Though few outside of the indie circuit recognized Verbena, critics and fans hailed the group as the second coming of Nirvana. The comparison was easy to see—and not just because former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl produced the band's 1999 major-label debut, Into the Pink. When Verbena emerged from Birmingham, Alabama, in the late '90s, its sound was dark, powerful and based on a foundation of big pop hooks.
Lead singer Scott Bondy in particular came across as very Kurt Cobain-esque, with his lazy, marble-mouthed singing style, snarky attitude and bleached blond hair. These days, though, Bondy is all grown up and no longer playing the role of snotty rock kid. Performing solo under his birth name of AA Bondy (the initials stand for Auguste Arthur), he composes enchanting, elegantly sparse indie-folk music. The songs often feature just his voice and an expertly strummed guitar, with the occasional hint of mournful harmonica and handclaps used as percussion.
When he tries to explain the difference between the louder Verbena and his current stripped-back project, Bondy confesses via phone, "I don't really know what I was doing before."
He's certainly figured out what to do on his solo debut, American Hearts (which will be re-released on Fat Possum Records in April). Hearts is a bewitchingly beautiful album that's been embraced as an impressive contribution to the world of nü-folk—largely because the songs don't sound like the "unplugged" indulgences of a former rock guy. They're not stripped-down; they're just not decorated with unnecessary wrapping. The songs overflow with unflinching sincerity, and the tiniest details—like the delicate noise of fingers sliding across guitar strings—stand out and seem purposeful.
The way Bondy constructed Hearts reflects this simplistic style: He recorded it in a rickety old barn next to his house in New York ("It's a really good-sounding barn," he says with a chuckle). Perhaps as a result, Hearts' lyrics are also unadorned and straightforward, relying heavily on the polarities of good versus evil, apathy versus love and God versus the devil. Still, Bondy finds plenty of room for shrewd statements ("Love, it don't die/It just goes from girl to girl") and optimistic observations ("The barroom is filled with the joy/Of making old friends").
Many of Hearts' songs also carry a twinge of the '60s protest vibe—meaning that the Bob Dylan comparisons are inevitable. It's no surprise that Bondy has absorbed a penchant for clever lyrics; he cites Tom Waits, Nina Simone and Tom Petty as classic favorites. But of these influences, he fondly explains, "You can't really speak to the nature of what makes things special. But whatever does make things special doesn't really matter. I guess for a listener you just know it is special to you—and that's all that matters."
During live shows, Bondy is frequently accompanied by his wife, Clare Felice, who plays the organ. She's from the same family that produced the up-and-coming Americana band the Felice Brothers—a group Bondy lovingly refers to as his brothers and source of inspiration.
The rest of our conversation with the National Public Radio-approved singer-songwriter focused on his songwriting style, his fears (or lack thereof) about performing solo and his thoughts about the topics on which his lyrics focus:
The stuff you're recording seems very... like, if someone walked into your house, you could be sitting there playing it.
Yeah, I could.
It seems very intimate—like you're not putting on a kind of show.
Yeah, those songs could exist without any other accompaniment. And they were written that way. Which is one of the main differences between this stuff and anything that happened before it. Those other songs weren't brought to the light of day in that fashion. They were always pieced together. They were...like, a guitar part always came first. They never started with, like, basically a finished song. Which all of these songs did. They were finished songs that things got added to—or didn't.
Is it scary for you to stand up there alone?
When I first started playing by myself, I'd played tons and tons of shows with a band. I didn't even understand how freaked out I was. If you're getting up onstage with a band, it's like you're part of a team. But once you get up there by yourself, it's totally different, 'cause you're responsible for it all. I like it better. It's more thrilling, at least. I don't get too freaked out anymore, but I used to. When you're by yourself, it's so much easier.
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How is your writing different as you've gotten older?
I actually write songs now. [Laughs] You know, I don't just, like, play a guitar part and put some stuff over it. I just know that it feels completely different than it used to. It feels like there's something contained inside of it, as opposed to being like a shell.
The topics seem pretty grown-up—relationships, war. Do you feel like you're getting something out? Does it make you feel better?
Maybe it makes me feel better only in the way something gets completed that I'm somehow satisfied with. Not in the way that I'm saying something, you know? Like, it could be a song about a pile of leaves that I lit on fire, and I could feel just as good about that as if it was, like, a so-called song that had something to say.