If you know Evening Hymns’ album Spirit Guide from 2009, you’ll likely be in love with its atmosphrically recorded and finely observed pastoral songs by chief songwriter Jonas Bonetta.
If you’ve seen the video for ‘Dead Deer’, you’ll have seen Jonas and friends celebrating total nakedness in the woods and water of his native Ontario. So it won’t come as much of a surprise that Bonetta is currently spending the summer living in a tent in the woods – and building a labyrinth, like you do. The latter is a project to realise Asterion, part of the epic work Patria by Canadian composer and investigator of soundscapes, R Murray Schafer.
“It’s not everyday you get asked to build a Labyrinth”, he says cheerfully, via the internet connection of his local Library in the nearest village, Duoro in Ontario, “and it seemed like a good preparation for a European tour…”
He keeps his clothes on, but looks every inch the woodsman in his lumberjack shirt and extensive beard. He’s just about to release Spectral Dusk, the follow up to 2009’s Spirit Guide, a stunning piece of ambient folk/pop music with beautiful songs, literate words and an airy, natural soundscape that is, if anything, better that on the last record.
The album was recorded over nine days in a log cabin near Perth, Ontario in the winter of 2010 using a bunch of friends as musicians centred around Toronto’s The Wooden Sky as house, or rather, cabin band. The album, an intensely personal affair, is about the death of Bonnetta’s father. After listening to the album, I had a worry, borne of my own British reticence, about how much he’d want to talk about the subject matter. He was open about it, and about how for him, the whole project was in some way therapeutic.
“For me it feels like a really succinct snapshot of mine and Dad’s relationship so that’s the thing I’m most proud of. Musically I’m happy with it and when it comes down to it, it really seems to me when I listen to it that it covers all angles of our relationship and where I am right now in dealing with that loss. So it’s been a really beautiful kind of thing in that sense.”
It’s quite rare to find such a painful subject being dealt with quite so nakedly and honestly in a work of pop music – a far cry from the usual content of contemporary music. From the invocation of his father’s spirit in ‘Arrows’ we are taken on a journey deep into Bonnetta’s feelings and memories of his father, and what this means for him as a man. It’s a unique portrait of a pivotal time in a person’s life and an exploration of a real relationship between father and son. We talk about what that means and the balance between exploring feelings, and producing a collaborative work of art and that audiences will react to. He’s serious about his intention and the hazards involved.
“I lost my Dad just at the end of making the last record. He passed away during the making of it and so there’s one song on it called ‘Cedars’ and that was about our relationship and losing him. I struggled with whether I wanted to cover this topic. I always covered pretty personal things but looking back on it, talking about a break up or a relationship seems almost petty compared to dealing with death. I didn’t want to seem like I was exploiting our relationship. So I had a hard time with that and then I realised with ‘Cedars’… a lot of people connected with me because of that song. I realised that everything I was writing was about him anyway and if I was gonna make another record, I had to put all these things out in order to move on. So I had no choice in the end.”
One of the things that comes out of the record is the tightness of the musicianship and a feeling of intense, sympathetic and in the end happy music making. It’s pretty obvious that this is a key part of the record’s success, and in talking about it, he emphasises how much the tight knit approach meant to the music. The word “love” comes out again and again as he talks about it.
“The reason those people were with me was through losing my Dad. Everyone who was involved in the project either knew him or knew how much he meant to me. It was such a beautiful thing because we would start into songs and everybody would just become part of the process and would really get involved in it. It would have been easy for it to be just another recording session where everyone’s having fun and doing their own thing, but it was a very directed, intense process.”
It turns out that it wasn’t only Jonas who brought loss to the project.
“Everybody was brought in for a reason. It was very deliberate that Mika would play strings and there would only be one string piece on the entire record. That my friend Shaun who had lost his mother would be on the record, and my friend Carla plays guitar on it – she lost her sister. So it was like all these people that I knew understood the importance of loss. It just seemed like everyone treated it as something sacred. Afterwards we were coming out and talking about it, and still to this day talking about it. I don’t think we’ll ever get the chance to do something like that again.”
If this is making it all sound grim, that isn’t the impression Jonas gives at all, and nor is it how the record comes across. Songs like ‘You and Jake’, remembering his father and brother together, come over as happy memories, as if he’s cuddling something precious. ‘Spirit in the Sky’ gives a sense of thinking about his father’s spirit in the context of a huge and wonderful nature, regretful not blameful. A blog on his website recounts the recording process and it does look like a bunch of friends involved in an intense and happy way. It’s the closeness that comes across.
“We really were able to separate the business side of things from the fact that we were 9 friends that love each other. We’d stay up until three in the morning having beers and we played a lot of hockey. We’d go for walks outside. You needed beers at the end of the day for sure.”
As the rain batters the garden shed in London from where I’m doing the interview, we talk about nature and the importance of nature to the songs he writes – an intense love, feel, and knowledge. He agrees it’s core to his work.
“I grew up in the country not too far from where I’m actually living right now. I like to write with metaphor and simile because my music’s so intensely personal. It’s a really good way for me to remove myself. It just makes sense that the way my metaphor continues, I can compare things to certain trees or this and that. I think I will always write like that. It would seem sacrilegious for me to write about buildings or something like that. To travel in cities – I love it – I love the culture and the people, but the country is where I started my life and it’s where I hope to finish it.”
Lyrically, he cites the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski as a major influence, after reading his collection of poetry Through the Forest. This has as deep a feeling for nature and for man in a natural environment as Jonas’ own lyrics. He has contributed soundtrack music to a film about the poet, by Raphael Gianetti- Meriano, ‘The Kaplinski System‘.
Jonas’ first album was in his own name, and seemed like a pretty straight singer songwriter affair. He then became Evening Hymns and things seemed to deepen sonically as well as lyrically. He’s pretty direct about the change. “I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a singer songwriter,” he explains, “for starters as I don’t really listen to singer songwriter kind of music. I really wanted to expand more into using space on the recordings or ambience and so the idea with changing the name was instantly to invoke a band and in a way to invoke a feeling.”
Based on that ‘feeling’ aspect to the music, we discuss how his music could be described to new listeners. It’s clearly a question that comes up a lot. “For years I’ve been saying that it’s folk music or pop folk with some experimental stuff going on. I think an important thing that I think makes Evening Hymns music is a lot of the ambience and a lot of the drones and creating that environmental space. I don’t know how to describe that, but it’s something that I work towards. Underneath all the drones and ambient stuff that’s happening is that there’s always a song that can be played on an acoustic guitar as a folk song. So I think that’s my connection to folk music in a sense.”
Feeling, ambience – they are all crucial aspects of Evening Hymns records. The sound that he and producer James Bunton get is quite special – kind of spacious, airy at the top but with a warm depth of tone. It’s key to what the records are.
“The last two records, we’ve recorded in alternative spaces. So the last record Spirit Guides, we recorded in an art gallery that I was working in and it was closed for Christmas break. It was lots of wood, big high ceilings. I don’t ever want to make some super compressed studio record. I think you have to put yourself in a space that feels human and also that it’s recorded transparently so that you can hear things.”
“Like on Spectral Dusk, you can hear the wood fire crackling on songs and you can hear the pop of an ice cube in someone’s glass of bourbon and those are things that I like to leave there because it makes it a very human reference and we want to create that in the recording. We try and record in spaces that are organic feeling and then we also try and make sure that that shines through on the recording.”