FINDING ‘HER’ VOICE
Musical theater just one facet of versatile singer Bethany Thomas
Over the past two decades, singer-actor Bethany Thomas has built a reputation as a powerhouse performer in an impressive array of local stage musicals including “Into the Woods,” “The Color Purple,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Ragtime” and “Porgy and Bess.”
But while this career path has been the Jeff Award winner’s bread and butter, it isn’t her only love. She is a shapeshifter who can tackle just about any genre — rock, alt-country, punk, soul — and, in recent years add to that, songwriter.
“I feel like my circles kind of overlap so much between theater and rock music that I don’t realize that a lot of people who go to live theater aren’t going to some punk show afterward,” Thomas says, laughing.
To remedy that situation, Thomas has been branching out into projects that have been getting broader notice. In 2017, she released “First,” an EP of original music. That same year she was a member, along with John Szymanski and Tawny Newsome, of Jon Langford’s well-received alt-country/soul project Four Lost Souls, which included a recording session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at The NuttHouse Studio, followed by a tour.
Now, Thomas’ new self-released album, “BT/She/Her” (due Aug. 28), recorded at Chicago’s Sound Vault Studios, offers an even broader portrait of a singersongwriter who has no intention of sticking to one lane. It results in a winning reintroduction to an artist whose talent seems boundless.
The songs — from scorching rock numbers to thoughtful focused ballads — are personal and defiant and filled with surprising arrangements she co-produced with longtime collaborator Packy Lundholm.
Thomas, 38, says she got to a point in her career where she “wasn’t connecting musically with the songs she was performing,” which spurred her on to “start writing the stuff I wanted to sing, to write about the things I wanted to talk about and not tell somebody else’s story . ...
“As my theater career started moving in better ways, I felt I was getting more opportunities but still I could see where I was continuously held back at certain points. That feeling went into a lot of these songs; me looking at my own anxieties and talking about them in ways where I’m not necessarily apologizing.”
Thomas admits she is stepping a bit out of her comfort zone in one aspect — the studio recording experience.
“Singing into a microphone in a ‘dead’ room is so different from singing on stage,” she says. “You get into the booth and you don’t even recognize the sound you’re making. It’s a different way of singing and I’m learning and getting better at it. It’s almost like learning a whole new skill, a whole new art.”
Growing up in Kenosha, Wisconsin,
Thomas (who now makes her home in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood) knew from an early age that she loved singing. In addition to performing in school shows, she also took part in the Kenosha Youth Performing Arts Company, an intensive musical theater program.
But the events of the past few days in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting have weighed heavily on Thomas’ mind.
“It was an extremely nurturing community for me growing up. And while I am profoundly saddened by the destruction taking place, I am devastated for Jacob Blake’s family — and beyond frustrated (though no longer surprised) with the myriad wellintentioned voices who still feel compelled to condemn the loss of property over the taking of Black bodies by the police,” Thomas said.
“After the summer our country has had, how can you still not have any perspective? Black Lives Matter more than buildings, more than businesses — and these types of uprisings aren’t going to stop until Black and Brown people can get any glimmer of a sign we are being heard and believed and finally protected as equal human beings.”
Thomas has performed in musicals and plays at theaters including Court, Writers, Marriott, Drury Lane and Milwaukee Repertory, where she had just completed a run in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down and caused unprecedented upheaval in the theater world.
Upcoming performances in Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Songs for Nobodies” and Michael Hollinger’s holiday show, “Mr. Dickens’ Hat” at Northlight Theatre were canceled. Suddenly, she had a lot of time on her hands.
With nothing on the horizon, Thomas left town for California, where for three weeks she worked with her friend Tawny Newsome on a batch of new songs. Setting up shop in Newsome’s garage studio in the desert outside of Los Angeles, the collaborators wrote and recorded a new album, “Material Flats,” due Oct. 2.
Many of the songs were inspired by the COVID quarantine and other events of the past few months.
“It’s been a time of desperation and race riots and curfews,” Thomas says. “Making new music has been my job for the past few months. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to sort out my feelings about the world today and what I want to say in my music.”