Photo: James Goodwin
Bonny Light Horseman's New Album 'Rolling Golden Holy' Is The Voltron Of Folk Music
Folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman's ambitious new album, 'Rolling Golden Holy,' is out Oct. 7. Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman spoke with GRAMMY.com about mining the breadth of folk music and harnessing their collective superpowers.
"Form feet and legs! Form arms and torso! And I'll form the head!"
That line of dialogue frequently appeared in ‘80s kids cartoon "Voltron," where Voltron Lions created the giant robot Voltron. For musical supergroup Bonny Light Horseman — the trio of Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman (Muzz, Craig Finn, the National) — songwriting is not too different. They especially used that collaborative method while writing their sophomore album, Rolling Golden Holy, which is out Oct. 7.
"We form the Voltron robot with each of our individual strengths," says Johnson during a recent interview with Mitchell and Kaufman. "Voltron is a mega robot that was formed by smaller, powerful robots."
"We’re certainly not a baseball team," he continues, citing Holy's "Summer Dream." "We don't have defined roles in how we collaborate on a song, but that song was one where I think we each did our thing. That is, we were like 'Here's my superpower.'"
The song is hypnotizing with a jazzy, breezy melody, and reflects the album’s contemplative themes of looking back, looking forward and longing for something. Mitchell recalls Kaufman playing it on the piano at Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond studio and later returning to "Summer Dream," hoping to work on it in a different way.
"With this one, we just were throwing lyric lines out there on the floor at the recording room, and then singing them, and it got just right. There couldn't be any other word," Mitchell says of their sessions at Hudson, NY-based Long Pond studio and at Dreamland Recording, an old church in Hurley, NY. "We really all were in there imaginatively, even in some of those lyrics.
Produced by Kaufman, Rolling Golden Holy follows their 2020 self-titled debut, which was nominated for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Performance at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards.
Unlike that album, which pulls from folk music’s rich history, the new material are all originals that pay homage to traditional folk while expanding and building the genre in new directions. Bonny Light Horseman also kept collaboration with others minimal, only featuring drummer JT Bates and bassist/saxophonist Mike Lewis.
GRAMMY caught up with the trio to learn about their eventful year, and how their growth as individuals and as a band helped lead them through new — but still familiar — folk terrain.
The band has had a busy year so far. What's one of your favorite stories of late from touring?
ANAÏS MITCHELL: We got to open a whole tour for Bon Iver in June, basically like a month run. That was fun to just hang out with that band and it felt really fun to play on their stages. I had my little 2-year-old along on this. She loved the band. But she loved Eric and Josh. She always asks about them. We actually had a pretty epic time together.
ERIC D. JOHNSON: Josh K, when we saw Rosetta in the UK, she was very confused that you weren't there, but I was. I think she thinks that we live together like Bert and Ernie.
JOSH KAUFMAN: Oh, I love that. We started our June tour with a bunch of traveling COVID cancellation things. A bunch of drama happened. Our first bassist got COVID. Then it was also my wife. And then our friend Michael Mendes, who was going to come and sub for her, travel got messed up and he couldn't get up in time.
Then we had to have a third bassist, this guy Jake Silver come in, and it was just kind of frantic, fun energy of trying to cram all this music into his head right before we went on stage.
It was at Levon Helm's Barn, and if you're going to have a moment like that, I hope you're in a space that feels that relaxed and cool and welcoming. It ended up being really joyful and cool and just an awesome show the first night of the tour where everything kind of "went wrong" but then flipped and went so right.
It sounds like the writing and recording of the album was much more collaborative compared to the band’s debut. How did the tighter chemistry and increased confidence help you explore folk music?
MITCHELL: I don't think this record is more collaborative, it's just different in that we were relying on a lot of traditional material the first time around, and this one is an original record. It was a lot more us dreaming things up together.
KAUFMAN: From a recording aspect…we were with our rhythm section, JT Bates and Mike Lewis. It was just the five of us, whereas the first record was a much different environment; it was like at our first residence in Berlin where there were like lots of people to pull in and collaborate with. This was a much more sort of closed setting and that probably is the biggest difference in recording.
Everyone in the group helped push each other out of their comfort zones to some degree. Why was that an important process?
JOHNSON: I wouldn't even call it a comfort zone, but I think [it's] almost better described as bringing different things out of each other. When you're just going at it alone, you have your method. It’s just we all three are really hard workers and each have a completely different style, as just anybody would. The cliched answer is we're learning from each other, but it's totally true.
"Gone by Fall," I'd never written a song like that. If I was writing that song by myself and not the three of us, I wouldn't have done it that way. We refer to it as improv comedy. It’s like you answer, "Yes," and then say, "and let's try this, too." But I've never felt outside of my comfort zone because this is just a comfortable band, but maybe outside of my normal zone, I guess you could say.
