Bohannon moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to New York City in his mid-20s, in search of “the weirdest shit I could find. My favorite band at the time was Acid Mothers Temple, and I was listening to lots of Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock, so I wanted to move to be around that.”
There is a restless energy and enthusiasm in the way J.R. Bohannon speaks. Whether discussing his practice routine, his favorite musicians, or his ambitious musical plans, he’s passionate and effusive. His is an indefatigable spirit. “If this wasn’t the only thing in the world that eased my mind and let me live a normal existence … if I could do anything else, I probably would. But I can’t! This is the one thing that gets me up in the morning, and it’s the one thing I look forward to, going to bed at night.”
While discussing his latest EP, Recôncavo, it’s clear Bohannon is already excited to talk about his next album, Dusk, which is due out sometime this fall. His reason is quite understandable: Though recently re-released (more on this in a minute), Recôncavo was actually recorded a couple of years ago. But we were able to convince him the five-song EP is worth some attention before moving forward, because—in addition to being a record that brings a new angle to the solo acoustic tradition—it’s also a crucial part of Bohannon’s story.
The 31-year-old guitarist left the South for New York in 2009 with his eye on the city’s experimental music scene. He dove in head first, leading the ambient psychedelic solo project Ancient Ocean and jamming in ad hoc improv bands around the city. Once he’d been there a while, he discovered he was ready to rekindle his relationship with the music of his home. “Growing up in Louisville, being around Southern music traditions—country, bluegrass, Appalachian music, things like that—those were things that I heard but didn’t necessarily connect to at that time. I couldn’t stand country music back then because it’s everywhere, it’s shoved down your throat. [But when] I moved to New York, I started rediscovering that music in my own way. And then it gained a new meaning. Now, it’s my favorite music in the world.”
A couple years back, Bohannon decided it was time to get back to basics with a new project that used his own name. He began with a solo acoustic record, taking his time collecting the material for Recôncavo, recording and re-recording songs in various settings until he was ready to self-release the EP on Bandcamp and a small run of cassette tapes in March 2017. The result was a focused exploration of Bohannon’s wide range of deeply investigated personal influences, from the classical guitar music he studied as a teen to the Brazilian music he immersed himself in during college—and, of course, his newfound enthusiasm for country and experimental music. In April of this year, Recôncavo caught the attention of British label Phantom Limb, which was so enthusiastic about the recording that it offered to bring wider attention to it via re-release.
We recently chatted with Bohannon about the creative process behind both the EP and his upcoming full-length, and got more of his intriguing backstory.
You first started playing guitar by taking classical lessons when you lived in Louisville, right?
Yeah, I took mostly classical guitar lessons through my teens. I wasn’t really into the idea of classical guitar music, but I liked the techniques. At the time I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith and Leo Kottke, so I loved the fingerpicking sound but I didn’t necessarily want to play classical music. In Kentucky, you either have to do that or take bluegrass lessons, and I didn’t want to do that either. It was kind of a combination of lessons and self-teaching as well. It was still a pretty early time as far as the internet and tablature goes—you still had to listen to stuff and figure it out for yourself. There was no YouTube, basically, so it was a little more of a challenge. I didn’t start taking it super seriously until I got into college. I grew up in the suburbs and my parents had different expectations than me becoming a musician, so that kind of weighed on me until my mid 20s—that pressure to have some kind of “normal” career. But time goes on and you realize there’s no such thing as a normal career. You just have to go full speed or don’t do it at all, in my opinion.
What sounds were you chasing that led you to move to New York?
Experimental music, free jazz, spastic balls-to-the-wall psychedelic music … the weirdest shit I could find. My favorite band at the time was Acid Mothers Temple, and I was listening to lots of Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock, so I wanted to move to New York and be around that. It’s funny because, living in the South—or anywhere where the pace of life is slower—I think it’s easier to digest experimental music, especially recorded, because life is not as chaotic. In New York, life is so chaotic, the last thing I want to do is hear some spastic free-jazz record. I still love that stuff, but I don’t have the space of mind for it on record as I did when I was 21. Now, when I’m home I want to listen to George Jones and ambient records. I don’t want it to take up too much space.
TIDBIT: This free-ranging album assays Bohannon’s treasure trove of influences, focusing primarily on the classical guitar he studied in his teens and the Brazilian music he devoured in college.
Listening to Recôncavo and Dusk, one hears references to American primitive guitar playing—you mentioned Leo Kottke—but also things like Brazilian music. How did that develop?
When I was in late high school, a friend gave me the  self-titled Caetano Veloso record, and I fell in love with it—and with everything about Brazilian music—and got very obsessed. I studied abroad there and spent some time traveling around. I love not only the tropicália stuff, but I love the traditional música popular brasileira—MPB is what they call it. It’s the popular music of Brazil. A lot of those guys had a lot to do with the influence of timing and rhythm in my playing. If there’s one thing that gave to me as a guitar player, it’s that I don’t feel inclined to stay in one tempo or play to a click. I like to just go to my inner rhythm. When I play, I’m shifting in my seat because I’m kind of mustering up all these things in a way that I’m free flowing, rhythmically. I’ve listened to so much Brazilian music and spent so much time with it that a lot of the rhythms have become ingrained in what I do.
Both recordings sound aesthetically focused but use elements of the different styles you mentioned. Each track sounds like it’s thoroughly exploring a concept.
A few years ago, I said I’m going to really make a go at this, at playing guitar, and one thing that was really important to me was to not rush it. I recorded those songs [on Recôncavo] two or three times, and this next record probably three times all the way through, and just scrapped it. I just like to let songs grow over time. You know the way some people like to write and record, and then it’ll grow on the road? I like to do the opposite: I like to record something in its fully realized form, and I want it to be not only technically sound, but it needs the room to breathe. That’s something I strive for—to just let melodies breathe and play slow. I think you hear a lot of someone’s playing in the subtle nuances.
Were all the tracks on Recôncavo recorded in different places? Apparently “Under the Friar’s Ledge” was recorded in a hotel room….
Everything was recorded in different places. I pretty much travel with a mobile rig, just so I can get down ideas. Two tracks were recorded at home, one was recorded at a friend’s house, one was in a hotel room, and the fifth one … I don’t know where it was recorded.
What do you use to record?
I have a Tascam 388 [1/4" reel-to-reel 8-track], and I have some gear at home. I do a lot of recording myself, and everything I’ve done I’ve mixed myself. I’ve never given a record of my own to somebody else to mix. I feel like the way I sculpt things, sound-wise, comes through the way I mix. Maybe not as much on the EP, but on the next record there are a lot of layers. I’ve been making ambient records that are intricately layered for the last decade. I’ll have 50 tracks, and the way I put them together on my own is just as much of a creative process as playing the instrument.