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Bonny Light Horseman Turn to British Folk Songs for Supergroup Debut

Jan 28, 2020

Bonny Light Horseman Turn to British Folk Songs for Supergroup Debut

Bonny Light Horseman, a new American supergroup interpreting old British folk tunes, is one of the few good things to come from Twitter. After spending nearly fifteen years shepherding her ambitious musical Hadestown all the way to Broadway, Anaïs Mitchell was catching up on some of music she’d missed out on, and she took to the social media platform to shout out the Fruit Bats, the long-running indie-pop band led by Eric D. Johnson. It just so happened that he had recently discovered Mitchell’s music and was a new fan.

“It’s an embarrassing way to meet someone,” Johnson says, “but that’s how it happened. She tagged me and said she loved my band. There are so many bad vibes on [Twitter], but I do like the fact that you can write a very short fan letter and you know they’ll get it.”

Mitchell was already working with producer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (Craig Finn, Josh Ritter) on a new project for the Eaux Claires Festival, and Johnson admits he steamrolled his way into the gig. At the 37d03d Festival in Berlin, the trio spent a few hours each day creating and recording new arrangements of old folk tunes like “Blackwaterside” and “Lowlands” with a small army of friends and collaborators joining in — including members of the National, Hiss Golden Messenger, the Staves, and Bon Iver. The result is a lush and lovely collection of songs that may be centuries old, but sound very much of their moment.

At least on paper it may seem like an unlikely folk alliance, considering Mitchell is the only artist among them popularly identified with that genre. Kaufman is more associated with artful indie rock, while Johnson is well known for crafting supremely catchy pop hooks.

“I have a fairly strong folk background,” says Johnson. “I used to teach banjo at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, but somewhere along the way I veered off on a poppier path. But Anaïs has a bona fide folk background beyond her career as a singer/songwriter. She knows all the old stuff and grew up with those records in her house. So she’s been a teacher to Josh and me in a lot of ways.”

This kind of collaboration fits with the 37d03d ethos. Founded by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner, the organization encourages and supports creative cooperation between artists in different genres and often on different continents. Already the duo have released an album together under the name Big Red Machine, and the recent posthumous Leonard Cohen album features 37d03d artists putting new music to his unrecorded lyrics. (It should be noted that the organization was originally known as PEOPLE, but changed its name to 37d03d in early 2019. It’s still pronounced PEOPLE, though. To see why, just turn your computer upside down.)

“They’re interested in artists expanding and exploring and collaborating,” says Mitchell. “After a while you get a kind of artistic identity, like a calcification of who you are as an artist and what you do. But there are people who are yearning to be free from the trappings of who people think they are. So PEOPLE offers an opportunity to be kind of childlike, to get back to that beginner’s mindset.”

For Mitchell it’s been a nice break, a way to settle gently back into her old life as a singer/songwriter after devoting so much time to Hadestown. Just before they embarked on a long tour supporting their debut, two-thirds of Bonny Light Horseman — Johnson and Mitchell — convened to talk about the durability of folk music, the joys of collaboration, and people who need 37d03d.

BGS: How did 37d03d inform this project?

Anaïs Mitchell: I feel like we were forged in the fires of PEOPLE. They’re interested in people expanding and exploring and collaborating and trying new things, so it was really perfect that we got to be a part of it before we really had any idea who we were or what we were doing.

Eric D. Johnson: I don’t know where this project would be without it. I don’t know if there’s anything modern that can be compared to it. I try to imagine how they pull it off from a financial or logistical standpoint, but they’re doing truly the Lord’s work, which is essentially creating a really easy platform for a bunch of people to get together and do something creative. I don’t know if it’s the most modern construct ever and they’re light years ahead of time, or if they’re completely out of their minds and operating on some sort of beatnik principle that’s completely untenable today. It’s probably both and/or neither. It’s an out-of-time thing in a very beautiful way.

AM: I’d been working with Josh on some of this material. I’ve been an admirer of his for a few years now — his playing and his producing on other people’s records. The thing was kind of a gleam in the eye, you know, when Justin [Vernon from Bon Iver] and Aaron [Dessner from the National] reached out to see if we wanted to do this project. Why don’t you play that at Eaux Claires festival? That was cool of them, because we didn’t even have a band name yet. We were just exploring. Just messing around.

EDJ: Then I steamrolled my way in, and it ended up becoming this band. That’s how it got started, and that parlayed its way into the big Berlin project, where they did this big, unique artist-in-residency festival type thing at the Funkhaus. It was like summer camp. That’s the only way to describe it.