MITCHELL: I feel emboldened. I think we all trust each other's instincts a lot and it means a lot. With this band, I started to play my guitar in an open tuning. I never really had done that, but Josh Kaufman showed me how, and there's a lot of times where Josh will come up with a rhythm guitar part, but he'll want to be free to improvise so he's like, "Anais, play this." And I'm like, "I can't play that." And he's like, "Actually, you can." [Laughs]
And then it turns out I can. This is just another way of saying it's not where I would intuitively go, but it's totally within the wheelhouse.
There's a dulcimer on this record, which was an inspiration. I'm not sure whose idea it was but we all had to play dulcimer on this record at some point. I'd never picked up a dulcimer in my life, but I felt emboldened by the guys encouraging us all to do it.
KAUFMAN: It's interesting because it's not an instrument that I necessarily see us touring with, the bass dulcimer but it is a really nice metaphor for the center of the sort of creative process of this band. It's like, "No, no, you can get in on this." [Laughs]
You just have to come with your experiences almost, you know, and it's folk music, so don't sweat it. It's not a lot of chords and you can just hop in any old way. And I say that because this instrument is tuned modally, and it's tuned diatonically to another key the song is in, so you're safe. All rivers lead to the same place, which is you're making a cool, zingy sound in a song. The three of us found a different way into this instrument and used it as a textural expander on the record.
Anais, you mentioned in your previous interview with GRAMMY that one of the biggest goals for the album was not to overthink things. Why was that important and how have recent projects factored into that mindset?
MITCHELL: It’s interesting because this is our second record and the first record we made we almost didn't know we were making it. [Laughs]
It was almost a field recording. And then we put it out there in the universe not knowing if anyone would respond to it, and we were pretty surprised and really grateful for the people who actually gave a s— about the music that we were making.
We just want to stay in the flow and that's what this record really is. We love to think that we made it in the pandemic. We weren't touring the songs; we weren't testing stuff out on the road. We just kind of went in a new direction and laid this stuff down.
JOHNSON: Josh's production style has a minimalist, maximalist process a little bit. He finds the thing and…he’s thinking very hard about it, but he makes it feel like we're not when we're in there. He finds the thing and he's like, "Here's the thing. Go chase that thing."
You can cross the threshold where you're trying so hard that you're trying to try. You're in your head and you can really spend a lot of time in a studio in that environment if you don't steer around those things, so a lot of it is like navigating things.
Josh, as a producer, it seems like one of the things you strove for was giving enough sonic space for all the different elements to breathe naturally. Why is it important, that process?
KAUFMAN: It’s kind of getting the lighting right and the feeling in the room right. That room is something that you're going to then take with you everywhere you listen to that, so it's like a movable venue. I think of this as a new kind of vocal music and even though there's quite a bit of space between the vocals.
A lot of it is framing that stuff, and often Eric and Anais are singing together in the room live, so there's getting that balance right. I feel like the sort of charm of the blend is the fact that they're not too altered and they're just two lead vocals, basically.
MITCHELL: This music is different [from] what I would do on other projects in that it's committed to a kind of impressionism lyrically. Equally important is the brass and the bass to process those images in, not silence, but to be carried on this river of music, and not to fill all the spaces to tell the truth. I love that this band prioritizes that kind of space.
The music is deceptively simple, and it creates this [space] that a lot of exploring can happen, and that that can be different every night, and that's what keeps it feeling alive.
The creation of the song "California" was quite a journey. What was it like seeing that song change so drastically from inception to finished product?
JOHNSON: It started off as a little bit more like a modal folk tune…It was almost like a banjo or fiddle song. It had this very modal, sort of Dock Boggs spooky folk music vibe to it. We worked on that for a good long while and it wasn't bad sounding, but it was just one of those where you're just like, "I don't know why, but this isn't it."
It was crooked. Rhythmically, too crooked, and then melodically and tonally, a little too... not dark, but emotionally ambiguous. We usually like emotionally ambiguous, but it was too emotionally ambiguous. And then maybe 75 percent the way through, we added these major key chords…It was the kind of thing where I think if we'd started with those big, bold simple major chords, I don't know if we would have [gone in that direction.]
JOHNSON: I feel like the breakthrough happened when we hit those chords and then the lyrics were just written that afternoon, too. Once we had the breakthrough with those chords, then lyrically it was a little bit of a roadmap.
Speaking of lyrical roadmap, "California" is a bit of a thematic detour. What was the inspiration for that one?
JOHNSON: So many songs are about heading west and this myth of the wagons heading west riding into the sunset, and the song is a little bit like the opposite. It's leaving the west, leaving this land of promise for the old world.
The lyrics are meaningful, but there's impressionistic aspects to them too, where you could apply your own meaning. We've introduced the new world a little bit into it, but also we're questioning our place in the new world or something like that.
Another thoughtful song is "Summer Dream," where the band explores this theme of the ghost of summer. What about that theme fascinated you?
