Joel Van Horne used locations — the ocean, his grandfather’s cabin and the Utah desert — as the thematic anchors for his first three albums. The Colorado singer-songwriter, who performs as Covenhoven, eschewed that premise for his fourth album, the aptly titled IV.
“Sometimes that limits you in terms of what you're saying in your songs,” Van Horne observes. “On this record, I laid it all on the table a little bit more than I have in the past, maybe speaking more openly about the current state of things.”
The new record is also a departure from his previous work in that it’s more of a collaborative effort, he says, even though the production suffered some trials and tribulations courtesy of the socially distanced pandemic.
“I was just ready for something new, something different,” he explains. “I didn’t want to make another record by myself, on my own in my home studio. I was definitely excited to work with other people and collaborate and work with a producer.”
Van Horne set out to work this way at the beginning of 2020, but about a month into the effort, the process was stalled by the arrival of COVID, which made the idea of having a large group of musicians working together in a recording studio seem unsafe. He went back to working alone, and although that eventually took a lot of pressure off of the process, it was fairly distressing and anxiety-inducing at first.
“I had kind of a timeline in my head, and then that was just gone,” Van Horne recalls. “None of us really knew what the future held.”
It turned out that making a record during the shutdown helped Van Horne power through it. The songs are cathartic, he says, and composing them helped him focus on something positive. He had started writing many of them before the pandemic — he doesn’t like the idea of walking into a studio without having most of an album already worked out — but they ended up being colored by it, because how could they not?
“I was certainly not trying to write a pandemic record or quarantine record,” he says. “I was actually trying to avoid that. But there's a different mood that comes through on it that was very much that moment in time. I was speaking more openly about how I really feel.”
The collaborative approach made a comeback in the fall of 2020, and Van Horne is happy to have brought in a talented cast of a dozen or so Colorado musicians, including Ben Wysocki of the Fray, who co-produced and plays on some of the tracks. Singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov also makes an appearance, as does Julie Davis from Bluebook and Luke Mossman of Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.
The large cast imparts an element of friendship to the record, in Van Horne's estimation.
“The collaboration did not happen in a writing sense,” he says. “It was more bringing in people and recording and having people guest on songs, that kind of thing.”
He thinks the new songs sound like they’ve taken a turn into the indie-rock realm. While there's less of an emphasis on acoustic instruments such as banjo and mandolin, rendering the songs potentially less “folky,” there are still plenty of folky elements remaining. The record has more energy overall, even if the songs still exist in Van Horne's “contemplative, vibey world,” he notes.
“One of the big changes is that I always started with a drumbeat,” he says. “That's kind of how these songs were born. I would sit at a drum set and play different rhythms I thought were interesting, record those and build songs around them.”
As for content, Van Horne set out to tackle some weighty topics, issues he spends a lot of time thinking about: climate change, for example, and all the tension in the world. He’s focused on matters that are hard to ignore — like Colorado having awful air quality all summer because of wildfires.
Listeners won’t get hit over the head with messages, though, as Van Horne's lyrics tend to be more metaphorical than literal. “My music has always been an escape from things like that,” he says, though he concedes that “on this record, I was trying to confront them head-on a little bit more.”
But as bleak as everything might seem, he's always looking for a positive spin; he wants to understand the world around him and still find a reason to smile. "There’s so much to bring you down or make life feel hard and difficult," he says. "What I dwell on a lot is to try to add to the beauty of this world. It's a beautiful place if you look for it.”
As an example of this sentiment, Van Horne points to a line in “Nothing Left to Be,” a song he wrote for his brother, who passed away a few years ago: “There’s nothing left to be but beautiful.”
“We cremated my brother and scattered his ashes in front of our family cabin in Wyoming,” he says. “Now those ashes feed the flowers. Essentially, my brother has become those flowers. So in the end, there’s nothing left to be but beautiful.”
IV is available on October 15; the singles "Monterey," "Everything I Said Yesterday" and "Everything in Between" are available now. An Evening With Covenhoven and Friends takes place on December 17 at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street. Visit covenhoven.com for more information.