Photo: Chantal Anderson
Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson On New Album 'A River Running To Your Heart' & His Career Of "Small Victories"
With each new album by Fruit Bats, the trope of the precocious, tortured artist loses more credibility. Almost 25 years after Eric D. Johnson started the project, he's arguably on his hottest streak.
Which musical epoch do Fruit Bats belong to?
It's not quite the '90s, even though that's when Eric D. Johnson started the project; he wouldn't release his first album until 2001, nor sign to Sub Pop until the following year. But Fruit Bats aren't exactly an early-aughts phenomenon, either.
"I felt like I was watching it from the sidelines and hoping I might get thrown a bone," Johnson recalls of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era to GRAMMY.com. "But it was more like my friends got really big and I was sort of the perpetual opening act for the next 10 years."
Johnson readily says that's the paradigm that produced him. But as he remains an extremely active artist, it would be unfair to seal him off there as a remnant of the past. Perhaps the trajectory is best seen as an arrow gradually trending upward. And, in 2018, shooting upward.
That was the year that two magnitudinous events happened: One was that he formed Bonny Light Horseman, his celebrated folk trio with Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman. Another is that he signed to the prestigious indie label Merge.
Since then, Johnson has received long-overdue plaudits, and produced some of his finest work: 2019's Gold Past Life, a 2020 full-album cover of Smashing Pumpkins' classic Siamese Dream, and 2021's The Pet Parade.
Now, he's out with A River Running to Your Heart, out April 14. True to the album title, Johnson feels like the warmth and camaraderie he enjoys with Mitchell and Kaufman flows directly into the heart of this new Fruit Bats. "It's hard not to be totally inspired by them." he says, calling both projects "interwoven" and" inspirational."
Partly as a result of this, mellow, sophisticated songs like "Rushin' River Valley," "We Used to Live Here" and "Sick of This Feeling" have a special patina to them: they feel connected to Fruit Bats' past while reflecting the creative universe Johnson inhabits.
In that way, A River Running to Your Heart proves that Fruit Bats aren't the province of a decade — or two — ago. Rather, they're a band for right now. Read on for an in-depth interview with Johnson about the genesis of Fruit Bats, the road to the new album, and the nuts and bolts of his recording process.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me about your creative path over the past few years, leading to A River Running to Your Heart.
My perspective on it is weird. I've been doing this for a really, really long time, and it was kind of like this slow, slightly bumpy, very gradual first 16 years — which is [itself] a really long time.
Then, things kind of happened, but then slowed down again. Then, in 2019, I signed with Merge, made that Gold Past Life record, and then the [2020 debut] Bonny Light Horseman record came out during the pandemic. I think you either were or you weren't extra-productive during that 2020-and-2021 time.
So, it's felt like a bit of a blur. But all I know is that last year, I played 113 shows with both bands, and we've been kind of going full tilt with both bands. It's been kind of a weird few years of craziness, basically.
You've had hills and valleys in your long career, but this must feel like a boom period to you.
It is. My glass-half-empty person is like, "Why couldn't I be 30 when this happened?" With lots more physical energy and everything like that. But also, oh my god, this is incredible that this is happening to me, because it took me a really, really long time.
I have musician friends in their thirties and forties who are on hot streaks after years of nonstarter projects. I think the notion of the 22-year-old genius as the platonic ideal — think Brian Wilson making Pet Sounds — is revealing itself to be nonsense.
It's nonsense. I think the median age has gone up. I'm almost hesitant to talk about it because it feels so weird. But I use age 30 as an example, because I remember back to that year, being like "Ugh," and feeling like, "I'm an old codger at this point!"
I'm 30, and a musician. I feel that way.
Yeah, but that's 16 years ago. I feel fine still, and I'm still doing stuff, and things are going well. But also, it's exciting to have a long history and everything, and be appreciated for that. But of course, I'm always like, I don't want to just be an old-timer talking about how great it is to be an old-timer.
In that timespan, guitars and singing have gone in and out of vogue. Was there ever a point where you felt like the indie train had left the station?
It may have already left the station. I don't know. Its death has been announced many times.
I come from a weird era, too, because I had friends 10 years older than me who were from the '90s indie times. I wasn't old enough to have experienced that. I maybe caught the tail end. I always describe that as a beautiful time of very low stakes. It truly was DIY, and there was no notion of success in it. It was underground music, truly.