KAUFMAN: It’s like a thing that you maybe didn't even want but you can't stop thinking about it. And it keeps on coming back.
MITCHELL: There's that amazing Leonard Cohen song, "Chelsea Hotel," where he sings this entire song about this woman. Then he's like, "That's all. I don't even think of you that often." It's like, "Okay, but you did write an entire song about her."
JOHNSON: That's one of the favorite love songs where he's just like, "See if I care." And he's like, "Yeah, but I just wrote a whole song about it."
Beyond this upcoming tour, what goals do you have for the band?
JOHNSON: Touring has been so crazy this year. We're planning the tours and we're excited about that, presenting the songs. But I think we're always just working towards "hey, let's do this so we can keep doing more, keep making more music." We're excited to get going again.
MITCHELL: I'm excited for us to just surprise ourselves. I have no idea what our third record would be. I'm excited to surprise ourselves.
Anaïs Mitchell & Rachel Chavkin of Hadestown
Photo: Jim Spellman/Getty Images
2019 Tony Awards Nominations: New Musical "Hadestown" Leads
"Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations," "Beetlejuice," "The Prom" and "Tootsie" are also in the running for Best Musical
The Tony Awards have announced their 2019 nominees, with the most nominated performance being "Hadestown," which is up for 14 awards, including Best Musical.
Two other musicals follow in number of nods; "Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations" received 12 nominations, and "Tootsie" earned 11. All three of these plays, along with "Beetlejuice" and "The Prom," are in the running for Best Musical.
"Hadestown" was created from the GRAMMY-nominated concept album of the same name by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. The story is based on Greek mythology and was adapted into a play with director Rachel Chavkin, which recently saw its Broadway debut earlier this month.
Several of the play's other notable nominations include Best Original Score, which was written by Mitchell, Best Orchestrations for Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose and Best Actress In A Leading Role In A Musical, for Eva Noblezada, who plays the role of "Eurydice."
"Ain't Too Proud" takes the music and moving story of the GRAMMY-winning group The Temptations. It is written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Des McAnnuff and also made its Broadway debut this year, in March. The lead actor Derrick Baskin, who plays the role of Otis Williams, is up for Best Actor In A Leading Role In A Musical, and Harold Wheeler has also earned the play a nod for Best Orchestrations.
Another musical inspired by great music in the running this year is "The Cher Show," which uses the music and story of the GRAMMY-winning megastar Cher. It is up for two awards, including Best Actress In A Leading Role In A Musical for Stephanie J. Block who, of course, turns back time on Broadway.
Tune in to CBS at 8:00 p.m. EST on June 9 to watch the show, which is hosted by James Corden, live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Photo: Jay Sansone
Anaïs Mitchell On Newport Folk 2022, The Power Of Musicals & Her Eternal Bond In Bonny Light Horseman
Anaïs Mitchell released her first self-titled album two decades into her career — which speaks not only to the vulnerability therein, but her consolidative attempt to make songs with staying power.
Songwriters have likened their craft to every medium under the sun; for Anaïs Mitchell's purposes, photography will do.
When trying to capture a feeling, she tries to find a shot neither too wide nor too narrow — that "gauzy, beautiful, poetic space where there's imagery that speaks." That last word — "speaks" — reminds her of a slightly jarring story.
As the GRAMMY winner recalls backstage at Newport Folk 2022, she once met the Canadian songwriter Ferron. "She said, 'You have to understand that if you say an image, if you say a word, you summon a spirit. If you say the word 'door,' you summon the spirit of a door,'" Mitchell recalls.
As Ferron elaborated, this meant Mitchell must choose her words meticulously — so as to not agitate the spiritual plane.
"I loved that, because I think that is true," Mitchell continues. "There's something about imagery — it speaks to us that isn't always through the conscious mind. It speaks to your body and your memory and your senses." And while Mitchell has been making records for 20 years, this partly explains why she chose to make her first self-titled album — it spoke that it was to be.
In this interview backstage at Newport Folk 2022, learn about Mitchell's latest creative moves, her ineluctable bond with her bandmates in Bonny Light Horseman, and what musicals and parenting teach her about the ineffable art of songcraft.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What's been your relationship with Newport Folk over the years?
I definitely heard about Newport when I was coming up, even as a historical event — the Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger stuff. It's this legendary kind of place. I started to come to Newport several years ago; I think the very first time, I came in, played my set and then rolled out.
I've come back a few times — for my own music, and also with my band, Bonny Light Horseman. I've come to really appreciate how it can be if you hang out the whole weekend. How many folks you meet, and also, the level of collaboration that happens. It feels less like a festival and more like an artist residency.
Tell the readers about your bond with everyone in Bonny Light Horseman. I'm sure it's very familial.
So, the trio of Bonny Light Horseman [includes] Josh Kaufman and Eric D. Johnson. I met Josh when I was living in Brooklyn, and he was also living there. We started to mess around with these old kinds of British Isles folk songs.
