Bonny Light Horseman Adapts Age-Old Songs for a New Era
Bonny Light Horseman — from left, Eric D. Johnson, Anaïs Mitchell, and Josh Kaufman. (Photo by Nolan Knight)
“Can this be an article where we don’t say ‘supergroup’?” asks Josh Kaufman, teasingly. “Say it in air quotes,” adds Eric D. Johnson, Kaufman’s bandmate, along with Anaïs Mitchell, in their new project, Bonny Light Horseman.
Though they cringe at the word, it is undeniably the most fitting name for this serendipitous union of three musicians, each with their own singular and celebrated careers. Mitchell has been a stalwart in roots music for the last few decades who also happened to sweep the Tony Awards last year with her debut Broadway musical Hadestown. Johnson has been amassing a cult following as the frontman for Fruit Bats since the early aughts, with additional stints in Califone and The Shins, to name a few. And Kaufman is a prolific multi-instrumentalist, producer, and collaborator with acts including Hiss Golden Messenger, Bob Weir, Josh Ritter, The National, and The Hold Steady. Individually they are already spectacular, but together, they’re a force. You might say they’re super.
Bonny Light Horseman, their self-titled record out Jan. 24 on 37d03d Records, is a stunning, transportive reimagining of transatlantic folk tunes. The songs about lovers scorned and conquering great distances are hundreds of years old, but in the hands of this trio, they are transformed into epic pop songs that feel contemporary and, daresay, cool. The group came together through a completely coincidental desire to, as Johnson puts it, “tap into some ancient vibrations.” Johnson happened to hear about Kaufman’s planned collaboration with Mitchell and jokes that he invited himself along. “We sort of walked into each other’s lives with this type of music at the right time and were compelled by it in similar ways,” Kaufman remembers. For Mitchell, the way Bonny Light Horseman happened felt intuitive, “like a place to rest and drink the water of a deep well.” Johnson adds, “I think we were ready for each other, somehow.”
As luck would have it, they were invited to make their debut at Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin in 2018 before they’d officially recorded anything. One thing led to another, and Vernon and Aaron Dessner (The National) offered the group space as artists-in-residence at a kind of incubator or collective, formerly called PEOPLE and now called 37d03d. Kaufman especially had always wanted to take part in a residency like the ones he’d heard of through friends who are writers or painters. “I [would] always think that does sound really nice, in a non-mercenary kind of way,” he says. “It’s not a gig, it’s just a time to create stuff.” Mitchell recalls, “It was an environment where we were utterly cared for, and the only thing we had to do was make art.”
The group spent a week in Berlin at The Funkhaus, a former radio station space with beautiful rooms and tall ceilings, where they collaborated with countless other artists who would duck in and out, lending a harmony or a verse here and there. Both Dessner and Vernon, among many others, contributed to the record, with Vernon dipping into a deep, rustic register on the profound, almost hymnal “Bright Morning Stars.” Kaufman remembers sitting at the piano as Johnson, Mitchell, and Vernon sang. “It was so cool and beautiful, and so natural. I feel like Justin sort of just walked in the room and was drawn in.”
That spirit of spontaneity and collaboration resulted in a quick, fevered “gestation period,” according to Kaufman.
“It was an important week for us,” he says. “We did it sort of guerrilla style, no headphones, all live in the room together just pulling in whoever was around.”
To hear them talk about it is to imagine them blacking out and waking up with more than half an album in the can. “I always say, especially about the Berlin sessions, I don’t remember them,” Johnson adds. “So it must have been good.”
Kaufman agrees. “I just remember crying,” he recalls with a laugh. “I’m not exactly sure why. It was hot, we were all jet-lagged, so emotions were running high.” Mitchell remembers it the same. “I felt pretty emotionally at-the-surface, like my heart in my face all the time.”
That winter, they made the trek to Dreamland Recording in Woodstock, New York, for another quick session to finish what they hoped would be enough for a record. “When we went to Woodstock, we knew we were trying to finish a record, and I think the question became, how to record in a way that felt of-a-piece with the Berlin stuff in an environment that was so different,” Mitchell says. They had a blast over the course of two days, again standing close to one another, playing live without headphones, and joined by Michael Lewis (bass, saxophone) and JT Bates (drums, percussion), as well as engineer Bella Blasco and mixer D. James Goodwin. That live sound results in an intimate, but atmospheric vibe that permeates every song on the album. These sessions took on that same sense of immediacy the band felt in Berlin, particularly with songs like “Deep in Love” and “The Roving,” two of the album’s standouts.
It shouldn’t surprise any Fruit Bats fan that “Deep in Love” was actually a discarded demo from the acclaimed 2019 release Gold Past Life. Johnson had the chorus, but was struggling to fill in the rest when he played it for Kaufman, who had been steeped in tales of love gone wrong from what the group calls their “biblical book,” Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, a tome edited by renowned researcher and story-collector Peter Kennedy. Kaufman likened Johnson’s titleless, half-formed tune to one in the book called “Deep in Love,” and the two began combining Johnson’s melody and chorus with the old song’s lyrics. “The meter of it plugged right in,” Johnson says. “That was kind of a magic trick.” Kaufman adds, “[That] was a wild one. It had a real astral quality to it.” It was recorded in a single take.
