Bonny Light Horseman
(L-R) Josh Kaufman, Eric D. Johnson and Anaïs Mitchell
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Bonny Light Horseman's Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson & Josh Kaufman Are Moving Folk Forward Together
Super groups are never a gimme. But walking through the audience at this year's Newport Folk during Bonny Light Horseman's set, which was only their fourth or fifth gig together, you'd think it was always this easy. Experienced and accomplished in their own arenas, Tony winning singer/songwriter and playwright Anaïs Mitchell, Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson and The National and Bob Weir collaborator Josh Kaufman play something that sounds like folk but feels like soul, complimenting each other's strenghts on stage to brave new ground for each of them, together.
This chemestry is also evident on the group's eponymous first single, "Bonny Light Horseman," a thoughful, lilting, timeless waltz worked up as a thesis statement for the trio's honest look back and bold step forward. We caught up with Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman just after their Newport Folk set to hear what ignited their all-star collaboration, how their modern take on folk took shape, and what their future plans are as they gear up to head out on the road with this fresh new project.
Can you tell me how the group came together?
Mitchell: Right, so we all know each other from the different angles and obviously are involved in different projects. We realized that we all were hungry to play around with traditional music. And we found that when we do it together, it feels very natural and…
Kaufman: Personal. [We] connected to it.
Mitchell: Yeah. So we started making some music together and then our very first gig was at the Eaux Claire Festival in Wisconsin. And they gave us a gig when we didn't even have a band name or any songs. So it was really sweet of them, and we had an occasion to rise to, and we worked up a set. And then we took part in this residency in Berlin, called the People Residency, which is also curated in part by Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner. And that was where we started to make recordings and work with a bunch of people that also were at that residency. And then, we finished that record in Woodstock, last year. So we're starting to play some shows. We haven't played that many, and we're excited to put this record out.
The material on the new record, did you write together or is this more about re-imagining traditional music?
Johnson: Well these guys started it, but I would say it's very re-imagined. It's not Renaissance fair music or something. When you say "traditional music" that could be… we're not civil war reenactors or something. I wouldn't say it's a hyper-modern lens or something like that, but fully modern, totally graspable with modern years, but pretty respectful, too.
Mitchell: I would say whatever it takes for us to feel it. I think some of the songs are more of a straight reinterpretation and some of them it feels like we co-wrote... We've often talked about it. It doesn't feel like a research project. It's for whatever makes us feel it, and it's the feelings that are big and the chords are open and it's whatever feels good.
Kaufman: You can also let go of this music because it's taken from, we don't know who, and it seems like it's for everyone. Real folk music for everyone, which is rad.
What do you think playing live with this group brings each of you that you haven't experienced in your other projects?
Mitchell: Singing with Eric has been kind of a revelation. We didn't even know each other before this project, and definitely I sing different when we're together.
Mitchell: That is awesome. It feels like I can let go more.
Johnson: Yeah. This applies to the live show, but also I think our relationship with the record too, is where it's ours and it's not and at the same time, and when you're playing a live show you're almost watching it happen from above yourself. At least that's how I feel about it. I'm sort of enjoying it as a fan too, in a strange way. Then all three of us have been singer/songwriters for forever, but it's different than being locked into your own movie, I guess. You're watching somebody else's movie, but you get to act in it.
— Bonny Light Horseman (@bonnylightband) August 19, 2019
What do you have planned between now and the record release? What's the rest of 2019 look like?
Johnson: We have a few dates in September. We're having our first "tour." It's a very small tour, but it's going to be fun.
Mitchell: We get to open up for Mandolin Orange at the Ryman, which is exciting.