The ethereal voice of Bonnie Paine is one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of the musical experience that is Elephant Revival. Her multi-octave range and haunting, hushed tones is complimented by her skill on a wide variety of percussive and bowed instruments, from the washboard to cello and many points between. Her performance skills, when joined with that of fiddle player Bridget Law, guitarist Daniel Rodriguez, bassist Dango Rose and banjo/pedal steel player Charlie Rose, play a brand of music often described as “Transcendental Folk.”

Of all her contributions to the band’s unique and dynamic sound, the most important is her songwriting. Recently Paine revealed that many of her songs from throughout the band’s career have been part of a long and winding tale of a lost child and the sea. Water, in all its many forms, has been at the heart of many of her tunes, from “Drop” to the banks of Oregon’s “Rogue River.”
Our own Rex Thomson had a chance to catch up with the elusive Ms. Paine as she prepared with the rest of the band for their upcoming show with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. In the interview, Paine shares the poignant tale uniting many of her songs, her joy at seeing the sold out crowd at the band’s first headlining Red Rocks performance and her excitement at hearing the band’s material fleshed out with a full compliment of amazing musicians. You can read the full conversation below; enjoy!

Live For Live Music: This has been a pretty crazy year for you. You narrowly escaped a bus fire, released a fabulous new album, sold out Red Rocks as the headliner and next weekend you are playing with the Denver Symphony. Is this the wildest year of your life?

Bonnie Paine: Maybe so, actually, when you put it that way. Yeah, we have had some adventures this year, all different kinds. And there is still more to come!

L4LM: Well,rather than focus on the bad, let’s talk about the good for a moment. What was it like, playing to a full house at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre?

BP:  That was amazing. It was incredible to look and and see so many faces of people we love in such a beautiful space. That was magical.

Someone filmed it in 3-D and I got to look at it. It was awesome. You can look any direction you want to when you put these goggles on. I saw myself, then I turned and saw my dad and mom, then I looked back and saw myself onstage and recognized the first moment I saw them in the crowd. It was a trip.


L4LM: Was it weird to see yourself from so many different angles?

BP: I try not to focus too much on how I look when I play. I usually don’t look too much at myself. That can be a bad idea for me. I don’t know too many people who like looking at themselves.

L4LM: You released a new album, Petals, that seemed to touch on some heavier subjects than in the past with some new, densely layered instrumentation. Are you happy with the final product?

BP: I’m very happy. It was very different. It was an exploration of sound. We tried to add a lot of new flavors. We had Charlie Rose with his pedal steel, for the first time. That was a new flavor.

It was also the first album I played the cello on. I’ve written songs on the cello for years, but I usually ended up playing percussion instead.  These songs had some cello parts that were really powerful, and that was fun. We got some big drum sounds in there, which was new for us. It has been fun to play with our new percussionist who is touring with us, so it makes it really fun.

L4LM: So how many instruments do you play regularly.

BP: I don’t know. I mean… does the washboard count?

L4LM: You’re playing it with musical intent, so of course.

BP: Well, then seven or so.


L4LM: You said you have written songs on the cello for years. Is there a formula to how you go about writing your songs?

BP:  Generally my songs begin with a melody in my head when I am out walking around. Usually these melodies pop into my mind when I am outside of human made areas. Out in the woods, down by a river. From the melody I will find words that fit over the rhythm of that melody.

Some are really fun to find the chords for initially, because it is in the same register as my voice. So I can find the notes that way. Sometimes it comes from trying to mimic a bird’s voice on the cello. Sometimes I am just strumming guitar chords until something speak to me..or stomping around…chanting a bit maybe?

L4LM: You mentioned your new touring percussionist, Darren Garvey. How are you enjoying having more help keeping the beat going?

BP: He’s amazing. We have known Darren since our first gigs really.  We met him at the Stage Stop in Rollinsville, Colorado when the band first got together. Its fun. My sisters were all in town this one time, really early in our beginnings, when we were playing at the Stage Stop. We all hung out basically as our band was forming and had a blast. It is really impressive to see a percussionist as dialed in he was and is.

