The Lone Bellow Talk Life, Loss and ‘Half Moon Light’
Brooklyn trio The Lone Bellow play their own original strain of emotive music, with deep roots and inspirational songs born out of struggle. The project began as a means for singer-songwriter Zach Williams to cope with the experience of his wife’s temporary paralysis. Following her recovery, the band took shape, and their 2013 self-titled debut created a stir, drawing much critical acclaim in alt-country and Americana circles. For their followup, 2015’s “Then Came the Morning,” they teamed up with Aaron Dessner of the National, who put a spin on their sound, steering them into new sonic avenues.
On their latest album, “Half Moon Light,” the group have again joined forces with Dessner, who has this time taken more liberties in reshaping their sound. The record is a departure from their largely vocal harmony-focused earlier work, retaining the same spirit, while venturing into new sonic territory. The band experimented with a novel songwriting approach that revealed unanticipated dimensions. Many songs are lifted from experiences of loss, yet the overwhelming feeling is positive and celebratory, and the album is full of infectious, poignant tunes. Zach Williams spoke with Entertainment voice about the processes, inspirations, and meanings behind the new songs.
You took an unconventional approach to recording your new album, in which one member of the band would merely hum a melody, and let the rest of the band build songs around the emergent tune. Are there any specifics that come to mind about how this method created different results?
Usually we have a song — the drums and the bass, you know. We play the foundation, and this time we wanted to build it over something else, so we would pick a tempo and a key, and we would hum a long time, and then we would go back and then sing the melody and the lyrics on top of that — hum and then build the track off of that, and there are a couple of songs in which the hum actually stayed in. We just tried to keep it a foundational part of the song, this song called “Wonder” and “Martingales” and “Friends.”
I think what started is this past years, we played a whole bunch of shows around the states where we would just sing around one mic, just the three of us, and I think that we started just seeing the foundations that could be built just with vocals, and then we carried that on into the process.
Aaron Dessner of the National was involved in your new record. How did that collaboration come to be, and what would you say he added most to the record?
Oh man, I couldn’t say enough. He’s an incredible, incredible force. This is our second record that we made with him, and after I heard Big Red Machine, the project that he did with Justin Vernon, we stayed friends, just reached out to him, saying, “Congratulations, this record is incredible,”and then we just started talking about the studio that he built in upstate New York, and I was like, “Man, what if we did another record with you?” and he was all for it, so that’s how it came together, and then he had the idea of bringing J.T. Bates, who is the drummer that played on Big Red Machine, but also Hiss Golden Messenger and Bonny Light Horseman, and then Josh Kaufman. Collaboration was really important to us for this project, and Aaron definitely spearheaded all that. And another huge thing he did is he just challenged us to sing differently, and maybe not go for the big, huge high notes that we’re known for. He was like, “I want to express the emotions of this in a different way,” and that was scary at first, but after living with it for a few weeks, I was like, “Man, I’m glad Aaron led the march on that.”
The first song of the album is “I Can Feel You Dancing.” Feeling someone dancing is an abstract idea, mixing the senses. Do you experience synesthesia?
Damn. So that song is a celebration of me and Brian’s grandpas. We both lost our grandpas before we made this record, and it was kind of a celebration of their whole life. Also, it’s weird, but we have some friends that maybe remind us of what maybe our grandpas were when they were young. They just do not let the night go quietly.
The refrain of your song “Wonder,” “Should I let go of the wonder?” could very well be the universal artist’s dilemma. Expand on these lyrics.
So I had this poem that I think is the second verse to that song, that I wrote a decade or two ago, a long time ago. And it was really the first memory I had, at like sixteen, of realizing that my childhood might be kind of changing, and I feel like I’ve asked myself the question every day, to see, do I try to fight for a sense of wonder or do I just give into the fear of breathing and staying alive, the resistance. They talk about that in “War of Art,” the resistance.
Other striking lyrics are “Soak my hands in gasoline” from “Wash It Clean.” Is this meant to be a voicing of friction between soul-searching and consumerist culture, or what is the story behind these lyrics?
“Wash It Clean” is a letter that Brian wrote to his dad after his dad died a few months before we made this record. He and his dad had a pretty tough go for a long time, and then, a couple years before his dad passed away, he was actually able to amend the relationship, and as an old friend, I was like, “This is a miracle” because I’ve known Brian since he was 18, so I was amazed, and Brian was walking around for a while, just singing, “All my life I tried to let you go / Would you stay.” So we started writing that song together, and you wash your hands with gasoline if you’re working on a car or something that’s really hard to get off, sometimes you’ve got to use gasoline to get stuff off your hands.
Your song “Illegal Immigrant” is less overtly political than one would expect from the title, using the eponymous term as a metaphor for something broader, expressed in the refrain, “Here I am / You’ll never be alone again.” How did this song come together, and what are you trying to express with it?
Brian was watching the news when all of that stuff was happening at the border, and there was a bunch of politicians behind the microphones, and this mother got up behind the mic, in Spanish, and said, “I promised I’ll find you wherever you are / Here I am,” literally looking for her child. So that’s what that song is. It’s us trying to tell her story.
“Dust Settles” was reportedly about friction when financial difficulties challenged the existence of the band. What do you think about the relationship between art and capitalism?
I think it can eat you a lot, and it can ruin some of the most beautiful things that are worth living for, and it’s really complicated. You’ve got to check your motives. After you make that initial incredible, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this happened to me. I’m making music, and people are digging it,” after that happens, which is just a miracle and an honor, then you start getting hit with “Ok, I’m doing this for a living now, alright, I’ve got family, We’ve got logistics” and these fears about not being able to survive can start creeping in to your songs and your shows, but I think in the long run, if you can push back and you can try to fight it — and I’m saying this to myself right now too, I’m not like preaching this — if I can push back and try to fight it, and know that that fear is there, and it’s real, and it’s ok, I think that the art ends up being better in the long haul, rather than if it was just really easy to do art.
The final track of the album is a recording of some singer audibly swept away, belting her heart away, over piano trills, as companions chime in enthusiastically, “I will lead you all the way.” Much like the intro, this is a somewhat oblique gesture that gives a theme to the album. What was the inspiration and idea behind this track?
That’s a recording of my grandmother playing at my grandfather’s funeral while the casket was being taken down the middle aisle. It’s our way of celebrating life. The funeral was a wonderful celebration. I think that it’s worth talking about. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh my god, death is terrible.” But it’s not. It’s part of life, and it’s something that our culture has taught us to be really afraid of, or somebody did, and I don’t want to. So it’s a celebration, and actually, the end of my grandfather’s funeral, the clapping, that’s a standing ovation where it’s a whole town celebrating his life, and it’s beautiful. There’s an interlude, and then the outro is a recording of my grandmother playing a medley, and she nailed it. She freakin’ slammed it (laughs).
You’ve evolved from a band that was known largely from folksy stylings and vocal harmonies. How have your new sounds translated to the stage, and what can fans expect from your live show?
I would say this record is the closest to what we do live, whereas the other ones are a little different, but at the same time, as the tour goes on, different sounds and stuff start happening. People start getting other ideas, and this and that. It evolves. I’m excited we’re going to do the first shows in L.A., and we’ve been rehearsing for months, and I’m excited to see what living, breathing people in a room are going to do to the songs.
“Half Moon Light” is available Feb. 7 on Apple Music.