Lisa Bodnar could be singing about a natural disaster, and we’d still be swooning at her feet.”
And now, after 12 years of steady gigging that’s included slots with Vapors of Morphine and other top acts, Lisa has reemerged with 40 Years in the Desert, a sparser, rawer affair than either of its predecessors.
“This one’s much more me,” says Lisa, who performs live with her electrifying band, Whistlegrass. “And for me, it’s all about the songs. I’ve always liked songs that really evoke a feeling, even if they make you cry. But mostly I want my songs to make people feel good, like they’ve been elevated. I want to take them away.”
And away we go. Wherever it is that Lisa Bodnar’s music takes them, listeners will love the ride.