He said, "Hey, you know who would be great for this music is my friend Eric!" And I'd just discovered Eric's band, Fruit Bats, and really flipped out for it. So, I was like, "Sounds great!" We got together and it felt very intuitive to make music with those guys.
Since then, I made a solo record this past year with Josh and a couple of guys who have often played with Bonny Light Horseman — JT Bates on drums and Mike Lewis on sax and bass. It does feel like the Bonny Light world has spilled into my own music-making and recording world, and I'm so grateful for it.
I'm sure it feels like you're not working a day in your life with those guys.
[Laughs.] They're fun. They're funny. We have a good time. It feels easy, and that's funny for me. A lot of the time I think things need to be hard. I worked on this musical, and it took a decade of my life. I was like, "I'm going to work on this thing every day for however long…"
It's like the harder you're laboring over something, the better the end result will be.
Right? It isn't always the case! Sometimes it is; sometimes it's not. And then, I think, meeting those guys and falling in love with playing music with them reminded me how it can feel easy and also be good.
You've talked about how you "want your songs to walk on their own legs." What are your techniques to write a song that can exist apart from you and widely apply to others?
You know, I did this Pete Seeger tribute the very first night of this festival, and I sang a song I had learned as a kid, growing up. Someone had taught it to me and sang it to me. I never knew that Pete Seeger had written it; I never heard a recording of him doing it. I love that type of folk song; it makes its own way through the world.
For me, it's all about finding this sweet spot between what feels intensely personal and true — that you can stand in your shoes and sing — and then also what feels archetypal. Like you're tapping into something older and younger, you know? Something that could have been sung a hundred years ago, and could be sung a hundred years from now.
That's what thrills me the most when I'm writing — that I can be in the center of that Venn diagram.
I've noticed that songs tend to begin a little more generally, and then you fill in the details as it rolls on. Is that a conscious form of architecture for you?
I could talk about songwriting for, like, hours [Laughs]. But it's like a camera lens, right? You get the wide scope, and then the specifics — and then, sometimes, you turn the lens a little too far and it's a little too specific, and you have to pull back.
There's somewhere in the middle where it's kind of this gauzy, beautiful, poetic space where there's imagery that speaks — because images speak to us. Anything you say, you know?
Do you ever write a song and then stop yourself? Like, "This spirit I'm summoning isn't appropriate for right now! It's too raw and prickly!"
I mean, I like raw! This record I made recently is interesting, because it's a self-titled record. It's the first record I've made where all the songs actually are me — the speaker in the songs is me, and the songs are actually from my own life. I'm not taking on the voice or story of another character.
Did you have a propensity for that in the past?
I have, yeah! Obviously, working on that musical for years and years — that was a grand experiment in that type of stuff. And I love that stuff also, but there was something about this record that felt like: How honest can I f—ing be? That was the job; that was the task.
That's not easy.
Yeah. To put my heart all the way on the sleeve and be OK with it. There are a few songs that took a really long time to figure out how to write, and I think I had to figure out what was true.
Who are your go-tos, as far as confessional singer/songwriters? Joni Mitchell is often the first artist that people grab for, but there are obviously so many.
Well, Joni for sure was a huge influence early on. And then when I came of age musically, when I was in high school, it was the time of Lilith Fair in the '90s. Ani DiFranco was huge [for me], and I was on her record label for years. Tori Amos, you know.
All those women — it's almost embarrassing how emotional that stuff is, but I really responded to it as a kid. I wanted to emote and express like that. People come to music for different things. Some people will come to it…
To get drunk?
[Laughs] They want to get drunk! They want to dance! And music can help you do that. And some music is to help you cry, you know? That's a thing music can do, and sometimes, I think that's part of my job as a songwriter.
Were you particularly in touch with your emotions as a kid?
For the times that I was growing up, my parents were very OK with emotions. I have two kids of my own — a 9-year-old and a 2-year-old. The popular understanding nowadays is: "See the emotion and validate it!" When I was a kid, it was less like that. It was kind of like, "Get your s— together, come back to the table and we can talk."
I think it's a popular therapeutic tool to just acknowledge and observe the emotion rather than immediately assign it meaning.
That's lifelong work right there, to be able to be OK with that.
I love that you made a self-titled record, by the way. That's a classic choice.
You know, I always wanted to do it! Usually, you do it with your debut record, and I'm now 41. I thought it was funny to do it at this point in my career, but it really did feel like, first, a return to songwriting after a long time in the theater world. And second, it was so personal and heart-on-sleeve, like I was saying.
What notes did you give Josh as a producer? I'm sure you wanted the record to leap out in a certain way. A certain bodily impact, regardless of the contents.
You know, I hadn't made a new record in a long time — especially of new songs — because I was working on Hadestown, my musical. When the songs started to flow again for me, I didn't want to look too hard at them. I didn't want to overthink them.
