INTERVIEW: The Lone Bellow On Family, Musical Bonds and Recording with Aaron Dessner

Red Curtiain- Credit Steven Sebring

A band’s mythology can bring quick acclaim, but can also threaten with weighty expectations. For The Lone Bellow, the improbable tale of southerners transplanted to Park Slope, Brooklyn, banding together in the wake of a horse riding accident and a wedding duet threatened by an asthmatic reaction, then courting Charlie Peacock to produce their eponymous opening album in the Rockwood Music Hall, there’s a weight indeed.

Yet, as singer and guitarist Zach Williams notes, “I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and never expected anything like this. We’re ready to get our hands dirty.”

The Lone Bellow’s transition from NPR buzz into a fully-fledged, full-time band has resulted in a stirringly ambitious second record, Then Came the Morning. It is an album that announces with in medias res intentions how the band has managed their evolution as musicians and as friends. On a snow-bound afternoon in Boston, Williams, Kanene Donehey Pipkin (mandolin, vocals) and Brian Elmquist (guitar, vocals) shared their recording process and what binds The Lone Bellow as one voice.

There’s a way your music feels comfortable on Then Came the Morning, a “looseness” about the songs.

Zach: We had a lot of fun making this record. And in starting the tour, the songs take on another form. That’s both from live instruments, and a live audience. Jason [Pipkin – bass, keyboards and Kanene’s husband] and Kanene have been learning other instruments. They swap them back and forth during the show.

The family that plays together…

Kanene: We have our little ‘married people’ corner.  It’s not intentional, but it’s how it is. We share the keyboard. And enjoy standing next to each other.

Zach: I try to stand between them as much as I can.

Kanene: Between songs, Jason and I throw instruments at each other. Well, trade ’em back and forth. Actually, the first time I ever played bass was for a coffee house in college. It was when Jason was trying to date me, and he knew I had a bass. His band didn’t have a bass player so he asked if I wanted to join Homebrew- what they were called. But, I had never played in a show and I was quite nervous. Playing bass in our shows now harkens back to that time.

On your Late Night performance, you showcased a horn section and gospel backup singers. Will the tour have any of these touches?

Zach: Well, we will bring as many people as will fit in our van! We’re a five-piece, but love to swell the stage.

Brian: We played a full-set at Rockwood for WFUV (NYC radio station), and we’re now just seeing how the songs take shape.

After having worked with Charlie Peacock on The Lone Bellow, were you nervous having Aaron Dessner (The National) oversee the new album?

Brian: I was really nervous at the beginning. We met with him and saw the spirit he brings to the room. Aaron tries to service a song, not serve some idea or concept he has. That was true in the studio upstate, and finishing up the record in his backyard.

While we recording The Lone Bellow, we all had day jobs. We didn’t have the chance to dig in. It did its job, but for this album we had the chance to spend a month with the music.

I set myself up with wanting to learn as much as I could from Aaron, put myself in a teacher-student situation. For three weeks, we sat in a room together just trying out everything. And then we went back through recordings to find the sections that were actually needed for the songs.

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Was there a specific technique that Aaron encouraged you to try?

Brian: One day, we turned a Fender Twin all the way up, and I bowed my guitar for an hour. The goal was to make all these awesomely weird sounds, then sift through to hear what was most awesome.

Kanene: And that solo section on ‘Diners.’ Talk about that.

Brian: Yeah, on ‘Diners’ I fought really hard to have a two-stanza lead. And Aaron made me earn it. I came in with an idea of what I wanted to play, and worked it for over two hours but became frustrated; I started hating the song. Right when I was at that point, I reverbed everything up and I played it real trashy. Aaron just looked over, and said, ‘That’s it. We’re done.’

He was able to get something special. There are so many times when you lean on the usual, but this process forced me to find new sounds. That takes a real intention, and it takes more time. It’s been a good partnership.

And was Aaron pulling for you to play Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival?

Zach: Apparently, Justin heard about us and asked if we’d be interested in playing. Aaron sent me a picture of him listening to the record on his computer. That was a big day! I haven’t been this excited for a new festival in a long time. The line up is something else. I just want to see Spooky Black; I even want to dress like him.

How did you handle the process of songwriting; was it a group collaboration?

Kanene: Some songs came simply and we worked on arrangements together. For the song, ‘Take My Love,’ Zach had an idea for a melody, and together we wrote out lyrics for a couple hours. Each line comes with specific people and times in mind, that we then streamlined into the final song.

Zach: When you’re spending so much time in a van, it comes together. It’s about being aware of one another, and taking care of one another. Friendship is more important than this music. That’s what we do.

Brian: In the moment it was frustrating, but we went through every lyric to make sure it was right. That is one aspect of songwriting that I’m very proud of.

Kanene: The lyrics needed to really be as strong as they possibly could be. We made a record that we’re really proud of.

Still some of the references are opaque; can you share some light on the story in ‘Telluride’?

Zach: It’s a song about a man riding his horse, Hickory, to Telluride in Colorado. That’s a rough place: 14,000 feet above sea level, Butch Cassidy lived there and Jessie James robbed a bank there as well. It’s symbolic of a person making a decision to kill the only thing he ever trusted. Thematically it’s a sister song to ‘Fire Red Horse’ on the first album, but that would make a lot more sense if you know the horse’s name.

The idea of ‘Then Came The Morning’ is a throwing off of what happened in the past, and so much of the album leans that way.
Zach: There are a lot of lyrics about midnight, and how there can be a celebration of the mundane while you’re awake. It’s powerful, the idea of mundane as being weighty, beautiful. The stories people tell us when we are on the road, their struggles and how our songs connect, we want to honor them.

Kanene: I cherish any moment to speak with people impacted by the music. It’s a rare gift that is so outside of my control; you can’t force what songs mean things to people. The other day, a young woman shared with me how at a previous show in Brooklyn, it was the first time she had been able to forgive herself for all the wrongs she had done in her life. Since that moment, she said, she felt free and wanted to thank us for providing the soundtrack for that to happen.

Those moments, more than hype or accolade, those quiet, truthful moments, are what keep me going when touring is hard and lonely. These unsolicited gifts are the fuel for us to keep up with each other, to keep up with our friendship.

Zach: That’s the only thing that can keep us going. Your work, no mater what you do, won’t sustain your heart. It weighs too much.

Brian: Regardless of what you do, it can’t be who you are. It needs to be rooted in something heavier. It’s hard and difficult, but we take care of each other. If we can’t do that, and find some beauty, then being away from our families is in vain.

Zach: We love the interaction between audience and band, creating something night after night, airing it out, but when you boil it down, our friendships are most important. And that’s the only way that we can be honest with ourselves.

Follow on Twitter @TheLoneBellow

photos by Steven Sebring

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