By Chelsea Spear
Talking to the members of Bonny Light Horseman is a lot like listening to their music. Perspectives weave among one another, harmonizing on the different points of view that bind their shared experiences. Each member takes their moment to tell their side of the story as the others watch, nodding sagely. Thoughtful glances are exchanged. Statements on big issues are punctuated with epigrammatic observations or occasional spikes of rueful laughter.
After debuting at the 2018 Eaux Claire Music & Arts Festival in Wisconsin, the trio—comprised of Fruit Bats bandleader Eric D. Johnson, session musician Josh Kaufman, and singer-songwriter/Hadestown creator Anais Mitchell—released their self-titled debut album at the beginning of 2020. Its slow-burning, atmospheric original songs and contemporary interpretations of traditional folk songs found a steady, loyal audience during the pandemic and was nominated for two Grammy awards.
Their follow-up, Rolling Golden Holy, which Mitchell has described as “having a little more of an American feeling,” will be released October 7.
On a recent call, Mitchell shared her recollection of how Bonny Light Horseman came to be.
“I met Josh [when] we were both living in Brooklyn. I had admired Josh for years and seen [him] play with Josh Ritter. I was like, ‘I want to work with that guy.’ And then we got put together to make a track with our mutual friend Kate from This Is the Kit.
“We were hanging out in Josh’s studio in [the Brooklyn neighborhood] DUMBO and we started to talk about our mutual passion for traditional music, especially British Isles stuff. And so we started to mess around with some songs.”
After hearing Fruit Bats at a festival in Colorado, she says she tweeted at Johnson. “‘Hey, I’m so into Fruit Bats.’ I didn’t expect to hear back. And then we became internet friends.”
When the three found themselves in Los Angeles at the same time, Mitchell continues, “[Josh] said, ‘Hey Anais, I think Eric could be really good for this project we’re doing, this folk music thing, and does that sound like a good idea?’ I was like, fuck yes, because I had just fallen in love with Fruit Bats. Luckily Eric was like, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Observing that their genesis was closely tied to the Eaux Claire Music Festival, Mitchell adds that festival founders Justin Vernon and Bryce Dessner said, “‘Hey, heard you guys are up to something. Do you want a gig at our festival?’ We said yes and we didn’t even have a band name or a full set of material. And then we had to figure it out—and we did.”
Considering the backgrounds of its members might make Bonny Light Horseman seem an unlikely band. Johnson cut his teeth with the experimental Chicago band Califone before embarking on his Fruit Bats project. Kaufman had collaborated with a vast array of musicians, from Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and Paul Banks of Interpol to Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir. Mitchell had made her name as a writer of richly melodic, sharply drawn musical vignettes. But their work as a trio brings out new sides of each of their talents.
“We all make a different sound,” Johnson says, “and they fit together in a way that they don’t cover one another up. [We create] the space—sonically and creatively, aesthetically—for all these things to exist on the same canvas without fogging up the focus, if that makes any sense.”
He describes writing for Bonny Light Horseman as being “like a house we can all build together and then it feels like, yeah, it works for us.”
“We are all getting in on all the songs,” Mitchell adds. “We’ll bring sketches and then if [these] guys didn’t feel that it’s get-in-on-able, then we wouldn’t get in on it.”
Bonny Light Horseman’s debut was not the first time Mitchell had engaged with and updated folk traditions for a contemporary audience.
“One of my most inspiring things,” she says, “is to look at the old stories, the old songs, and then [consider:] How do I make a song or a story that draws from that, but feels like something real and alive now? We started this project in more of a place of, we’re going to interpret traditional material. And then it just very quickly became, how far can we go with co-writing with these old tropes and those old motifs and things?
She adds that Rolling Golden Holy “is an original record, but it’s still part of that canon. … It’s one continuum.”
Bonny Light Horseman’s self-titled debut was released in January of 2020, a few months before COVID-19 shutdowns were put into place. After the band was, as Mitchell put it, “half-vaxed” in the spring of 2021, they began writing the songs that would appear on Rolling Golden Holy. Their writing sessions were very homey.
“We were cooking at home and our families were with us,” Kaufman recalls. “Eric’s wife and dog were around and our kids were around. And we were writing these songs and collaborating in the spring.”
After taking a break, Kaufman notes, the band “got together again in the Hudson Valley at a place called Dreamland, which is sort of a spiritual home for us. We feel really connected to the space. It’s really private and in the woods and it’s an old church. And we finished the record there in a few more days.”
Rolling Golden Holy represents a shift for Bonny Light Horseman. Where their versions of traditional British folk songs made up the majority of their debut, they wrote more original material for their second album.
“There wasn’t necessarily a mandate,” Johnson says. “We all brought in a giant pile of ideas and sketches and stuff. It was basically just a natural progression. But at the same time, there are little whispers of the traditional in there, still. Just bits and pieces of it.
“But more importantly,” he adds, “it’s what Anais was saying … [about] the continuum. It’s almost like [these songs are] living in a similar world to those traditional songs, but with mostly original lyrics and ideas.”
The slow draw of the band’s melodies combined with the disc’s airy production might come off as mellow—a description the band disputes.
“We joke that it’s [Mitchell’s] rock band,” Johnson says. “This is her absolutely rip-and-rock band and it’s like my quiet role. This is where our sounds meet. I feel like, because Fruit Bats is a loud, pretty rollicking rock band, … Bonny Light Horseman feels very, very quiet for me. But for Anais, she’s like…”
“Jamming out. Head banging,” Mitchell completes his thought.
Rolling Golden Holy is available HERE.