Bonnie Bishop cringes a bit when she hears her old records.
“This little girl is trying to sing these songs. It’s totally unbelievable,” she says of her past work, which includes 2004’s “Long Way Home” and 2006’s terrific “Soft to the Touch.”
It’s a natural reaction to still-developing talent, and the Houston-bred singer admits she’s still proud of her past works. Those albums helped her amass a solid following in Texas and beyond, fueled by an impressive mix of country, rock and soul.
Bishop’s new album, “Free,” is a reintroduction: musically, vocally, lyrically. It’s a lean, seven-song collection highlighted by the title track, a gospel-tinged confessional about redemption and reawakening. The album is currently available through Bishop’s website and live shows, leading up to a national release date Oct. 9. It’s easily one of the finest records of the year.
“I feel something stirring up deep inside/Is it my broken heart coming back to life?” she asks on the title track.
“I knew I was tired of singing all these sad songs, and I was tired of that feeling of longing,” Bishop says. “I wanted to feel joy, and I wanted the music to feel joy.”
Bishop moved to Nashville from Austin for a publishing deal almost five years ago, and one of her tunes, “Not ’Cause I Wanted To,” was cut by Bonnie Raitt for her current album, “Slipstream.” She released her third album, “Things I Know” and got married to a “sweet guy.” But something just wasn’t right.
“I was having a real hard time that whole year preparing for the wedding and all that stuff. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” she says. “I just woke up one day and realized I made a huge mistake. I had now married somebody and dragged them into my life. I had to undo that mistake, and that was kind of the beginning of an unraveling, if you would, that resulted in me learning who I was and starting over.
“I thought all these things I had done throughout my life were going to make me happy and feel good, and they weren’t. I really needed to take that journey and figure out who I was.”
She continued writing songs but was uninspired and ceased playing live shows and recording. During the summer of 2010, Bishop spent about three months at her parents’ home in Wimberley, sorting out her thoughts and processing past regrets. She eventually returned to Nashville, and a chance writing session with Jimmy Wallace planted the seeds of her new musical direction. The pair churned out the bulk of “Free,” including the title track and the rollicking barroom blues of “Keep Using Me.”
“It was something about the way he was playing the piano and the groove. It brought out this new style of singing in me,” Bishop says. “I figured out how to tap into the emotion and put a different (stamp on it). I wanted the music to move me. All this music just started to come out. This new person and a new message all flowed from that personal journey I was taking.”
The songs, as expected, are intensely autobiographical, most notably the raucous “Bad Seed,” which sprouted from Bishop’s “rebellious” phase as a teenager in Mississippi. She was eventually shipped back to Houston by her mother and stepfather (former Texas A&M football coach Jackie Sherrill) and attended Stratford High School. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 with a degree in sociology.
Bishop narrowed the field from 120 songs to the seven that made the album, which showcase her raw, searing, flaws-and-all vocals. Her past records hinted at the pain and urgency, but this album cracks it open and lets it bleed. The album swerves from blues to rock to Southern rock and country, never stopping at one point for long. (She raised more than $25,000 on the fan-funded Kickstarter platform to complete and promote the album.)
Finally free, indeed.
“I can’t worry about what anybody else thinks about this music. I’ve got to love what I’m doing. I’ve got to love who I am. And I’ve got to believe in the message that I’m giving. I’m working so hard for this dream, and it’s got to have some meaning to it,” she says.
“It is scary because I’m certainly not proud of some of the moments in my life. There’s always the fear that people are going to judge you for the things that you do. But I guess I’ve just had to let go of that. There’s something so freeing about standing up on stage at night and being like, ‘This is what I did, and I’m not proud of it. This is me.’ There are plenty of people out there that feel that way, and I kind of feel this calling now and go out and let people see my heart.”
When: 7:30 Tuesday
Where: McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk
Tickets: $20; 713-528-5999 or mcgonigels.com