In Conversation With the Lone Bellow
Two years ago, they released their self-titled debut via a Kickstarter campaign. Finding the money to fund their album themselves was a unique experience -- one that evolved as they prepared for 'Then Came the Morning.' They were able to quit their day jobs and focus solely on their craft; the result is a nearly flawless album, one that we are proud to give our 'Editors' Pick' stamp of approval (read our review here).
Regardless of their growing spots in the limelight, though, the Lone Bellow have never strayed from their passionate and cinematic Americana sound and exuberant live performances -- if anything, that energy and fervency has only grown.
In the midst of celebrating their new LP, Zach Williams, Kanene Doheney Pipkin and Brian Elmquist sat down with us to chat about 'Then Came the Morning' and what it was like working with the National's Aaron Dessner (who produced the record), what the beginning of the Lone Bellow looked like, their shared affinity for vinyl and more. Check out our exclusive conversation below:
First things first: Congrats on the new record. How does it feel to have it finished and out?
Zach Williams: It’s like if a man was able to have a baby. [Laughs] It’s like if I was Arnold Schwarzenegger in that movie ...
Kanene Doheney Pipkin: ‘Junior’?
Zach: Yes! [Everyone laughs]
Brian Elmquist: It really does feel like that. There are just so many expectations.
Zach: I mean, we obviously don’t know what it feels like to have an actual child. That might be a little more ...
Kanene: It’s like having a baby that everyone will criticize immediately. [Laughs]
Zach: Yeah, that’s the reality. We spent a lot of time on every aspect of this record. From the actual recording and writing of it -- we wrote for over a year for it, and we recorded and worked on it for several months -- to all the photography and all the packaging stuff, we created something we’re proud of. We hope people will buy it and read through it. A lot of heart and soul went into making that thing. I can’t wait to just see how it goes.
What was it like working with Aaron Dessner on this?
Brian: It was wonderful. The idea was to use this old dilapidated church in upstate New York. It’s been a studio since the ‘60s. We just wanted to do our vocals live and capture it all right there and use the room as another instrument. We didn’t know if we could actually pull it off, but I think we did and I’m really proud of it. Then we recorded all the rough tracks and then came back and worked with Aaron for like a month, making sure everything was right. Working with Aaron, he was like another member of the band. We wanted that from the beginning. Just to get access to his knowledge, it was wonderful. To be able to work with him and learn, it was a really cool experience.
How did you get hooked up with him in the first place?
Kanene: Our tour manager who also does a lot of our creative direction brought an article to our attention. It was this interview with Matt [Berninger, frontman for the National] and Aaron and they were talking about their process. The way they talked about each other and the way they talked about their music, it just really resonated with us. We all immediately were like, “Man, we would love to work with these guys.” We’re all huge fans of their music, and once we heard about their perspective toward their music, the desire to work with them was just even stronger. Aaron lives just a couple bus stops away from us in Brooklyn, too, so we knew he had the same surroundings as us and had a good understanding of what we were going through as musicians in the city. He had also heard from some of his friends that we were a band he should be aware of, and they were telling him to work with us, so it came together perfectly.
What was it like working with Aaron compared to Charlie [Peacock, producer] on your debut album?
Kanene: We were a very different band. With Charlie, we still had day jobs and we basically had to ask off of work to record. We just didn’t have as much time, and he did an amazing job with the time we had. We are so grateful that we worked with him. With Aaron, it was great to be able to work on the record while we were home.
Brian: Yeah, that first record was a Kickstarter record, so we had to go find the money to do it. To be able to step back and think about every aspect of the new record, we really wanted to take what we learned on the road the last couple of years and let it bleed into what we were creating -- to have the time to do it, it was a great experience.
I imagine that is a completely different experience. You go from budding musicians to now getting paid to make music -- you have time, you have funding. How did that change affect your creative process?
Zach: Since we’ve been in a band together for the past few years now, we kind of figured out a lot of ways to ... when you’re around people a lot, there are other forms of communication than just words. You can quickly know what each other’s thinking. That happened a lot in the studio. We picked up on each other’s vibes. Quiet moments of creating something -- maybe even just a body language thing -- you could know something needed to happen on the guitar or a vocal take. Stuff like that, we got to know each other more over time, so that just grew with this new album ... I think I got lost in that question. [Laughs]
No, not at all, and it makes perfect sense that your creative process would evolve the more time you spent together. When you started as a trio, can you talk about what the early days of the Lone Bellow looked like?
Zach: Brian and I have been friends for years and we both had our own bands. I had been in the New York scene for several years, playing at the bars and elsewhere. Brian was in Nashville for a long time and then moved to New York and was doing his own thing. There was this moment in time that happened when Kanene and her husband, Jason -- who is also in the band -- moved to Brooklyn from Beijing. I had met her because I sang at her brother’s wedding years before, and I had this batch of songs that I was tinkering around with and just wanted to get some friends together and have a creative jam and just have fun.