I remember being in Chicago, being an indie-rock fan, young. It was before I was really doing bands in earnest, and it would be Tuesday night at Lounge Ax or something. The biggest indie band would come through, and that's 200 tickets or something like that — where you're just like, Wow!
Then, there was that early 2000s boom, which I had a front-row seat to but didn't get [chuckles] swept up in either.
Now, it's something else. I don't even know what. There's so much thinkpiece-y stuff you could say about it now. I don't have a good perspective on what's going on with indie music.
It seems like you don't consider yourself to be of any era or ilk. You're just a person making music, and whatever people want to lump you into is none of your business.
Yeah. I feel very connected to the roots of independent music — I really do. I admire it so much. I'm on a venerable indie label that I was a huge fan of when I was young, and I got to be on Sub Pop at one point, too.
I think when indie became this buzzy, big business in the aughts — again, I was there, but I didn't reap any benefits from that [at the time]. I didn't make it big until after that was over. I don't even know if I've made it big yet, either.
But basically, what I'm trying to say is that I've lived in a lot of eras and weathered a lot of storms, and you never have any perspective on it when you're inside of it at the moment.
During lean times for this kind of music, how did you maintain your fire and inspiration?
I think I've always had small victories and been OK with that. I think there's a certain kind of fortitude that certain people have or don't have. I'm OK with being told no, and I'm OK with embracing one inch forward or something like that. So, I think that kept me going.
But also, I remember running into some friend who was like, "I remember you saying 'I'm quitting.'" So, I don't even know. Sometimes I forget that I probably was much more negative-seeming back then, but I managed to not quit and just keep going, for whatever reason.
Bonny Light Horseman was a watershed for your artistry? How would you characterize that triangulation?
It's the first band I've ever had, really, since my first pretty short-lived indie rock band in the '90s. This is the first time I've been in a democratic band where it wasn't just my own nom de plume.
I guess the easy paraphrase is we have complementary skillsets, but we also have a deeply equal level of respect for each other, too. There's sort of a deference there. There's a balance there that's not a balancing act. When we got together, it worked.
I was just listening to A River Running to Your Heart through a Todd Rundgren lens, thinking about how he built those arrangements like towers. Tell me how you built these songs from the grooves up.
I'm glad you asked about the grooves, because there's actually a couple of songs where we did something really unique: "Rushin' River Valley" and "Waking Up in Los Angeles."
Actually, "See the World by Night," too, where I had written these things on a drum machine. Josh Adams, who's been my longtime drummer, came in and we were sort of messing around.
He's like, "Why don't I just perform the drum machine? Why don't we make a drum machine out of me, so it's kind of these short loops based on a drum machine, but where we took it and created our own organic [sound]?"
Plenty of people do that — looping and Pro Tools, or something. But we actually built it almost like it was a sequencer. Rather than just looping him playing, we actually modularly built these grooves, and some of them kind of skip the one and stuff.
So the beat turns around a little bit, and that was just sort of a happy accident. I'm not a singer/songwriter that sits with an acoustic guitar or something, writes an acoustic song, and then we go work it out.
Nothing against that either; we actually do that with Bonny Light Horseman. But with Fruit Bats, I'm hyper-cognizant about tempo and how it relates to a lyric, or possible lyric, or melody, or something like that. Because I'm a singer first and foremost. That's the thing that's always going to be at the center of it for me.
So, everything is usually built off a drum machine and groove of some kind. Writing and demoing are kind of one and the same. So, it's kind of one big process, but it always starts with that tempo thing. That makes me happy.
When learning a digital audio workstation for the first time, one struggle I had was to get out of the grid. The click track is necessary, but it can also box you in and make the music inorganic. How do you avoid that sense of boxiness?
I find that I slowly drift out of the grid and forget it's there. Unless you're going to make some kind of major structural change to the session or something — which I do sometimes — but that's usually fine too. But you start with the grid and then you forget about it.
Josh Adams is one of the greatest play-to-the-click or play-around-the-click drummers, too, where he can stay on the grid and yet also play off it too. You could kind of start with the grid and then continue to add human elements.
