(Here's my CMT Edge interview with Zach Williams from The Lone Bellow.)
Already friends before the band formed, the story of the Lone Bellow is a unique mix of talent and community with just enough serendipity to cast a magical air over the whole thing.
At its core, the Lone Bellow is a multi-skilled trio comprised of Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist. While their songwriting runs the emotional gamut and are all fluent in a variety of instruments, their real sonic superpower is in their full-voiced harmony. Within the span of 11 refreshingly rootsy tracks, this Brooklyn-based band raises the musical Mason-Dixon Line a little higher on the map.
On the heels of a national television appearance on Conan and a sold-out album release show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Williams talked to CMT Edge about the Lone Bellow’s formation, the recording of their debut album and the warm hug they received from NPR.
CMT Edge: You started your career off as a solo artist who just so happened to enjoy playing with a group of talented friends. What finally prompted the move from Zach Williams and the Bellow to the Lone Bellow?
Williams: It became evident to me that I was just a part of this band. My name being in the band name was not representative of the way that we play and write music together. I’ve also wanted to be a part of something that was more than just me and a backup band for some time now.
You’ve described the Lone Bellow’s sound as “Brooklyn country music.” What are some of the defining elements of that musical distinction for you guys?
We’re all from the South. Brian and I are from Georgia, and Kanene is from Virginia. Everyone in the band now lives in Brooklyn — upright [bass], drums, pedal steel, piano, banjo, mandolin and, of course, the singers — all within walking distance from each other. And that has created this “small town” vibe in the way we do life together. We run into each other everywhere. … We used to show up at Kanene’s soda fountain just to work tunes out together while she was working. She would be serving ice cream and jumping up to sing her line at the same time. This type of living made its way into the essence of how we started writing and singing together, and the “Brooklyn country music” idea was just an easy way for us to explain what we were experiencing playing music and doing life together. We all live here and found each other here in the neighborhood, so putting together this American sound came very natural to us.
Your impressive vocal chemistry with Kanene and Brian is certainly one of the most unique calling cards of the group. Is this something you guys have worked toward, or is it just a natural, magical occurrence when you all sing together?
It was just a natural fit. … I was playing with my old band, and my female singer couldn’t make it out to the show, so I called Kanene. Kanene had just moved from China to Brooklyn, and I met her a few years earlier when we both sang “O Happy Day” together at her big brother’s wedding in Nashville. Kanene was going to the French Culinary Institute at the time, and I called her up and said, “Can you learn 13 songs in 24 hours?” She skipped class that day, and we played the show. During the show I tried out a new song, “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional.” I randomly asked Brian to jump up onstage and sing it with us. We didn’t rehearse it, but the moment we all sang the bridge together, I felt like we were on fire, but in a good way. Soon after that, I left my band and we started this one.
The majority of The Lone Bellow was recorded in what some would say is a fairly unconventional way. How did foregoing a traditional studio setting for Rockwood Music Hall prove inspirational for the recording sessions?
Charlie Peacock and Richie Biggs had the idea of recording the record at Rockwood. Charlie came up to see us play. Before the show, we had lunch at Lower East Side BBQ, which is one street away from Rockwood. I said, “Charlie, you’ve got to meet Ken Rockwood. He has been my musical mentor for years here in the city.”
So after we finished up, we walked over, and Ken happened to be there. Charlie started walking around the room and randomly clapping in different spots. Then he came over and said, “Ken, can we make a record here?” It was a moment I will never forget. Ken gave us Rockwood Music Hall stage two for three days and three nights. We recorded 13 songs with eight musicians in one room. Sometimes Charlie would go out on Allen Street and invite strangers in for us to sing to because he felt that we needed an audience. Rockwood’s windows stretch from ground to ceiling all the way across the room, so every person that walks by could see what was happening. I feel like the energy of NYC haunted those microphones.
The song that intrigues me the most personally is “Two Sides of Lonely.” Can you provide a little background into what that hauntingly beautiful song is about?
That’s a great question. I am grateful that you connect with that song. It comes from a hopeless time in my life. It’s the hardest song in the set to sing. When I first wrote it, I hesitated to play it in front of people. However, after I tried it out, I realized it needed to be in our set and on our record. I am now thankful that I have the song to sing.
From an artist’s perspective, what are some of the benefits of having a producer like Charlie Peacock guide the sonic ship?
Charlie is an incredible listener. He has a way of pushing away anxiety that would bubble up in the recording process and replace it with confidence. He was so patient with us. The record has several moments where the band really wanted some tiny detail of a mandolin or a fiddle to be deleted or turned down, and Charlie let us do it. He truly saw the process as a team effort even though we had barely any experience to pull from. He respected our ears, and that created a very trusting … family environment.
Your songwriting on The Lone Bellow vacillates freely between hurt and hope with an incredibly powerful emotional undercurrent. What were you tapping into as you crafted these songs? Was it difficult for you to dig that deep?
Some of the stories are personal, and others are pulled from the beauty of a mundane day. We have been trying to see the darks and lights of everyday life here in our community. Some of the stories are ours, and others are from our close friends here in Brooklyn. Our hope is that the stories and songs will become a part of others’ stories as they listen to the record.
At such an early stage in the Lone Bellow’s adventures, what type of impact do things like NPR’s praise that “the world of acoustic music is about to get a new household name” and a national television appearance on Conan have on you personally?
It feels like a warm hug. We don’t deserve it, but we are grateful to be making our music in a time where it feels like vulnerability and honesty are appreciated in singing and songwriting.
As the band gears up for its first major touring excursion, is it true that all three of you have taken the leap of faith of quitting your day jobs?
The short answer is yes. We are very grateful to have the opportunity to be playing our music in other cities and towns!
In your song “Teach Me to Know,” you allude to “living out all your best guesses.” Does that accurately describe your current whirlwind?