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Searching for a Light in the Dark with Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow

By Sean Titone

September 11, 2015

Listening to the music of Brooklyn-based band The Lone Bellow is like taking an earnest, powerful and often emotional trip through the history of American music. Take a dash of the blues, (often considered the earliest form of popular American music), add elements of gospel, country, rock, soul and folk, throw in current shades of the indie rock landscape for good measure, and you’ve only begun to scratch the surface of their endearing sound. After living with both albums (their self-titled debut and this year’s Then Came the Morning, both critically acclaimed) or seeing them live in concert, The Lone Bellow comes into focus as a band of tight-knit musicians and friends that wants to trade you its soul for your own. Not in an occult kind of way, but rather it’s a contract of sorts that singer/guitarist Zach Williams, singer/guitarist Brian Elmquist, and singer/multi-instrumentalist Kanene Pipkin have with their audience that essentially says, “We’ll put everything we have out there for you if you’re willing to open your heart and soul and let us in.” And it’s a contract that audiences seem eager to sign on the dotted line.

CLTure recently had a chance to talk to Williams, and it became clear that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed and referenced some of their musical peers and influences and shared stories about a diverse array of artists like Wilco, Dawes (recent tourmates), The National (Aaron Dessner produced Then Came The Morning while his brother Bryce contributed string and horn arrangements), Luluc, Randy Newman, Elliott Smith and Reba McEntire. And in a way, all of these artists share some DNA with The Lone Bellow. Since his band has experienced such rapid growth over the past two years, I was curious if it had become harder to maintain an intimate connection with their audience as they played bigger and bigger stages and their star continued to shine brighter.

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Photo courtesy of frontrowboston.wgbh.org

“I mean, it’s like the most important thing we do, it’s the most important thing on our minds. If we ever stop trying to be a part of a moment with the people in the room, if that ever becomes not important, I think we would probably get really bored. There are a few things that we hold onto dearly. Having the honor of making music for a living, that’s definitely one of them,” Williams tells me.

Touring behind their second album, Then Came the Morning, released in January of this year, The Lone Bellow have been mesmerizing audiences with their mighty three-part harmonies and rich, pastoral songs that showcase deep, sometimes painful lyrics. The language often cited to describe their shows includes descriptors like “evangelical” or speaks to “creating converts,” thus transforming their live show into a near religious experience.  They recently performed at the famed Newport Folk Festival, probably the top music festival in the country, in my humble opinion (see our review of this year’s event), and were considered one of the top acts of the entire weekend, an impressive feat considering their fellow bands included the likes of Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, and too many others to list here.

Their newfound success has been years in the making. After toiling away in the New York City folk scene for a few years, playing open mics, and staying local to the city as a singer/songwriter, Zach entertained thoughts of throwing in the towel. But it was a fortuitous rehearsal with current bandmates and longtime friends Brian and Kanene that made him realize they had something special and it needed to be explored. When they sang together in unison and harmonized on the song “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional” off their debut album, it was like an Americana Voltron had formed and they had just begun to understand the vocal power they harnessed with their harmonies.

“The first record, I wrote most of it, and Kanene was a baker, Brian was a waiter, you know, we did it in our spare time,” Williams says. “We made it at Rockwood Music Hall (in New York City’s Lower East Side). And Rockwood gave us the second room for like three days and three nights and it was a Kickstarter project, and after we mixed it and mastered it, it took a year to put together the right team around the music– management and publicist and label and all that. Since we had already made the record ourselves, we had the opportunity to handpick everybody. So we made it in 2011, but we didn’t get on the road with it until 2013. And then it was just out of the gate. It all started at SXSW in 2013. We played 16 shows that week. And before that, we had been doing one show a month in New York for two years. After that we just hit the road. I think that’s when we really became, like a band, when we got in the van, and figured out just how to deal with each other and understand each other. And we’re still working on it right now. Thankfully everybody in the band is also very kind, like to the core. So I think that helped with the music and that helped with the creative process. And the second album, it was really important to us to all have a collaborative effort with it. And I feel like the second album sounds more like a band.”

There was also a bit of serendipity in the path that led them to Aaron Dessner, guitarist, songwriter and producer from The National.

