Josh Kaufman Launched 2 Indie Supergroups And Worked On 2 Surprise Taylor Swift Albums This Year
The longtime sideman also produced 2 great records for This Is The Kit and the Hold Steady, was nominated for 2 Grammys, and learned his wife is pregnant with 2 twins.
You’ve heard Josh Kaufman’s harmonica. It’s one of the first sounds that creeps in on Taylor Swift’s “betty,” a late highlight on her (first) surprise 2020 album, folklore. To capture a mood true to its title, Swift enlisted the National’s Aaron Dessner to quietly round up some of his usual suspects. That’s how Kaufman — a seasoned musician and producer who co-orchestrated the sprawling, star-blitzed 2016 Day Of The Dead compilation with Dessner among other work within the National’s orbit — ended up recording his part in the closet at his apartment after his young daughter went to sleep. “It was so secretive,” Kaufman says over the phone. “I wasn’t allowed to know who the artist was.”
For Kaufman, it was just another day of work. (So was the follow-up session for Swift’s evermore, which he tracked at Dessner’s Long Pond studio.) After years of producing and collaborating with the likes of Craig Finn, Bob Weir, Hiss Golden Messenger, and more, Kaufman’s 2020 took him to new heights. He also released albums with his supergroups Muzz and Bonny Light Horseman, two different acts that showcase his range as a sonic colorist. Alongside the Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick in Muzz, Kaufman’s dusty sunset guitar and piano allows Interpol’s Paul Banks to explore a mellower side of his voice, heard on their whiskey-warm Mazzy Star cover. Bonny Light Horseman, Kaufman’s recently Grammy-nominated trio rounded out by Anaïs Mitchell and Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, finds similar alchemy in honeyed new takes on centuries-old folk songs.
At the center of it all is Kaufman, who can turn a guitar, mandolin, or keyboard part into a moment, elevating everyone in his vicinity. It’s a gift he laces throughout his seamless instrumentation and production work on This Is The Kit’s rustic, glowing Off Off On, which he partially completed in that same closet after sessions in a small village in southwestern England. That was in March, right as the COVID-19 pandemic set in globally, and he returned to his family just in time to pack up his own studio gear and relocate up the Hudson River to celebrate the news that his wife and collaborator Annie Nero was pregnant — with twins. A banner year, right?
“Annie always says I have no idea what to do with a day off,” Kaufman says. “I can’t just stop.” He did stop for a bit, though, to talk about his profile-raising year, what he learned from his fellow Grammy nominee Leonard Cohen, and why Hold Steady fans should be amped for the cohesion of Open Door Policy (which, naturally, he produced) in early 2021.
Muzz And Playing With Paul Banks In High School
STEREOGUM: Some of the songs on the album date back to about 2015, and you’ve been friends with Paul and Matt for longer than that. What made you decide to finally record and release what you’d been kicking around?
JOSH KAUFMAN: For Paul, I think it’s like, if we’re gonna be working on this stuff, there needs to be an endgame in sight. Like, what are we working towards? Just having a goal in mind to finish something. I think we’re all old guys, so a record seems like the way that you put music together and show it to people. So we still believe in that format, and it felt great, cathartic and cool, to finish that stuff up together. But I do feel like there was a point in recording where we felt like we had discovered something that was uniquely the three of us and we were really excited to push that all the way through to the point of making a record.
STEREOGUM: You and Paul have known each other for decades. You actually went to high school together in Spain, and he’s said you actually helped teach him guitar. What did you play together back then?
KAUFMAN: I think both Paul and I would learn little bits of other people’s songs when we were starting, but we were both kinda like self-taught, taught by ear. So we would make stuff up and jam, make our own things up most of the time. I think maybe the first time we ever played in front of anyone, we were the soundtrack for a school-play version of The Lottery, which is a really dark play. He and I were making feedback noises with our Stratocasters as the soundtrack, and maybe occasional high-school pentatonic moves in there as well. Like 13, 15-year-old blues moves.
Producing This Is The Kit’s Off Off On As COVID-19 Hit
STEREOGUM: In your mind, is there much of a separation between sessions where you’re working as a producer versus the ones where you’re an official band member?
KAUFMAN: There probably should be. I feel like I spent so many years as a side man playing guitar, bass, or piano with different bands and stuff that oftentimes, I’ve been walking into a situation where I’m not quote-unquote “in the band,” but somebody is having me play in the band. So there is a distinction on paper, but I think when musicians get in a room, there’s a feeling, and you just sort of follow the thread of that feeling. So I’ve always approached production from just being a musician in the room, you know? And trying to offer any sense of objectivity, which I think is always the thing missing when you’re in a band. You’re all so in it that you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re too close up.
