Bonny Light Horseman: Labor of Love

Larson Sutton on February 3, 2023
Bonny Light Horseman: Labor of Love

“This is where I come to shed my identity,” Anaïs Mitchell says of her membership in Bonny Light Horseman. The indie-folk trio released their sophomore album, Rolling Golden Holy, just a few weeks earlier, and Mitchell is currently enjoying a crisp, autumnal October morning in Vermont, as well as some well-deserved time off. But, in a few short weeks, she’ll hit Europe for a round of November solo performances, then devote the first few weeks of December to a string of Bonny Light Horseman dates.

Mitchell and her bandmates, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman have spent the past few years carving out time to regroup between their respective musical and family commitments— just don’t call Bonny Light Horseman a “supergroup.” The three find few words more objectionable than that one. So much so that they requested explicitly that their publicist omit it from any band bios or collateral press material.

Yes, the band does unite three exceptionally talented individuals that established and maintain successful careers away from Bonny—Mitchell, a solo artist and Tony Award[1]winning composer; Johnson, the creative force behind Fruit Bats; and Kaufman, a sought[1]after composer, sideman and producer. Yet, as Johnson attests, “From the get-go, this was not a side project.”

Bonny Light Horseman’s roots trace back to an invitation from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner—who has worked closely with Mitchell and Kaufman— to perform at the annual Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in Eau Claire, Wis. in 2018. Kaufman was the initial link between Johnson and Mitchell. In fact, he happened to be dining with Johnson in Los Angeles when Mitchell called somewhat randomly.

The singer was performing a solo gig in Denver when she heard a pre-show song by Johnson’s Fruit Bats playing over the house system. Enamored with the tune, she called Kaufman, who had worked with Johnson, and the producer/multi-instrumentalist suggested that they all meet.

“Yes, let’s do it,” Mitchell said.

Their musical chemistry was instant and undeniable. The Eaux Claires appearance led to another invite from Dessner, this time to take part in an artists’ residency in Berlin, Germany. And that’s where Bonny Light Horseman really started to take shape.


Before Berlin, before Eaux Claires, and for much of the previous decade, Mitchell’s focal point was Hadestown. The musical premiered regionally in Mitchell’s home state of Vermont in 2006, before she recorded the set of songs for her Grammy-nominated 2010 solo release. On the heels of the album’s success, Mitchell teamed with director Rachel Chavkin in 2012 to rework the production. Seven years and several iterations later, Hadestown debuted on Broadway in March of 2019. A certified smash, it ended up receiving 14 Tony nominations and winning eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.

“All of us were hungry for something like [Bonny Light Horseman]. We all manifested it for different reasons,” Mitchell says. “[Hadestown] required every part of my creative attention. I couldn’t write other songs. I had to work on this musical all the time. Then, I met Josh.”

Mitchell and Kaufman first met during a one-off recording session with This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables for an Amazon exclusive single, “Woyaya.” Quickly zeroing in on their mutual love of traditional and British Isles folk music, the pair began to explore working together on a collection of covers. They also drew inspiration from the olden narratives for originals of their own. “It opened a window in my life,” Mitchell says. “It was life-giving.”

In Berlin, the burgeoning Bonny Light three discovered a Cold War-era complex, Rundfunk der DDR, which was once home to state-run radio station. Accessible by boat or bus, The Funkhaus, as it is know, turned out to be an ideal location for jamming and recording. “It was just this big, weird old building with a lot of rooms in it,” Mitchell says. “It was a found space, like we were squatting. It was bizarre but, acoustically, it was very beautiful inside.”

The event’s primary focus was to foster a sense of collaboration—the three musicians used borrowed gear, and borrowed British Isles folk numbers, as the basis for their repertoire, and Stables, Vernon and Dessner also stopped by to lend an ear to their promising tracks. Uncertain about exactly what they had, the nascent group returned to the U.S. and booked time at Dreamland Recording Studios in Hurley, N.Y.

Owned and managed by veteran drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel; Indigo Girls), Dreamland exists within what was once St. John’s Church, a 19th-century place of worship tucked into the Woodstock, N.Y., region of the Catskills, just west of the Hudson River. At Dreamland, they polished up the Berlin tracks to a presentable shine, then released their 10 song, eponymous debut album in January 2020. They supported the record with a short tour ending in February, just before the world shut down.

Had a similar fate fallen on a fledgling band without such sterling credentials, COVID could have easily derailed Bonny Light Horseman. Instead, the pandemic and its ensuing slumber merely momentarily delayed their inevitable second album. “The lifespan of the first record was cut short, and we thought, ‘Let’s just make another one,’” Johnson says. “We didn’t lose momentum at that time because we made this second one. Bonny Light Horseman didn’t go to sleep.”

The three gathered at Kaufman’s house in New York for a brain-dump of demos and ideas, continuing to utilize British Isles folk as a jumping off point. However, the musicians agreed that their sophomore release should exclusively spotlight their original and collective songwriting. Johnson, for one, brought only sketches of songs, rather than completed compositions.

“I made sure not to finish them,” he says. “I didn’t want to.”

Kaufman, who produced the debut, agreed to reprise his role on the follow[1]up. The choices in front of him, he says, were exciting. In one instance, Kaufman introduced the dulcimer—which each of the three would take turns painstakingly learning. “It’s always cool to bring in a new instrument,” Johnson says. “It rearranges your melodic brain.”