The best thing about playing with him is understanding. I know where he is going. It’s like when I play with my sisters. I’m not wondering about where he is going or trying to make sure what I am playing matches what he is playing. I told him “Playing with you is just like playing with my sisters, which is a compliment.”

It’s very natural to play with him. He has a great groove and an open heart.

L4LM: Did you add a percussionist to take some of your duties, and, if so, are you just going to add five or six more people?

BP: No, I don’t think so. But he is also a multi-instrumentalist, like everybody in the band. There’s room for so many kinds of flavors on these instruments. It is fun for sure.

L4LM: Over the last year or so, you have introduced certain songs from throughout Elephant Revival’s existence as part of a longer running story. Can you help us understand what you are trying to create?

BP: Yeah, a lot of my songs are related. Some of them I have discovered this after they were written, in a way, that they were all a part of the same story. Now I am writing for it a little more intentionally to fill out the story.

The first song that I ever wrote is called “Currach,” which is on our first album. It is about being taken on a boat and getting lost. It is the story of a little boy who ends up in a little boat and gets washed out to sea.  Shortly after that I was babysitting for my friends and I wrote the next part of the cycle, and that’s “Furthest Shore” which is on Petals, the album we just released.

That is the story of the boy after he has grown up and the adventures he has. Then there is “Stolen,” also on Petals, where he gets picked up by a slave ship and has to overthrow the slave driver. Its a long, long story; that is just a small piece of it.

So the short version is there are thirteen songs now that are part of that story. My mom is writing it for me, because she is a great writer. The dream is to have an acrobatic ballet made from it someday, played with a symphony, along with the music.

Listen to Elephant Revival perform a beautiful rendition of “Stolen” from the Wonder Ballroom in Portland, Oregon in April of this year:

L4LM: So there are thirteen songs written for this already?

BP: Maybe more, I’m still finding ways things fit together. There are going to be two separate albums I’m realizing, and two separate plays or ballets made from it. The first one is nearly completed. There is just one and a half songs missing that tell the last chunk of that part of the story.

The second half… I should probably start that today. I’m starting to realize that other songs are a part of it. Like the raven character, it’s just become really apparent to me that it is a part of it. It has turned up in a couple of songs now. Those songs are actually making more sense to me now.

The raven’s part in it is definitely more of the second half of the story.

L4LM: Another thing that seems to connect a majority of the songs you write is the element water. Is that on purpose as well?

BP: Yeah, absolutely. I look for water places everywhere we go if I have time. Those are the easiest places, when I am writing, to let it flow, so to speak. I listen for melodies in the water. Whether it’s the way streams bubble, or the river rushes or the ocean ebbs and falls or rain falls…there are patterns that you can hear that can repeat themselves.

It can be come a melody that is ingrained in your surroundings, and it is something a lot of people can relate to. I want to draw from those places when I am writing because it is something everyone can relate to. And water is life.

Water is the main ingredient for any type of creativity, the creation of life.

Here’s one of Elephant Revival’s most well known songs about water, the thought provoking “Drop.”

L4LM: The effect your music has on audiences is impressive. Elephant Revival has been known to literally mesmerize crowds with your lush and immersive songs. Do you subscribe to the idea that music is emotion distilled?

BP:  Yes, that is one of my favorite things about music. before there are words there is an initial reaction going on. It’s funny, I haven’t been able to put this thought into word yet and it is about hesitating to put things into words. It is about taking time to experience things first, and music is an accepted form of that.

We put so much into words, human words, and language as a species. It’s a beautiful thing and I love language, but I think it separates us from the rest of the natural word that we are part of, and I think it isolates us from the rest of living world that surrounds us that is not human. Language is the only form of communication that we are willing to accept most of the time, with the exception of music and art.

