Jonas Bonnetta reflects on the circle of friends and collaborators who came together for the first Evening Hymns album.
Ten years is a long time. I don’t think of it as a stretch of days but as memories forgotten, or barely recallable. As I get closer to releasing the new Evening Hymns record, I’ve been reflecting on how lucky I’ve been to write and play music for people all these years. It all started with this record, Spirit Guides, so it’s a melancholy thing to reflect upon. Looking back on the album, it represents me finding friends and a community just as much as it does the songs or what I was trying to say with them. I put the record on this morning and listened through with tears as I thought about these humble beginnings, and I’m grateful to get a chance to talk a bit about this little album.
I grew up in Orono, a small town about an hour east of Toronto. I was on my own as far as making music goes. Recording in my bedroom and playing some small shows with my guitar and loop pedal. I eventually got to open for Ohbijou at the Velvet Elvis in Oshawa, my old haunt. We hit it off. I ended up tagging along on their tour for a few dates afterwards and opening for them. They were like, “Why don’t you just join us for the whole tour out east?” — My first introduction to their generosity. Those shows were the introduction to what would become my Toronto family for the next decade. After the tour was finished, they invited me to Toronto to record one of my songs, “French Toast”, for this compilation they were putting together. It was a lot of fun. A bunch of new friends in a dark little basement on Bellwoods, all leaning into the song and making suggestions and pushing me along and donating their time and creative minds to making the song great, the compilation great, and raising money for a great cause. All of this was a learning experience for me. Surrounded by all these people trying to make art, I was absorbing it all, and it was filling me up and making sense. Working with James and Heather from Ohbjou was such a nice fit. Encouraging, funny, thoughtful. It felt right.
I had a collection of songs that I wanted to start on, and James was keen to do it. At the time, I was living in Peterborough and working at this amazing gallery/artist-run centre called Artspace. Every year it would close between Christmas and New Year’s, and I asked the director, Iga, if it would be cool if I did some recording in the space while we were closed. It’s a nice room. High ceilings, multiple rooms, and it was free and ours for a week. James rolled in with all of his equipment, and we set up shop. I have to admit, I don’t remember much from these sessions. Long days. Lots of pizza. People walking by and looking into the gallery and wondering what the hell was going on. A large piece of art made from lifejackets was installed in the main gallery. James was drinking apricot beers and, even back then, fancied nice snacks. I think he slept in the gallery. I slept at home, a short walk from Artspace, usually one song on the iPod and then I was at work. Coffees from the Night Kitchen. Friends dropping in.
We got bed tracks done during the week, and I was over the moon. I was making a record. James on drums. Me playing guitars and singing away. Eventually, we were in different rooms with different friends tracking different parts. I remember another basement in Toronto with mattresses leaned up against the wall and my new friend Shaun Brodie playing trumpet and letting loose. I remember my other new friend Mika Posen coming in to play violin on “Dead Deer” and making the little turnaround in the last chorus take off. Friends playing shakers, singing their hearts out, dancing around as these sketches grew and grew. Gavin Gardiner helping out on songs and becoming an instant best friend. Sylvie Smith’s voice gluing all the songs together. When you’re surrounded by people that love you and you are working on something you love, it feels like the most important thing to be doing in the world.
I can hear the rooms. I hear the ceiling height at Artspace. I hear all the jokes being cracked. The beers. The late-night conversations about how important everything was. And I hear the last bit of my music being free. The last time I’d make music that wasn’t connected to an industry, selling records, trying to get grants and make money on tours. It was just a group of people that were helping me articulate what I wanted to say.
My Dad died during the mixing of this record. He got to hear most of the rough mixes and seemed to be proud and dig them. He passed away in February. I went down the west coast of the U.S. with my friends, Phosphorescent, and wrote “Cedar” about Dad, in the van. When I got home, James and I recorded it. It changed everything for me. I would spend the next few records trying to make sense of this loss. I still do. Once you write about something as profound as death, it can make everything else seem trivial to talk about in a song. At least that became my stance. Maybe it still is. I’m not sure. I know that when Dad died, Evening Hymns became a serious project. People started to come to shows to experience something with me, and I really took responsibility for that, in the live show and also on the next records. It wore me down. The next album, Spectral Dusk, would be entirely about that grieving process. But it all started with “Cedars” and being allowed to get vulnerable around my friends in a safe space. I remember Ohbijou showing up at my parent’s house shortly after Dad died and walking with me along the lake. Real friends. All from music. All because of songs.
Sylvie and I were living in a basement apartment on Roxton in Toronto (lots of basements) and I got a message on Myspace from a small label in Clermont-Ferrand in France called Kutu Folk. They wanted to release the record in France and have us come play some shows. Next thing you know, Sylvie and I were flying around the French countryside in a Citroen C4 with no cell phone, no GPS, playing small shows, and one really big one, cutting our teeth. My first time in Europe. People coming to see us play songs. It was unbelievable. We got a booking agent. Another tour, this time bigger, expanded to Germany, Italy, England, Poland, Spain, and onwards. All from these songs I wrote on a guitar. They all grew into their own little worlds.
Spirit Guides gave me my friends. I still talk to James almost daily. I worked on a record with Heather just this past week at my studio. Gavin just mixed the new Evening Hymns record. Mika was by for tea on the weekend. Shaun and I texted last week. Sylvie and I just yesterday. What started out as a handful of songs became my life. On Spirit Guides, I hear myself finding my voice, learning to arrange, thinking about aesthetics, production, writing. I’ve only ever wanted to write honest songs and to connect with people hopefully, and this record was the start of that for Evening Hymns.
Ten years out and one of the biggest takeaways from Spirit Guides is that the spirit of making things is important. To be present, to engage, to be raw and vulnerable, to surround yourself with people that love you and want you to succeed. That everything is connected. That making art is community and can be your life. To embrace all of that. Just serve the songs. Be honest. So many lessons I learned then and can hear listening back and that I try and carry into every session I work on with Hymns or any other band that comes through the studio. I’m so grateful that I got to make this first record with these humans that cared about all of these things. It was a beautiful start.