Struggle and Strife: The Coming of Age of Convent Bonfires

// Image courtesy of Convent Bonfires.

[Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.]

Started in South Africa, Seattle-based indie alternative rock band Convent Bonfires has had anything but a typical journey. The lead vocalist, Caleb Jones, and the man behind every instrument, Kyle Petersen, met in 2016 on The World Race, a program that facilitates Christian mission trips. Sitting around a campfire in the backyard of the convent they were staying at, Caleb and Kyle immediately bonded over singing worship songs, and by the end of the trip, they knew that they had something special together. From there, they decided to start a band entitled “Convent Bonfires,” an homage to their roots. After the trip, Caleb recruited his hometown friend Cade Legat to be their producer and the band then took off from there. Their most popular song, "Road Trip," details the true story of Caleb’s journey across the country to Seattle in order to move there full-time and to help with their album (IN)SECURITY. Now, with the recent release of their album Conversations with the Fire that Sustained Me, Convent Bonfires reflects back on where they came from and where they are going. While their genre and beliefs have changed throughout the years, their friendship and the bond between them is unwavering.

How did you guys get started?

Caleb Jones: We bonded over time being spent together and some stupid stuff that happened on that trip. We both [Caleb and Kyle] brought guitars and were just jamming all the time.

Kyle Petersen: Ya we got started just making random stuff up. We were living in an old convent that wasn’t being used as a convent anymore in a neighborhood called Ocean View, which is pretty dangerous. Like Uber drivers would frequently cancel when they got to the entrance. When we were living in that convent, we had bonfires in the backyard, so that’s how we got our name and our start.

Could you talk a little bit about your inspirations for Conversations with the Fire that Sustained Me? What headspace was everyone in and what was on your minds?

KP: The first song that we wrote for this album was “Doomsday! Doomsday!” I’ve struggled with depression and various other serious mental health issues for most of my adulthood and at that point it was especially low. It started by just improvising notes and then improvising lyrics. I tried to make it sound eerie and spooky because that’s how I felt at the time and that served as the basis for the album for me. I was also listening to a lot of sad and melancholic music and that seeped into what I was making.

CJ: I was also super depressed for the majority of the creation of this album, going through a breakup of 2.5 years, which was tough, and moving away from Christianity and stepping away from the church was a big part of the inspiration for this album. I took a step back and wondered what I had if I didn’t have my faith. Because it was everything and all of the sudden I was like “what now?” And one thing that I learned I do have is that I was sad. Making this album definitely came from a darker headspace

Cade Legat: The pandemic also really shifted the mindset. During COVID, everyone was like ok “what do I do now,” you know? So you kinda have to figure it out. This is kinda the story of figuring it out again, and even the title reflects that.

CJ: Ya the title is all about me stepping away from Christianity kind of and stepping away from something that once was in every part of my life and being real and talking to this fire that was keeping you alive and warm at night. Saying, “I trust you fire,” but you can also totally look like a crazy person talking to a fire.

CL: Also you guys listened to a lot of Phoebe Bridgers that was a big inspiration and there's even the lyric.

How do you think religion plays a role in your music?

CJ: Without shattering people’s belief in what the music is about, I can say that religion was everything to me and it held everything including music, so it all is kinda pointed to religion and our relationships with religion.

KP: We all grew up in more or less Evangelical, fairly conservative households, and I still consider myself Christian but not Evangelical, Caleb does not consider himself Christian, and Cade is more upfront about Christianity, so we are all in three different places and three different perspectives coming from similar roads. So a lot of work on this record was intentionally not referencing religion all the time, but because of the nature of the topics we were covering, a lot of it was related to religion.

CL: We are all relating to it at a different point now as we get older and make our own life decisions. We all grew up a certain way, but now we have to own our lives for ourselves. Kyle and Caleb wrote this very honestly and in a way that many Christians are afraid to do.

KP: Some of the songs on this album were written before our last album came out when all three of us were very straightforward “Ya we’re Christians, ya we’re Evangelical” and the later songs were obviously not. So some of these were written from the perspective of someone still in the church which I think adds to the title of the album.

Do you mind talking about how mental health has played a role on this album and in your career?

KP: So I have Tourette's and ADHD, and I’m autistic and, as a kid, my Tourette's was super noticeable, and it got me bullied, and I had trouble understanding other kids so that all messed me up just a little bit, but music came really easily. I made friends almost exclusively through being good at music and being good at football. I didn’t really know how to talk to other kids but they would always pick me really quickly, and I could play the guitar, so they thought that was cool. But that would drive me to write a lot of music because it was easier to do that than to socialize, and people would always give me instruments as presents so that kind of built up my skill set right now which is pretty much just music, but then as I got older, it kept getting more serious, both my mental health problems and my music. A lot of times, the thing that will keep me from doing something bad to myself is that I hear a song, and I just want to understand that song and that takes my mind off of things.

