Josh Kaufman has been busy. A producer, co-writer, and sideman to the likes of Bob Weir, Hiss Golden Messenger, The Hold Steady, and more, he’s been showing up in all my favorite music lately. Josh and I have collaborated a lot over the years, and it’s been inspiring to cheer on his recent successes. In 2020, his band Bonny Light Horseman (with Anaïs Mitchell and Eric D. Johnson) scored two Grammy nominations. Additionally, he also contributed to both recent Taylor Swift releases, one of which, folklore, won an Album of the Year Grammy as well. To top that off, Josh and his wife, Annie Nero, recently became parents to twin boys.
Where were you when the pandemic hit?
Let’s see. I was in L.A. with Annie and our daughter, Clarabelle. We had gone there to start working on the new Fruit Bats record [The Pet Parade]. Fruit Bats is essentially a rotating cast of musicians, but mostly it’s Eric D. Johnson who’s become a close friend and a bandmate [Bonny Light Horseman]. We were supposed to be there for a week. Then we got there, and a day into it, it felt really uncomfortable. We cut the trip short and came home.
Did you guys get to record at all?
We have some funny voice memos on our phones. We didn’t do any proper recording, but we did a lot of playing guitars and working on songs.
Were you co-writing for that album?
Only on one song did we formally co-write. We were originally going to have Eric come upstate [New York] where I usually make records, and have this almost Van Morrison Moondance-style record, where it’s a fun, grooving band. Eric’s such a beautiful singer; I wanted to focus on that. That didn’t end up happening because he wasn’t able to come out. It wasn’t safe to do it. So, we decided to make what now would be a “classic pandemic album.” I played most of the instruments at home, sent them back, and Eric sang over it. Or Eric would send a vocal, a guitar, and a click track, and then I would play to that and send it back. We worked that way, for the most part. We had some collaborators; a couple of friends played drums on a few songs. Annie, my wife and collaborator, who was super pregnant at the time, would come down and play bass or sing some harmonies. Clarabelle, our 6-year-old, played tambourine on “Gullwing Doors.” It was a family zone.
That’s great. What’s your home studio setup like? You relocated from Brooklyn to upstate New York after being in Brooklyn for a very long time.
Are we lifting the veil here, Dawn? Are we saying that we’re friends and used to play together all the time?
Yeah, we’re lifting the veil, totally. Lift it. [laughter]
Okay. Where you and I used to record all the time, Saltlands [Tape Op #80], I had a place upstairs from that for a few years. I worked there a lot in an overdub or a pre-mix capacity, or a place to come hang and write. Then I moved everything from there up to Kingston, New York, in June of 2020. We rented a house that had two living rooms, so we set up one as a studio. It was pretty rad. It was this very old house from the 1800s, kind of crumbling in a lot of ways, but it had plaster walls and hardwood floors. The ceilings were 11 feet high. I had no neighbor on that side of the house, and there was a little piano in there already. It was pretty good to go. I set up all my gear, and I guess I had a home studio.
The beauty of not being in Brooklyn. Here you can have silence around you.
Or just birds.
They can sing in any key, on top of any song, and it still sounds good! We’ve moved again since then, and now we’re in a place and have a studio in the basement. That’s working great so far. We have two pianos, a few organs. It was 25 guitar cases, seven bass cases, and tons of amps, preamps, modest mics, some speakers, my Wurlitzer, and Conrad Doucette’s drums.
It must have been so cool to see it all together, and in a different space.
You look at a place with nothing in it, even with our personal stuff, and it’s this exciting blank canvas. “Oh, we’re going to become these kind of people who live in this new space.” Then we put all our shit in there and we’re like, “Wait, it looks like our old place!” We’d been in a one-bedroom apartment with our kid; we were on top of each other, so there wasn’t any way to work at home.
How do you deal with recording at home? Do you have a schedule, or is there enough isolation?
When I was making the Fruit Bats record – one of the few records I’ve done completely at home – I would wait until [my daughter] Clarabelle went to sleep, and then I would work from 9 p.m. until 3 a.m. I would do that every night and then take weekends off. Similarly, when we were still in Brooklyn, I did overdubs for the Taylor Swift albums. I did that on a little Apollo Twin and a laptop in my closet.