I remember feeling that way about the record: I need to make this thing right now. I didn't want to get in my head about what kind of record it was; I just wanted to lay it down.
So, for Josh, maybe a guiding light was wanting to keep the focus on the lyrics and the singing, because they are very wordy. That's just what my DNA is, I guess. A lot of storytell-y kind of stuff. I think he tried to create a space where that story could shine.
An atmosphere that's conducive to the feeling.
Yeah. A buoyant kind of warmth around the vocal that doesn't necessarily compete with the vocal. What I hear in the record is that it sounds very live to me, which was how it was recorded — just us in a room.
That nice, organic bleed between the musicians.
Totally! I love mic bleed! You want it to be stewing together.
As a parent, is it a trip to hear music through your kids' ears?
It's fresh to hear what my 9-year-old is into. She's into some pop music that's caught on with kids, like Imagine Dragons and stuff like that, which I wouldn't necessarily be exposed to otherwise. It's like: These guys know how to write a song.
You can appreciate the craft. It's not like it's being piped into CVS, washing over your brain.
Absolutely. And it's fun to try to turn her on to cool stuff. She's into musicals, which I love, because I've been listening to my favorite musicals nonstop. I just have a crazy amount of admiration for that craft.
I've gotten into them just from being a jazz fan. Like, "That Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is pretty. What's that from?"
What a match made in heaven, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Speaking of trying to craft a song that can walk through the world on its own legs: It used to be that the way a song got out there in the world was through a musical. That's what the musical theater was for — debuting these classic songs.
So, they were necessarily songs that could work in the musical, but they were repurposable. You could sing them at a wedding or a funeral and they would work.
What are your favorite musicals?
My all-time favorite is "Les Miz." I'll never get over that musical, and I've seen it a ton of times. It's so emotional for me, and epic, and political…
What's the best tune? I'll check it out later.
"On My Own" is a classic one. I love a lot of them — "Lovely Ladies," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." I love Sweeney Todd by [Stephen] Sondheim.
I know, right? I got tickets for my 9-year-old and I to see 'Into the Woods," which is in revival on Broadway right now. I'm very excited. But I tend to love sung-through musicals where there's not a book scene and then a song — where it's all sung. I love the trance you can get into with that type of show.
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
The all-star trio discuss their traditional-rooted, modern-grown supergroup and the joy of making, "Real folk music for everyone, which is rad"
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.
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.
Photo: Bret Curry
Will Sheff Swears Off Primary Colors, Reductive Narratives & Pernicious Self-Mythology On New Album 'Nothing Special'
The Okkervil River bandleader's story has been occasionally oversimplified and distorted in the name of commerce — and he's unwilling to let that happen again. Will Sheff discusses the life changes that informed his new album, 'Nothing Special.'
Just before logging on to Zoom to interview Will Sheff, who's out under his own name 20 years after his proper debut, this journalist spent some time tearing down vines climbing up a tree — sapping its nutrients, stymying its growth, and, if left unchecked, killing it.
Given Sheff's ups and downs in the business, the scene led to the question: Is the tree the thousands-year-old wellspring of human musical expression, which is fully able to survive and thrive regardless of capitalistic hijacking? And are the vines the music industry?
"The music business doesn't have to be this way," Sheff, a GRAMMY nominee, tells GRAMMY.com. Coming from him, this is a weighty statement.
The Okkervil River bandleader had just been describing how press narratives distort and reduce reality into cartoonish, unrecognizable forms. Six years ago, a candid, self-written bio for his album Away that touched on his grandfather's death — but was about a multitude of subjects — led to the narrative that it was all about that. Damaging in a more immediate, practical sense is the financial hit he projects he'll take from his upcoming US and Europe tours — thousands in the red.
That financial horror is partly because Sheff finally decided to put Okkervil River to bed. Despite him being the final original member still in the band, that name carried a cachet which led to steeper guarantees.
In return, Sheff has gained an artistic freedom like he's arguably never experienced before — free reign to make whatever music he wants, unfettered from the expectations of those who really, really, really want him to make another Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, or Black Sheep Boy. And Sheff's new album, Nothing Special, released Oct. 7, shimmers with the hues of everything he is now, and all he can be from now on.
Musically, Nothing Special isn't so different from records like Away: if you trisect his career, Sheff has spent roughly the last third writing from a zone of serenity, devotion and encouragement — pretty much the polar opposite of old Okkervil River songs about murder and revenge and psychospiritual downfalls.
But his current collaborators — including Will Graefe, Christian Lee Hutson, and Death Cab for Cutie's Zac Rae —, give his approach a new depth, a fresh lilt. To say nothing of vocal contributions from Cassandra Jenkins and Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman — who are both at the vanguard of forward-thinking singer-songwriter music.
Lyrically, we're dealing with a similar matrix as Away in terms of life stuff. But where said familial loss, including the partial dissolution of the previous Okkervil River band, informed Away, Nothing Special expands its scope. The album partly deals with moving to California, winding down his old band, swearing off alcohol, and caring for his ailing rescue dog, Larry.