Those are things that go beyond the sounds that only a human can make. Music and art goes beyond that to visions and taps into sensations and feelings that are shared between each other. It taps into that bigger communication that is going on that we forget to acknowledge in the world every day. We need to remember and acknowledge that it is not just our species in the world. Does that make sense?

L4LM: It does, and that is a very pure goal for a musician to have. If there is a story behind your work is there an emotional core to the songs you write?

BP: At times, but I try to not get too honed in on in trying to impart something specific because you never know what someone is needing. Music is medicine for a lot of people, at least for me. So I wouldn’t want to limit what somebody might be able to take away from the song. Everybody has their own filter.

If there was one thing that I wanted to have some kind of impact with listeners, it is to stay connected, to remember that they are part of something. I think disharmony and suffering are from some element of separation. We need to remember that we are inextricably part of this whole thing, together.

See Bonnie, Bridget and Daniel help make for a couple of friends at their impromptu Northwest String Summit Wedding below:

L4LM: We just ran an interview with Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman and he had some nice things to say about you and your band. Earlier this year we interviewed your Elephant Revival bandmate Daniel Rodriguez and he spoke of the effect Herman had on you guys during your time living near him. Did Herman have a big impact on you as well?

BP: Absolutely, yeah. Oh man, I love that guy so much. Dan and I had moved to Colorado and we were staying in a rough neighborhood. We were staying in the Stage Stop actually and Vince called us there. And he said “Hey, I got a place for you to live. And it was the house right next to him.”

We were neighbors for a couple of years there in Nederland. Vince is an interesting kind of wizard. He was so welcoming and so warm. I guess I got it in my head that it could be hard to be so well known in such a small town. I don’t know that I ever wanted anything like that.

But he was just so graceful with it. He continued to love everybody. There were boundaries to it so he could still maintain a person life, but he was so welcoming, so inviting, so loving. He would come over and knock on our door and say “Breakfast is ready!” He would make us these amazing meals.

Sometimes he would bring a parade into our living room and then have us join him to go marching through the town. I sure learned a lot about combining fun and music. He is definitely the master of combining fun with music.

Check out our chat with Vince Herman, the legend himself, right here.

L4LM: Next weekend you will be blending your music with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. As the rehearsal process goes on how are you finding the results?

BP: It’s amazing. I don’t know how to explain it, but we’re just finding all this emotional depth to the songs. The current songs especially and the songs from the cycle. All of those were written imagining this kind of instrumentation in mind. And bringing in an element of Cirque De Soleil to it, for the play.

These songs were written with this kind of that kind of production in mind and this is all, this is my dream starting to be realized. For me, it’s like, “Wow! I am really going to do this!” It’s pretty exciting to complete this big dream as I traveled from the place I started in Oklahoma.

It is also amazing to work with such talented players. We’ve only had one rehearsal with them so far. We are going to have another right before we play with them at Boettcher Hall, which they sound amazing in. It is a huge, gorgeous room. It was designed for them.

Just hearing them tune up before we start to play makes me cry. It’s magic. It’s the culmination of so many forces coming together to do the same thing. All the different parts and tonalities coming together, working in harmony to create something. That is what we need right now, more harmony.

That is the sensation at the heart of it that is so moving to me. Their parts, separately, sound like they have Tourette’s Syndrome or something. The orchestras are all different and some of them have very dramatic interpretations of the song. It’s incredible.

When you hear the trumpet player practicing his part by himself it sounds weird. But when the other horns come in and weave their way through it and the strings flow in and outward it all makes sense. It is such a beautiful symbol of what we are all a part of, and a big part of what we need in these times.

L4LM: Thanks for taking some time out of your obviously busy preparations to talk with us. Good luck at the show; we are looking forward to hearing what comes from your hard work!

BP: Thanks. And I just want to say we really love you and appreciate you and your work Rex. I’m gonna go practice my new cello right now!

We’ll leave you with one last song from Elephant Revival’s newest album, Petals, the strident “When I Fall”, performed at the Hoxeyville Music Festival.