CJ: I don’t feel equipped to write about very much other than myself because I’m not an expert on anything, but I know a lot about who I am, and I’m learning more about that. Growing up, I wanted to avoid being an emotional person and being too much, but now what I want to do is to take a single emotion and expand it and write whole albums on one single thought or feeling. And I’m kinda leaning towards going from wanting to numb all feelings to now I think feeling is potentially everything. It’s the reason I do anything and the reason that I used to want to be a better christian, and it's the reason why I do something dangerous or impulsive to feel something different than I was feeling. But trying to do that led me down weird rabbit holes and weird spirals. In a way, it’s all about mental health and where we are mentally and emotionally.

CL: I guess growing up in the Evangelical world, they tell you to look after your spiritual health, but they look over your mental health, and you get burnt out. It’s probably the least looked after thing in the Christian world and the pandemic just heightened everything. It also helped us realize that we were raised to dismiss it and just power through it because God will help. So I think this album is a lot more of expanding on those thoughts where I want to take care of my mental health and realizing I’ve been neglecting it most of my life. I think I should probably take a look at this and start to heal myself a little bit. Part of it is you’re growing up in your twenties and everyone feels it to some degree that you need to unpack a little bit about how you were raised and what you want to take from that and what you want to dismiss and work away from to become your own person and form your own community. So this is us bringing that up and working through it. I know I’m broken but let me figure it out, and this album helped me a lot.

What is each of your favorite songs from Conversations and what does it mean to you?

CL: Musically, as a band, “90” is the most satisfied we have ever been music-wise.

CJ: I think my favorite overall is probably “Rebel Ways.” I think that's the one I’m most proud of lyrically that one felt right. That’s my main role in the band - lyrics - and so that one I felt really good about.

CL: Caleb always likes to leave interpretation up to the listeners, and the meaning for him changes over time, and “Rebel Ways” definitely represents that at least from my perspective.

CJ: Originally, the chorus was for a worship song for a group that we had here, so I was writing that to be a worship song. I kept it and saved it and wrote a couple verses to go along with it. I think that one has gone through a lot of changes. That one is meaningful for me moving through and continuing to walk through situations that make me anxious and the only thing I really know to do in those situations is to keep moving through and then I’ll end up somewhere, and if I’m not dead, then I made it. Generally this song is about moving through to me.

KP: It’s tied between 90 and Icy Feet because 90 was really fun because the guitar part came first. The song kinda happened in one day when I felt inspired and I made a demo of it, and at the time, we were all still going to the Living Room [a Christian worship group] and the whole song was just asking questions regarding the existence of God. I was like “woah, this is intense” so we made half of it instrumental which was fun for me and our friend killed it with the saxophone. And then Icy Feet I made a demo that sounded just like a regular song and I thought that it was boring and another sad indie rock song, so I sent it off to Caleb and was like what can I do with this to spice it up, and he said throw it in reverse, so I literally just reversed everything. I stuck the one track in and reversed everything. Then, I went over to his house and we listened to it in reverse, and we were like “Ya!” The timing is weird - it’s not just a straightforward 4/4 song, the timing of the chord changes are uneven and the chord changes are kind of unique also. So then when it was played backwards, it was truly the first time that I could say that it had a chord progression that I had never seen in another song before.

CL: I really like Big Red Circle. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I have awards for every song. I think the best all-around image of the album as a whole is still Big Red Circle to me. To me, that encapsulates the sound the best. It’d probably be between that and Inspire Me. Inspire Me was fun because we struggled with flushing that one out, but every time we tried to add more to it, it didn’t work well so we left it as it was. Inspire Me is Convent Bonfires through and through. When you first played that, I was just like “done!” and that was that. And Big Red Circle was a fun song that just kinda came together well and it has a lot more energy. Also, Kyle is a musical genius. He does everything. He composed all the string stuff and put all the instrumentals on.

[To Kyle], How many instruments do you play?

CJ: When we play live, Kyle has like 10 instruments. He has a keyboard and his computer so he can play the synths, two keyboards actually, a trumpet, an electric guitar, a banjo, sometimes an acoustic guitar, sometimes the mandolin, one time we had the Djembe involved.

CL: He can kinda pick up anything at this point. I genuinely think that Kyle is at that musicianship level that's like he can play anything. It’s more like just give him a minute and he’ll pick it up. I’m sure you could find some eclectic instrument that no one has ever heard of, and he could learn it. He’s just good at that stuff.

//Ian Palk ‘25 is a DJ and writer for The Record Hospital department of WHRB Cambridge 95.3 FM