By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Bonsai.
A bonsai tree is a wonderful little microcosm of nature. It seems to hang suspended between the beauty of understanding and the silence of patience. It conjures feelings of a dream and entices admiration. But all the while bonsai trees are also very difficult to grow.
The alluring plant is a fitting metaphor for Simone Stevens’ Brooklyn trio of the same name. Bonsai write songs about bridging the gaps between the spaces that divide us. The musicians remind us the importance of reaching out to those that we love with gratuity and care–even while the rest of the world seems to speed up.
Stevens describes the enigmatic nature of the Bonsai to BTR on an unusually sunny November day.
“You have this really beautiful tree,” she starts. “But it’s also fantastical to me. It almost feels like you’re in a fairy-tale, in this world where I can almost imagine little people picnicking beneath it.”
The listener could say the same for experiencing Bonsai’s music. It’s a lush and flowing current that feels like getting lost in a book of someone else’s dreams. The ink becomes a blurred whir of weeping pedal steel while Stevens’ atmospheric voice helps us turn the page.
Stevens agrees that the music comes difficult to tend to–an acknowledgement that’s already apparent in the lyrics of the song “Bonsai Trees”, where she writes “we’re hard to care for, see?” Looking out for one another is a tender stitching that entwines much of her work, and there’s a certain amount of personal diligence that becomes necessary to do so. But in regards to songwriting, sometimes letting go can allow an artist to hold on.
She doesn’t get up every morning and allocate two hours towards song-craft (though ever the productive visionary, she admits she probably should). Rather, Stevens will wait for the proverbial lightning to strike between the ears. When it does, melodies will stick to the inside of her head like glue, or tree sap. Sometimes the lyrics will get bottled up inside, resounding indefinitely until the songwriter finds a melody to ride them out.
Fortunately Stevens has a supremely talented cast of musicians to help her do so. Greg McMullen (Trixie Whitely, Glenn Branca) has been playing guitar and pedal steel with her for over a decade now, while drummer/bassist Bryan Bisordi has joined Stevens for various musical incarnations throughout the past five years. It’s readily apparent from listening to Bonsai’s music that the trio transcends the bounds of traditional chemistry, reaching a point of synergy where all sounds bleed together.
You can hear the auditory fusion for yourself by giving a listen to Bonsai’s self-titled EP debut. The five songs were “piecemealed” together over the course of a full year, with recording stopping and resuming between bouts of touring. They were produced, engineered, and mixed by Dan Molad of the band Lucius, whom Stevens discovered during a performance at NYC’s Pete’s Candy Store.
“I was happy to have the whole process spaced out,” she says, “because I was still writing while we were making the record, and it allowed me to get input from Danny. The whole thing was just very comfortable, laid back, and lots of fun.”
The songs themselves weren’t the only things that were changing. At the beginning of recording Bonsai, Stevens was frequently playing her Martin acoustic guitar, charmingly named Emelda. But Emelda was a bit too cumbersome and unwieldy for the songwriter, who has a slightly smaller frame. After a few too many subway-onlookers commenting on her burdensome “cello,” she decided to go electric.
What results from the decision is a jangling kaleidoscope of sound that manages to sound both earthly and cosmic. Gentle finger-plucked passages wind around electric slide guitars that create elastic landscapes.
“It’s pretty trippy,” she describes with a laugh.
Bonsai’s tunes are not entirely confined to the realm of aether nodding though. Nearly every one of the songs features a hook or melody that drives its rhythm forward; freeing it to drift into the waters of pop with a certain aloofness that keeps it from getting wet. It’s music you can lose yourself to, but it’s also music you can sing along to.
To hear the rest of the Bonsai interview, check out the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.
Find your own way to interpret Bonsai by clicking here.