The background to the trio’s new album Rolling Golden Holy, how their songs differ from her solo work, the concept of ‘cowriting with the traditional’ and some ideal future collaborations
Bonny Light Horseman formed back in 2018 when three musicians from different backgrounds, but with a shared interest in folk music, both contemporary and traditional, came together to pursue a new creative project. Anaïs Mitchell had already released several solo albums, most notably 2010’s Hadestown which was to go on to form the basis of a hugely successful Broadway theatre production. Josh Kaufman had worked with the likes of The National, The War On Drugs and Hiss Golden Messenger while Eric D Johnson had been the creative force behind Chicago based indie-folk outfit Fruit Bats while also playing with The Shins.
The initial catalyst for the band forming was being invited to play the Eaux Claire festival in Wisconsin, the event co-founded by Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Their eponymous, Grammy-nominated debut album followed in 2020 to significant acclaim, seeing them reinterpret old folk standards to give them a fresh, modern uplift. Mitchell and Johnson’s beautifully aligned vocals might take centre stage but they’re underpinned by an accomplished sense of musicianship which elevates them to a higher level.
New album Rolling Golden Holy sees them move forward confidently, featuring a set of original compositions which further enhances their standing. We caught up with Anaïs Mitchell to discuss how the album developed, how they reconcile traditional folk music with their own compositions and how the band’s creative process compares to her solo work.
Congratulations on the new album, I’ve really been enjoying listening. What was the background to it? How long did you work on those songs?
Thanks for listening! I feel like these songs came together sort of quickly. We were definitely deep into pandemic time when we started writing them because I remember we had to do covid tests in order to get together and we weren’t able to eat out and so on. They were written in the Hudson Valley where Josh has been living for the last couple of years.
I read that the album was recorded at Aaron Dessner of The National’s studio and a deconsecrated church. How did that come about? Did they shape the album in any way?
“The writing sessions were mostly at Josh’s house and the old Isokon, Dan Goodwin’s studio in New York. Dan has mixed and mastered both our LPs. We did our whole initial recording session at Aaron’s place (Longpond) and a follow up at Dreamland, the church you mention. That is kind of our spiritual home, we recorded half of our first album there as well. The wooden sun on the cover of the new album is from Dreamland. It was incredible to be at Aaron’s place, he and his family were out of town and he generously opened both his studio and his home to us”.
California is one of the key songs on the album. I read how it was written in the woods of New York state. Do you think that setting had an influence on its sound?
“That’s funny, because that one sounds *so* California to me, this breezy melancholy travelling music. But I think we all feel very inspired working upstate in the Hudson Valley. It’s easy to go into a sort of alternate creative world there, tune out the rest of the world”.
You obviously released a solo album earlier this year. Was there any songwriting overlap with those songs and the songs on Rolling Golden Holy? Or do you keep those separate/compartmentalised?
“Well, all the Bonny Light Horseman songs are cowrites, no matter who brings the sketch, we all end up getting in there. And it’s a very different type of song, in my mind. Bonny Light Horseman songs seem to crave impressionism and a kind of gauzy, ‘wabi sabi’ space (a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection) whereas my own songs often end up being more wordy, more detailed and narrative”.
Does your approach to writing/way of working change depending on if you’re writing for a solo album or an album with Bonny Light Horseman?
“My own songs feel like some kind of crazy combo of praying and therapy. Bonny Light Horseman songs are collective exploration, kind of part archaeological, part psychedelic. I’d say they also rest on the music a lot, they require space for music, breathing, and improvisation. On multiple occasions when making this record I was like “hey guys how ‘bout this idea for a third verse?” And the guys were like “how ‘bout only two verses?!”
Is there any particular significance/meaning to the album title? How was that chosen? It feels like it has a certain indefinable suitability to the songs.
“Exactly, it felt right, but there’s also a funny story there and you’re the first to ask. There’s a song on the record called “Fleur De Lis” and it has these alternating words in the choruses. Eric was having trouble remembering the order, and I was like “Eric it goes: rolling, golden, holy” and he goes, “that’s the title of our record”, and it was kind of a half-joke but then… it actually felt right”.
Your debut album obviously had its roots in old folk songs. Did you always want to follow that with original compositions? Are there any other ways that you’ve evolved as a band since?
“I think we started out really interpreting trad songs quite faithfully, but we quickly got interested in the no man’s land middle ground of what if we started sort of “cowriting with the trad”. And this record feels like the other side of that spectrum, like the songs are original but they’re never not “in conversation” with the trad. This album is also a bit different in that the first one was half-recorded at an artist’s residency and was something like a found object, a field recording, there are a lot of collaborators on that record who just happened to pop into the room we were recording in. This one was more insular, really us three going deep with drummer JT Bates and bassist/saxophonist Mike Lewis. There was maybe more intentionality with the recording process the second time around”.
There’s a lot of space and silence within the songs on Rolling Golden Holy (and your latest solo album). Is a “less is more” approach something that appeals to you?
“Yeah it’s something I’m learning about for sure, as a songwriter who comes from a super text-heavy background, where the words just fill ALL the space, it’s an exercise to let the music breathe and speak around the words. I really love it, it’s mystical”.
How do you manage singing arrangements with Eric? You’ve obviously got a really special, natural chemistry. Is it generally a case of the person who writes the lyrics taking the lead in singing them or is it a case of just deciding which voice fits the song best?
“Actually, often we don’t know who will take lead on a song til we’re in the studio, and it’s often a case of me trying to get Eric to sing something and Eric trying to get me to. Ultimately yeah, the song kind of tells us eventually. It’s awesome singing with Eric. I don’t even think of myself as a harmony singer but when I’m singing with him I find it easier to just channel the feeling of the song and not worry about how I sound”.
You’ve obviously collaborated with quite a few other artists over the years. Is there anyone you’d particularly like to work with?
“Oh gosh, it’s so hard when people ask that, of course, there are SO many folks I admire and wonder what it would be like to work with them. Sylvan Esso, somehow. The playwright Enda Walsh. Tallest Man On Earth. And Pixar or Studio Ghibli!!!”
You experienced real success with Hadestown. Would doing another of those big, theatrical projects be something that would appeal to you?
“I’d love to. It just has to be the right story, because I know firsthand how much time it can take!”
You’ve been playing live shows recently and have more planned for later in the year/next year with Bonny Light Horseman. Do you have anything in particular planned for them? I get the impression you’re an artist who really enjoys that aspect of being a musician?
“It’s felt so crazy getting back to playing live, both post-pandemic and also, for me, post-Hadestown. I’m just finishing a tour for my self-titled record and picking up again with Bonny Light Horseman soon. I really love playing with Bonny Light where I don’t sing lead on everything, I feel less like I have to “carry” things and more like the music carries me. I’m really so excited to share the new record and new songs live”.
Rolling Golden Holy by Bonny Light Horseman is released on 7 October 2022 via 37d03d. Further information and tour dates can be found here.