Something and Nothing All at the Same Time:
The Changing Folk of A.A. Bondy
People turn to folk music for meaning. These days, whether the melodies are memory friendly or barely there, the genre’s go-to method is metaphors that allow for individual interpretation. More than any other lyrical approach, that technique leaves every song open to individual personalization. But what if you can’t break apart the words? What if you can hardly pick out a single phrase, and you’re not sure if you’re even getting it right? Can you still get the same satisfaction?
A.A. Bondy thinks you can.
His first two indie-folk works, 2007’s American Hearts and 2009’s When the Devil’s Loose, took a more straightforward route. You can pick out memorable lines, like on the former’s “There’s a Reason”: “And it’s love that’s tearing them down/ And it’s love that turns them around.” On the latter’s title track, you get, “Oh, the living and dying, how easily you bruise/ Oh, Delia, don’t go ’round when the devil’s loose.” It’s that kind of potentially gut-tugging stuff that’s the bedrock of folk. It’s been the basis of Bondy’s songwriting – until Believers.
Like the first two LPs, Believers was released on Fat Possum. But on this effort, Bondy’s one-liners are scarcely understood. Instead, he’s shaped a certain mood, a relentless sentiment. It’s desolate, cynical and romantic, too – all without relying on lyrics.
It’s his most lush record to date. There’s reverb, for one, like on “The Twist,” a dark and vocally-layered track that’s deep with doom. For the most part, guitars ring like hopeless echoes. Bondy’s made the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic world without saying much about it.
“It’s like I made the record and I’m still at a loss in a lot of ways,” Bondy says. “I don’t really know what the songs explain entirely, to be honest.”
Bondy recalls his life of late as somewhat nomadic. In the accompanying press notes for Believers, he describes the LP as “the last couple years in one long exposure.”
“I just mean as a reflection of the constant travel and constant movement,” he clarifies. “That starts to define everything. For a more stationary person to go to Europe or to get into the ocean, those things are kind of extraordinary. And then for me, for the past few years, they weren’t. It’s the longest period of touring and the most touring I’ve ever done. You’re always either coming home from or leaving for someplace. Nothing ever settles all the way. I think that was just a way of me trying to say, maybe give an impression of, what something was like – without being able to articulate what something was like.”
Even when he’s not in the middle of a stint of shows, Bondy doesn’t sit still for long. He’s been a wanderer, to some extent, since his childhood. He was born in Louisiana, then moved to Alabama at 13 years old. He was in California to record for a while, but actually lives in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. He lived in Mississippi as recently as a year-and-a-half ago.
Maybe he’s always been this way, but his demeanor also seems somewhat determined by the persistent traveling. He’s doesn’t readily give concrete responses and comes off introverted, like he’s been alone with his thoughts so long he’s forgotten how to interact with the world.
But that doesn’t mean A.A. Bondy doesn’t care about people. It’s the opposite, really. Like most singer-songwriters, he wants listeners to have an emotional reaction to his music.
“At best, [Believers] captured whatever mood I was in at the time they were written and hopefully, [the songs] were engineered in a way that could give that impression to someone else,” Bondy says. “And that those songs would find somebody, you know what I mean? That whatever it was that was going on in that piece of music or that arrangement kind of reflects something in somebody else. I guess that’s the hope of it.”
There are only a couple of songs on Believers with decipherable lyrics, like “Surfer King.” But even on that track, which is likely the album’s lightest and breeziest cut, the lyrics you do get mold a murky, morose territory: “Out on the tide/ Strangers all are drowning by/ Under eclipse, I wait for your kiss/ With the beating of all/ These idiot hearts.” It’s a gorgeous, red-sunset song, but let’s be honest: It’s damned depressing.
Bondy doesn’t give the impression that he’s self-deprecating, though. He wrecked his motorcycle on Memorial Day last year – he lost control when not “paying as much attention as [he] should have” as he rode through a construction site. He couldn’t play music while he recovered – he says he couldn’t wrap his hand around a guitar neck. That could easily cause a downturn for an emotionally delicate person, but Bondy just calls it “weird.”
“It was a pain to put clothes on, or get in and out of the shower, that kind of stuff. I was missing maybe six inches of skin from my shoulder and a lot off my kneecaps…the back of my knuckles. It covered enough of me that it was annoying.”
Bondy’s been playing music longer than we’ve known him as A.A. Bondy. Back when he went by Scott Bondy (his real name is Auguste Arthur Bondy), he fronted Verbena, a noisy alt-rock outfit, in – you guessed it – the ’90s. The disparity between that era-specific sound and his current is stark, but Bondy doesn’t really see it that way.
“Chuck Berry will be Chuck Berry until he goes into the ground, but some of us want to do different things,” he explains. “I wanted to do something where I could be responsible for the whole entire piece of music by myself, and not have to have a Marshall guitar amp and cabinet. You just go from a big busy machine to…a more natural wooden one.”
That’s simplifying it for sure, particularly for a person who ultimately transitioned into making gorgeous songs where gentle slide guitar wanes behind soft-spoken croons of “hear your haunted ocean song” and “all the hours tracing skin” (“Drmz”). Maybe the lyrics could be transferred, but the subtle, ghostly vibe is something altogether new. It’s not even on American Hearts or When the Devil’s Loose. And though Bondy admits Believers is a fresh output, his only real comments about it are that it’s “more cohesive” and “probably a little more out there.” I told him it was more abstract.
“You’re right,” he laughs, then pauses. “I don’t know what the reason was that we wanted to do something different or wanted to have songs that were a little more open. The meaning could be a little more meaningful. I just wanted to say something and not say anything all at the same time.”
Photo by Ted Newsome.