A.A. Bondy: Born With An American Heart

By: Martin Halo

A.A. Bondy by Clare Felice
The shadows of three individuals are cast upon the grave of American author William Faulkner. A tour stop through Oxford, Mississippi has led them there. A tattered A.A. Bondy, drunk on moonshine, stares at the death date. Next to him, a set of female compatriots raise fists full of cheerleading pompoms towards the sky. They crudely rustle a rhythm.

"Light – In – August!" they chant in cadence. "Requiem – for – a - Nun!" It was an unorthodox but fitting tribute to Faulkner and his legacy. After breaking the bottle of moonshine over the top of the grave, they got back in their idling van and drove away. The whisper of the road was calling through the leaves. For Bondy, his traditional reinterpretations of American folk themes like Faulkner's has yielded an album, American Hearts (2008), which stands as a touching echo of Americana at its best.

The road has a tight grip on Bondy. Since the release of American Hearts on the honorable Fat Possum label back in April, Bondy has shared tours with the likes of Dr. Dog, Cold War Kids and Delta Spirit, describing it as "a surreal slingshot sensation of surroundings." But in the midst of the dash for the dream, A.A. Bondy has set out to discover harmony as an independent musician.

Rather than bathing in art fueled by the musk of a woman's scent, Bondy has leaned towards artistic integrity and the plight of the common man. He uses this variously attributed quote as inspiration, but perhaps not the intended kind: "If anybody tells you they started a band for any other reason then to get girls, they are lying."

A.A. Bondy by Clare Felice
"I have heard people say that line before when talking about musicians. I just don't believe it was always the case," says Bondy. "You are telling me Mozart was doing it for the girls?"

"I was never under the impression that being a musician was going to mean that. Zeppelin records were like reading old weird fables," continues Bondy. "I had no idea how people could aspire to that – everything seemed too grand. Imagine having your own plane [laughs]. I grew up listening to Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney. It just seemed so much more achievable than being Jimmy Page and living in a castle."

"I was in a band [Verbena] and Merge Records put out our first record," shares Bondy on his early years in the industry. "It was still during the days where big labels chased people down and gave them boatloads of money. Making records like that was pretty gross. When you are young you think you have to go for the brass ring."

A glamorous life in the music business couldn't be more far removed from Bondy, who resides comfortably on a platform of bare bone artistic zeal.

"In a way I am glad those institutions are coming undone, like MTV," observes Bondy. "As an artist you can't have your hopes tied up in if your video is going to be played or not."

Born in Louisiana and bred in Alabama, Bondy grew roots in upstate New York with the clan that surrounds The Felice Brothers when he married their sister, Clare Felice. His wife will often accompany him on the road playing keyboards, and it's no wonder Bondy's rustic vibe resonates with the Felice posse.

"Everything goes in cycles," he says as the hum of the road buzzes behind him. "The thing that was weird for me in the '90s was socially progressive ideas were being put out by major labels. It was marketed. Find an idea that works and the bands would follow, they said. It is a self-defeating machine that once [it] becomes watered down can be smelt a mile away."

A.A. Bondy by Clare Felice
American Hearts is hardly a watered down approach to folk songwriting. It is honest in the manner of early Bob Dylan reinterpretations – freewheelin', rural American storytelling. Inside its covers Bondy praises sweet cocaine, the American Dream and reasons to love, while encasing the messages in a flood of melody. He has a vocal exhale free from the weight of pretense. It is pure, blue collar Americana.

The sessions for American Hearts took place in the Catskill Mountain in upper New York State. The isolation led to a stripped down, desolate recording. "Music is interesting when it comes from rougher situations, struggles and tough times," he states. The humble surroundings didn't hurt in greasing the creative wheels, either.

"I would wake up, drink some coffee and work in a barn for six hours a day. The sessions were pretty uneventful. It was just the birds and the bears," he offers. "I made something without any regard of how people would receive it. It is the first time making a record that I feel liberated. I was free from the presidents and shareholders of a major label. I didn't have to go to war with anybody to do what I wanted to do."

"These songs were written in a certain vein and recorded in a barbaric way," he relates. "I didn't set out to make it sound old or primal. My lack of technical knowledge was the catalyst for that."

Before the record made it to Fat Possum, it was briefly released independently by Bondy in 2007. "American Hearts was released by some friends of mine in Alabama before Matthew Johnson [founder of Fat Possum] approached me about bringing it to Fat Possum," he says. "I made it on my own, not knowing it was going to be a record. I didn't know it was going to be in stores."

A.A. Bondy by Clare Felice
The way the story goes, Bondy met Johnson at an Andrew Bird show in New York City, only to accidentally have drinks with Johnson in a high end gay bar - not your typical setting for a rural boy. Bondy laughs when I ask him if there's any advice that Johnson has shared as a mentor.

"He has a lot of advice but I don't know if any of it is fit for printing," Bondy offers. "A couple people had told him about my record last December. I was just getting back from England. We met at an Andrew Bird show. We got drunk and made a haphazard deal. With Matt, I just wanted to be with people that operated in a different way then what I experienced at the majors. Matt Johnson doesn't have to answer to anybody. He still has to sell records but if he likes your record he will put it out. I have respect for that. That label has been through so many ups and downs, so many scrapes and crazy stories. Through it all they still continue on."

Artists come from all walks of life, and for A.A. Bondy his spotlight resides at the local rock 'n' roll watering hole, where the beer is warm and the toilets haven't been cleaned since 1977. But throughout his struggles, he perseveres and continues to pen American stories. He is part of a broad sweep of artists on the outskirts examining the common plight. Bondy captures the constant battle of things with songs born from a compassionate American heart worthy of deep respect and notice.

A.A. Bondy is on an East Coast tour now. Dates available here.

A.A. Bondy - "American Hearts"

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[Published on: 11/19/08]

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dreadyknowsbest starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/20/2008 04:39AM
Show -5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
RichardHaley Thu 11/20/2008 08:39AM
+6 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Nice find JamBase! I've heard of this guy and now i know i like him! Cool mp3 stream too.

TrevorCJones starstarstarstar Tue 11/25/2008 09:54AM
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dude sounds like Dylan... nice to see real "indie" artists doin' their thang..

climbaway628 starstarstarstar Tue 11/25/2008 04:10PM
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wonderful. opening for CWK in phila. was great