Bonfire Madigan Ignite Passions On New Album

San Francisco-based ensemble melds traditional strings with modern beats and timeless emotion.

Bonfire Madigan's Madigan Shive is all in favor of mixing the old with the new. For her, being an artist is all about finding the links between the past and present.

"I get a lot of inspiration from taking these extremes and finding the equilibrium in them," Shive said recently. "For me, that's something that's just inherent in being an artist."

Make no mistake -- the latest album from San Francisco-based Bonfire Madigan is a product of the 20th century. In particular, the programmed beats and DJ scratching contribute to the late '90s aura.

But ... from the Burnpile also seems remarkably from another time, whether it's by virtue of the woodcut -- detailing the immolation of musical instruments -- on the album cover or the signature sounds of bandleader Shive's cello and Sheri Ozeki's contrabass.

Either way, Shive says she's invigorated by creating art that includes parts of 20th-century culture as well as elements from earlier eras.

... from the Burnpile, the band's third full-length album, is a passionate examination of personal strengths and community. Songs such as "Anthemic Amendments" (RealAudio excerpt) meld Shive's soulful vocals with minimalist beats and deep, warm cello and bass tones.

The song's weathered yet empowering refrain -- "Each one take one, save yourself" -- was, according to Shive, inspired by a public reading from "The Color Purple" novelist Alice Walker, a writer she admires for her ability to "unflinchingly speak about her life with such brutal honesty."

"She had written this poem about taking her ancestors' hands and pulling them from their graves, and that's how she would speak for the future and for her life," Shive said. "It seemed so obvious and urgent that it hit a nerve with me, wanting to dignify the people in my life."

At 23, Shive may seem young to be dealing with such issues as aging, wisdom and legacies, but she's already been performing for several years. She formed her first group, Tattle Tale -- an acoustic cello duo that vacillated between dissonance and lush harmony -- when she was just 16. Since then, she's also formed her own record label, Moon Puss, and worked on stage productions.

For ... from the Burnpile (released jointly by Kill Rock Stars and Villa Villakula Records), she's mounting tours both as a solo performer and with Bonfire Madigan bandmates Ozeki, guitarist Shelley Doty and drummer Tomas.

"She has a way of really drawing you into the performance," said the single-named Tinuviel, owner of Villa Villakula and creator of ... from the Bonfire's cover art. "The first couple of years she was performing, I don't think she ever used a PA or had any mic-ing system for cello. Everyone would sit down around her, and it was like being at a campfire."

In a sense, the new album grew from Shive's live performances. A concert staple, "Smoke Signals From The Burnpile" (RealAudio excerpt), was originally intended for release as single. Eventually, however, the defiant, emotionally charged song became the centerpiece of a full album.

Shive said she wrote the lyrical core -- "I will not let this tear me apart/ You are my Joan of Arc, you are my Rosa Parks" -- at a time when she was moving on in terms of geography and relationships and needed to count on the spark within herself and others to keep her going.

"I've seen so many people go into self-sabotage, to where it's destroyed their lives," she said. "When you see that and you bear witness, and it's people you love or are related to, you think, how far am I from being able to catch that? That song was a question, and maybe in that, there was an answer for myself."

The ever-observant songwriter said her current tours are likely to yield more inspiration for future songs, whether or not she understands it at the time.

"Everything in my life has a personal symbolic meaning, whether it's the socks I'm wearing that day or the book I picked up at the bookstore," she said. "Everything has a reason for why it's happening right then, even if I'm not thinking about it."