By Brian F. Johnson
Covenhoven is one of the most eloquent and gorgeous local albums of the last several years.
The brilliantly crafted work was created by Denver singer/songwriter Joel Van Horne, who wrote, recorded, and except for a few string parts, performed the entire release.
Van Horne debuted the album about a year ago, to stellar critical acclaim, and this month he will re-release it on vinyl, before bidding farewell to this recording and preparing for Covenhoven II.
“It’s exciting to me,” said Van Horne during a recent interview with The Marquee. “As an independent artist with no label or anything like that, it’s an expensive thing to put your record out on vinyl. So this is a special milestone for me to release my first record like this.”
The record that he’s so lovingly preparing for re-release was inspired by the cabin that Van Horne’s grandfather built and named Covenhoven in the Medicine Bows of Wyoming, decades ago. The construction of the hand-hewn log cabin was a mostly solitary effort for his grandfather to build, but after its completion it became the central meeting place for the whole Van Horne family, and was the scene for countless summer trips and the setting for thousands of childhood memories, life-lessons and reflective moments. As Jonathan Bitz of Denver Syntax so wonderfully put it in 2013, Covenhoven, as a place, is where the family “came together to be alone.”
Inside, the cabin is split into one main room and three small bedrooms. The walls are covered with antiques and the two-handed drawknife used to hew the logs, still hangs triumphantly in the main room.
Over the years Covenhoven has changed. Forest fires have gotten close, but never hit the cabin itself, and logging operations have transformed some of the forests that Van Horne used to romp in as a child to fields and hillsides clear of vegetation. But despite those changes, the spirit of the retreat, and the solace it brings has remained a constant.
“What I started to realize, when I began to record Covenhoven is that just like my grandfather, I was building something alone. My grandfather built that cabin by hand, essentially alone,” Van Horne said. “He had the help of my dad for some of it, but the cabin took about 10 years to build. It was mostly this solitary experience for him, and I began to realize that it was a lot like what I was doing with this record, and it sort of became an extension of that story, if you will.”
Van Horne began writing material for the album back before his former project, the Denver alt/indie group Carbon Choir, had yet to dissolve. Having been part of the group for many years, Van Horne said he struggled at first with putting his creative efforts into a new project, but soon found that once he was responsible for the entire album, he rose to the challenge of handling it all himself. “I had never done everything myself and I had never played every instrument on an album,” he said. “What I found is that I love doing it and I think it comes naturally to me to wear so many hats musically. I can come up with a part and lay it down and then sort of step outside of that mindset and space and become another player in the band, so to speak.”
Van Horne wrote and recorded the album in the winter of 2012, when the high snow and bitter temperatures made a trip to Covenhoven out of the question. But Van Horne said that writing about it without actually being there made it a bit easier.
“Mentally, it allowed me to think about the memories and the spirit of the place,” Van Horne said. “There have been so many years, when it gets to be about January or February and that feeling starts seeping in again, and I just can’t wait to get up there — when the months can’t go by quickly enough. It’s a very special place for me, and maybe I’m kind of sentimental — I mean, I know I’m definitely a sentimental, nostalgic kind of person, maybe more so than others — but that feeling just never goes away. It gets greater every year.”
Not long after he finished recording the album, and the Medicine Bows gave way to spring, Van Horne did return to the cabin, and he said that it was a surreal experience to have the record with him in that place.
“It was amazing to go up there the following summer because while the record wasn’t put out until September, it was done in like July or maybe even late June,” he said. “So I had the record done and I got to go up there and it wasn’t like sitting at the cabin and listening to the whole record, but I would walk around the forest with headphones on and that experience really washes over you. Maybe it’s a really narcissistic experience to write your own record about a place and then be in that place and experience it for what it is, but that’s what it’s about.”
This summer Van Horne returned to Covenhoven again, and this time he took recording gear in preparation for Covenhoven II. The follow-up album is actually something that he’s been working on since before the last one was released, and when he hit the cabin this time, he was prepared to lay down material for it.
“I started working on this record before the last one was even out,” he said. “I began almost as soon as I got done. I spent the weekend at Covenhoven and for two days straight, from morning until night, I was recording and writing. I had gotten all of my gear up there and gotten it ready, so that whenever I was ready I could just sit down and press record. And then I’d walk around the woods and I would go sit and stare at the trees with coffee for a while and write lyrics. I was immersed in it.”
Van Horne said that a big part of the re-release party, which will feature a large string section from the Sphere String Ensemble, is its role as a precursor to the release of the next record, which he hopes to put out in early 2015.
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