Unless you need to make some kind of major structural chop, the grid becomes totally irrelevant after a few more tracks that you've added.
What are your favorite subliminal — or even accidental — aspects of A River Running to Your Heart?
There's a nice moment in "The Deep Well" where there's an iPhone recording of me and my friend Andy Cabic from Vetiver walking in New Orleans, and there was some kind of boat with a pump organ on it, or something. I was just getting a little field recording, and I said, "Do you want to walk towards it?"
There's something about the capture of that line, which is completely off-the-cuff and natural. That's an interesting line — what does that mean, exactly? Do you want to go explore something? I don't know exactly what yet.
Eric D. Johnson. Photo: Chantal Anderson
In 2023, where does the onus for music-making lie? Is it making ear-catching records? Tightening up as a touring act? Just writing great songs?
In a way, it's like we're back to the '60s where you're going to top-load a record with the jams. I don't really know. I am personally always trying to make super-connective music, and I think that [had to do with] kind of getting out of lo-fi when I did go into a bigger studio.
I did realize I'm still a child of '80s radio, and I was actually interested in blasting out of your speakers. But I was coming from this lo-fi background, too, so you could kind of hear that on the first few Fruit Bats records. It's like this lo-fi attempt at making hi-fi music.
Then, later, I got better at hi-fi music in general. I think the [debut] Bonny Light Horseman record was super-connective, and obviously has great fidelity and everything, too. It's not a lo-fi record, but "Deep in Love," that was a single take at 1:00 in the morning. That's still one of my biggest songs I've ever been involved with.
So, I think there was an emotional chord of that song that somehow was connected. There's a little bit of fairy dust involved, too, or there's really good engineering. I've been revisiting INXS…
Underrated, and then you're like, "This sounds expensive," when you hear that, but you're also like, "It was worth every penny." Then, there's some cool lo-fi song that was just totally off the cuff, but has an emotional core.
I think there still isn't a rhyme or reason for it. If you hear music that's very cynically engineered to be as hard-hitting as possible, you can kind of hear that. It sounds corny, but it it's coming from the heart, then it means something to someone.
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.
Photo: William Arcand
It Goes To 11: Meet Charlotte Cardin's Trusty Wurlitzer That Has "Sparked" All Of Her Best Songs
After years of searching for the perfect keyboard Charlotte Cardin finally found her beloved vintage Wurlitzer — and the instrument transformed the Canadian singer's sound.
Charlotte Cardin spent years searching for the perfect keyboard. And when it comes to her vintage Wurlitzer, the wait was well worth it.
"This piece of gear is very important to me because most of my songs that I've ever written were sparked at this exact keyboard," she says while seated in front of the instrument, which she bought in near-perfect condition from a man who lived just 30 minutes from her Quebec hometown.
"It just feels like a beautiful thing to me that instruments have connections with humans and they're passed on to different people," the Canadian songstress continued. "I feel like when I got this instrument, I started writing songs that had a bit of the essence of [it]. To me, a Wurlitzer sounds very, like, nostalgic. It has a bit of a sexy sound but it's also light in a lot of ways."
Indeed, the Wurlitzer helped give birth to the 12 tracks that make up 99 Nights, Cardin's sophomore album released earlier this summer, as well as her latest one-off single "Feel Good."
"I'm never getting rid of it," she vows of the hand-me-down keyboard. "At one point, I wanted to potentially bring it on tour with me! Maybe I'll buy another one that's a little more beat up…but I feel like this one belongs in my home, always."
Photos (L-R): The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images, Jody Dominigue, Jack Bridgland, courtesy of the artist, Michael Tranafp, Rodin Eckenroth via Getty Images, Paras Griffin via Getty Images
15 Must-Hear Albums This October: Troye Sivan, Drake, Blink 182, NCT 127 & More
Don't let the falling leaves bring you down — read on for 15 albums dropping in October from Taylor Swift, Gucci Mane and Riley Green.
Fall has already begun, and 2023 enters its final act with the beginning of October. However, that doesn't mean the music has to slow down — this month offers plenty of new releases for everyone from rap fans to country aficionados.
The month starts with Sufjan Stevens and the release of Javelin, his first fully-written album in eight years. On the same day, after several postponements, Drake will finally put forth For All the Dogs. Later in the month, blink-182 will make a long-awaited return with One More Time…, their first album featuring the original members since 2011, and Migos rapper Offset will drop his sophomore record, Set It Off.
