Interview: Jonas of Evening Hymns

Julien Mignot
Evening Hymns playing in Paris (Photo: Julien Mignot)

Here is the full, unabridged version of the interview with Jonas I did for Where Ottawa. Enjoy!

To say that Evening Hymns is a two-piece folk-rock band doesn’t quite capture the sheer magnitude of their music. Spectral Dusk, their sophomore album released in August, is more art piece than album. Lead singer and songwriter Jonas Bonnetta penned the record after the passing of his father in 2009. The life-altering loss resulted in a deep reflection of life’s brevity, and ultimately a collection of songs that combine raw honesty and emotion with Bonnetta’s immaculate musicianship. WHERE Ottawa’s Matias Muñoz speaks with him before their show at Mavericks on November 15 about recording Spectral Dusk in Perth, Ontario (about an hour southeast of Ottawa) with bandmate Sylvie Smith and friends, the difficulty of bringing these personal works to life every night on the road, and his relationship with Ottawa.

You recorded Spectral Dusk in a cabin near Perth, Ontario. What drew you to the Ottawa area for this process?

Well Silvie’s parents just bought a place near Perth, it’s about 20 minutes north-west of the town. They bought the house and nine days after they got possession of it we approached them about working there, and as artists and musicians themselves, they were super thrilled that were going to christen it. We were looking for a place to record and I was getting close to renting a cabin a few hours north of Toronto and then this kind of fell into our lap, so when they bought it we asked if we could make a record there and they were totally on board. So that was our first introduction to that area.

So you wanted a quieter space? The city didn’t interest you?

Yeah, for the most part I really have no interest in recording in studios, so we wanted to do it in a place that sounds good and that helps us be in touch with our surroundings. And being deep in the woods really put us at ease as musicians, with no landline and no distractions from the outside. As a really personal record, it really helped us to focus on what we were doing and getting the sound that we wanted. For the type of music we’re making I like to think we don’t need studio production, and I think it has made our record sound great. With the basic recording equipment we had,  a good mic and recording space is really all you need. Micro managing everything isn’t what I was looking for, just a few good pieces of equipment and some nice rooms.

Spectral Dusk is deeply personal for you, as it reflects on your father’s passing in different ways. While the album has been greeted with such warm reception, have you found it difficult to share with the world? 

I find it pretty difficult live. I mean, the record as a whole was hard to make and that’s why it took such a long time to be released. It got too dark and we had to back off for a while, then we regained some energy and approached it again. Once we finished it, we were like “great, we’re done…” forgetting that we then had to go travel the world playing all those songs. So it’s been really exhausting, every show is like conjuring up those feelings about dad and revisiting that. It’s been a bit of a challenge, but then after a show you have someone come up to you and tell you about how they just lost their mom or dad, saying they cried tonight listening to your set because the songs said everything I wish I could have said. That makes it all worthwhile, and it makes it that much heavier because it kind of destroys you a bit hearing those things. But it’s real, and that’s what we like about it. What I’m saying on the record is true from the heart, so playing those songs comes naturally too.

You have spent a lot of time living life off the beaten path over the last few years. Does living unconventionally help you learn and grow as a musician? Or do you just get sick of living in the same place for too long?

Yeah, lived in a tent all summer. Silvie and I actually lived up near Perth all winter and will be spending all of this winter there as well. Just having the wood burning smell, cross-country skiing, and quiet reading spaces. It’s pretty much my dream life, you know? And living in a tent this past summer just east of Peterborough working on an art project was great. Part of our job as musicians is not staying in one place, it’s kind of a double-edged sword but it’s all part of it. And I like moving, I don’t get a whole lot of inspiration from just sitting around. I do get the inspiration by being out in the woods, so it’s a no-brainer for us when we get an opportunity to get out into the wilderness. I’m at the point in my life where I’m spending five or six months a year on the road and going to all these amazing cities all over the world. So the last thing I want to do in my free time is be in the city, I’m always on a quest to find interesting new places.

The Wooden Sky played in Ottawa a few weeks ago, and you’ve developed a pretty strong bond with them while touring and recording. How did some of the collaborations on Spectral Dusk come to be?

Well I asked those guys because I love the way they sound. They all met my dad, were with me at the funeral and were crucial through that whole thing. We had a strong connection so it was a no-brainer to collaborate with them. I helped out with a few of their songs and they helped out with Evening Hymns. It was such an organic process, throwing ideas off one another and getting it just right. We just did 6 weeks in Europe and they backed us up on that tour, so we were basically one big 7-piece band a lot of the time.

Since you last visited Ottawa for the album release in August (Raw Sugar Café), Evening Hymns toured Europe. In what ways is touring in Europe different than Canada?

We haven’t even done that much touring in Canada to be honest. We’ve done a few legs, but we’ve been in Europe four times in the last two years. I think you’re more akin to having a listening audience when you’re over there, you know? When people come to see you play, they come to listen to you and appreciate what you are saying. In North America, it’s sometimes harder to get that intense quiet that is ideal for our kind of music. So it makes for some really great shows over there, when the band and the audience work off each other. We’ve been really lucky there, and touring there is always joy. We’re in a new, beautiful city every night. And you have that here in Canada too, each place has it’s own character. Going over the Rockies, visiting small towns. We’re trying to put more time into Canada so that we can build our audience here too. It more difficult here sometimes, sometimes it’s great and others it’s tougher.

Do you have a favourite spot in Europe?

Yeah, Switzerland was really cool. The end our last tour we went to the Alps and stayed at a cottage in the alpine meadow. You could only get there by gondola, and we made it right before a snowstorm blew in and they had to shut it down. That place has a spot in my heart for sure. Paris has always been really amazing to us, and Berlin is one of my favourite cities in the world. Plus, our management and booking agent is based out of Berlin so we’ve had a lot of opportunities to get to know that place.

When people come to see you play in Ottawa on November 15th, what is one thing you hope they take away from the show? 

I just hope they can connect, but then sometimes I think, “man, I hope no one feels as bad as I do”. It’s kind of weird, but a lot of times the show feels really good when the audience is really good. So it goes hand-in-hand, and it’s really special in an intimate way. Things are quiet this tour but we’re loving it.

What’s your favourite thing to do when you visit Ottawa? Are there any activities, places or meals you look forward to?

Now that we’re near there, spending more time nearby we really enjoy skiing in that area and doing outdoor activities. I also really enjoy going to The Manx for breakfast, I love that place. We played Raw Sugar Café last time we were in town, and the atmosphere in that place is really neat. There’s also the Neat Coffeshop in Burnstown, which I think has some of the best coffee in my opinion. I don’t know, I used to not care for Ottawa that much because I never felt that it had a soul. But as I spend more time there I am really starting to fall in love with the city. We will definitely be coming up there a lot since we’re going to be living so close by. Plus, Canada’s next Prime Minister Rolf Klausener (frontman of Ottawa band The Acorn) lives there, so it has that going for it too.