Indie-Folk Royalty Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman Update Ageless Folk Songs as Bonny Light Horseman
By Sarah Finegold, ASCAP Marketing Coordinator • February 11, 2020
The self-titled debut album from traditional folk super-squad Bonny Light Horseman is a love letter to the transatlantic folk canon and its abiding emotional resonance. The project is the brainchild of three indie folk superstars: ASCAP members Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman, along with Eric D. Johnson of The Fruit Bats. Mitchell, whose long-labored folk opera Hadestown finally landed on Broadway to the tune of eight Tony Awards and a Grammy for Best Cast Recording, has also woven a colorful tapestry of inventive folk pieces like Young Man in America and Child Ballads. Josh Kaufman is a jack-of-all-trades producer, songwriter and musician who has lent his chops to acts like Hiss Golden Messenger, The National and Yellowbirds, and has also produced the excellent Day of the Dead compilation, a talent-stacked Grateful Dead cover album benefiting the the Red Hot Organization. The trio’s mesmerizing collection of updated traditional folk ballads breathe new life into the traditional music canon, creating something distinct and unique. We got some insight into the new album from Anaïs and Josh.
What is your personal relationship with these kinds of transatlantic folk songs?
Josh Kaufman: I’m fascinated by the clash of the sounds, like the transcontinental aspect of it. I came up getting into the revivalist folk people, like I would put The Grateful Dead in that category, even Bob Dylan or people like that, and Sandy Denny and that kind of stuff. And I was fascinated by that sort of modern lens, but that a lot of these old songs, they’re unbreakable, and they last so long in the feeling that they give you. The lyrics, the things that they’re singing about, the sadness of loss and the passion of people’s relationships. All that stuff is all very present in human experience, and I love that - that it’s just lingering for hundreds of years.
And I like the folk tradition in that you’re sort of allowed to mess with it and to make it new. And [the fact] that it so easily accepts that revitalization is exciting. There’s also not a lot of sharp turns in the music, so it’s fun to bring other people in, too, and it’s such a beautiful thing to be able to share and collaborate with people. Eric and Anaïs are just super generous collaborators and really good friends of mine, and it’s a really joyful thing to be able to create with them, and use that music in that way.
Anaïs Mitchell: I remember coming across “Willie O Winsbury” and “The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy” in the Rise Up Singing songbook when I was a kid. I’ve always loved folk music, but I had a real awakening about 10 years ago when I first was exposed to Paul Brady for the first time. His song choices, his playing, and his CRAZY singing really launched me on a path... the path led to Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention...and eventually to my collaboration with Jefferson Hamer, called Child Ballads.
How did you meet each other? How did you decide you were going to make this album?
Mitchell: I had met Josh and been inspired by his music, but hadn’t worked with him until Alec Bemis of Brassland Records put us together to make a collaborative one-off track with Kate Stables of This Is the Kit. Josh and I are both huge Kate fans. We did that, and then Josh and I just kept talking, sharing ideas and demos. We are both lovers of traditional music, especially stuff from across the pond. It was Josh who suggested we rope in Eric, and I was a new Fruit Bats fan, so very excited about the idea. Eric is ALSO into this overseas trad stuff and brings to it this real muscularity and heart. I find it wildly exciting to sing with him. We started making music as a trio in preparation for a set that Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] and Aaron Dessner [of The National] offered us at their Eaux Claires festival (before we even had a band name). Later that summer we participated in their 37d03d residency in Berlin and recorded half of our album there.
Kaufman: Eric and I go back a little while. We did a West Coast tour together, I want to say maybe eight years ago, and we had a lot of musical friends in common. My wife I used to be in this band called the Yellowbirds and we supported group acts. We were also the backing band for a tour and became buddies with Eric. He’s just been kind of like a light, you know? He’s been around and we’ve been around each other and done a lot of things together, like the Alone & Together project, which is with Joe Russo and some other musicians, Elvis Perkins and Kevin Morby.
And Anaïs and I met through a friend, a drummer named Ray Rizzo. The three of us got together through being invited to be artists-in-residence at Eaux Claires...that was a couple of summers ago now. And they were looking to us to sort of collaborate on something that we were excited about. And Anaïs and I had started kind of tooling around with some old songs. There’s that song “Lowlands” on the album. And that was the first one that we had our way with, and so we had a start; we had a few songs. And we wanted to bring Eric into the fold.
At that point we didn’t have a band name, we didn’t have finished songs or anything. We just were excited about collaborating together on that kind of music. So we met up and worked for the better part of a week writing and collaborating, working towards a set of songs. Weirdly, our first gig was on this big giant festival stage. And then we got invited to this other residency, the PEOPLE festival at the Funkhaus in Berlin, which was later that year, to collaborate more – and that was great because it sort of gave us a chance to record some of the material that we did, retooling and writing and having these, you know, adventures with.
You recorded this album in Berlin and upstate New York, two places with robust creative histories but very singular vibes. What was it like recording this album at The Funkhaus with that group of people? Did it feel different when you were recording in New York?
Mitchell: Both Berlin and Woodstock feel dreamlike to me now. In Berlin, we arrived in this sleep-deprived, sort of emotionally vulnerable state, and just launched into arranging and recording all these old songs and grabbing anyone we could find out of the hall to play it with us. It was a truly collective experience, we had no idea what we were doing or what would come out of it and it didn’t matter, but there was some kind of grace in the experience of it. Woodstock was a little more deliberate, and we were a smaller group. The trio was joined by JT Bates (drums, percussion) and Mike Lewis (bass, saxophone). Still though, I think some of our best takes from that session were one-offs and happened in the middle of the night.
Kaufman: [Berlin’s] a special place. I think as a touring musician, you get used to being thrown into these different towns and you exist in this little bubble. You arrive, you go straight to the cool venues. You’re in the part of town where the cool restaurants are. It doesn’t necessarily feel like you really fully experience the place. And so, I think that what the festival did in a cool way was it put us in the city, put us all in a hotel together and we were there for seven days or something. So it was kind of like experiencing the city. It’s happening in the background, and you’re being immersed in the culture in a subtle way, in a regular, everyday life kind of way.
And I think because of the idea of the performance – the performance aspect of that festival was almost an afterthought, and it was really about each artist that was there bringing new context and giving some time to new ideas and creating new work. So for Anaïs and Eric and I, it was the rare time to be able to just focus on that new stuff, and it wasn’t mercenary. It was just purely creative.
There’s a story that I tell that puts some light on what was going on there, and it sounds kind of dreamy but it’s real: we were recording a very small little folk song, a take on the John Henry story that we wrote called “Mountain Rain.” And I was saying to Eric and Anaïs, “It would be so great if we just have this little pulse on this song.” And I heard a tambourine just rattle in the hallway and I opened the door and there’s Andrew Barr, and he had just dropped his tambourine. And I was like, ”Andrew, do you have like literally three and a half minutes to play on this song?” He said “Yeah!” And he ran in and he grabbed this tom tom and he put a tee shirt over it and he played the little pulse on the recording. And that just sort of happened, you know?
I think that the week was a series of those kinds of events. For Justin [Vernon] and Aaron [Dessner] to sort of raise that kind of group of artists was really special and rare. I feel really grateful that we had the opportunity to all be there at the same time.
Visit Bonny Light Horseman online: www.bonnylighthorseman.com