Of course, that doesn’t always sit well with his fans.
“There was a situation with a song I’d written about a relationship that didn’t end up working out, and I didn’t want to sing it anymore—but a woman really wanted to hear it,” Bondy says from his home in Los Angeles. “I very politely declined her request, more than a couple times, but she didn’t give a fuck. She needed me to do it. I was like, ‘Is it really like that now? I’m a fucking jukebox?’”
Such is the burden of having penned songs people care about. But personal integrity is important to the 38-year-old songwriter—particularly because, in his younger days, he feels he let his integrity slip away. Before transforming himself into a folk-flecked troubadour—Believers, his third record of dark, haunted Americana, came out last month—Bondy fronted Alabama alt-rockers Verbena. The band signed to Capitol, recorded an album with production by Dave Grohl, had unfathomable amounts of money dumped into it, then promptly imploded in 2002. A group that started as three teenagers playing for the love of music allowed delusions of rock-’n’-roll grandeur to turn it into, in Bondy’s words, a “corporate pet.”
“I completely lost my fucking way for records two and three, and it sucked every last ounce of joy out of something I enjoyed doing,” he says, the regret and self-directed anger still lingering in his voice. “I deserve what I got for giving up on my instincts.”
Much of what he’s done since is atonement for that experience. After Verbena broke up, Bondy moved to upstate New York, where he spent two years “staring out of a bay window at a barren Catskills winter landscape, smoking cigarettes and hoping HBO would play a decent movie.” He married the sister of roots revivalists the Felice Brothers, who introduced him to music by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey. It was just the revelation he needed. “It was new to me,” Bondy says of the old blues and folk he immersed himself in. “It was a complete and total break from the past.” Inspired, the songs began to pour out of him. American Hearts, his 2007 debut under his birth name (A.A. stands for “Augeste Arthur”), captures only a handful of the spare, lonely tunes he wrote during that period. “I probably had three albums’ worth of material,” he says. “Only one surfaced.”
Compared to the spontaneous burst that produced his first album, Believers is a more “contemplated” work, Bondy says. At its core, the album—recorded with the band that toured with him in support of 2009’s When the Devil’s Loose—is still the product of “a three-piece in a room.” Working with producer Rob Schnapf (who has worked with Beck and Elliott Smith as well as Verbena), Bondy added additional layers of sound, augmenting his enigmatic lyrics with evocative textures, and came away with a record that feels downright cinematic. Opener “The Heart Is Willing,” with its persistent rhythm and foreboding guitar, approximates Southern Gothic krautrock, replacing the feeling of cruising the Autobahn with that of a nervous stroll through the woods; the muted rumble of “The Twist” conjures the unease of an approaching storm. Although there are still moments that recall the wounded intimacy of American Hearts, the album is an evolutionary step forward for Bondy. It might not satisfy every fan, but this is the precise album he wanted to make, and for Bondy, that’s what matters most.
“If nobody liked this record, I’d be upset by it probably, but I can’t make it for them in the first place,” he says. “Even though I’m affected by people’s opinions, if I ever made anything considering what listeners will think, it wouldn’t work.”
SEE IT: A.A. Bondy plays Mississippi Studios on Tuesday, Oct. 4, with Nik Freitas. 9 pm. $12. 21+.