Bonnetta sings of hope with a little help from his friends

Jonas Bonnetta amongst the cedars of Orono.

Jonas Bonnetta amongst the cedars of Orono. Photo by Peter Chatterton

Evening Hymns is the stage name of Orono musician Jonas Bonnetta and whatever mix of family and friends might be accompanying him on any given night. While there is really just one person behind the name, a whole community of musicians has gathered around Bonnetta, supporting him in his latest recording, Spirit Guides, which was just released on Nov. 3.

“I’m not a religious person at all, but I like to think of myself as a spiritual person,” says Bonnetta of his band’s name. “I was trying to invoke an atmosphere, a certain feeling.” And he succeeds, creating an emotional soundscape that deals with sadness and loss, but ultimately finds hope.

Playing guitar for about ten years, the artist has a previous album, Farewell to Harmony (2006), under the name Jonas Bonnetta, as well as a four-song EP, Let’s All Get Happy Together (2007), under the Evening Hymns moniker, both independently produced. His latest indie effort is on the Toronto-based label Out of This Spark, the home of popular Canadian indie bands The D’Ubervilles, and Forest City Lovers. Members of those two bands, as well as members of indie bands The Wooden Sky and Ohbijou all collaborated with Bonnetta on Spirit Guides, which will see greater distribution than his previous offerings.

Farewell to Harmony was completely solo. Most of it was recorded in Orono, in my room, late at night after work,” he says, laughing. “The new album is completely different.”

“I played under my own name for a long time. But I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a ‘singer-songwriter,’” he explains, on the phone from Los Angeles, where he has temporarily taken on the role of tour manager for his friend and label-mate Tyler Kirk of Timber Timbre.

While many of the songs on Spirit Guides start out with the simple strumming of an acoustic guitar, they soon evolve into full orchestral productions, with strings, horns and drums building to a crescendo that at times overwhelms the vocals. Emotion is at the heart of this album. “If there is a theme to it, it is how difficult it is to be alive, and how easy it is to be negative. I viewed these songs as a way to work my way out of my problems,” says Bonnetta.

He uses the album’s thematic arc to create a unified piece with an epic feel; he even includes a five-minute thunderstorm as part of the album’s “rainy day” atmosphere. “A lot of songs segue into each other. I wanted to create an environment, so that there’s one complete piece instead of a collection of nine songs,” he says.

Bonnetta has a good voice, and paired with the equally strong vocals of his sister Rachel Bonnetta, the album is full of powerful harmonies. Songs like “Lanterns,” “Dead Deer,” and “Cedars” are hauntingly beautiful, mournful yet hopeful. “A lot of it had to do with hope,” notes the artist.

“About two years ago, I was having a really hard time, a difficult year. I lost someone really close to me. A lot of these songs were a way of dealing with that, they were cathartic. Most of these songs have a positive outlook. There is sadness, but instead of writing a dark song, there’s a silver lining. When we lose someone, they’re never really gone, we keep them in our minds. With the song ‘Cedars,’ I have a situation, and I have to think positive about it. Maybe I’ve hit on something true with that song,” he says.

“Broken Rifle” is the most radio-friendly piece. A catchy pop song, it displays Bonnetta’s song-writing skills, with such lyrics as, “I’m building a stone wall, I hope will protect me/ Battling gunshots, these thoughts of rejecting/ When everything falls so softly before me/ You come, pull in, touch down and destroy me.”

The strong emotional component of the songs may well have been heightened by the recording process. “The album was recorded in Peterborough’s Art Space art gallery between Christmas and New Years of last year. It was four days of really intense recording, 13 to 14 hours a day. The sound in the gallery was really good, so we thought we should record just one song with only guitars and vocals. I didn’t have a song, so I wrote “History Books” and finished it at two in the morning of the last day of recording,” says Bonnetta.

It’s not surprising to learn that an album with such song titles as “Cedars,” “Dead Deer,” and “Broken Rifle” is the product of someone who grew up in the country. The album is full of the natural imagery of mountains, rivers, lakes, and yes, cedars.

Bonnetta grew up in the Orono countryside, and attended Kirby Public School and then Clarke High School. He just recently moved to Toronto, after living in Peterborough for the past few years. Employed at the Art Space gallery and running a sawmill while in Peterborough, his work, like his music, exemplifies his artist-woodsman persona.

“Who I am now has so much to do with my connection to Orono,” he says. “I’m a really outdoors-y person because of that. I’ve run a sawmill because of that. I have so much pride for that town.” So it was only fitting that the press photos for the new album were shot in Orono. “It’s just an area I’m really familiar with,” he notes.  And while he listens to a lot of contemporary pop music, from Tom Petty to Hayden, he says he is influenced not so much by music as by his surroundings.

“I’m inspired by the head space I’m in at the time. We just tried to create a really big, whole-sounding record,” he says, referring to himself and Spirit Guides co-producer and sound engineer James Bunton. “Where the melody comes from is more important to me and James.”

There is no shortage of sources for the melody on the new album, as Bonnetta is joined by 18 fellow musicians over the course of nine songs. “All my friends play on it,” he explains. “A lot of people from bands on Out of This Spark, a lot of people I’ve met whose music I love. I love their approach to music; they’re a real family there at Out of This Spark. And my friends in Timber Timbre, Ohbijou, and The Wooden Sky, I hear their stuff all the time, so a lot of that stuff is imbedded in me.”

Bonnetta will be touring as Evening Hymns — with bassist Andrew Wyatt, and guitarist Gavin Gardiner, both from The Wooden Sky, and his siblings, drummer Jake Bonnetta and vocalist Rachel Bonnetta — throughout Ontario and Quebec this month, opening for The Wooden Sky, with two shows also opening for Jenn Grant. Evening Hymns will be playing The Montreal House in Peterborough on Nov. 21 with The Wooden Sky, and holding its CD Release Show for Spirit Guides at the Tranzac club in Toronto with The Harbourcoats on Dec. 4. Jonas’ brother, filmmaker Josh Bonnetta will be premiering the video he made for the new album at the Toronto show.

Spirit Guides is now available at record stores across Canada, through Arts & Crafts Distribution/ EMI Music Canada. It is also available online at http://www.outofthisspark.com.

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