Take It From an Honest Man: An Interview with A.A. Bondy

A.A. Bondy isn’t sure what it means to play folk music anymore.

“I guess a person playing guitar for the ‘every-man’ could be considered folk,” he ponders while driving to the Big Apple from his home in the Catskills. “But in this day and age, who is making music for the ‘every-man?’”

One answer to the question could be A.A. Bondy himself. His debut record, American Hearts, recorded in 2007 and originally released on the Superphonic label before being picked up and re-released in 2008 by Fat Possum, featured stripped-down tunes coupled with relatable lyrics of hardship and heartache. With the help of a new cast of players, his second full-length, When the Devil’s Loose, expands upon the hopeful yet melancholy mood established on American Hearts. Bondy’s subtle voice details surreal images richly drenched in the rhythms of everyday America. Even at his least prosaic, his lyrics remain accessible with little doubt that the music comes from anywhere but the heart.

Despite the working class aesthetic of his records, Bondy doesn’t think he is making music for the “every-man”. He confesses, “I just don’t know how to write for anybody but myself. The idea is that if it does something for me then hopefully it will do something for somebody else, you know?”

Apparently, this hopeful approach works as Bondy’s records have received much critical praise. PopMatters’ own Aarik Danielson described American Hearts as the “perfect musical companion for an introspective autumn.” Early reviews of When the Devil’s Loose have also been positive, including an 8/10 rating from Spin. The acclaim helped send him across the pond where Bondy spent the majority of the fall playing Europe before returning to the States for another tour.

When taking Bondy’s music at face value — a singer/songwriter who pens melancholy songs about lost love – there doesn’t seem to be anything immediately unique about what he is doing. Bondy realizes this but considers it a testament to the music he creates and less an obstacle holding him back.

“I think that shows that the vehicle itself or style itself is almost unimportant. If you think about it though, it is a pretty old form. Even bands who are considered unconventional are actually rather conventional. You have to go pretty far off the beaten path to find something where people are really doing new things. I mean, take the Dirty Projectors. You can say they are unique but you can tell where they come from.”

Bondy also believes that the accomplishments made by musicians half a century ago were much greater than modern musicians — a thought that echoes the widely-held sentiment that it’s nearly impossible to do anything truly original in contemporary art.

“You may not be able to express sentiments with the same accomplishments of 40 or 50 years ago, the sentiments are still the same. It’s the same with that whole thing about how Lou Reed can’t sing but then why are the Velvet Underground’s records so much more effective than so much other music?”

As his records show, A.A. Bondy is content with sticking to one style of music. However, the 37-year-old songwriter didn’t always play stripped down folk rock. Bondy got his start playing a very different brand of music altogether with the grunge-rock band Verbena back in the late ’90s. After releasing a series of singles and EP’s on indie-staple Merge Records, Verbena caught the ear of Dave Grohl who helped them sign to Capitol while agreeing to produce their second LP, Into the Pink. The band went on to record two more records for Capitol before disbanding in 2003. After the breakup, Bondy headed north to the Catskills where he took a four-year break from music while doing odd jobs such as “cutting down trees and changing well pumps.”

Nowadays, Bondy doesn’t think too highly of his time in Verbena, confessing to only liking the first record and “not caring” for the others. Bondy compares the stylistic differences between Verbena and his music now to dating an ex: “Its like how some people can date the same girl. There isn’t anything wrong with that, I just don’t visit the past as easily as others.”

Bondy also asserts that unlike Verbena, he considers his current music to be a more genuine process. “I believe a lot more in what I am doing than I did with Verbena. I started this with nobody watching. I had to learn how to make music without any notion of a reward again.”

One immediately noticeable difference when listening to Bondy’s recent output against his work with Verbena is the increased attention to lyrics. Bondy admits that the lyrics in Verbena were “nonsense” while acknowledging with guarded hesitation that the vivid lyrics characterizing his recent output stem from real life events. Sometimes, he feels that his songs come across almost too clearly.

“One of the problems I had with the last record (American Hearts) is that the lyrics were a little too obvious at times. Not that I had anything against what I recorded but I just didn’t feel like doing that again. I just had it in my mind that I didn’t want to be didactic or tell people exactly what was going on.”

Unlike American Hearts, Bondy reveals that on When the Devil’s Loose he often chose his words depending on their sound rather than their meaning. “Bob Dylan could probably sing the phone book and get a rise out people. There are artists and singers out there who, when something false is coming out of their mouth, they almost have this physical reaction to it. And so I became interested, often times in the sound of the word coming out more than the actual meaning of the word itself.”

Regardless of this varied approach to lyrics, When the Devil’s Loose never suffers from ambiguity but rather fosters a literary quality. Bondy stresses that the majority of his lyrics are character-driven in the sense that “such a character could be you at a given time. People’s personalities aren’t static.”

These parallels in individual personalities are arguably what define Bondy’s music. As a result, his records take on the quality of genuine folk music. According to Bondy, he believes that he is finally making the most sincere music he’s ever recorded.

“It definitely feels like my music now is built on something much more honest than ever before. Opposed to something like spending a bunch of money on a video and trying to get the label to pitch it or whatever. This all just feels like I tended the garden and did the work and now I am where I am. So I can see enough work behind me where I can more clearly see how I ended up here.”