Don't let the falling leaves bring you down — below, GRAMMY.com compiled a guide with 15 must-hear albums dropping October 2023.
Sufjan Stevens - Javelin
Release date: Oct. 6
The last time Sufjan Stevens released an album fully written by himself was 2015's Carrie & Lowell. Javelin, his upcoming tenth studio album, will finally break this spell.
Mostly recorded at Stevens' home studio and featuring contributions from several friends (including the National's Bryce Dessner), the 10 tracks of Javelin bring back sounds of "70s Los Angeles' studio opulence" and vibes of a "detailed yet plain" self-portrait, according to a press release.
The album also features a cover of Neil Young's "There's a World" and an ambitious, 48-page art book with collages and essays written by Stevens. Javelin is preceded by the soothing single "So You Are Tired" and the spaced-out "Will Anybody Ever Love Me?"
NCT 127 - Fact Check
Release date: Oct. 6
Within the NCT constellation, NCT 127 is the subgroup anchored in South Korea's buzzing capital, Seoul. Since debuting in 2016, the nine-member ensemble has been infusing the city's vibrancy with innovative EDM and hip hop mixes.
On Oct. 6, NCT 127 will return with their fifth studio album, Fact Check, bringing in another round of their experimental K-pop sound. Consisting of nine songs, including lead single "Fact
Check (Mysterious; 不可思議)," the album expresses 127's confidence.
So far, they released a wealth of teasers that are linked to NCT's overall "dream" concept, video contents, and a highlight medley of the album tracks. After the recent ronclusion of NCT Nation, NCT's first full-group concert in South Korea and Japan, fans are expecting 127 to announce tour dates.
BoyWithUke - Lucid Dreams
Release date: Oct. 6
Mysterious masked singer and TikTok phenomenon BoyWithUke will continue his dream-themed saga with the release of Lucid Dreams, his fourth studio album.
According to a statement by the Korean American star, Lucid Dreams is meant to express "my desires, my fears, my past, and my dreams." He also adds that the each song on the album is "like a different step on the path. I'm facing past traumas, making the music I want to make, and figuring out who I am."
That development can be seen on pre-releases "Migraine" and "Trauma," where he opens up about mental health and childhood struggles over signature ukulele strings. In his own words, this album is truly "BoyWithUke blossoming, spreading his wings, and finding himself."
Drake - For All the Dogs
Release date: Oct. 6
The album's tracklist is still a mystery, but it will reportedly feature names like Nicki Minaj, Bad Bunny, and Yeat, with production credits from 40, Bnyx, and Lil Yachty, among others. For All the Dogs is also linked to the Canadian rapper's debut poetry book, Titles Ruin Everything: A Stream of Consciousness — a 168-page collection written in partnership with longtime friend and songwriter Kenza Samir.
The album follows Drake's two 2022 studio albums: Honestly, Nevermind and Her Loss, in collaboration with 21 Savage. Currently, Drake is finishing up his It's All A Blur North American tour — one of the reasons why the album has been postponed before.
Troye Sivan - Something to Give Each Other
Release date: Oct. 13
On an Instagram post, Australian singer Troye Sivan stated: "This album is my something to give you — a kiss on a dancefloor, a date turned into a weekend, a crush, a winter, a summer. Party after party, after party after after party. Heartbreak, freedom. Community, sisterhood, friendship. All that."
Something to Give Each Other is Sivan's first full-length album in five years, following 2018's Bloom. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he revealed many of the inspirations behind this work, including partying, movies like Lost in Translation and Before Sunrise, and simple, ice-cold glasses of beer.
The trippy atmosphere of the album can be felt through pre-release singles "Rush" and "Got Me Started" — which features a sample of Bag Raider's omnipresent 2011 hit, "Shooting Stars."
Offset - Set It Off
Release date: Oct. 13
Migos rapper Offset said in a statement that his sophomore album, Set It Off, took over two years to finalize. "This season is personal for me. It marks a new chapter in my life," he added.
A follow-up to his 2019 debut LP, Father of 4, the album will feature appearances by stellar names such as rapper Future, Travis Scott, Chloe Bailey, and Latto, as well as Offset's wife Cardi B, who appears on single "Jealousy."
