Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin make up The Lone Bellow, an exciting band that defies quick subscription to any musical genre. Sure, they’re a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n roll, but between those two divides lie any number of influences. The Brooklyn-based band’s self-titled debut brought them attention for their powerful harmonies, searing melodies and dark lyrics that sit on the edge of melancholy but never fully dive in. The Lone Bellow plays the Canopy Club tonight with Robert Ellis. Williams kindly took some time out of the band’s current tour to speak with me about their sophomore album Then Came the Morning, their intense live shows and what it takes to be a band nowadays.
Smile Politely: Take me through the writing process. Your personal experience became the foundation for the first album. How did Brian and Kanene contribute to the writing process?
Zach Williams: There’s definitely a variety of journal entry type songs. I feel that the three of us have always helped each other curate something that’s a little more honest. Instead of, “This is it, this is my song, this is how it is,” we’ve tried to have this process like, “Hey I wrote this song, I trust you as artists, friends, you have complete reign to go do it.”
There are a couple of really heavy songs that touch on something I’ve been going through for a little, and they brought some different verses in that meant something to them. It kind of reminds me of Wilco. They have that song that refers to how once you sing your song out loud it’s everyone’s from then on. It’s one of the honors of trying to create art.
SP: Brooklyn has so many different music scenes. How does that diversity influence your sound?
Williams: Especially with this new record that we’re making. We made the record with Aaron Dessner—he plays in the band The National. This is the first time it’s our work that we’re really doing, so we were able to really concentrate. Aaron lives in Woodstock, N.Y., and we recorded at this studio called Dreamland. It’s a dilapidated studio in an old church with incredible microphones, guitars and pianos. We were able to stand in the sanctuary together and sing.
Aaron’s brother Bryce Dessner wrote all of the arrangements for brass, strings and wind. Caroline Shaw wrote the strings for “Telluride.” Basically it’s a throwback Western story-song about a man having to kill his horse. She just won a Pulitzer Prize for her first composition. It was an honor to work with her.
SP: In “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional” there are flares of traditional country, but the album as a whole moves in a new and exciting direction for that genre. How are you nuancing what people define as country?
Williams: Country is having an identity crisis and I love being a part of it. These songs, a lot of them come from actual stories. “Fake Roses” is just a literal story and is a salute to the 80s ladies, but I’m positive that a regular country radio station wouldn’t play these songs. A good friend, Grady Smith, talks about country music a lot, and he said that country music as a genre needs to go ahead and split in two. You’ve got old school folks who are still doing a great job, like Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin, and then you’ve got the dudes that are the rappers, who are rapping about their hard knock life. I don’t know where we fit in there.
It’s easier to talk about our influences. Folks just naturally put you in a genre, which is fine. The melody gives way to the lyrics with our songwriting. If there’s some emotional line it usually comes along with some sort of melody shift, and then the instrumentation gives way to the melody. So by the time the record’s done, and you try to fit that into a music genre, I don’t know. It’s kind of hard thing to do.
We all have different influences. I can only speak about mine, but I love the Highway Men. I also grew up in a conservative household so I was really only allowed to listen to country music and oldies radio stations, so I like a lot of Bill Withers, CCR, Aretha. But then Whitney Houston and Boys II Men. I love the Monsters of Folk album that M. Ward, Jim James and all them did several years back.
SP: I’m struck by the energy the band brings to the live shows. The songs are so emotionally entrenched but with every show you fully go down that road again and again. How do you bring that kind of emotion and energy every time?
Williams: Thanks for noticing. It’s the value that we have as friends, even before the value we have as musicians or bandmates. If we’re going to be away from home, on the road and in a van night after night—kind of living this Groundhog Day type of day, where we all say good morning, load the van and hit the road—you can easily fall into this headspace where you lose the ability to see things that are beautiful, that are fresh in different towns. I think the work that we do while we’re playing the live shows, with each other and with an audience, is the heartbeat of why we keep doing what we're doing. That’s worthwhile. It’s also a major part of songwriting.
SP: Despite the personal experiences that went into writing the first album, the songs have such a universal connection. Crowds wholeheartedly sing along with you. How does that affect you as a musician?
Williams: Every city’s different. We were in Oxford, Miss, in an old bar. It was definitely a bar crowd. People were having a great time, and we were happy to be a part of it. We sang the song “Two Sides of Lonely” and when the song ended no one made a sound, and I just had to go into the next song. I thought at the time, “Man that was really strange, I wondered what happened there.” But it seemed like they were not even going to mess it up by clapping. “Marietta” is on the new record, which is part three of “Two Sides of Lonely.” We sang it a couple of times on this tour and it’s the same thing. The same exact response.
SP: What a chilling experience, but that song absolutely stops you dead in your tracks. Your new song, “Then Came the Morning,” moves toward hope, but in true Lone Bellow fashion that doesn’t come about without an immense struggle first. How is the new album developing? Will there be certain themes from the first that carry over?
Williams: The first record was a natural sound. Those are the first twelve songs off our first setlist as a band. We made the record a few months after our first rehearsal, and then we released it a few years later. The new record is the same thing, that same expression that just comes naturally to us. We did have a lot more time to think about Brian on the guitar, and even Kanene in the live shows has learned how to play bass. There’s definitely a really fun, new instrumental feel. I’m even thinking of buying an electric guitar.
SP: I'm always curious, why music as opposed to another art form?
Williams: I’m not very good at drawing, and the band usually doesn’t let me take Instagrams. My grammar is subpar, so it would take a serious editor to help me write anything. I love what happens with music, years and years and years ago when people started narrowing down songs to be put on vinyl. You had to really think about every single word you were writing and every single note you were writing. That’s definitely very intriguing to me. Brevity is the soul of wit.
The Lone Bellow play Canopy Club tonight with Robert Ellis.