Written by Kathryn Savage
“Have you ever taken acid by yourself?” A.A. Bondy asks via phone, attempting to unravel the feelings he had while recording his solo debut, American Hearts, in a forgotten barn in Upstate New York.
Can’t say I have. “Well,” he continues, forgiving my ignorance, “it’s almost hard to know how fucked-up you are without seeing how fucked-up other people are. If you do anything by yourself, I think there are rewards that come with it but they are totally personal.”
Indeed, listening to American Hearts' naked, soulful folk renders a sense of musical intimacy likened to a lover’s late night confessions--the sounds are unburdened by outside forces. “Most of [Hearts] was written in about a week.” Bondy admits. “It fell out pretty formed. It was kind of like having water running down your back. I felt pretty alive during it.”
Elegant and bare, American Hearts lives in a place where dirty-nailed hands clap the beat and black rain falls on tin roofs; the rewards are anything but one-sided. The Bob Dylan references are unavoidable on tracks that usher in warbling harmonica while his guitar snakes beneath skilled hands. So are the Ryan Adams comparisons. His voice whines, whispers and surges like Adams, while lyrics tempt Jesus, demons and lovers who waltz on gentle air. It’s hard listening to Bondy without getting into a certain kind of mood. The kind that makes you want to take yourself too seriously, walk around in a hailstorm, chain-smoking with your brow furrowed.
Bondy used to rock pretty hard. The former frontman for Alabama-based rock band Verbena, Bondy met moderate success with 1999’s Dave Grohl-produced Into the Pink. Verbena’s berserk rock and the whole Dave Grohl thing made them an easy likeness to Nirvana. Nearly 10 years later, Bondy’s solo act is, well...different. “There is a certain energy that I think happens when you start working with other people that [Hearts] doesn’t have in a lot of places.” He explains.
Selling his electronic instruments but keeping his old acoustic guitar, Bondy traded rock for folk and left Alabama for a town in Upstate New York that boasts one stop light, a post office and no police. “Everything is a little different here. It still looks like America, but it doesn’t look like Alabama," he says with a laugh.
Admittedly, folk music, especially Bondy’s brand which incorporates anti-war lyrics and songs about Jesus, runs the risk of sounding like maudlin romance in the hands of a less cutting musician. But this isn’t the stuff you listen to while driving your Prius to Whole Foods. Bondy doesn’t write feel-good bluesy hits. “I didn’t make that record in any way to ever come out," he confesses.
“That was the first time I made a record just to make a record like an artifact or a document in a really long time. Just like anybody who goes into a woodworking shop makes a chair.”
On the heels of sold-out tours with Bon Iver, The Felice Brothers, and Cold War Kids, it is safe to say Bondy’s brand of insular album-making has been met with success. His stripped-down sound and storytelling lyrics create an atmosphere on every track that makes you want to kiss slowly, drink dark beer and shovel. American Hearts is a certain kind of easy listening during the long dark nights ahead.
“Daylight savings time,” Bondy says with a cackle of disgust and frustration. “I wish they would just get rid of that. I don’t see any point in losing an hour for all these farmers that don’t really exist anymore. I don’t think people are out in the fields working on their hands and knees in this country.” He pauses before interrupting me with an apologetic follow-up. “I could be totally wrong about that and misinformed.”
A.A. Bondy is performing with Heartless Bastards on Friday, November 14 at the 400 Bar. 18+. $15. 9 p.m.