Later in the statement, Offset said he feels "like Michael Jackson coming from a successful group breaking records to superstardom on my own. This body of work is healing for me and a letter to my fans and supporters." Lead single "Fan" brings back that comparison through many Michael Jackson references in the music video — a clever choice for the rapper's keen self-awareness.
Metric - Formentera II
Release date: Oct. 13
Exactly one year after the release of Formentera, indie royalty Metric took to social media to announce their ninth studio album, Formentera II. "Sometimes I feel like I'm in a damn maze and maybe you do too, or maybe you have it totally together, or maybe you feel like you're always floating somewhere in between," they wrote. "Wherever you're at right now, I am here to guide you to the rocking️ conclusion of our Formentera I & II odyssey."
The Canadian band also shared lead single "Just the Once," which was described by vocalist Emily Haines as a "regret disco" song in a press statement. "It's a song for when you need to dance yourself clean," she added. "Beneath the sparkling surface, there's a lyrical exploration of a simple word with many meanings. Once is a word that plays a game of opposites."
In support of the release, Metric revealed another single, "Who Would You Be For Me," and will be playing special concerts in NYC, L.A., Toronto, London, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Monterrey, and Santiago starting Oct. 10. The concerts will also celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut LP, Old World Underground, Where Are You?
Riley Green - Ain't My Last Rodeo
Release date: Oct. 13
Alabama country star Riley Green has a moving story behind his second full-length album. Echoing the 2019 hit "I Wish Grandpas Never Died," Ain't My Last Rodeo came from one of the last conversations the singer shared with his late grandfather, Buford Green, who was an essential figure shaping his love for music and nature.
"I was fortunate enough to grow up within about three miles of my grandparents, so they were a huge part of my growing up and who I am — and this album is a lot of who I am," Green said in a press release. "This is really the first time I was able to really take my time, write and record songs that really felt like a cohesive album."
Ain't My Last Rodeo features 12 tracks (including a cover of Tim McGraw's "Damn Country Music") and collaborations with Jelly Roll and Luke Combs. In February 2024, Green will embark on a 34-stop tour throughout the U.S.
The Drums - Jonny
Release date: Oct. 13
As its title suggests, the Drums' upcoming sixth studio album, Jonny, dives deep into current solo member Jonny Pierce's life. According to a press release, the album mainly explores "the deep-rooted childhood trauma Pierce experienced growing up in a cult-like religious community in upstate New York."
The singer explains further: "When I finished Jonny, I listened to it, and I heard my soul reflected back at me. It is devastating and triumphant, it is lost and found, it is confused and certain, it is wise and foolish. It is male and female, it is hard and gentle.
"To encapsulate one's whole self in an album, to honor each and every part of you, even the parts that feel at odds with each other, is to make something deeply human, and because my religion is humanism, the album becomes a sacred place for me to worship. Each feeling a different pew, each song a hymn to the human heart."
In the past few months, Pierce gave insight into the 16-track, indie-pop collection through singles "I Want It All," "Plastic Envelope," "Protect Him Always," "Obvious," and "Better." Jonny is the band's first full release since 2019's Brutalism.
Gucci Mane - A Breath of Fresh Air
Release date: Oct. 17
Following 2016's Ice Daddy, Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane's sixteenth studio album will be named A Breath of Fresh Air.
In it, Mane is likely in his most vulnerable, relatable state yet. "I kind of wanted to let people know that I go through pain," he stated in an interview for Apple Music (via Revolt). "Like I said, I didn't want to have so much just superficial topics. I hit people and let them know, 'Hey, this was going on,' but it ain't a bad thing. It's okay to be happy. You know what I'm saying?"
According to iTunes, the album is set to have two discs and 24 songs, including singles "Bluffin" featuring Lil Baby, "Pissy" featuring Roddy Ricch and Nardo Wick, "King Snipe" with Kodak Black, and "06 Gucci" with DaBaby and 21 Savage.
blink-182 - One More Time…
Release date: Oct. 20
blink-182's newest single, "One More Time," is a hard-earned reflection about what really matters in life. The punk rock trio, which hadn't been reunited since 2011's Neighborhoods, now realizes how personal struggles impacted their friendship, and how they hope to make it different in the future.
