Photo: Shervin Lainez
The Hold Steady's Craig Finn On New Album 'The Price Of Progress,' The Band At 20 & His Constant Search For New Stories
For singer Craig Finn, modern life is endlessly fascinating. And his characters in the Hold Steady's new album, 'The Price of Progress,' grapple with it in all its disorienting dimensions.
For most of their two-decade career, the Hold Steady have traveled in a bus, not a van. But just a few weeks ago, with their hardest-touring days behind them, the cult rock band found themselves back in a six-seater, like the old days — in England, for a string of Rough Trade in-stores.
While packed like sardines, their brainy yet utterly unpretentious leader, Craig Finn, had something of an epiphany. "I was looking around, and there were three of us this way, and then three of them facing this way, and I'm like: Here it is. We're still in the van; we're still enjoying each other," he tells GRAMMY.com.
"As we turn 20 — which is this year," he continues, "I think one of the most beautiful things is that the friendships are still intact."
Indeed, the Hold Steady have crossed an impressive rubicon. They've made it to two decades together, happy, fruitful and energized — and with an upcoming oral-history book, The Gospel of the Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels, out Jul. 25, to mark this milestone.
Catch any night of any residency, and it's still guaranteed to be a rowdy lovefest, a feedback loop between the galvanized band and their beery disciples. Riveting storytelling, bar-band bonhomie, Midwestern boys who landed like space invaders in Meet Me in the Bathroom-era Brooklyn: that's the Hold Steady for you.
And after nine albums as a unit, including five acclaimed solo records, Finn is not even close to running out of stories to tell. The band's inspired latest LP, The Price of Progress, out Mar. 31, finds Finn's characters flailing through life in contemporary Western society, in all of its boundless access, convenience-on-steroids and spiritual unmooredness.
In "Grand Junction," a couple driving through the expanse of Colorado battles over the woman's Amazon wishlist, frequented by creepy strangers. In "Sixers," another woman watches NBA replays alone while flying on stimulants. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways," Finn describes. Rarely does that inertia feel so crackling and alive.
Read on for an interview with Finn about The Price of Progress, how he avoids repeating himself or losing inspiration, and the rare feat of keeping a rock band together for 20 years — with more of a rabid, grassroots following than ever.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What fascinates you about the experience of living through this particular time in human history, in Western society?
The Hold Steady's been pretty prolific — nine records in 20 years. And then I've got the solo records — five of those. I'm constantly writing songs; there are songs coming out all the time. It's not like, "Oh, I pulled this one back from 2009." These are always fairly fresh. So, they're always being written under the influence of whatever's happening in the world.
But I've been doing this podcast ["That's How I Remember It"] and I had George Saunders on, the writer. I thought in his newest book [2022's Liberation Day], the sort of late-stage capitalism backdrop had moved up a few steps.
That's very much what I feel about this record. I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways. That sort of adjustment is what we're going through now — the sensation of reeling.
And that's where these characters find themselves. They're a little older than the ones I started my career writing about, and they're being affected in different ways.
Before we continue to unpack The Price of Progress, how would you draw a conceptual thread between this album and its predecessors?
[2019's] Thrashing Thru the Passion, which was the first album we did with Josh Kaufman producing, was kind of a collection of songs we recorded a little bit piecemeal. But [2021's] Open Door Policy was the first album we made with Josh where it was like: This is going to be an album.
The Price of Progress is the continuation of that. There's a comfort in working with Josh; we went to the same studio, same producer, same engineer. It was like, We know this works, and there are going to be no surprises. Like Open Door Policy, a lot of the songs talk about people — their work, how they survive, how they get by.
Those are two threads that definitely connect the last two records. I think they speak to each other in that way.
And as far as making it: a) because we're older, b) because we don't live in the same exact place anymore — a couple of us live in Brooklyn; one lives in Manhattan; two are upstate, and one's in Memphis — there's a lot more trading files leading into it, where people are sending stuff around, sending ideas, and I'm writing lyrics to different ideas people are sending me.
And then, we go through a period where we all get in the same room, physically, and play these songs — try to build them into songs. Then, there's a third part where Josh, the producer, comes in and says, "What if we tried this? What if we tried this?" We kind of put him through those stages and ended up with the record we have.
How do you keep your storytelling sharp so you don't end up repeating yourself or losing impact?
But he talked about taking things in. If I'm feeling stuck or feeling like I'm doing the same thing again, I like to just stop and read something. Or watch a film, or something. Make sure I'm taking other stories in and thinking about how other stories are told. Thinking about how I relate to my own stories. That really helps me.
What have you been reading, listening to or watching lately that's been inspiring you?
