Though the Lone Bellow often make friends on the road, they hadn’t planned on meeting a snaggle-toothed creature behind a crumbling headstone in a buddy’s backyard in Nashville.
“We went over to Nikki Lane’s house, and I found the old graveyard in the backyard,” says Zach Williams. Lane, a spur-kickin’ disciple of East Nashville, is one of the artists caught in the crosshairs of the alt-Americana/folk rock/gimme-more-lap-steel-right-NOW adjective game that the Lone Bellow have come to run in circles with in recent years. During this particular stopover in Nashville, before they stepped outside, she’d warned Williams and the gang that she wasn’t the only tenant occupying the property. “I went out there by myself in the middle of the night. The graves are above ground and cracked open, and she’s like, ‘Watch out! There’s a possum that lives in there!’ All of a sudden a possum pokes his little head out and took off running. I met Nikki Lane’s graveyard possum!”
Lane will be returning to New York on March 26 to play Irving Plaza with Shakey Graves, but Williams, Kanene Donehey Pipkin, and Brian Elmquist won’t be swinging through her show, as much as they’d like to — they’ll be busy heading onstage for their own. On March 25 and 26, the Lone Bellow will be playing to sold-out crowds — at the Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg, respectively — in New York, their first headlining hometown gigs in nearly two years. The Brooklyn-based folk outfit recorded their 2012 self-titled debut in the Lower East Side at their haunt of choice, the Rockwood Music Hall, and their career took off at a sprint shortly thereafter, with lauded festival showings (Newport Folk, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands) and sets at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Beacon Theatre thrown in for good measure. The artwork for their first record is kind of perfect: it frames Williams, Donehey Pipkin, and Elmquist sitting on a nondescript brownstone stoop in Brooklyn, and the timeless nature of their clothing and the antique sheen of the photo speak to the nostalgic leanings of the genres they embrace while anchoring themselves in the city.
With Then Came the Morning, their sophomore effort released via Descendant Records on January 27, the Lone Bellow upped the ante, ditching the stoop to head north to record with Aaron Dessner of the National in an old converted church upstate. They spent a hefty chunk of their studio time clustered around a microphone so that they could sing facing each other and cut the vocals live. The call to do so was initially Dessner’s, but the approach was faithful to their live performances and the tight-knit nature of their vocal fabric.
“He had this vision of us singing in a room together, in this sanctuary of this old church, and it’s kind of a grandioso idea, to get all the vocals with us in a circle around each other,” reflects Elmquist. “Ninety-nine-point-five percent of all the vocals were recorded that way, so it was pretty cool. After that, everything was fun, building the tracks around it. But that’s where everything started. I don’t think the record would be as special if we didn’t capture that part of it.”
“We sang every song so many times!” adds Donehey Pipkin. “Aaron was like, ‘Not a lot of groups can do this. It’s going to be really hard, but this is how I see this happening.’ I’m really glad we did that. You can definitely hear it. There’s no Auto-Tuning or hyper-perfection you hear on a lot of records, when everything’s slapped to a grid and perfected in post-production. When you’re recording live together, you have to nail it. You can’t nail it later.”
The raucous, soulful breakdowns on Then Came the Morning are sprightly and cheerful (especially “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” and “Cold as It Is,” above), but the tunes that best showcase this intimate quality are the somber ones, like the devastating “Marietta” or the pensive “Telluride.” When asked which song was the toughest to write on the record, Williams, Donehey Pipkin, and Elmquist all crack up. “You don’t want to know! It’ll mess up your day!” cries Williams. “Even if some part of your heart or memory or mind is in pain, it’s really important to sing it anyway, night after night after night. Music is cathartic, and it’s cathartic for the listener and for the writer, for the singer. I think that’s one of the more powerful, mysterious parts of music. What is melody? Why does a human being connect to it? It’s strange, but it’s a beautiful miracle.”
A Lone Bellow set runs the emotional gamut, and Then Came the Morning further deepened the connection between the living, breathing people performing before rapt crowds and the voices captured upstate that don’t need the tethers of scene, genre, or city to keep them relevant. They’ll spend the rest of the year touring: after the New York shows, there’s a bit before they head out “for real” and plow through a number of festival dates, along with some yet-to-be-announced tours with more like-minded friends of this particular musical persuasion. In the meantime, they’re happy to be back in Brooklyn and relishing in the opportunity to gather ’round the mic for the crowds that have been coming to see them since the Rockwood days, and they’re proud to put their most confident and courageous foot forward at home before they do it again and again and again on various stages around the world.
“Coming out of [Then Came the Morning] and a couple of years of touring together, just everything the road throws at you and some really serious personal darkness that happened, I’m really proud of everyone in the band for just being able to not make any fear-based decisions,” says Donehey Pipkin. “It’s a sophomore record, and what with talk of genre and how you get played on the radio and how you get certain people to pay attention to you, there’s a lot of talk around you that’s trying to get you to compromise what it is that you want to do. I feel like, with this record…We were all really able to be like, ‘We’re going to take risks. We’re going to make the record we want to make, and we’re not going to be afraid to do it.’ ”
The Lone Bellow play March 25 at the Bowery Ballroom and March 26 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Both shows are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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