"I wish they told us, it shouldn't take a sickness/ or airplanes falling out of the sky," they sing, referencing Travis Barker's 2008 plane crash and Mark Hoppus' 2021 cancer diagnosis. "I miss you, took time, but I admit it/ It still hurts even after all these years."
A proof of maturity since they stepped into music in 1992, the heartfelt single is also the title track off upcoming LP One More Time... Featuring 2022's "Edging" and "More Than You Know" as well, the album was recorded mostly during their reunion tour this year, and boasts 17 tracks in total.
Sampha - Lahai
Release date: Oct. 20
Lahai is Sampha's grandfather's name and his own middle name. Now, it will become part of his musical history — the singer's sophomore studio album and follow up to 2017's acclaimed Process is due Oct. 20.
Over social media, Sampha described the record through a series of words as intriguing as his music: "Fever Dreams. Continuums. Dancing. Generations. Syncopation. Bridges. Grief. Motherlands. Love. Spirit. Fear. Flesh. Flight." Featuring contributions from singers like Yaeji, El Guincho and Yussef Dayes, it will feature 14 tracks that seemingly take a more positive tone than his previous work.
In a statement about lead single "Spirit 2.0," the south London singer said "it's about the importance of connection to both myself and others, and the beauty and harsh realities of just existing. It's about acknowledging those moments when you need help — that requires real strength."
Starting Oct. 12 in his hometown, Sampha will play a string of concerts throughout the U.K., Europe, and North America, wrapping it up on December 4 in Berlin, Germany.
Poolside - Blame It All On Love
Release date: Oct. 20
"I've spent 15 years being like, 'f—your rules,' and I finally feel like I'm not trying to prove anything or anyone wrong," says Jeffrey Paradise, the man behind "daytime disco" project Poolside, in a statement about his upcoming album, Blame It All On Love.
"It's just pure, unfiltered expression, and that's why I'm really excited about this record," he adds. The album bears 11 tracks described as "funky, soulful, laidback, and full of hooks" — as can be seen in singles like "Float Away," "Each Night" featuring Mazy, and "Back To Life" with Panama. According to the same statement, "the production marks a return to his live music roots and finds ease in simple and radiant layers of sound, even as it comes face-to-face with the complex reality of one's dreams come true."
Blame It All On Love is the follow-up to 2020 and 2021's duo Low Season and High Season. Poolside is on tour across the U.S. until Oct. 14.
Black Pumas - Chronicles of a Diamond
Release date: Oct. 27
Black Pumas' long-awaited second studio album, Chronicles of a Diamond, is "wilder and weirder" than its predecessor, according to an official statement. It is also the Austin-based duo's "fullest expression" of "frenetic creativity and limitless vision."
The album contains 10 tracks that expand on their trademark psychedelic soul sounds, as it can be seen in singles "More Than a Love Song" and "Mrs. Postman." "I wanted to make something we'd be thrilled to play live 200 days a year," says singer/songwriter Eric Burton in the same statement. "I wanted to be able to laugh, cry, bob my head, do the thing: it was all very much a selfish endeavor."
After the release, the Black Pumas will embark on a U.S. tour starting Dec. 4 in Austin, Texas, and follow into an European tour starting March 15 in Paris.
Taylor Swift - 1989 (Taylor's Version)
Release date: Oct. 27
Just three months after the release of Speak Now (Taylor's Version), Swifties will be treated to the singer's fourth re-recorded album this month: 2014's 1989. "To be perfectly honest, this is my most FAVORITE re-record I've ever done because the five From The Vault tracks are so insane," she revealed over social media.
As usual with Swift, the announcement of the album was marked by a slew of hints, starting with the news' date — Aug. 9, or 8/9 — during the final U.S. stop of her Eras Tour at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium. On that day, she also debuted new, blue outfits that alluded to 1989's assigned color. Afterwards, the discovery continued through a partnership with Google Search for fans to solve word puzzles in order to discover the titles of the five "From the Vault" tracks.
The album, which Swift said "changed my life in countless ways" will be available in digital, cassette, CD, and vinyl. She will also release deluxe versions in four different colors: crystal skies blue, rose garden pink, aquamarine green, and sunrise boulevard yellow.