So we put a rehearsal together, and like eight of our friends showed up, all playing different instruments. The first time we sang together -- I think it was a song called 'You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional' -- and we hit this big note at the bridge, and it was just this moment that we all were like, “We should do this. We should sing together more often.” Then I had a show at Rockwood and I just randomly invited Brian and Kanene and I asked them to jump up and we sang that song. That mixed with the energy of the crowd -- for me, it was like, OK, I need to quit my band and talk these guys into doing this together. I think they were thinking the same kind of thing. That was how the band ended up getting together, but there is a much more boring background story to that.
Well, and not that we have to get too deep into it, but for you Zach, that background of you writing music ... did you start to cope with an accident your wife had?
Zach: Yeah. I was one of those kids that owned a guitar and could rock the pentatonic scale pretty hard, but I couldn’t sing and play at the same time. I never crossed that line. We were living in this hospital because my wife Stacy had this accident and I was journaling a lot as a cathartic thing. Some friends told me to learn how to play the guitar and sing at the same time because what I was writing kind of felt like songs. So I started playing open mic nights. That was my initial love for songwriting, that’s where it started.
Kanene and Brian, did you stumble onto music like that, or was it always a part of your life?
Brian: For me, I picked up the guitar and I learned an A chord and my mom put me in the weird charismatic church band and I had to learn on the fly. But I never took it as anything other than I loved to play. I wrote a couple of songs and I loved the creative process and getting lost in it. I never took it seriously until I wrote a couple of songs and sent it to someone in Nashville. The guy was really excited about it. He was just this shark who showed up in a 15-year-old Mercedes and had this illusion of being a big shot in the city and he just wanted to take our publishing from the get go. That was my first brush with that kind of situation. That was the first time that I thought, “Maybe I could actually do this.”
So I started writing songs in Nashville, and that’s such a good place to learn to write songs. I spent five or six years down there. I had known Zach for awhile and I talked with him every couple of months to see how he was doing. When he moved to Brooklyn, he basically just told me he wasn’t going to talk to me anymore until I moved there. I was in a place where I could, and I love the fact that he had this support group there, people who could help you find your direction and bounce ideas off of each other. I think that’s how we learned to write together, in that type of environment of honesty and trust. That’s my story.
Zach: After visiting your mother’s church, I wonder if you weren’t the only one learning on the fly! [Laughs]
Kanene: For me, I’m the fourth of five kids and my parents are great music appreciators, so we always had music promoted and playing in the house. I grew up playing the piano and flute and singing in the choir. When I was in college, I went to school for linguistics and did a bunch of recreational choirs. There was one concert where I sang with a chamber group -- it was this really technical and difficult singing. I loved it. I remember that concert where I hit this big chord and I just thought, “I have to sing in some capacity for the rest of my life because I love this feeling.” I studied abroad in China and that’s where I started dating my husband, Jason, who is the bass player in the band. We grew up in the same hometown but he was a Chinese major and had just moved there, too. He was the first songwriter I ever knew. He wrote me a whole mess of songs trying to get me to date him -- and it worked. [Laughs]
We would write songs together and perform together and ended up hosting an open mic night. We had a lot of fun with music, but we were focused on different things professionally. Then we moved to New York -- I was going to go to pastry chef school and he was going to school in Princeton. That summer when we moved, that’s when we had the first band rehearsal, so, we got a little sidetracked. It’s funny because it wasn’t on the plan, it wasn’t our expected trajectory. It’s been unexpected and we love it.
So your lives merged and you find yourselves based in Brooklyn. How has living in the city influenced you? You can point on the map and pick out different music scenes in different cities, but there's obviously something very special about New York.
Zach: One of those special things about New York and the music scene here is that the music scene is just one of like 100 scenes that is full-blown represented in the city. When you play a show, people in the audience are from all those different areas. Fashion, finance, whatever ... all these different areas of life. That helped me a lot because there is this genuine desire to want to write music for working folks. You know, you show up to a show and everyone in the room wants to have a memorable night. That happens so much in New York. So that idea bleeds into songwriting and our convictions when trying to figure out the lyrics and melodies.
On top of that, I’ve had a couple of home bases here, too. I was very much a part of the Rockwood Music Hall scene. Ken Rockwood who owns the hall is a mentor to a lot of people in the city. Having a venue owner who genuinely cares for music and the people making the music and the people enjoying the music, that was amazing. It’s so good.
Kanene: It’s been good for us, too, because you have people from every area of the arts and every other industry. So when we needed to make videos, we had friends who were producers or very talented cinematographers or photographers, and you’re all kind of working together. There is a good camaraderie with people who are just doing their best to make it here. And I’ve never found audiences here to be cruel. The feedback is very honest, but they’re not just dismissive.
Zach: Unless of course you’re playing at an Irish pub on 34th Street and they won’t turn the game off. [Laughs]
You talk about your shows and audiences. I think seeing the Lone Bellow live is one of the most powerful experiences I've had in recent memory. The music is the same way -- you sing and play with such passion, it's amplified to an even bigger level on the stage. The first time I saw you was in the Bronx and the three of you jumped into the crowd and interacted with nearly every single audience member.
Zach: There is a hilarious picture of me where I’m trying to get people to sing, and the only people in the shot are five four-year-olds, and I’m screaming bloody murder. It was hilarious.