I've been reading the new Bret Easton Ellis book <a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/01/19/1149929589/bret-easton-ellis-first-novel-in-more-than-a-decade-the-shards-is-worth-the-wait">2023's [The Shards], which I love. It's really hard to tell what is him, because it's set in his high school and he's the lead character, but it's a novel. So, as far as storytelling, it's kind of confusing in a good way. I've really been enjoying that; I'm about halfway through.
When I'm playing shows, sometimes I can't read anything of much depth except for rock bios. So, we were in Rough Trade in England the other day, and I picked up a biography of Fat White Family, who are totally insane, and that was very entertaining. I read that in, like, a sitting.
The last thing I watched that I really liked was "Industry," the British finance drama — which seems pretty lurid, and probably a little more sex-and-drugs than working in finance in London, but who's to say? I don't know.
I forgot they worked with him! That book is harrowing. All I could think about, as a 51-year-old man, is how hungover I would be. It's like: How are you walking around? How bad do you feel? But I guess youth is different.
Can you talk about your specific inspirations for the characters in The Price of Progress? Are they wholesale inventions? Amalgamations of real people? Reflections of your past or present?
All of the above.
For instance, the first song on the record, "Grand Junction," talks about a couple that's driving out west. I've done that this year; I bought a car in Arizona and drove back. So, there's some me in that, but in the story, it's a couple; I was just with a platonic dude friend.
But the couple was fighting, because the woman, she's got an Amazon wishlist, and strange dudes she talks to online are sending her presents, and the dude — her partner — is not that into it, so they're fighting about that.
So, you know, I did drive through Grand Junction, Colorado, and I thought that'd be a good place for a song, but then I made up the rest. I was thinking about people who ask for presents on Amazon, and how that's sort of a modern thing that didn't exist 10, 15, 20 years ago.
It seems like you guys are growing more and more ambitious as per how the music can reflect these stories in a way that transcends simple rock songs; the arrangements and production are growing more ornate. How do you conceptualize and execute these musical backdrops?
I think part of that is thinking about it ahead of time and reflecting it in the demos we're passing around. Some of that is also Josh Kaufman.
We've kind of had three periods of the Hold Steady. 1.0 would be, like, up to [2008's] Stay Positive, and then [keyboardist] Franz [Nicolay] leaves, and then [guitarist] Steve [Selvidge] comes in. That's kind of 2.0, and we made two records that way, and then Franz came back in 2016 and we made three.
In this 3.0, I think a big part of the story is how Franz and Steve have learned to play together — against each other, with each other — because they are the two people who, up until fairly recently, haven't been in the band together. So, in some sense, that's allowed us to expand a lot.
Also, now that there's six of us, I think Josh Kaufman does a good job of directing traffic. Just because there are more people there doesn't necessarily mean it's going to sound bigger. It could sound smaller if everyone's playing at once.
So, creating space with everyone and making sure everyone's got their space — I think Josh does a great job of that, and I think that's led to a more expansive sound on these records.
On that tip, I tend to be more interested in asking about moments on records than songs. Would you like to shout out any MVP moments from your bandmates on this album?
I think the rhythm section had a particularly great showing on this record. When I listened to it most recently, that was what stuck out to me. There's a drum fill on the first song, "Grand Junction," that blows my mind.
But what's especially interesting is: on the fourth song, called "Understudies," it's really somewhere we haven't gone. There's strings; it's almost got, like, a disco thing. It might be like our "Miss You," like when all rock bands made disco songs.
In the third verse, there's a bass thing that's panning back and forth. It's a real funky [Mimics a syncopated bass line] and it's going back and forth in a Nile Rodgers sort of situation.
I was out of the room in the studio, on the phone or something, and I came back, and Josh and [bassist] Galen [Polivka] were working on that, and I was like [Mimics mind-blown gesture] Wow! That is awesome, and that has absolutely never been done on a Hold Steady record before.
I've always thought of the Hold Steady as existing in a similar realm as other bands I adore, like Drive-By Truckers and Guided by Voices. These acts aren't necessarily chasing hits or trends; they're just consistently productive and excellent — almost meekly so. Can you talk about how your various personalities merged to create a well-oiled machine — one that's built a following on a local, grassroots level?
It's funny, because when [guitarist] Tad [Kubler], Galen and I started the band, we weirdly talked about wanting to have a band that people felt part of. I really experienced that from hardcore, mainly; I didn't want to be in a hardcore band, but I was like, What if we had a rock 'n' roll band people felt that away [about]?
