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Something Bigger Than Ourselves: The Lone Bellow Return With 'Half Moon Light'

Tuesday, 11 February 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Shervain Lainez

Life is virtually unliveable without hope. In our darkest days, even the merest chink of light can provide an all important spark to keep on fighting. Just ask the Lone Bellow, a three piece Americana outfit born from the ashes of tragedy and its damn near miraculous resolution. They may know all about trying times, but with spiritually resonant harmonies and impassioned empathy to the fore, the trio’s existential songs consistently make an optimistic stand.

Although excavating beauty and magic from aspects of everyday life we sometimes take for granted, it’s hardly surprising this Brooklyn based trio—comprised of lead vocalist and guitarist Zach Williams, multi instrumentalist and vocalist Kanene Donehy Pipkin, and guitarist and vocalist Brian Elmquist—are equally capable of abseiling into some bleak thematic mines, only to emerge holding a handful of sparkling diamonds. After all, they wouldn’t exist without a life changing event that almost bears the mark of divine intervention.

While out horse riding one day Williams’ wife Stacy was flung to the ground and paralysed from the neck down. Numb, unable to process his grief and enveloped by shock, the singer began writing his thoughts in a journal as a coping strategy during that tumultuous period. At the behest of friends he learnt the guitar and turned those outpourings into, by his own admission, ‘terrible songs’ that he performed at a local Starbucks, bawling out his pain during open mic sessions.

Stacy made a full recovery, leading to her husband and his artistically minded friends making good on a promise they’d made that, should she somehow get better, all of them would move to New York together to pursue their dreams. A few years after relocating, and armed with much stronger material, Williams hooked up with his old pal Elmquist before Pipkin arrived to complete the line-up.  

The band swiftly made a name for themselves on the live circuit thanks to their communal gigs and the trio have since crafted three sublime albums of Americana, folk, rock, gospel and soul, gradually evolving while always fleshing out their rootsy skeleton with elemental hooks. Such attributes remain as potent as ever on their stunning new opus ‘Half Moon Light’, yet it also finds the Lone Bellow bravely pushing their sound towards shimmering new horizons.  

Re-teaming with producer Aaron Dessner, best known as a member of American rockers the National, it’s a texturally sophisticated, expansive, intensely uplifting and consistently thought-provoking effort. We spoke to Williams about sculpting ‘Half Moon Light’, how the band spread their artistic wings further than ever on the record and what it’s like to ride on top of a massive shark. Yes, you read that right.

What was the game plan for ‘Half Moon Light’ when you began making it and what can you say about the role Aaron played in bringing your vision to fruition?

We wanted to start the process of recording in a different way, so boiled it down to the fundamentals. This is the first record where we didn’t start with drums and bass. Instead, we would pick a tempo and key, just hum for a few minutes and then sing the song on top of the hum. We built the sound around the singing, around the hums, and that led to a different musical journey than we’ve had in the past.

Sometimes it was kind of daunting. Usually we lean on the things we’ve done in the past, like singing really high notes. We didn’t want to do that this time.  We wanted to express the emotion of the songs differently. Aaron had this ongoing joke that was like ‘cutting the eagle’s wings’ and it was scary at first because you’re used to leaning on certain strengths you have, like ‘OK, that’s our niche. That’s our little one-two punch.’ Taking that out of the equation, it almost felt like starting all over again in a beautiful way.   

Aaron also had the idea of bringing in Josh Kaufman and the drummer JT Bates, which created a new atmosphere musically. We wanted to be a more collaborative effort because we wanted to stretch ourselves and see what sounds we could come up with. Me, Brian and Kanene had these songs and melodies we’d been working on for a few years and [now] the melodies have a different take on them.

There’s a lot more soul or, I don’t know what label you’d want to put on it, but its melodies just move differently than things we’d made before. There were even songs where we wrote the melodies first and the lyrics came next, which was an exciting and challenging task, to have to write poetry that fits along with a melody that had already been written.

‘Half Moon Light’ is notable for being, thematically speaking, a very cohesive record. What issues were you trying to address and how challenging is it to achieve that unity?

One thing we talked about when we started writing a couple of years ago was that we wanted to tell other people’s stories. Illegal Immigrant is a great version of that, or Just Enough To Get By. I’ve been pretty self-involved so far, in regards to writing the songs we sing. So it felt really good this time to put my own storm aside and open my eyes to somebody else’s story. But it’s a super heavy process to figure out. We didn’t want to say ‘OK let’s make a record about this. This is what’s gonna happen.’ 

We also didn’t want to throw a bunch of songs together willy nilly that sounded good and put everything on it. So we wrote several songs, recorded 18 or 19, and then narrowed that down and tried to keep our eyes open, like, ‘What is this music saying to us? What are people going to hear?’ After the record was made and we were trying to figure out what songs were going to make it, that’s when we started carving out the very last bits of the little stick figure we were making. We didn’t want to accidentally cut one of his arms off.       

The lyrics for Good Times draw from so many great stories you’ve heard over the years. If you had to choose one tale from all your experiences, maybe the craziest, most inspiring, jaw dropping anecdote, which would it be?