STEREOGUM: You and Kate Stables had an album listening party over Zoom, and you were talking about recording it in Box, England, which looks like it’s in a fairly remote part of the country, right as COVID-19 set in. Can you talk about that contrast of reading those reports but also working on something in the studio that you think is really great?
KAUFMAN: That’s a paradox of making art at any time, but especially when it’s funneling through you in a particularly historical moment. I remember meeting our engineer at the airport on our way as news was really starting to hit. I think I went to the airport without any of my own supply of hand sanitizer, but I remember at the airport being like, fuck, I should buy some hand sanitizer, just stupid little things that I think are going to protect me. We got to Heathrow airport and they picked us up, went to the studio, and then that first day, it was definitely lightly being discussed at the studio throughout the session. The information moved so quickly, and it went from something that we were taking seriously, but also [thinking], “Oh, maybe it’s just a flu kind of thing,” and very quickly not that.
But since we were already in this bubble, we did feel somewhat isolated and protected. We weren’t nervous necessarily about getting it there. It wasn’t until we dispersed and left that the anxiety really kicked in. I didn’t realize when we were there that it was gonna be the last live recording session that I would probably do for a long time. Just like when my Bonny Light Horseman tour ended in February, I didn’t realize that was gonna be my last tour for a while. Just like everybody that did their things, didn’t realize they were gonna end. Like, “Oh shit, I’m not getting back on the subway for another two years,” or whatever.
I’m still unpacking that whole period, but I’m super grateful that we were able to complete as much of the record as we did, and I’d say we finished, I don’t know, 98% of the record when we were there that week. I left feeling like we had it. We had originally made plans for Kate to come back to Brooklyn. We were gonna finish this record together in Brooklyn, but obviously that didn’t happen. I just sort of finished it alone in my closet, and then, that was it.
Bonny Light Horseman And Being Nominated For Two Grammys
STEREOGUM: That Bonny Light Horseman album is nominated for two Grammys in categories alongside Leonard Cohen and John Prine. While that recognition isn’t necessarily the end goal, things like that, when you see them on paper, I’m sure are pretty cool.
KAUFMAN: It’s kinda hard to look at, kinda hard to believe. Like, really? That doesn’t add up!
STEREOGUM: It seems like both the way that band took shape and the way the album was recorded all fall within the way you operate, which feels deeply rooted in collaboration.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, I think that’s right.
STEREOGUM: That collaborative and historical folk style would also likely lend itself nicely to a volume two. Have you talked about that with Eric and Anaïs?
KAUFMAN: We’re well on the way to working on our next record. We were supposed to do it this fall. We were like, we’ll rent Eric a camper so he doesn’t have to stop anywhere, and he and his wife and his dog can travel across the country, and we’ll all go up to Vermont, where Anaïs is on her family farm with her parents and stuff, and we’ll work on the new Bonny record up there. We’ll all quarantine, we’ll get tested, and we’ll work on the record. And like, it was just prohibitively expensive and inconvenient on every level to do that, that we were like, let’s just wait until the spring to start it.
I have a bunch of songs written, and I know Anaïs had some ideas, and Eric has some ideas, and we’re gonna all probably start pulling together soon to see what we get. But yeah, I think we’re looking to start the record in June. It’ll go fast. It won’t take that long to do, I think. It’s more about collecting the songs and where we wanna go with it.
I think the beauty of that group is that we don’t really need much to get going. We can just hang around with a guitar and share some lyrics with each other. It’s not really so much about building the track up, or that kind of production. It’s more just about the three of us bouncing ideas off each other in real time and having the mics rolling while we’re doing it, sort of like a rehearsal recording scenario, if that makes sense. That’s kinda how I made the first record. I had my friend Bella [Blasko] recording us, and she was basically tracking these rehearsals, no headphones, we’re just playing through ideas, and then I go back through it later and find the ones I like. It’s a super candid recording.
folklore, evermore, And Keeping A Secret
STEREOGUM: Speaking of folk music, can you tell me what Aaron Dessner said when he reached out to ask you to contribute to Taylor Swift’s folklore?
KAUFMAN: That was different because it was so secretive. I wasn’t allowed to know who the artist was. I wasn’t even allowed to hear the vocal on the track, so it’s kind of funny when I listen back to “betty,” for instance, I’m playing all over the vocal, which is so not my style at all. I would never play that way, but she liked it, so it ended up there. Again, from doing session work and playing guitar behind so many people for so many years, I come from that school of: The vocal’s happening, and then you play right afterwards, make a little thing, but you don’t play on the vocal, know what I mean?