And there's a profound loss at the center of it — that of Travis Nelsen, Okkervil River's awe-inspiring drummer and a larger-than-life personality, who had a fraternal bond with Sheff played in the band during their commercial zenith in the mid-2000s. Their friendship ended on a messy and sad note: as Nothing Special's title track goes, Nelsen "failed and fought/ In a pattern he was caught/And his family, they could not break through." Soon after the pandemic hit, Nelsen passed away.
Back to the tree, choked by the vines: Sheff would be "really unhappy" if Nelsen's life and legacy were sleuced into the oversimplification machine. He could have not mentioned him at all in this press cycle, for good reason — look what happened regarding the story of Away — but he chose to speak about him.
"Travis was a true connoisseur of rock lore, and I know that he wants to be remembered," Sheff says. "I didn't want to feel like I was profiting off of his sad story, and I want people to remember him. I want to do what I can to keep his name out there. Those were the factors that led me to be like, 'Alright: I'm going to be honest about this album.'"
And no matter whether Nothing Special is your thing or not — Sheff's intentionally not reading his own press — there's no question about it: honesty permeates every word, every groove, every expression.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Sheff to discuss the new album, his place in the industry apparatus, and the breathtaking vista of potential before him, now that he's been unshackled from the band that defined him — and somewhat confined him.
Will Sheff. Photo: Bret Curry
This interview has been edited for clarity.
It's common for artists to get burned out on their offerings long before they're actually released. Are you tired of talking about Nothing Special yet?
No, no, no. I barely talk to anybody about it, and I'm enjoying talking about it. I'll never stop feeling enthusiastic about the record. The only thing that's the mind — is anything to do with the business, which encompasses publicity and branding, which is what I'm engaging in right now as I'm talking to you.
I was saying this yesterday — I feel like I will very soon start repeating the same things. And I'll probably, always very tediously, say, "I've said this before, but…" because otherwise, I feel like a phony.
But the thing that's really a head trip is that you make an album, a song, or a collection of songs. And not everybody's like this — I think a lot of people are — but you're not necessarily thinking about the audience. What people are going to say it is, or what genre it is, or whatever.
You have to turn off that voice, or else you can't create.
Yeah, and you're kind of chewing on something in a song. It could be some really big thing that obsesses you that you need to solve, or it could be just some way to express beauty that you want to feel.
And then somebody comes around, if you're lucky enough that people care about what you did, and interviews you about it, and they ask you what went into the songs. And you tell them, because they asked you.
It inevitably ends up seeming very oversimplified, because that's what stories do. A good storyteller throws out some of the details and pumps up some of the other details to get people hooked.
It becomes crystallized, canonized. Reduced to primary colors.
Maybe other animals tell stories, but it feels like the most human thing in the universe — to tell stories and construct narratives. Story is one of the most beautiful things that we do, and one of the most damaging things that we do.
Thousands of people can die in a single day because of a story. Genocide, prejudice — these things come with all of these stories, you know what I mean? Or, like, "I'm in the right; I'm doing the right thing. The end justifies the means because of this story."
The point is, like you say, it's this complicated thing, and it gets simplified. And then somebody reads that interview — the simplified interview — and they're already imposing this simplified story on you.
Essentially, you end up with this thing that was really subtle, complex, reaching out in the darkness, a dialogue between you and whatever it is that makes you write, and it just kind of gets turned into a cartoon really, really quickly. And then you have to play along, or push against it, [when] pushing against it just seems sort of churlish or something like that.
The supreme irony of all of this is that this is something I've been trying to unpack for myself for decades, and oftentimes contributes to a lot of unhappiness for me, personally.
How would you apply this thinking to Nothing Special?
One of the things I was grappling with on this album was trying to not tell myself fake stories, and trying to not think too much about extrinsic rewards for what I'm doing.
Also, not trying to particularly peddle a really clichéd story that it feels like everybody has to peddle now, just to get somebody to turn their heads. Which is to say, "I'm the greatest!" — the most obvious thing. Rappers do it all the time; indie people do it sort of fake-ironically. It's just the currency we're asked to exchange ourselves in.
So, I do all this stuff, and then try to make this record, which really is a personal reflection of all this. But then, I have to promote it. I, like, literally pay a guy to promote it! I pay a company to get people to try to talk about me on this album, that's sort of like, "Hey, don't worry. Don't think about me too much." There's this really bizarre irony-slash-hypocrisy that may be in there that is really interesting, that I'm trying to negotiate.
In the four or five interviews I've done [at the time of this conversation], I don't feel like I've done anything really gross yet, in terms of selling myself in that cartoonish way. But it also feels like it's such a slippery slope — you know what I mean?
Just have fun with that tension! Conceptual dissonance is where so much beauty comes from. There's also that real danger of Travis and his legacy becoming distorted.
