Meeting up with a Canadian indie artist sometimes takes a bit of guesswork. Often meek and unassuming, they tend to blend into crowds. But I instantly spot Jonas Bonnetta, principal songwriter behind Evening Hymns.
Wearing lumberjack plaid and a thick, untamed beard that would put most Williamsburg hipsters to shame, Bonnetta looks like a man who's just spent months in the wilderness. But it's not just a look.
"I've been living in a tent since the third of May," he says, settling in on a patio in Parkdale. "I just unloaded my car literally half an hour ago and came straight here."
Bonnetta has been labouring near Peterborough as a carpenter, construction worker and designer helping to build a massive subterranean cruciform structure in the woods, part of an ongoing acoustic ecology Soundscape series by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.
The project is unrelated to Evening Hymns, but the combination of bucolic rural immersion, blue-collar hand labour and carefully conceptualized artistry mirrors the making of his band's new album.
Spectral Dusk (Shuffling Feet) stretches even further the pastoral vastness of its predecessor, Spirit Guides. A 56-minute meditation on loss, pain, memory and responsibility, the new album is a heavy, patient, thematically rich snapshot of Bonnetta's upbringing in tiny Orono, Ontario, and his journey into adulthood, all told through his relationship with his father, who passed away in 2009, shortly before the release of Spirit Guides.
One song, Cedars, on the earlier album was a reflection on grief, whereas Spectral Dusk is a full exploration of the subject.
"I wrote Cedars just a few months after he died, and I struggled with whether or not to record it," muses Bonnetta. "I didn't know if it was exploitative or too heavy to write about. But I've always written about what's important to me, and I felt really good about what it had to say about dealing with his death. Then, when it came time to write the new record, all I was writing were Dad songs."
Bonnetta spent nine days recording in a log cabin near Perth, Ontario, along with his partner, Sylvie Smith (the only other official member of Evening Hymns), producer Jamie Bunton (formerly of Ohbijou) and backing band the Wooden Sky. They played shinny hockey every morning and drank whisky and played cards every night, but spent the rest of the time recording under a watchful portrait of Bonnetta's father. The trip forced him to confront his grief the entire time they were making the album.
"When we finished, there were tears and cheers, everybody knowing we'd done something really important to me," Bonnetta remembers. "It was heavy, but it wasn't dark."
Bonnetta also travelled with his brother Jake to a tract of land called the Burn, where his father shot his first deer. They took a case of beer and a tape recorder, making field recordings used to connect the more traditional, nakedly emotional folk songs.
"A few kilometres away from the recording unit, we lit a bonfire and had a beer and shouted off the clifftop, not thinking that the Zoom recorder would pick it up from so far away," says Bonnetta. "Not until months later when I listened back did I hear us yelling off the cliff. It felt like it made sense to keep that cathartic hoot on the album.
"I'll make another record someday that isn't quite as heavy. I mean, I know I'll write about him forever, but this is the really focused ‘Sad Dad' record I needed to get out of my system. It's a succinct picture of my relationship to him and what he meant to me, and I'm totally proud of what we accomplished."