In your apartment?
In our apartment when we were still in Brooklyn.
Wow. I know that closet. It’s tiny.
Yeah, it’s wild. I don’t know. You figure out a way.
The pandemic way. I’ve been working on a theater piece [ROW], and they provide all the actors with mics and tell them to go into their closets because the clothes absorb the sound.
It really works. For music, if you’re working with people who you’re familiar with and have played with already, you’ve already done all the hard work.
Yes. The spiritual connection is there, as well as the anticipation of playing with each other. Even though it’s not happening at the same time, that’s still there. Not feeling that this is a foreign noise coming at you that you don’t know. For instance, if I send it to Joe Russo or Matt Barrick or someone who I’ve played a lot with, and they’ve played drums on it, when it comes back, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. That sounds like them.” I know how to play bass to that, or I know how to chop up the piano to play to that. It ends up feeling pretty normal. I can fudge the fact that it’s overdubs, and I can make it feel like a band.
But it’s not quite as fun.
No, no, no. It’s a different beast. But can you imagine not making music at all?
No, I cannot.
Yeah, exactly. I would completely lose it. It’s the thing that holds it together for me. If I’m not doing music, then I’m a mess.
Did you record all of your parts for the Taylor Swift albums remotely or did you make it out to Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond Studio [Tape Op #141]?
I did some at home, and then some more once we moved up to Kingston. I went there for a few days; got tested and wore a mask. His place is very remote, so it felt safe. A calculated risk, I guess.
How did you and Aaron first meet?
We met in 2002 through Bryan Devendorf, the drummer in The National. We were playing a lot of the same places, the same dumpy gigs with four bands on them, and were music friends. We’d hang out in this studio in Red Hook called DrummerMan Studios, owned by our friend Geoff Mann. The National recorded Alligator at Geoff’s studio, so I was hanging around and helping out, loaning guitars to Aaron and Bryce [Dessner].
Did you guys connect over The Grateful Dead at that point? The Bridge Session [webcast with Bob Weir] came around much later.
Yeah. That came around in 2012.
In 2016 you did the Day of the Dead covers compilation album.
That was a charity record for The Red Hot Organization [raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS] that we did. That was insane. That was almost 80 Grateful Dead songs. That was totally wild. And they’re not simple!
Did you have a book in front of you? How did you remember?
Well, a lot of the songs were in me from when I was a kid. A song’s easier to learn when you’ve had time to live with it.
Would you say that the Dead were one of your biggest musical influences growing up?
Definitely. At first, I didn’t like them because when I was in junior high school, all the jock-y guys who would push me around and make fun of me, they were all Deadheads. Also, the artwork kind of scared me. I was such a wussy little guy. My assumption was, “The Grateful Dead? That must be heavy metal music that’s got all this aggression and anger.” Plus, all these guys were wearing skeletons on their shirts and looked mean. And then I was going through someone’s record collection and there was a copy of Workingman’s Dead, but the cover of the record was so faded that I couldn’t tell what it was. It looked kind of beautiful, almost like a fossil. I put it on, and I loved it so much. Then my dad told me it was the Grateful Dead, and I was like, “No, you’ve got to be kidding me!” It was peaceful and beautiful, but also super deep and not aggressive at all. To a fault. Anyway, it completely captivated me. That was probably when I was 15. I had just started playing music around then. Those hit at the same time, which was powerful. It’s like young love. There’s nothing quite like that. You never shake it.
You are one-third of two supergroups, which is a pretty cool statistic.
That’s what they call them…
How did the Muzz collaboration with Paul Banks [Interpol] and Matt Barrick come about?
Paul and I met in 1993 at the American School of Madrid in Spain. It was the first day of school, and I didn’t know anyone. This guy walks up to me and introduces himself. He said his name was Paul and that he didn’t know me, and that it would be fun to pick a locker next to someone he didn’t know because then maybe we could become friends. We immediately started talking about music. I had just started playing guitar, and he’d been playing for a little while. We agreed to bring our guitars to school the next day. Things move fast when you’re that age and you have time.