From what I've read of the Clash — and Mott the Hoople also — their followers really felt part of it. They sort of had this army marching with them. I'm not exactly sure how we did it, but there is a community, now, around this band that feels supercharged. Just getting back from London, where we do these weekends every year, there are people from all around the world, and they all see each other that weekend, and they all plan on it.
When we were right about to start, I saw the Drive-By Truckers at Bowery Ballroom. I wasn't sure I wanted to be in a band; I'd been in a band in my 20s in Minneapolis. But when I saw that show, I was like, This is my model, sort of. They're never going to be of the exact moment, because they're timeless, you know? But they shouldn't go wildly out of style, either, because there's always a place for it.
I guess that's what we tried to do. I definitely think of them as peers — friends and peers, because before too long, we were touring with them, and we got along like wildfire.
Any great rock 'n' roll band should become better than the sum of its parts, and there's something about getting on stage; everyone plays their role. There has to be an understanding that six people are going to have to move around.
To turn the clock back once again: when the band's stature and fanbase were precipitously growing, and you were on late-night TV and all that stuff, how did you nurture and engender that cult following?
I think one thing that makes it easier — or less difficult — is that this band started when I was 31. I think I had some perspective as to what it's like to be in a band that's not working.
So, I think we still have a lot of gratitude. We're grateful for the things we get to do. I say it jokingly, but also very truly: it's the best job that I've ever had. I think we all take it very seriously and know that we have to respect it and remain in gratitude.
I remember interviewing Jay Farrar of Son Volt about that band's early days; he told me stories about doing "crazy things" like hooking a U-Haul to a Honda Civic and bankrolling studio time on his girlfriend's credit card. In the early days of the Hold Steady, what did you guys do that would make you cringe today?
We had this box truck that we bought. It was a windowless box truck, and it was converted by these guys. Someone connected it to the Bouncing Souls, but it wasn't them. At the time, we thought it was f—ing amazing. You went in, and there was a cab up front, and there was one seat behind, but then you entered a door into this windowless box.
There was a couch that was not bolted down. There was a TV; you could play video games. There was a loft; the merch lived up there. If you were really tired, you could go up there and sleep among the merch, but every time the brakes hit hard, the merch box would fly off and become like a missile. We thought it was amazing, and now, I'm just so thankful that we didn't die in that.
One time, we did a western Canadian leg of a tour, and we drove over the Canadian Rockies in Banff. It was raining, and there were tiny roads; I remember that it was white-knuckled, and, like, please let us get to the end of that. I remember coming around one corner, and there were mountain goats all up the side of this very sheer-looking face. It was beautiful, but it was terrifying.
I don't know how Drive-By Truckers made it through those hard-drinking, hard-touring days intact.
You know, I asked them about that. I asked who drove, and I guess [co-leader Mike] Cooley drove. He was the late-night driver. I was fascinated by that, because by the time we met them, they were on a bus. Actually, so were we.
Twenty years in, I've really come to like the van better than I like a tour bus due to sunlight — seeing sunlight more often. A tour bus can make me and a lot of other people pretty depressed. I don't think that's talked about enough. We talk about mental health in rock, but we put people in these submarines, basically, and they go from town to town.
My biggest example is — because I just did a solo tour in a van — when you drive from Portland to Seattle, it's so beautiful. But if you're in a tour bus, you're in, like: downtown Portland, ehh, and then you go in the bus and you go to downtown Seattle, ehh, and you see none of it. It's disorienting, in some way.
Craig Finn performing with the Hold Steady in 2006. Photo: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Speaking of that solo tour, you've built an acclaimed body of work on your own, in parallel to this cult rock 'n' roll band where energy keeps flowing between yourselves and your audience. How do you conceptualize your solo work versus the Hold Steady? Do some stories seem more appropriate to tell on your own?
In some ways, it's pretty easy, because in the Hold Steady, I pretty much just write the lyrics. People are giving me the music, and I'm writing the lyrics to it.
For the solo stuff, I'm either here with my piano or an acoustic guitar figuring out very basic chords. Josh Kaufman, who also produces the solo stuff, does a little more co-writing on [that]. But when I do that, the stories in those songs tend to be smaller.
I have this joke that in the Hold Steady, someone's always falling off the roof or getting shot. In the solo stuff, they might just be sitting in a supermarket parking lot, wondering what happened with their life.
So, it's maybe a little less dramatic, but maybe a little more vulnerable, and probably a little closer to my own life.
Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
6 Things To Know About Margo Price: Her Struggles, Writing Process & Unforgettable Success Story
Country-adjacent singer Margo Price is a craftswoman with gallons of candor. At a special GRAMMY Museum event, she got real about her new album, 'Strays,' and memoir, 'Maybe We'll Make It.'
