Seattle – It all started 10 years ago when Zach Williams’ young wife broke her neck in a horseback riding accident. Told by doctors that she would never walk again, Williams took to writing down his thoughts and emotions in a journal.
However, after months of rehab at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, his wife regained the ability to walk. After experiencing firsthand the preciousness of life, the couple then moved to Brooklyn, revitalized in pursuing their creative paths. Using his journal entries, Williams soon began fleshing them out into songs.
Flash forward to one morning in 2010 at Dizzy’s Diner in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where Williams had planned to meet Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist to rehearse a few songs he was working on. “Three songs in I realized I should quit what I’m doing and just make music with these people,” Williams says.
And so The Lone Bellow came to be. A trio whose songs are filled with haunting, tight-knit harmonies, authentic emotion, and soulful, Americana orchestrations, The Lone Bellow made waves with their 2013 self-titled debut album. Now, they’ve finished mixing and mastering their sophomore album, Then Came the Morning, with The National’s Aaron Dessner producing. While the record is due in January 2015, the group will be releasing the first single next week and have teased fans with a preview of the title track. Its powerful vocals, lush orchestration, and captivating use of horns and winds prove that their success on the first album was no fluke.
In the middle of an extensive cross-country tour, Zach Williams took the time to answer a few questions for Best New Bands.
How is your wife doing?
She’s doing amazing. She’s been healed for 10 years now. We have three little girls together in Brooklyn.
Take me through The Lone Bellow’s genesis – how did you all meet, how did the band come to be?
Brian and I met years ago. We were housemates in college. He was the first songwriter I had ever met. I met Kanene years later. We sang together at her brother’s wedding. He’s one of my best friends. We sang “Oh Happy Day.” She was living in Beijing at the time. Fortunately a few years later she moved to Brooklyn around the same time I had the notion to start what I called a “honkytonk” project. I had these sad songs I wanted to hide in uplifting melodies. So I stopped by the diner in Brooklyn Brian was working at and asked him if we could get together to work on songs.
Your self-titled debut album earned strong acclaim. What were your initial thoughts when you saw such positive reception? Do you feel any pressure with your follow-up record?
Oh man, it was amazing. Completely undeserved. I couldn’t believe these songs were being received with such open arms. The sophomore record is clutch. When we made our first record we had been a band for two months. The record we’re about to release, Then Came The Morning, is a reflection of the beauty and pain we have experienced together as a band over the past few years. Making it with Aaron Dessner was also such an eye opening experience. To watch him work with such clarity and soul… It was beautiful. I can’t wait to get it out there!
How hard do you work on harmonies, or is it a natural fit of each person going to a particular one?
It is a natural fit. We still remember the first moment we sang together. It was a safe place.
What are the biggest influences to your music/lyrics?
Our life stories and those around us. Particularly with this record we had the great honor of shining some light on some family lore. A bit of southern gothic story. We ended up having a good friend of ours, Mackenzie Rollins, travel down south to our home towns to capture the essence of the record via photography. All the artwork for the album is from her trip. She knocked on the doors of the houses some of the songs are about and interviewed these folks for hours.
There’s been a huge shift from heavily produced, auto-tuned, etc., music into more folk/ roots-based acts over the past couple years. Why do you think this is?
I think it goes back to the heart of popular music. People inherently gravitate towards real instruments and voices. Songs that express a story and lyrics that ring true.
What artists did you grow up listening to/ are you listening to today?
Jim James, Ryan Adams, The Beatles, all 90s R&B and 80s country. Personally, I grew up in a house where the only music that was okay to listen to was the country station and the oldies station. My parents were not huge fans of the 90s music scene. This drove me crazy as I kid, but I am grateful for it now. And I obviously snuck off to listen to as much Boys II Men and Whitney Houston as I could.
You’ve kicked off an extensive tour – how do you stay energized and motivated on the road?
The biggest thing is our daily rhythm of reminding each other that we truly love each other. After that probably comes running. I love getting out of the van and running through the town we’re singing in that night. You get a nice weight of what you’re walking into. At the moment we’re driving up through California listening to the Live Jeff Buckley record. Also, it’s amazing to go to cities we’ve never been to and have people come out and listen to our music. That never gets old.
What kind of changes/growth/development can we expect on your next record?
Well, this is the first record we’ve made where music is our full-time job. We took advantage of that margin and found some great sounds in the old sanctuary where we made the record. We also recorded all the vocals together in one room. We made the record at Dreamland studios, which is an old forgotten church in Woodstock, NY. We finished it in Aaron’s garage. I loved watching Aaron and Elmquist spend hours and hours finding one particular tone of a guitar. It was truly exciting.
What was it like working with Aaron Dessner of The National on the new album? How did that collaboration come to be?
Unreal. I want to make every album with him. He brought such a weighty conviction to true sound and collaboration. He is surrounded by the most kind and talented folks. Jon Low engineered, (he is the best)! Peter Katis mixed (he is also the best!) and all the incredible musicians who ended up playing on the record. Oh man, I can’t even explain it. It’s just kindness. On top of all that Aaron’s brother (also in The National) Bryce composed all of the brass, winds, and string arrangements. We are overwhelmed with gratitude for all of these people who have collaborated to make something worthwhile.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
We are thankful for what we get to do. We are in awe that we get to write and sing songs for a living. Our hearts are full of gratitude.
With degrees in journalism and music, Caitlin’s written for Paste Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and MajoringinMusic.com. She loves cheese, laughing at GIFs of corgis, road trip sing-alongs, and connecting with people over good beer and good music.