Covenhoven the Denver songwriter’s third ‘chapter’ a kind of revelation is dedicated to the memory of his brother
By Brian F. Johnson
“There’s a very strange thing I’ve been observing or seeing in my songs — these weird self-fulfilling prophecies,” explained Denver songwriter Joel Van Horne, on the cusp of releasing his third album under the name Covenhoven. “You write a song and you don’t know who or what it’s about and then in hindsight you look back and go ‘Whoa, that was about this.’ The song ‘Passing Through,’ there’s no doubt in my mind — it’s a very sad realization, and it’s a tough realization — but I remember writing that song and when I got done with that last stanza, that says, “Bathed in a light that seemed everlasting, until the night it was bright red, flashing blue, I guess we’re all just passing through.” I remember getting done with that line and thinking that’s a beautiful line, but also having this foreboding feeling about who is that going to be about, and that’s a very strange thing to think about now, because I had it so clear in my head: ‘Uh oh. Who is this going to be about? Is it going to be me, or somebody I love, or someone close to me?’ And what’s awful about it is that it didn’t take but a week to come to light.”
Less than one week after Van Horne completed the final mixes of the album, his younger brother Ben, who had helped him and encouraged him throughout the writing and recording process of the album, succumbed to a pulmonary embolism, a result of a long battle with ulcerative colitis. “We finished the record and then a week later he passed away. It was really that sudden and that crazy. He had been sick for a long time with ulcerative colitis and had been battling that for eight years and was really not doing good, but we never thought — it wasn’t even on our radar after eight years. It was just Ben’s cross to bear, this thing that he was dealing with. And then he had a pulmonary embolism. It was a very sudden thing one morning.”
That moment almost seemed as if it were the cap to two years of work by Van Horne on a project that he said he needed his brother’s help and encouragement to complete. Van Horne released his self-titled debut in 2013, a mix of modern folk and storytelling, set among the Medicine Bow Range, where he spent his summers in the family cabin which bears the name “Covenhoven.” Poetic verses sung with a brilliantly delivered cadence of thoughtful pauses and broken phrasing coupled with a vibe of naturalist writings the likes of John Muir, the first album set the tone, and opened the first chapter of the Covenhoven story. For his second album, The Wild and Free he tapped into the allure of Edward Abbey and Canyonlands National Park, and though he didn’t realize it at the time, those two setting-oriented albums set the course of a loose concept that Van Horne said is still revealing itself.
“I think now I’m realizing that’s sort of what I’m doing. In conversations with friends and looking back and seeing that ‘Huh. I guess, now I’m on chapter 3,’ he said in a recent interview with The Marquee.
So if the first setting was the mountains of Wyoming, and the second was the canyon country of Utah, Van Horne’s third, A Kind of Revelation, which he will release this month, is ‘the ocean record,’ set along the Pacific Northwest coast, around Olympic National Park and Big Sur. “I started dreaming of going to Olympic and hadn’t been and I realized I was doing a bunch of west coast dates and figured that I should fit that in. Once I did that though it felt like that wasn’t enough, so I went back and spent more time in Big Sur, and I realized that I was spending time in all of these coastal places and writing these songs and it just felt like a record that’s based on the coast.
“It’s an interesting idea to take a place and distill that into a record, and make it like a concept record, but not overly so. And that’s where I’ve tried to be very careful — of not going off the deep end of the concept. These songs stand on their own whether you know about the concept at all.”
And Van Horne said that he doesn’t have a full, completed story figured out and the ideas of this chapter concept are still evolving, but there’s no final outline of a Covenhoven novel working behind the scenes of the records.
“Even less so now, after Ben’s passing. I could be dead next year, so I’m not really thinking about that necessarily,” Van Horne said. “I’m just trying to get out as much as I can while I’m here and I’m trying to put as much heart and soul and meaning into it as I can. I think I’m very improvisational in the way that I work and I don’t want to lose sight of that. So am I married to this chapter concept? I’m digging it. I’m really enjoying it, but the next record doesn’t have to be that. I’m still on this trip, this idea, because I feel I’ve found something here that’s my own. A good example is Sufjan Stevens. He decided he was going to make a record for each state [his “Fifty States Project”]and then he decided that was madness. Right? He got like three or four in, and as cool as an idea that it is, who wants to be forced or locked into some idea and have to live up to whatever that concept you came up with five years ago. I think that’s silly.”
But for this record, the ocean, with its ebbs and flows, which Van Horne acknowledges on “Where to Begin,” when he sings “and you never know when the uplift will turn to undertow,” is a great analogy for the changing tides, and the continual, almost rhythmic inconsistencies of life and evolution.
“I mixed the record this time,” said Van Horne, who also, like he has on albums past, played every instrument except for the strings (and the pedal steel this time around). “It was my next big move as an engineer. I was scared to mix this. I didn’t want to — well, I wanted to, but didn’t think I could. I got a lot of help from friends and Ben was a big help there. What I hoped and thought would happen was that we’d be touring together and he’d be my live sound engineer — front of house — and then we’d make records together. He was very easy to work with. I loved working with him.”
But now, a few months after he and his family celebrated his brother’s life, and closer to the dates set in place long before Ben’s passing, Van Horne is carrying Ben’s spirit along as he prepares to release A Kind Of Revelation this month. “There’s a lot going on in a musician’s world at the time of a record release and so to have to grapple with all of this while I’m going through that has been a really interesting experience for me, because this is the first time I’ve ever lost anyone this close to me and grief at this level is totally new to me and just every single song reminds me of Ben. Everything about it makes me think of my brother,” he said. adding that even though it’s difficult to carry on, Ben’s memory makes it all that much more important. “We don’t know when our last day is.”
Go If You Dig:
- Gregory Alan Isakov
- Sufjan Stevens
- Bon Iver