Kaufman also suggested composing on piano and working to a programmed beat rather than simply riffing on guitars or banjo. The alternate instrumentation added valued personality to the skeletal ideas that would become Rolling Golden Holy. “The demos for this record all have kind of an identifier, like a guitar line, a piano part or a background vocal moment. They have these little ornaments that you hang on the arrangements of the songs to help them speak a little more,” Kaufman says.

Even though Bonny Light Horseman’s first release incorporated several guests, this time the trio made a conscious decision to pare down and record as a core unit, alongside their now-solidified rhythm section of drummer JT Bates and bassist Mike Lewis. Dessner offered his Longpond home studio for the initial tracking in July of 2021.

Meanwhile, their debut continued to shine. It opened in the Top 100 on the Billboard charts and, in March of 2021, earned a Grammy nominations for Best Folk Album while their tune “Deep in Love” received a nod for Best American Roots Performance. While certainly appreciated, the critical and commercial success of their self-titled first album had no effect on the construction of its successor. “To answer the public’s call as to who you’re supposed to be?” Johnson asks rhetorically. “That was not thought about. We didn’t think, like, ‘How is this going to sit with people that liked the first one?’” Bonny Light Horseman came together in a blur; the outfit’s second record was crafted with much more clarity. There were carryovers, for sure—the expansive sound of open-tuned stringed instruments, as well as the predominance of love as an overarching theme. There was also the precious commodity of space within the arrangements. For Kaufman, this was an essential element. “The space between is kind of coveted space for us,” Kaufman says. “When Anaïs and I were first writing these songs, we were talking about the space between the words, the space in between the narrative part of the lyric and what happens musically. We asked ourselves, ‘How you can color it emotionally and bring new meaning out of the lyrics.’”

photo: Dean Budnick


Kaufman’s reputation as a producer, composer and ace sideman rose out of stints with some of the indie-rock and folk scenes’ more luminous stars, including Hiss Golden Messenger, Josh Ritter and The Hold Steady. In recent years, he’s also circled back to his Grateful Dead roots, steering Bob Weir’s first solo record in nearly 40 years, 2016’s Blue Mountain. As for producing a band he’s in, Kaufman has always preferred offering his suggestions through the music.

“I love this part of my job so much. [Producing and playing] blur a lot,” Kaufman says. “It’s easier for me to communicate with music when we’re making music than it is when I sit on one side of the glass, and you sit on the other and we meet up after the take. It’s so much easier to have that very primitive, visceral relationship with someone, where I’m sitting right next to them with my instrument.”

At Dessner’s Longpond recording space—which is located in Stuyvesant, N.Y., on the eastern side of the Hudson—the band embraced their pastoral surroundings. Over a week’s time, ahead of an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, the quintet worked daily, mostly tracking live as an ensemble. As with their Berlin summit, the results were promising and, at the end of the week, the session’s engineer, Bella Blasko, ran a rough mix for Kaufman.

By Kaufman’s estimation, they were about three-quarters of the way fully satisfied. He suggested they go back into the studio after Newport and build on their most successful Longpond ideas. For the next session, the group returned to Dreamland, or what Johnson calls “home court” for Bonny Light Horseman, and completed the record.

Rolling Golden Holy is a love album. Of the 11 songs, seven contain the word love, and all but “Someone to Weep for Me” have at their center a narrative about relationships. Johnson, the group’s resident watchdog for song sequencing, is thrilled that the collection opens with the lyrics “Love, love, love” on “Exile,” and closes with the question, “Do you love me?” on “Cold Rain and Snow.”

“We knew we weren’t going to come in and make a record filled with jagged edges,” Johnson says. “As much as there are huge themes that are important to be singing about right now, the world does need love songs. Just thinking about our hearts is a good thing.”

Mitchell clarifies that they were not writing about “young, breathless love.” Rather, it’s a type of love that has been tested and trusted, developed through the years of marriage and committed relationships the three musicians currently enjoy. Themes of travel and transition are present, too, much of it autobiographical—indeed, each member of the trio relocated during the pandemic.

The album’s finest attribute may be its balance. Musically, it’s a beautifully quiet and affecting set, like bare tree limbs dusted with snow, with stirring vocal arrangements that flow as one. Yet it’s equally adventurous, suggesting room for improvisation when the band performs, and conspicuously avoidant of any folk trappings, notably on the avant-jazz implications of “Sweetbread,”which was inspired by a late-night jam session and an intoxicating, swirling sax from Lewis.

“Folk music is a continuum. Obviously, there are some stodgy folk rules and some tropes out there,” Johnson says. “Beyond having a lot of respect for folk music, we are not trying to follow any rules. And, we are not consciously trying to break rules either.”

It remains a balance. All three musicians have continued their respective pursuits away from Bonny Light Horseman. Johnson, as Fruit Bats, issued two albums in 2021: The Pet Parade and a reworking of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. In January of 2022, Mitchell released her eighth studio record—a self-titled album that also happened to be recorded at Dreamland and produced by Kaufman. Among Kaufman’s recent credits is work on Taylor Swift’s rerecorded Red.

However, while the members of Bonny Light Horseman plan to regroup in the near future, they hope to tour more pragmatically than the traditional young band. Mitchell says. “Maybe we can say, ‘yes’ only to the things that feel really genuine.”

Still, when asked about the present and future of Bonny Light Horseman, Mitchell echoes her two comrades. “It’s what I’m excited about most right now,” she says. “I’m moved by it. We’re moved by it. We’re just going to keep making music. We’re going to make more records. It’s too inspiring not to.”