If you know Joel Van Horne, you know Covenhoven. The singer-songwriter has been delighting local-music lovers for several years with his rootsy, Americana-influenced ballads, most of them inspired by Van Horne’s isolated musings.
The “isolated” part refers to his songwriting process: To compile the tunes on his latest album, The Wild and Free—which he’ll release with a show at Denver’s Syntax Physic Opera on September 19th—the Colorado native traveled to the wilds of Utah, seeking inspiration, as so many do, in the vast expanses of the West. “For this one I spent a bunch of time alone,” Van Horne says. “I’m not writing about Utah or the canyon country, but I let those landscapes, and the effect they have on you, seep into the writing. I write most often when I’m on a hike or alone in the woods somewhere.”
Van Horne plays all the instruments on the album except the violins and cello, and his live shows range from solo acoustic performances to a larger group with a string section. (His recent set at the Underground Music Showcase featured seven other musicians.) “It’s fun for me to explore ways of playing live,” he says. “Most of the people I play with also play in a lot of other bands, and I can go all the way up to a 10-piece band with a string section when there’s enough money involved.”
Van Horne will be accompanied by a string trio at his next gig, August 5th at Starling Farms in Boulder, where he’ll release his second single off the new record. The Syntax concert in September is when the entire album will debut; Van Horne recorded much of it over a five-day stretch at the family cabin in Wyoming from which Covenhoven takes its name.
“I’m happy with the way this one has come out and glad to finally be releasing it,” he says. With a vocal style that evokes David Gray and lush musicianship that recalls Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes, Van Horne says the only things likely to remain constant in his work are his folky influences. “For me, every song is a new experience,” he says. “I don’t set out to do something specific. It just kind of happens. I explore the instrumentation during the recording process and let the song unfold on its own.”
Following the Syntax show, Covenhoven will embark on a brief tour of the Front Range and a few other spots in Colorado. Van Horne’s act doesn’t currently have a record label behind it, but he’s not sure he needs one in the Internet age to reach a broader audience. “[A longer national tour] is still the goal,” he says. “We’re doing great in our hometown, with people really embracing what we’re doing, but I want to take it out to the rest of the world.”
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.