“My tour manager, Chris, read this article about him and Matt (Berninger, lead singer of The National) and they were talking about how they try and take care of their process and their art and their friendship, and they’re two sets of brothers and then an old friend, that’s what makes up the National, and Chris was like, ‘man, if we ever get the opportunity, we should do something with this guy.’ And I mentioned that to someone on our team, and they emailed Aaron’s manager and Aaron’s manager emailed back immediately and was like, ‘that’s so weird, Aaron was just in Europe and somebody told him, if you ever get the chance, you should work with this band.’ So when we met up, there was already this musical respect. And we came into his house, he was working on this band called Luluc (a lovely Brooklyn via Melbourne duo on Sub Pop) at the time, and the way he captured their vocals was soooo beautiful and it was like, ‘let’s do this,’” Williams says emphatically.

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Zach Williams (left), Kanene Donehey Pipkin (middle), Brian Elmquist (right)

Zach, Brian, and Kanene spent two weeks at a nineteenth-century church-turned recording studio in upstate New York called Dreamland Recording Studios, where they recorded the bulk of what would make up the 13 songs on Then Came The Morning.

“We did all the vocals at Dreamland, all the drums and most of the guitars and the bass during those two weeks,” Williams said. “We were staying at a buddy’s cabin, way up on the mountain in Tannersville, and we would take this old back road every morning to the studio and there was this dog that lived there and wandered out of the old church to meet you. You walk in and nothing’s been updated in a really long time. The room in the back is just VHS tapes, and the old church sanctuary, that’s where we did the vocals. We stood there and did them all together at the same time, so the harmonies have a natural bleed because it’s in the same room at the same time, and Aaron mic’d the ceilings and the way far off corners of the room, and got all these weird little spots and it was a lot of fun. And then we made the rest of the record in Brooklyn in his backyard. And that’s where he made all of The National’s High Violet and Alligator– in this tiny garage in his backyard in Ditmas.”  

A recurring theme in The Lone Bellow’s music consists of a lightness and darkness that are at odds with each other, musically and lyrically. Heartbreaking lyrics with pretty melodies are essentially a tried and true method of creating what is probably my favorite style of music. I wanted to know how that came into play in their songwriting. Zach pauses to contemplate before answering.

“The light versus the dark thing that you’re referring to is just a really natural state of mind for me personally,” he says. “The band may find me where, I guess, I go super dark every day for like an hour. I don’t know it’s happening but they know me so well that they know it happens. But it’s like, if you’re gonna paint a beautiful picture, you gotta have the dark colors and the light colors, or it’s not going to be as beautiful as it could be to have that contrast.”

He continues, “I mean, the lyrics to Then Came the Morning are awful. They’re really self-involved. It’s basically one person telling himself I don’t need you anymore to another person. It’s someone seeing himself as a victim, but I like that because the chorus is then “then came the morning” and you can kind of hide those really sad words in this super triumphant song. It’s just fun. We did that on our first record. There’s a song called “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To.” It’s this kitschy back and forth duet; you’d think it was something off (the movie) Walk Hard. But if you listen to the words, they’re awful. They’re awwwful. They’re so freaking sad. But that’s always been one of the little parts of country music that I’ve loved. Like you listen to Reba McEntire sing “here’s your one chance, fancy, don’t let me down” and you’re like, man, I love this song, it’s so fun. But then you stop and listen to those words, and it’s ‘oh my God, this lady is putting her daughter out to be a prostitute!’ Never mind. Should have heard that before. Used to really like that song.”

Geared up to embark on a fall tour that will span two-and-a-half months, and includes a stop at Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa on Saturday September 19, expect The Lone Bellow to put on a performance that will include sweaty, dance-friendly barnburners alongside more cathartic, emotionally draining torch songs like Marietta, for example, off the new album.

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Credit Steven Sebring

“Marietta comes from a really, really dark part of my life, and we’ve been singing it third song-in lately. Which is usually bad. If there was an art to making a setlist, it’s like, don’t sing the super sad song third. Come out nice and strong, positive, we’re gonna have a great time tonight, alright, yeah! Instead, it’s like, we’re doing this right here. I think it’s maybe just to scare ourselves a little and freak ourselves out. Test the room and see where people will go right off the bat, if they’ll go with us to those places,” Williams explains.

He mentions that they have already written 20 songs that could appear on their next album, so they are in this for the long haul. It’s a magical time for the band, a time to discover themselves and carve out their own place in American music folklore. So far this year, they’ve woven themselves into the fabric of that folklore with some exciting collaborations on the road that include sharing the stage with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Lucius, Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek and Watkins Family Hour), and current soul savior, Leon Bridges. Their sound is constantly evolving, while they mine the lyrical depths of what it means to be human, what it means to be frail yet resolute in the face of hardship. As they continue to testify across the country, gaining new fans along the way, it would seem the sky’s the limit for The Lone Bellow.

Catch The Lone Bellow with Lake Street Dive on June 17 at The Fillmore.

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