I think I remember that! You know, at that place, you were able to jump off the stage and join the crowd. But you obviously play more traditional venues, too. I saw you at AmericanaFest at Lincoln Center in the summer. It was a much larger audience and bigger stage, but most fans were sitting down and you had a barricade between you and the crowd. I saw you at the Beacon Theater in December for the WFUV Holiday Cheer concert, and that's about as traditional of a venue as you can get. But no matter where you're at, no matter what your surroundings, you're sweating bullets three songs into the set and you're giving it your all every single second of the performance.
Zach: I think it’s a give and take between the participation of the people listening and the band. It’s kind of like this contract: If you guys are going to be in this, then we will be in it, too. You brought up that Lincoln Center show. One of my favorite moments of a live show happened at that concert. It was the first time we ever played ‘Then Came the Morning’ and there was this old African-American lady that wandered up to the front. I think there was no dancing allowed or some weird rule and she was just feeling it on that song. She was front and center and it was almost like she was standing in a choir full of people rocking back and forth. Then the cops came and they wanted to escort her away. The other people in the crowd near her did this move where they got up and basically dance blocked the cops. All these people rushed the front of the stage and surrounded this little old lady so the cops couldn’t get to her and then all danced with her. We had the honor of being able to watch this whole thing unfold. The cops couldn’t get to her and they just gave up.
Kanene: And then everyone started dancing.
Zach: It was beautiful and hilarious. It was so good.
Kanene: We are all really big singers alone. We all have big voices and we’re all pretty passionate people with a lot of feeling. I think the thing that I love about singing with Zach and Brian, it still sounds good even if we’re not trying to blend our voices. It just sounds beautiful. I love the feeling of that. When you don’t hold anything back and when it’s three people trusting and supporting each other in the show, I think the audience picks up on that level of intensity and safety and they feel safe to go places with us because we’re going there with each other. That’s what I find with harmony singing and bands that have a good relationship with each other onstage. It makes the audience feel like they can cut loose.
Brian: For me, it’s a privilege to be on the road and play live shows and have people come out and see you. But we’re leaving our families, you know? Zach has kids, my wife is at home, Kanene and Jason have their own struggles being on the road together. If I’m not giving everything every single time I step out on the stage, I’m not doing my wife justice. It’s all or nothing.
That's a beautiful way to put it. I've never thought of it like that. Earlier in this conversation, Zach, you brought up the time it took to put 'Then Came the Morning' together -- not just the music, but the packaging and photography, which makes me think of vinyl. My first brush your music was your debut on vinyl, and then just last year for Record Store Day Black Friday, you released an exclusive 7-inch. This new album, it's much more than just music; it's an experience, and vinyl captures it. Why is releasing your music on vinyl important to you as a band?
Zach: It’s such a perfect opportunity to try to create a full experience. You know, our tour manager and creative director, Chris Pereira, he went to our friend Lee Norwood's cabin and had a brainstorm night around a fire. Lee was like, “This whole thing, it has a southern gothic vibe to it. You should find a photographer and go down south and capture the stories down there.” Our friend Mackenzie Rollins ended up doing that. She went down south and literally knocked on people’s doors and interviewed them and took pictures. The lady on the front cover of the new record? Mackenzie went to my family’s favorite diner, Louise's Restaurant in Marietta [Georgia], three mornings in a row and every morning she would show up. She was decked out, she looked beautiful, and had breakfast; she knew everyone in the diner. Mackenzie asked about her story and snapped that photo. It was perfect.
It’s the same story with the man sitting on the edge of his bed for the Record Store Day 7-inch, 'When You Go.' That’s in my wife’s hometown, Lafayette, Ga., and he had an old car parked in the driveway and Mackenzie stopped and chatted with him. He probably hadn't had a visitor in years. The room where he is sitting in that photo, that is a room he hasn’t slept in since his wife passed away. Mackenzie grabbed that image and captured it exactly how it was.
All of the artwork for the vinyl has that, those photos -- and on top of that, Kanene handwrote all of the lyrics. Then even on top of that, the rest of the photography is pictures of us in the studio, that old dilapidated church. Vinyl is an investment. It costs a lot of money, but I think it’s worth it.
How important is vinyl to you personally?
Brian: For me, I still remember reading through the booklets and just holding the records. I’m still prehistoric maybe; I love vinyl. My favorite record, along with everybody recently, is the War On Drugs' 'Lost In the Dream' from last year. I bought it for myself for Christmas on vinyl. Pulling it out, looking at the pictures, the whole experience, they accomplished it. If people are going to buy your record in this day and age, I want them to get the whole thing of what we’re trying to do. I’m grateful that we were able to do it.
Kanene: All my husband and I bought each other for Christmas was vinyl. [Laughs]
There's no better way to wrap up a conversation than with vinyl. Congrats on 'Then Came the Morning' and thank you so much for your time. I can't wait to catch you live this year.
The Lone Bellow: Thanks!
The Lone Bellow's second full-length album, 'Then Came the Morning,' is out now via Descendant Records. You can pick up your copy of the record at the Lone Bellow's official website here.
Watch the Lone Bellow Perform 'Bleeding Out' at Mountain Jam 2013