So, you were listening to the Dead then. What was he listening to?
He introduced me to Leonard Cohen. We were both listening to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Paul is very, very into Nirvana. I like Nirvana, but I didn’t quite get the Nirvana bug that a lot of other people did. We both like Tracy Chapman a lot too. When I first moved to New York, before Interpol took off, Paul and I were playing together in a little acoustic thing called Julian Plenti. He would play acoustic guitar and I’d play nylon string guitar and some harmonium. Some of those songs would end up on a record of his [Julian Plenti Is... Skyscraper] over ten years after that. Years later, Matt Barrick – the drummer from The Walkmen – and I had been recording for fun. He played some of that for Paul, and Paul wrote some lyrics and vocals to a track and sent it back. I was like, “This is awesome!” Then Paul suggested we have a rehearsal and jam. After an hour, we were already planning when to start the record. It took us five years because everybody was so busy, but we did end up making a [self-titled] record under the name Muzz. It came out on Matador [Records] right at the beginning of pandemic. The worst day to put out a record.
You worked on a lot of amazing records that came out in 2020. This Is the Kit’s Off Off On is a great one.
Thanks. That was the last one I got to do right before the lockdown. I had 90 percent of that tracked before, so it was easier to finish.
Where did you track that?
We did that at Real World, [Tape Op #48], which is in Box in the U.K.
Was Peter Gabriel [Tape Op #63] fluttering around in a robe in the background?
He wasn’t there, but it’s definitely storied enough that it feels like he’s there. Some of the places that you go to that are cloaked in a body of work that happened a long time ago, or are famous for something, they have a feeling. That studio has a feeling. But one thing I found interesting is the tone of everything. Maybe it’s voltage; I don’t know what it is. But it was the first record I had tracked outside of the United States. Something about the tone sounded different to me.
I’m sure it affected the amps, right?
Definitely. It’s all European gear, so it’s made to be in that current, but I don’t know. Something about it. Even listening to Beatles’ records or Stones’ records compared to Stax and Motown records. There’s something about the tone of it that seems different to me. The British records sound punchier to me. I don’t know if it’s electrical based.
For the Bonny Light Horseman [self-titled] record, didn’t you guys start that in Germany?
Wait, I forgot! You’re right, we did.
Do you sense that tonal difference in that album? That seems pretty consistent to me.
That’s a weird record because we did 60 percent of it in Berlin at the Funkhaus, this old GDR-era radio studio that has a bunch of different rooms in it. We were in a tiny room, and we didn’t have any real gear in there. [Engineer] Bella Blasko brought in a [Universal Audio] Apollo, a laptop, a mic package for a drum set, and not much else.
But the space itself was acoustically gorgeous.
Yeah, although the room was tiny, the ceiling was very tall. Gary Mauer mentioned a cool thing once, about how it’s more about the height than anything else. We were still cobbling together our little mashups of folk songs. Bella came in and recorded us rehearsing. I didn’t realize that we actually had most of a record until I got it back to the States and was listening to this. Nobody was in headphones; it’s all live off the floor. It’s Anaïs’s vocal and guitar, with one microphone for both. It’s super open. I don’t hear the electricity thing I’m talking about as much as I do in this U.K. studio situation.
How did you connect with Bella? And how did Bonny Light Horseman come together?
Bella and I met because she was assisting on the Day of the Dead record that I made with Aaron in 2015. Then I hired her to come and assist on the Bob Weir record that you sang on [Blue Mountain]. I found out that she was going to be at this artist-in-residency summit that Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon were throwing in Berlin (37d03d aka “People”), and we had a good rapport. I thought that Anaïs and Eric would love her. Bella had some free time and was able to scrounge up some gear and hang out with us. Like everything during that trip, it fell into place.
Did you have it in mind going in that you wanted to make something with those two, or were you thrown together?