“The Roving” is the album’s powerhouse. A tweaked version of the old classic “Loving Hannah,” it offers a gender-bending vocal with Mitchell’s angelic tone singing from a male perspective about his lost lady love. “I knew her love was changing / By the roving of her eye,” she sings sweetly.
“Her vocal crushes me on that,” says Johnson, who compares the plot of the song to a summer teen movie, like Call Me By Your Name or even Better Off Dead. “I had come up with the music and the melody for the chorus of that song and had played it for Anaïs,” remembers Kaufman. “I had set the lyrics for ‘Loving Hannah’ over it, but it was like a placeholder thing. … Anaïs made it feel so conversational.” As a personal touch, they all agreed to change the subject’s name from Hannah to Annie, after both Kaufman and Johnson’s wives.
With the spare, raw “Mountain Rain” they aimed to tell their own, more mournful version of the classic tale of folklore hero John Henry. Kaufman was onto something while on the road with Hiss Golden Messenger, playing what he had for frontman Mike Taylor. “He was like, ‘I hear where you’re coming from, that’s such a beautiful and sad way to present this mythic guy.’ And I was like, ‘I just don’t have a first verse and I’m not sure where to get it.’ And he literally walked into his hotel room and I walked into mine and like five minutes later, ‘Ding!’ A text came from him that was like, ‘How ’bout this?’ And it was perfect. So Mike helped us finish that one.”
Much like the progression from formation to recording, the songs that were reworked for Bonny Light Horseman came together organically, and it’s evident when you listen. There’s an ease to them, like they’ve always existed this way, and in many ways, that was the goal. While new melodies were crafted and many lyrics rewritten, these songs feel as timeless as ever. “All songwriting is just collections of memories and emotional ephemera, so it’s kind of amazing to have a project where you have a giant jumping-off point. It gives you this incredible wave to ride,” says Johnson. Mitchell describes the songs on the record as “puzzles to solve,” wherein the group would trade verses, riff, and improvise until the feeling of a song was right.
Links in the Chain
Kaufman and Johnson grew up listening to The Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Richie Havens, developing a deep understanding and appreciation of the transient nature of traditional folk songs. “It’s just another link in the chain,” Johnson says. “It’s all part of a generations-upon-generations thing. We’re all gonna be late to the party on these songs and there’s no other way to be.”
Kaufman adds, “The folk music that I became aware of when I was a kid and my musical tastes were sort of just beginning was revisionist already. People with new ideas about these old songs and stories, so I think it’s always kind of been in our musical DNA.”
Mitchell’s education started from a young age, too. “I was raised by back-to-the-lander hippies in Vermont,” she says. “I remember us having the ‘Rise Up Singing’ songbook and discovering a lot of old folk songs in those pages.” Later in her career, when touring overseas, she was turned on to the music of Paul Brady, Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, Anne Briggs and Fairport Convention, which continued to light a fire in her.
That musical DNA is what drove them to inject themselves into traditionalist works that are often peppered with literary jargon — or, as the band puts it, they’re “too Chaucer.” The process of reimagining the songs was like collaging, keeping bits that worked and replacing ones that didn’t. As Kaufman describes it, “we would remove the ruffles from some of the language.” That de-ruffling also included adding choruses to songs to modernize them. This was the case for songs like “The Roving,” “Blackwaterside,” “Bonny Light Horseman,” and “The Magpie’s Nest,” among others. Johnson and Kaufman liken the latter tune to a slowed-down Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” with its rhythmic style, always finding contemporary parallels from which to draw. “I think we’ve gravitated toward love and love-loss songs because they feel so easy to get fully inside of,” Mitchell adds. “We’ve leaned toward whatever feels most wide open.”
Though their takes on these songs are certainly not traditional, the act of re-interpreting old songs, or telling old stories with a new twist, is very much ingrained in the culture of folk music. It’s a “very misty sort of terrain,” according to Mitchell. But the group is careful to avoid the concept of preservation when discussing their approach to making the album. They are simply adding their voices to the mix, and much like The Byrds, seeing folk songs through a pop lens.
“It’s a little more in progress, more alive,” explains Kaufman, “where you’re taking these old ideas, these old characters, and putting them in these settings, and being yourself inside that in order to convey them. You’re not putting a costume on.”
Without the burden of preservation weighing them down, they were able to break some traditionalist folk rules and create something wholly original. Bonny Light Horseman feels natural, never forceful or stuffy. It is a timeless, sweeping hybrid of folk and pop music, just as they intended. It is lightning in a bottle, much like the group themselves. “Not to just [be] cryptic about magic and alchemy, but it just keeps being real easy,” says Johnson. “When we get together, it just kind of plugs in somehow. … It’s a train that’s already rolling and we’re just jumping on when we can.”
Mitchell feels the same. “It is a collective unconscious statement. There’s an ego-lessness to it,” she says. Kaufman, acting as producer, felt like he could feed off Johnson and Mitchell, who were able to lose themselves in this music in a different way than when they record their own music. “It’s been a real creative gift,” he says. And crucially, they were able to tell these stories with an openness, perhaps for the next person to add their own link to the chain.
“These songs don’t really end. They just kind of keep going. And I think that’s maybe the most contemporary part about them. We won’t finish them, they’ll never be done,” says Kaufman. “I think being able to interpret the traditional stuff is an honor and it’s a cool torch to continue to grab and pass along. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to relate to still.”