When Bonny Light Horseman announced their debut album last summer, the folk supergroup was heralded by Americana fans as some kind of holy union. But singer Eric Johnson is well aware of whom the project isn't going to please.
"One thing that's been sort of our mantra throughout this is that it's not a research project," says the Portland musician and Fruit Bats frontman. "We're not making, like, conservative folk, ultra-traditionalists, happy with this one."
You could argue that's Bonny Light Horseman's greatest strength. Due for release this week, the group's eponymous, debut record is one that venerates folk's history while breathing modern life into the genre. The trio, which consists of Johnson, Tony-winning singer-songwriter and playwright Anaïs Mitchell, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, has created a beautifully haunting entry into the annals of folk music.
Despite an obvious reverence for the past, the collection of songs on Bonny Light Horseman—many of which are traditional songs the group has altered with new lyrical flourishes and modern arrangements—is hardly a genre study. The tracks are imbued with the band's personality, elevating them beyond mere facsimiles of a musical past. It's timeless folk music instilled with a modern mysticism.
"There's three of us in the band, but we're coming from two directions, in a way," Johnson explains. "Anaïs is bona fide and definitely comes from a 'real' folk background—not just as a singer-songwriter, she grew up with these old folk records in her house and can tell you where all these songs came from. Josh and I come from a more rock and pop background, and our entry points for this type of folk music were the Grateful Dead, Incredible String Band, and the Byrds."
It's that alchemy of respect for the art form and a willingness to experiment that make the album special. Many of the tunes benefit from the kind of beautifully haunted instrumentation you'd expect from the trio, especially the band's sparse, gorgeous update on Southern standard "Jane Jane" and, of course, their forlorn take on Napoleonic War lament "Bonny Light Horseman," delivered with Mitchell's soaring, breathy voice.
The album was made in an atmosphere extremely conducive to experimentation: Justin Vernon and the National's Aaron Dessner's 37d03d artist collective in Germany invited Johnson, Mitchell and Kaufman to be artists in residence for a week.
"That whole crew is amazing. Beautiful people," Johnson says about the band's time with 37d03d. "I have a hard time describing what they actually do or what they provide—but it's the Lord's work in terms of what they do for artists. They're either light years ahead of their time or they're just idiots [laughter], because there is just no financial point to what they're doing. A hyper-democratic, nebulous platform for artists—that's the future, or it's some timeless beatnik thing."
Johnson could very well be describing the record. There is an ageless quality to Bonny Light Horseman, as though the trio were conjuring the sounds from some larger, indefinable magic, but the work is also undoubtedly stamped with each artist's personality.
That confluence of influences and skill elevates Bonny Light Horseman above a mere vanity project of successful musicians. While steeped in tradition, the songs are rife for exploration in a live setting, and Johnson says he's excited to explore the expansiveness of the tunes on tour. The singer is also clearly enthused about dueting with Mitchell, and says Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris' heavenly harmonies served as inspiration during the album's recording. Neither he nor Mitchell have ever sounded as goose bump-inducing as they do on Bonny Light Horseman.
"It's exciting man, the whole recording process sort of felt like we were in this dream state," Johnson says. "We're all very busy with things obviously, but we're all pretty dedicated to this band. We don't want it to be just a side project. I'm excited to see where we take it."
One thing's for certain, though—Bonny Light Horseman isn't interested in staying the same, folk purists be damned.
"This music is always supposed to evolve, and much of it was written before people could record music," says Johnson. "So who's to say what 'year zero' of these songs sounded like? This is just another link in the chain."
SEE IT: Bonny Light Horseman plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., mississippistudios.com, with Johanna Samuels, on Friday, Jan. 24. 8:30 pm. Sold out. 21+.