When I was working on Away, my grandfather had died, and he was a really big influence on my personality and all that stuff. It was very much on my mind. And I decided that for that press cycle, to not pay somebody to write a bio and just write the most transparent thing I could myself. And it didn't work the way I hoped it would.
What ended up happening was, there emerged this narrative of some guy who was devastated by his grandfather's death and wrote an album about it — which is, like, criminally distorted.
I had a lot going on, and I had him on my mind because his death was very sad. It was also very expected, and it was kind of a culmination of his story and life. I just feel like it turned into a distortion that made me unhappy.
When I wrote a lot of these songs [on Nothing Special] — and some of the songs that aren't on the record, because I wrote a lot of them — Travis would flit in and out of many of them. All the different ways that I was trying to celebrate him and grapple with what had happened. I could not say that. I could tell them to not put that in the biography. But I'm trying to be honest; that was a big part of it.
There are a lot of things that were a big part of it — moving, coming out to California, looking back on Okkervil River, then sort of dissolving Okkervil River. Caring for another being, starting over again, aging, looking at the rock 'n' roll business and the myth of rock 'n' roll.
And these things were not separated from each other; they were all in dialogue. I also wanted to pay tribute to Travis, because we loved each other like brothers.
Will Sheff. Photo: Bret Curry
Can you talk a little more about your relationship with Travis?
That's the most important friendship I've had in my life; maybe my friendship with Jonathan [Meiburg, author and leader of Shearwater], who is equally important. But Travis was a true connoisseur of rock lore, and I know that he wants to be remembered.
We had had a falling out over a really complicated bunch of factors. But I know from knowing him as well as I did, and from talking to a lot of his friends, that we still always loved each other and always wanted to reconcile.
I didn't want to feel like I was profiting off of his sad story, and I want people to remember him. I want to do what I can to keep his name out there. Those were the factors that led me to be like, "Alright: I'm going to be honest about this album."
But at the same time, I will be really unhappy if, when I look back on this whole promotion cycle, it got boiled down to "This was the concept album about how he was sad about Travis dying." Because it's not true. This album is about so many things, and it's all interwoven and intermingled.
Right before this interview, I tore down a bunch of vines off a tree in my yard because they were sucking out the nutrients. Does the tree symbolize art as a whole, and the vines are the music business?
Music has always been around, and the idea that it should have anything to do with business is crazy, when you think about it a little bit. It's just this bizarre shotgun wedding, trying to reconcile capitalism with an activity that people do that other people really appreciate.
Furthermore, I think the idea of musical celebrities, and musical stars, is also slightly gross. I like the idea that up until very recently, music was just something that a lot of people did. And they did it for fun! They did it for community, and for entertainment.
It was like, "My daughter's getting married! Have Joe come over; he plays the fiddle!" It wasn't like everybody was sitting around, interviewing Joe and asking him for the influences on the jig he just played, and Joe was wearing Wayfarers, giving cryptic answers to their questions before hopping on his private jet. It's kind of disgusting.
And those stories we talked about fold into that.
We love stories; I love those stories. I love stories about Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Alex Chilton. But as fun to think about as it is, it's a sick and f—ed up system — especially when it comes to getting to live a life that's extravagant, while other people are living these miserable, hand-to-mouth existences.
Because we love stories, it's really entertaining to have a Bowie. Maybe you can see yourself in the exaggerated, larger-than-life aspects of things that happened with Bowie. [But] I like that David Bowie never changed his name, and he was David Robert Jones.
I guess the best way to try to be a rock star is to just understand that you're really like a vessel for other people's projections and entertainment, and just go, "Hey, man, I'm just here to entertain. Please don't worship me. If I make you laugh, make you smile, give you a good Saturday night's entertainment, then it's worth me wearing this stupid outfit and acting like such an ass."
But if it's all about me getting some disproportionate reward, then it kind of becomes gross.
For a while, you've been making music that deals with something close to serenity, which is not a sexy nor clickable concept. Most fans probably got into Okkervil River almost 20 years ago, when you were screaming about murder. Can you talk about that tension between who you are and what people want you to be — or pay you to be?
Like any artist, you follow your nose — and when I was younger, I wrote in a younger way. I wrote in a way that was really informed by where I was at in my life, and where I had been — specifically, what I had experienced.
And I don't mean to make it sound like it's worse than anybody else, but I'd experienced a lot of pain and hurt. And — this is not uncommon with men — it sort of transformed into anger, and I had a lot to prove.
I think this is true of me now, and has always been true: I have a tendency to go there. When I'm writing, I have a tendency to want to go to the place that makes people — or me — uncomfortable.
Those songs, where I dealt with things like murder and suicide and very violent feelings — I don't regret any of those songs. I don't think that they came from a hurtful place, and I think, probably, at the end of the day, they were a net positive for people who really liked them. I hope and think they were more cathartic than stirring up shittiness, or anything like that.
