One of the most beautiful records we've come across this year, is from the new folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman. That's Portland's Eric D. Johnson, who fronts the indie band Fruit Bats, multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, and Anais Mitchell, who just won an armful of Tony Awards including Best Musical, for her Broadway musical Hadestown. Mitchell has also released 4 albums as a singer-songwriter. The three began experimenting in 2018 with songs that incorporated traditional folk music, folded together with new verses and modern instrumentation.
Johnson and Mitchell's voices pair naturally with Kaufman's guitar counter-melodies, and the trio opens the emotional heart of the songs without being moored too faithfully to the collection's trad roots. As Kaufman put it, these lyrics are about "loving and losing and dying, worrying about people, travelling, and all that stuff."
We met up with the band recently at Portland's Type Foundry Studio for an opbmusic Live Session, and to talk about making the new record.
How much of this is traditional music and how much is really new?
ERIC: All of it, and none of it.
JOSH: There’s not really a formula for one thing. They’re all a little different.
ANAIS: Yeah, I think some of the songs you would probably think of as just our interpretation of an existing traditional song, both musically and lyrically. And then a lot of the songs, we sort of brought the music to the traditional texts, and that was the mash up. And then there's a few songs [where] both the words and the music seem to have emancipated so far from the trad that they wouldn't be called trad anymore. I like to think of it all as a spectrum and it's like the veil between interpreting and creating is thin. It’s not that different in a way.
ERIC: I mean, you could take these types of old folk songs and just make it a real research project like, we need to do this exactly how it would have sounded in 1650 and find instruments from 1650, and you know, be a real traditionalist. Or you could be the person who says we're gonna take these songs and we're gonna put electronic beats under it. And this is basically neither. This is sort of a no-concept thing in a way, even though it seems very conceptual.
What's it like to take something that's hundreds of years old, and embellish it or work around it.
JOSH: It's incredibly intuitive, because in the end, what people were inspired to sing about back then is still what we’re all inspired to sing about, you know: loving and losing and dying and worrying about people, and traveling, and all that stuff.
What about working with songs where there's a particular rhyme structure or meter? Does it feel like a constraint?
ERIC: That's a good question, because we could cite "Deep in Love" as a perfect example. That was actually a Fruit Bats demo that was an orphan. I had a chorus written for it, and Josh somehow preternaturally knew to open this folk music book and say, “Read these lyrics over this." I just had a melody, and it fit in perfectly. So I don't think there was constraint. Those songs are pretty durable and pretty flexible and can kind of "slot" somehow, I don't know. Nothing was hard.
In "The Roving," Anais sings the lead. But you're [Anais] singing to the character Annie, and so inverting what I assume was probably the gender of the song in the original. Did you think about these kinds of things as intentional inversions or is it just that it sounded best when Anais sang it?
ANAIS: We didn't really premeditate that it all.
JOSH: We were kind of finishing that one up as we were tracking it. And yeah, it sounded so beautiful with Anais singing the vocal. I don't know if we really thought about the way that would hit necessarily.
ANAIS: So this funny thing happened when we were playing "The Roving" just now. I'm 7 months pregnant, and sometimes when we're singing these songs I put myself into the character and then I make her pregnant. Do you know what I mean? Like in "Bonny Light Horseman," I'll [think] "Oh, and she's lost her love in the Napoleonic Wars and she's pregnant." It gets in my head. So I was trying to figure out who's pregnant in "The Roving." [laughter]
After working in musical theater, is it exercising different muscles to work with something so intimate and acoustic?
ANAIS: Yeah. With "Hadestown," I was working on it for so long and there was obviously was a big machine with a lot of people involved and lots of feedback about how to improve it. And it was sort of like a crossword puzzle, where it can only be this one thing, whatever the next song is, or the next line. This has just felt very wide open like we could sing anything. But on the other hand, the thing that's similar is, it's all storytelling. Just different scales of telling stories by music.
What was the reason that you first started digging into these traditional songs?
JOSH: Anais and I had collaborated on a Ghanaian song ("Woyaya" with songwriter Kate Stables of This is the Kit), and through working on that and getting to know each other, we realized that we both had an affinity for this music, kind of coming at it from different places. We started passing songs back and forth and hanging out and then, you know, later collaborating with Eric some more.
ANAIS: I think that we were all hungry for it in our lives. Eric, as you and I were talking about the other day, you manifested this project, as an alternative to the thing that you spend most of your time doing [Fruit Bats]. And for me for sure, working on "Hadestown" for years and years, I was really hungry for something like this and it and it manifested.
ERIC: Yeah, this is like when you hear about chefs who do molecular gastronomy, and they spend all day using a blow torches to evaporate steam and that's what their customers eat. And then later that night, they want to go to an amazing.. like grandma's burrito place and get this really good carne asada.. This is that grandma's burrito place at one o'clock in the morning. It's just like a very simple burrito that we have made for you.
JOSH: I didn’t know we were going after the blow torch. I got really excited.
Bonny Light Horseman was released January 24th on new label 37d03d (that's "People", upside down).
Audio recording and mixes: Nalin Silva
Cameras: Nick McClurg, Sam Smith
Editor: Jarratt Taylor
Executive producer: David Christensen
Special thanks to Type Foundry Studios