Bonny Light Horseman Turn to British Folk Songs for Supergroup Debut

Photo credit: D. James Goodwin

I think of PEOPLE as promoting that kind of collaboration, where you can play on somebody’s record or in somebody’s band without having it be a major statement.

AM: Totally. There was a moment in the middle of the recording where Josh said, “Man, we could really use a drum on this track.” Out in the hall, we heard a cymbal fall to the floor and make a big crash. Josh opened the door and it was Andrew Barr from the Barr Brothers. He was on his way to another session, but he had three minutes so he came in played the one drum that we needed on that tracks. It’s stuff like that. Or there’s a song that has a couple of the Staves on it and Lisa Hannigan. They just happened to be free. There was a lot of serendipity with that stuff.

When we were in Berlin, we didn’t know that we were making a record or that any of that stuff was going to have any value to anyone else outside of us. But then we got back to the States and we listened back and we were like, Wow, this gig is really good! It felt like half of an album. So the question became, how can we finish it? How can we make the other half of the record feel like it’s of a piece with that stuff, even though the setting is going to be different? So we made the rest of the record at Woodstock at this beautiful studio called Dreamland, which is just a big, old, weird church.

EDJ: We recorded in Woodstock for two days. It was more of a traditional recording setup. I remember we did “The Roving” there and “Deep in Love,” which are two of the singles and I think two of the strongest tracks. We did them at 1 in the morning. They’re both completely eleventh-hour songs.

At what point did the idea to cover old folk songs come into play?

AM: Traditional folk music is kind of a passion of both of ours, especially like British Isles stuff. We started to mess around with some things, and the very first song that Josh and I ever worked on together was “Lowlands.” Which is interesting because I hadn’t heard any versions of that song. I guess I had maybe seen some texts, and I learned that there are two strains. One is this British Isles strain, and the other is from the American South. They’re basically ghost stories, in which a dead lover appears to a woman or in some versions a man. They’re also stevedore songs, songs about working up on the shore, loading crates onto ships.

So the song that we put together contains elements of both of those things as well as some stuff that we made up. It felt like a cool puzzle to put together. A lot of them I would say have had less research. We said very early on that we didn’t want it to feel like a research project. We really wanted to be more heart-led and wide open.

EDJ: I would say we were adamant that we didn’t want to do a research project. We just want to enjoy it. But it is incredible when you do a little research on these songs — and this is not news — you don’t have to be an advanced musicologist to know just how interwoven American music and the music of the British Isles are. That music came to western Appalachians and eventually gave us country music and rock ‘n’ roll.

The through lines are so short still. It’s really not that old. When it split off, our grandparents were alive. Those songs are so ancient and so thoroughly modern at the same time in the themes they’re singing about. If you listen to the lyrics of “The Roving,” which are hundreds of years old, it sounds like the plot to a teen summer movie from the ‘80s. It’s just people loving and longing and grieving and having sex and everything else we’ve been doing and singing about for as long as anything.

It doesn’t sound like an album concerned with preservation or historical accuracy. You’re taking a lot of liberties with them without trying to explicitly update them to our current moment.

AM: A lot of the songs have new music but the text is traditional to one degree or another. The text of “The Roving” is based on songs like “Courting Is a Pleasure” and “Handsome Molly,” but the music isn’t connected to any of those songs. But it still feels like a heartfelt way that the voice wants to sing. This is a total aside, but it’s just such a pleasure to sing with Eric. He’s so unfettered in his singing. It makes me want to sing that way, too. I had to sing my heart out in order to get on the same level as him.

EDJ: This is folk music. It doesn’t need to be finely hewn. It can just be a lump of clay that you emotionally hack at until you get something out of it. There might be some deep, deep purists who think we’re very impure in how we approach these songs. But these songs are meant to change over the years. They’re from the oral tradition, from pre-recorded times, so we don’t even know what the original version of “Deep in Love” sounds like. We just know what we came up with. That song was sort of a sketch that I had written for the last Fruit Bats album, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it. I had a melody written, just a do-do-do verse that I sang in the studio, and Josh opened up a book of traditional Welsh folk lyrics. He said, “Sing these lyrics over that melody.” They slotted perfectly, and that’s how you hear it.

Is this a one-off project, or do you think Bonny Light Horseman will continue?

EDJ: I think we’re gonna pick it up again, but we have no clue what we’re gonna do next. We could just be this band that keeps reinterpreting British folk music forever, but maybe not. Making this first one was very natural and easy in a lot of ways, and we’ve enjoyed playing shows together, but I don’t think the way forward has been pointed out to us just yet.

Photo credit: Nolan Knight

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Bonny Light Horseman Turn to British Folk Songs for Supergroup Debut
Bonny Light Horseman Turn to British Folk Songs for Supergroup Debut