But the engine for a lot of that was anger and hurt and pain, and as a human, I very much felt like I needed to figure out how to not hurt people, and how to help people, and be present for the people I loved and notice them and see them and pay attention to their feelings and not be unhappy.
Like, nobody wants me — and I certainly don't want any of my friends who are in their 40s — to be drug-addled, chasing tail, only wanting to play three chords on an electric guitar. You get older, and you start to see all the different tones and all the diversity of musical expression, and it's my job to always try to make it new and reflect what I want out of music. That was a real big shift.
Which isn't always appreciated by the drunken frat boys screaming for "Westfall."
Yeah, there are some people who really imprinted on the anger and the rage. And it wasn't just young men; I think it was women, too, who kind of identified with it.
Maybe they put me in that drawer. I don't think it was malicious, but it's like, they just want that again. But I don't want to be miserable. These days, I feel like I go there with religion and spirituality and big existential questions.
I think that maybe that actually makes people uncomfortable. And I think the discomfort that people feel about murder and violence is actually very familiar. We all like gross, grimy, dark anger, and I think some of the more spiritual stuff actually makes people very uncomfortable.
I really enjoyed watching critics squirm at lines like "Brother, I believe in love" from the last record [2018's In the Rainbow Rain].
Yeah, yeah. What's fun about that is just going full[-on] risking being called a stupid hippie. I like the idea of exposing yourself to criticism and failure.
I was talking to somebody about some record in the past, and they were encouraging me to write quote-unquote bulletproof pop songs. I was thinking about that metaphor, and nothing could be further from describing the kind of music I like.
I don't want my muse to be an impregnable fortress, a bulletproof vest, a tank rolling through town. I want it to be porous and vaporous. Easy to ignore, easy to make fun of. Going out on a limb, inviting the listener in.
It shouldn't be like an irrefutable argument; it should be just a strange artifact that you are called to interact with, or something.
Even on that extreme end, your work never lands in a sense of gross grandiosity, or a Messianic complex. I love the ending of "Evidence" from Nothing Special, because a lesser songwriter or arranger would have built that chorus to absurd heights. Instead, you chose to let it waft in and out, and gently settle.
It's funny how you talk about it being a decision, because I never thought about that. It speaks to the difference between the two ways of looking at a song — the making of it, and then the talking about it after, which are equally important, I think.
I always want to say "This is the song I'm most proud of," because I love all these songs in different ways. But "Evidence" really articulates a lot of fundamental feelings I have about life, at this point in my life. And I think the music does just as much to articulate them as the words. I really did want that song to be comforting. Soothing, and not necessarily papering over pain, but something that would make people feel fundamentally good.
When you're talking about turning it into a big chorus, that was something I thought a lot about in its absence on this record — never pushing anything.
"Like the Last Time" pushes, I guess, because that's just what naturally happened in the studio. That song wasn't supposed to rock out that hard. It just sort of happened. I'd say my biggest goal on this record was to never oversell anything.
I love how Nothing Special is predicated on these diatonic, very simple melodies. I know you've talked about Bill Fay in those terms.
When you say that, it's funny, because I don't think about things in terms of theory too much. But I definitely had this thing where I was like, "I want these songs to be melodically very singable, and lyrically very gettable," even if there's a lot in them.
You've made the difficult decision to go under your own name, despite the financial hit. But now, you've torn off the Band-Aid. You could theoretically just keep making solo records of any kind, and the fans will continue to follow you wherever you go. How do you see the next decade of your career?
I don't know what the future holds. And sometimes, when I look back on my favorite artists, it does feel like decades really have the power to destroy people's careers. A really obvious example is when alternative rock and grunge came along, and suddenly, all these '80s bands seemed like they were 100 years old. Some of them never recovered.
The closest thing we ever had to being connected to the zeitgeist was that brief 2006-to-2010 stretch. I don't think we were ever the front-runners. We would just be mentioned in the same conversation as a bunch of other bands.
I feel like I've managed to keep going and fly under the radar. When I think about my favorite artists with the longest careers — Dylan is an exception that proves the rule; he's not a good artist to compare your career to — I think about somebody like Michael Hurley.
I love that he's just been doing the same thing his whole life, and there's really never been a drop-off in quality. His records all sound the same; they're all really good! You're never like, "He's over the hill; he's passed around the bend now."
The most exciting thing about getting to be Will Sheff instead of Okkervil River is that I feel like there aren't any rules about what I can and can't do. When I made this record, I wasn't really thinking about whether it was Okkervil River or Will Sheff or anything other than just making music.
But as a result, I think [with] the next record, I'll feel a lot more emboldened to do whatever I want stylistically, and not feel like it has to square with someone's conception of what the brand Okkervil River sounds like.
You could go full Lovestreams, or you could play a single lute.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! I could go like Sting and just start playing John Dowland on lute, and more power to me!