The second album from Chicago-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist BONZIE, Zone on Nine pulls off the sublime feat of feeling both intensely intimate and otherworldly in scope. “All of my songs basically start as a conversation I’m having with myself alone in my room,” says 21-year-old Nina Ferraro, who’s created under the moniker of BONZIE since age 17. “It’s how I process and interpret things that have happened to me or in life in general; it’s my way of trying to understand the world.”
Throughout Zone on Nine, Ferraro eschews the confessional singer-songwriter approach and claims her role as a fiercely honest observer and commentator who delivers her lyrics with powerful abandon. That self-possessed artistry has earned acclaim from the likes of Spin, Vogue, and Paste, as well as led to praise in the pages of the New York Times (“Delicacy and drama, surrender and anger, made a riveting combination when BONZIE performed,” wrote chief popular-music critic Jon Pareles of a SXSW performance). At the same time, Zone on Nine finds BONZIE greatly expanding her sonic palette—formed from inspirations as eclectic as Tchaikovsky, Gil Scott-Heron, Judee Sill, and the score to Disney’s Mulan—and creating a more intricately composed take on surrealist pop.
In carving out that sound, Ferraro traveled to L.A. and England to record, discovering that each surrounding lent a strange new dimension to Zone on Nine. “Being in those different environments let me take my music to places it’d never been before,” she says. “It helped bring different colors and contrast to the record, which is so important to me. I love the contrast between chaos and stillness, and how those two things can exist in the same place.”
Kaleidoscopic in texture and spiked with startling intensity, Zone on Nine opens with the jagged guitar riffs and measured fury of “Crescent.” That intensity sustains for the dusky urgency of songs like “Combback,” and for the synth-laced title track’s anthemic determination (“Maybe you’re a horse head hanging on a harlot wall/You’re not gonna frame me/You’re not gonna take me down”). Featuring musical contributions from Adrian Utley of Portishead, Zone on Nine is also instilled with moments of ethereal serenity: the spectral haze of “If I Could Reach You,” the sleepy waltz of “Tiny,” the cascading piano lines and lilting strings of “Nettling.” And on its penultimate track “Mica Mori,” Zone on Nine unfolds into a seven-minute-long epic shot through with soulful vocal work, swirling guitar tones, and lyrics that attest to the easy magic of bending reality (“I make it summertime in my eyes”).
Produced by Ferraro, in collaboration with Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Conor Oberst) and Ali Chant (Perfume Genius, Youth Lagoon), Zone on Nine follows BONZIE’s recently released double singles As The Surface Rose and How Do You Find Yourself, Love? On the title track to the former, Ferraro spins a beautifully sprawling reverie from a song first composed on “this old piano I grew up with, the day before it was going off to someone else,” as she explains. “I was in this unfurnished house—the last bones of the house I grew up in—with literally only myself, this piano, and walls.” Merging orchestral flourishes with electronic experimentalism, the self-produced “As The Surface Rose” is paired with lyric-free B-side “Half Full” (a sparse and dreamlike track recorded at Wilco’s famed Chicago studio The Loft).
Meanwhile, on the companion piece How Do You Find Yourself, Love?, BONZIE trades her electronically sculpted textures for crushing drum work and heavy guitar riffs. Recorded by Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey), the abrasive yet graceful “How Do You Find Yourself, Love?” sets Ferraro’s philosophical musings to a post-rock backdrop both gloriously chaotic and stunningly lucid. That visceral power also infuses “Back to an Insurmountable wall,” the single’s hypnotically shape-shifting instrumental B-side.
Ferraro’s multidimensionality traces back to her earliest days in making music, which included teaching herself to play guitar at age 9. “I had no idea what I was doing—there was no awesome guitar-playing aunt to teach me, except in my imagination—so I just put my fingers together in a way that made sounds,” she recalls. “It felt natural to me, now it’s just a part of how I live.” Ferraro soon wrote her first song, and several years later adopted the moniker of BONZIE. “There was something about [creating under my own name] that felt egotistical to me, and music was never that sort of pursuit,” said Ferraro in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “BONZIE feels a lot better to go under, not only because it’s a pseudonym but also because it doesn’t subscribe to a language. There isn’t a conventional definition of BONZIE, and it’s more something where I can become its meaning.”
By age 12, Ferraro had begun performing regularly and quickly became a fixture in Chicago’s club circuit. Soon after releasing her debut album—whose lead single “Data Blockers” was hailed by Spin for its “narrow vocals, wordless refrains, and furious chords”—she captivated audiences with a highly lauded performance at SXSW. She’s also played with Iron and Wine, Blonde Redhead, and Neon Trees, in addition to appearing at such major festivals as Milwaukee’s Summerfest and the CMJ Music Marathon.
In tracking the path from her first time songwriting to the continent-crossing production of Zone on Nine, Ferraro notes that a certain sense of purpose has endured in her artistry. “I’m always open to taking the song wherever it wants to go—more like I’m a vessel for the song itself, rather than a person who’s actually making the song,” she says. And with Zone on Nine, in all its unbridled grandeur, each listen illuminates the unending wonder that’s sparked so much of her songwriting. “I think we’re here to experience things and express our experience, and to notice and enjoy how we each have our own different perspective,” says Ferraro. “I feel obligated to participate in life that way, on a very visceral level. To me there’s a rhythm that already exists in the world, and I want to be a part of that.”