I recorded that when I was in Brooklyn, from my closet, and I sent it to Aaron, and he and I have worked together in that capacity for many years, so that wasn’t really strange for me to do. It was very comfortable. He’s had me overdub on so many records he’s produced, and I’ve done the same with him on records I’ve produced, where we send each other mixes in progress and we just track out ideas to that, mix them in to taste at the end. It’s nice to have somebody else’s music brain on the music that you’re working on. It’s like if you’re writing something, to have somebody read it before you’re done and see if it’s working for them.
STEREOGUM: At what point did you know it was a Taylor Swift project?
KAUFMAN: I did know pretty shortly after that. evermore was actually more [live]. I did some overdubs from home, but some of that stuff, I got tested and went over to Long Pond and did some stuff in person.
STEREOGUM: A lot of people are very interested in how one of the biggest artists on the planet could keep not just one, but two albums under wraps and pull in so many different artists to help execute that vision.
KAUFMAN: Totally. Our whole crew, people like me or [drummer] JT Bates [who plays on both albums], certainly Jon Low, who’s Aaron’s long-time engineer, getting to mix a Taylor Swift record — I mean, what’s so cool about it, aside from Taylor being obviously a creative force, incredibly talented person and a vivid storyteller, is like, Taylor Swift is like Coca-Cola. That’s something everybody knows. Not everybody knows the indie-level stuff. Even the popular stuff that looms large, it’s still very niche. So to think that some of my favorite musicians in the world were able to be a part of this thing, and hopefully make a positive ripple in the world. That’s pretty special. And I mean, real working musicians getting to play on something like that — I really credit Aaron. He’s just a great community builder and he always has been. It’s cool to help out.
Producing The Hold Steady And Looking Ahead To 2021
STEREOGUM: You produced the Hold Steady’s newest album, Open Door Policy, which is coming out in February. You’ve worked with Craig independently as well, but how was this experience different than working on the band’s previous LP, Thrashing Thru The Passion, in 2019?
KAUFMAN: Thrashing Thru The Passion was much more piecemeal. We made it over three sessions or something, so it felt like these chapters, whereas I feel like the new record is so much more of a piece, if that makes sense. I think they’re both really good, but the new one to me feels like we got to a place as collaborators that we weren’t able to quite get the head of steam from the first one. And also, we did everything on the new record at the same studio for the most part over just two sessions. We were all involved in mix revisions in a deeper way than on Thrashing Thru The Passion.
It just felt overall like the band was alive again. Not to say that Thrashing Thru The Passion doesn’t have that about it. It’s just consistently there on the new record in a way that I’m not ever second-guessing it. These guys are back in, in such a cool way for a band that’s been together that long and that has such a singular voice and really does something that nobody else does. That’s just an interesting brothership, I think, between all those guys. A lot of different lives in that band. Some of the guys, when they’re not playing in the Hold Steady, it’s not like they’re playing in other bands. It’s a different kinda life, and I think that makes it a really cool, joyful thing. When they do come together, they’re celebrating being able to be together. It doesn’t happen all the time. I think it’s kept that festive element and that joie de vivre in their music in such a cool way, working against Craig’s totally insane storytelling. And I think on this new record, his lyrics are bananas. They’re so good.
STEREOGUM: Looking at everything you had a hand in making in 2020 alone, is your default state to be just always working on multiple projects?
KAUFMAN: I just love the work so much. I knew I wanted to be a musician when I was young, but I wanna be working. It’s just about that for me. It’s definitely not my words, but Leonard Cohen said something about that he’s [deeper, theatrical Leonard Cohen voice] looked for it in women, he’s looked for it in travel, he’s looked for it… [voice ends] but nothing really did it for him except for blackening a page. I connected with that so much. There is nothing quite like just putting the work in. It just feels good.
STEREOGUM: This year, being part of some highest-profile projects in pop music, as well as getting two Grammy nominations, have you given any thought to what that means for you, and what you might want to do with that visibility?
KAUFMAN: [pause] Not really, no. [laughs] I just know that I’m so grateful to keep working and I just wanna keep writing and keep working and keep collaborating. I like to stay busy, so it kinda helps me. I can dip far down if I’m not busy. Annie always says I have no idea what to do with a day off. I can’t just stop. This is a hard stop in a lot of ways, this whole time, but I’ve been pretty busy through it.
STEREOGUM: Your wife is about to have twins. That should at least give you a pause, if nothing else, right?
KAUFMAN: I think my last session I have booked is a week before we’re looking like we’re gonna have the kids.