The adjective "vulnerable" is something of a music press cliché. Margo Price is capital-v. Because before she released her 2022 memoir, Maybe We'll Make It, she was in a state of abject terror over how her family would react to her confessions therein.
"I was having panic attacks, thinking about all of this being out there," Price told The Guardian. "I know what people do on the internet, and I was imagining the names they were gonna call me. They're gonna say I'm a horrible mother, that I'm a drunk."
But then, there's that word again: "I also [hope] that people are going to appreciate my vulnerability."
This attribute — married to sterling craft — has launched Price into the stratosphere; none other than Willie Nelson provided a blurb for Maybe We'll Make It's front cover. ("Margo's book hits you right in the gut — and the heart," he wrote. "Just like her songs.")
As she details in the book, the masterful Nashville singer/songwriter knocked around town for more than a decade in search of a record deal, and dealt with poverty, alcohol abuse and numberless other calamities. But Price was stubborn and persistent; her ascent began with her exceptional 2016 solo debut Midwest Farmer's Daughter, released on Third Man Records.
She continued her winning streak in 2017 with All American Made; the following year, she was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best New Artist. That streak continued with 2020's That's How Rumors Get Started, produced by Sturgill Simpson. In 2023, she released another excellent album, the Jonathan Wilson-produced Strays, which she's promoting alongside Maybe We'll Make It.
At a recent edition of the GRAMMY Museum's "A New York Evening With…" interview and performance series at the Greene Space at WNYC and WQXR in New York City, Price sat down with moderator Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. Together, they discussed the counterbalances of Strays with Maybe We'll Make It, and her wild, tragic, joyful story that's contained in both; the result was a window into Price's psychology.
Here are six takeaways about this GRAMMY-nominated master of words and melodies.
Her Album And Memoir Influenced Each Other
Early in the conversation, Finn inquired about the dynamic between a book and an album, as the publishing process typically takes much longer than the writing and recording process.
"They definitely ended up kind of influencing each other, because I was working on them in tandem," Price said. "I did kind of lose myself in it for a moment. My husband would say things like, 'You haven't written a song in months.' I was like, 'I'm an author now.'"
Price Finished Her Memoir Through Routine
In 2018 — upon getting pregnant and coming off the road — Price needed to keep her mind busy.
Despite not having a book deal, she and her husband, fellow musician Jeremy Ivey, would take their son to school, go to an East Nashville coffee shop and write from "about 8 in the morning until maybe noon or 1. And I just did that for maybe five or six months." By her telling, there were "many, many, many drafts" prior to the one we can hold in our hands today.
Observing Herself From The Outside Proved Beneficial
In reading about her experiences in the way a consumer of her memoir would, Price identified a seam of compassion for herself that she didn't realize she had.
"You can suddenly give yourself a break. I feel like I'm my own worst critic," she said. "There was always a breadcrumb to keep us going — and then there was something to knock us back down." However, "if there wasn't a struggle, I wouldn't be Margo Price."
Patti Smith's Memoir Influenced Her Own
"I had heard some of her songs and things before, but I think once I really devoured her written works, I started digging into her albums," Price said of Smith. "And I just thought it was incredible the way that she used poetry and just felt unafraid to throw it all in the pot and mix it all up."
On the literary front, one cue Price took from Smith was her use of descriptive detail for everyday scenes: "She talks about living off of tomato soup," she says, connecting that to the $2 frozen tilapia filets and bags of edamame she and Ivey used to subsist on.
"When you can taste what's going on, it puts you there in the kitchen with us," she said. "You can starve with the artist."
Price Is Becoming More Open To Collaborating — Judiciously
Price is skeptical of some of the team-ups she sees in the music industry. "Sometimes, I see a collaboration happening," she says, and I'm like, 'That looks forced. I don't know, man. I feel like they're just doing that for the Spotify plays.' So, I really try to only do it if it's meaningful."
Somebody in her camp presented a list of potential writing partners; she didn't bite. But when her manager suggested GRAMMY-winning guitar great Mike Campbell, she changed her tune.
"I'm like, 'Duh, of course. We're trying to write Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs over here anyway, so if we can get him in on it, then it legitimizes the whole thing… he sang on ["Light Me Up" on] my record, and it was just very natural."
She Might Join Your Band
"I'd love to play more drums," Price said during a brief audience Q&A before performing tunes like All American Made's "Pay Gap" and Strays' "Country Road" for the crowd. "Just drums in a band sometime, where I'd just be in the pack. It'd be so much less pressure.
"I need to find a gig," she added mirthfully. "If anybody knows something, let me know after the show."
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.
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.