We threw ourselves together. Maybe a year before that, Anaïs and I had been working on some folk music with Kate Stables from This Is the Kit. She and I branched off from that project and started kicking some songs around. We were both interested in the idea of playing guitar in an open tuning. There are not that many people I can pick [guitar] with; picking patterns are so personal. When I find someone that I lock with, it’s fun. She and I were working on music together. Aaron called me to do an artist-in-residence gig at his festival Eaux Claires, so Anaïs and I started collaborating for that. Eric says that he invited himself to join the band. That might be a little bit true, but I just love him. At the same time, Anaïs was becoming interested in the Fruit Bats’ music. It worked really well. Then the three of us hung out for a week leading up to Eaux Claires festival, worked on these folk songs, and played a set on a big festival stage. It was a crazy first gig. A couple of months later we went to Berlin and already had a set’s worth of music that we were working on. We recorded that material, and I came home and realized that we had most of a record. I invited everybody back to work on it later that winter. We went upstate and recorded four or five more songs and then made the record out of that.
When you’re recording upstate, are you mostly working at Isokon with your long-time pal D. James Goodwin [Tape Op #138]?
Yes, the D. James Goodwin. [laughter] I love the sounds he gets. I love his mixes. I like being around him. He’s a Renaissance man. I try to work with Dan as much as possible. I also work at a studio up here called Dreamland [Recording Studios] that’s owned by Jerry Marotta [Tape Op #33]. Speaking of Peter Gabriel, he played drums on those records. That’s in an old church in Hurley, New York.
That’s where you finished the Bonny record, right?
Yep, and we also recorded some of the Bob Weir record there. We did a lot of the Day of the Dead there too. There’s another place called The Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, and I like it there a lot too. I did The Hold Steady records there, and Craig Finn’s solo records. It’s a great studio.
You have a lot of long, creative relationships with so many artists. You’ve produced six albums now with Craig Finn. How do you keep it interesting?
I think with Craig, it’s all about the stories. That will always dictate what we’re going; it’ll always start with the words. Sometimes he’ll have music ideas, and sometimes he won’t. He’ll come in with pages and pages of a story, and we’ll read through them together and circle what we love or that maybe we want to change the narrative shape of. In that relationship, I’m almost an editor, which is fun.
Are you helping write the music underneath?
Is that what happened with Cassandra Jenkins’ [An Overview on Phenomenal Nature] too?
Yeah, that’s how we did the Cassandra record. Well, not all of it. There’s a song called “Michelangelo” that she came in and played for me. I helped arrange it and I played most of the instruments on it. The centerpiece of that record is a song called “Hard Drive,” which is these three vignettes.
What a killer song. How did the music come about for that?
I had been following Eric Biondo [of Antibalas] on Instagram, and he was learning to play drums. I sampled him playing drums on Instagram from my phone, and I made a beat out of that. Then I came up with an organ part and these two bass lines. One is playing two chords, and the other one is playing a three-chord cycle, so they overlap in an interesting way; a three and four thing. Then I built up the track. Then Cassandra had this voice memo of a museum worker, and she had these dreams that she had written down, so then we put it together from there.
Looking at your catalog, I noticed you were doing a lot more string arrangements back in the day.
I did, yeah.
Are you interested in doing more of that?
The more I got into producing records, the more I started to feel I had to let go of some things to have some objectivity about what I was listening to. Letting go was important to me, so that I could know if it elevated something, more than being attached to it from a creative place or an ego place. If I farm out a drum track and then it comes back, then I know I can be objective about it. If it’s me, I know my limitations and know what I like; I’m listening to the performance from a very different place. I need to be able to produce it. I need to be able to divorce myself from it to then figure out if I like it.
You still play a lot of guitar on most of the albums you produce, though.
Yeah. It’s easy for me to be picky about that. “Oh, I could do that better! Come on. That sucked.” By mixing it up a little bit, it’s helpful. Plus, there is something to the arrangement parts. It’s cool to have it be a different mind.
I worked with an orchestrator for my musical, and it blew my mind to hear someone else reimagine it, or rather to imagine on top of it. I guess that’s what collaborating is, but it feels like a different dynamic than a band situation.
It does, yeah. It moves slower. You take your song and then you run it through a dream, and it comes back on the other side, a little more sparkly, you know?
That’s what you do with peoples’ songs as a producer, right?
Yeah, I run them through a dream.