The majority are from this boat I worked on in the Caribbean. My wife babysat all the grandkids and I helped clean the boat for this hilarious, insane family. Wonderful people, but very complicated. One day we were out fishing for yellowfin tuna and Mr Peter, who’s this 85-year-old man, came up from the bottom of the fishing boat full of emotion and on the verge of tears. He was like, ‘Get in the water, jump in the water.’ Now, I’m from Georgia. I’m very afraid of the ocean.  But he just jumped in so I was like, ‘Alright he’s old, so I’ll jump. Maybe I’ll be able to swim faster than whatever it is he’s talking about that’s in the water.’  

So I landed on, and went down the side of, a 40 foot long whale shark. I didn’t know what a whale shark was so I didn't know if it would kill me. Thankfully, they’re these really kind, amazing animals. He opened his mouth and his mouth was, in my memory, 12 feet wide. I was like ‘OK, this must be how Jonah died.’ Thankfully he was eating krill. I came back up for air and Peter was like ‘Grab his dorsal’ so I grabbed his dorsal fin and this majestic animal just pulled me around the ocean.  

That story didn’t make the song, but Peter punching a hammerhead shark at a place called Hogsty Reef did. He would stay up late and tell me these insane stories of getting attacked by pirates. It was one of these things where it’s like, ‘This can’t all be real.’ The kids on the boat, later on, would be like, ‘No, it’s real. He’s crashed three aeroplanes and they all had huge dead animals in the back of them.’ Those stories stuck with me and I was so glad I was able to record that song because it has so many lyrics I didn’t think it was gonna make the cut.    

Another standout song is Wonder. What are the biggest challenges to retaining our childlike sense of wonder as the full impact of adulthood takes hold?

I think about it a lot and it’s one of the things where, if I stay up real late at a bar with my buddies, that’s where the conversation ends up leading as the night goes on. ‘How do we protect our sense of wonder?’ It’s a problem I’ve had for several years now so, that song, I’m singing it to myself.   The first verse is a memory I have of my cousin and I. When we were 16 we got in his pick up truck and it was the first time either one of us could drive, so the first time in a car by ourselves.  

We went on this long drive and stole my cousin Jon’s cassette of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’.  We popped it in and it stoned me to my soul for the very first time. The sun was going down and I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to hold on to this.’ It was the first time where I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m turning into something that’s not a boy and I don’t think these feelings are gonna come natural any more.’ So I’ve had that poem for a long time and it was fun to put it into a song, something I’m gonna be singing all the time.      

The album doesn’t shy away from the complexities of tricky relationships and their genesis, particularly on Wash It Clean.

Brian was just here practicing it. He lost his father a few months before we made the record and I was waiting to see how that was gonna come out. His dad died really young, 50 years old, and it was a real shock. As a lot of us do, Brian had a really complicated and hard relationship with his dad for the majority of his life and then, a few years ago, they figured out a middle ground and a way to talk to each other.

So for several months he processed on his own and one day he was like, ‘Man, I have this line just fumbling around in my head for weeks now ‘All my life I’ve tried to let you go, would you stay?’ And then ‘Soak my hands in gasoline and I can’t wash it clean.’ It’s this beautiful love letter to his dad.  

I hope people will find out what these songs are about because it’s a sensitive line you have to walk.  You can clip a song's wings if you come out and say, ‘This is exactly what this song is about, so here you go.’ You want to give a song the opportunity to fit itself into somebody else’s story or situation so they can define it on their own. But there’s another side where you want them to know exactly where the lyrics came from because it’s important to you. We’re constantly walking that tightrope.

Your three part harmonies possess the rousing spirituality one might hear from a gospel choir. Where does that influence come from?

You know the interludes that are on the album? That’s my grandmother playing the piano at my grandfather’s funeral. We all grew up in some fun, spiritual church and Brian and I are from down home southern stock. We grew up around revivals and our faith is really important to us. When we’re writing naturally one thing I like to do is write a melody just to the word ‘hallelujah’. So I’ll just sing hallelujah over and over and see what melody comes out. Maybe that’s leading to what you’re referring to?

That makes sense and also explains why, in spite of tackling troubling issues,  there’s so much hope within the album. Do you think people need that kind of optimism now, at a time when the world, and particularly the USA, is as fractious and divided as it’s ever been?

I can’t speak for anybody else, but can speak for me, Brian, Kanene and Jason. We need it. And if we need it, I bet other people need it too. That’s the way we look at it. I feel like I’ve boiled it down to ‘what’s Xmas like when I go and visit back home?’ All of the things we’re not allowed to talk about. All of the things that are off the table. It’s frustrating where we’re at right now, the insane news and the politics, the choices being made. 

It’s incredibly frustrating being a person of faith and then having someone take a version of that same faith and use it to further his political agenda. That’s the stuff that will boil all the way down into a conversation over dinner with friends because it’s so daunting. Oh man, you just feel like there’s all this mercy that should be out there that’s getting squashed by this pride and people are getting hurt by it left and right. Dude, we don’t even have to get into it. You and I both know how insane it is. 

There’s a strong collective feel to everything about this album and, by extension, the band.  What is it about your music that engenders such a contagious communal spirit?

We’re encouraged by our fans telling us stories we’ve heard where we’ve had the honour of finding out that a show, or a lyric or song, meant something and helped someone. That’s better than selling records, which up until now we don’t do. I think the hope of being open to it night after night, hoping that something might happen and that we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  That’s the only thing we can do. 

The Lone Bellow Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri May 01 2020 - DUBLIN Whelan's
Mon May 04 2020 - MANCHESTER Band on the Wall
Tue May 05 2020 - LONDON EartH

Click here to compare & buy The Lone Bellow Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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