Interview: The Lone Bellow Find New Territory on ‘Half Moon Light’ Album
For anyone who has spent time with a record from the Lone Bellow or been fortunate enough to experience the band in their energetic live setting, there is no arguing that the trio has one of the fiercest, most original sounds to enter the musical atmosphere in the last decade. That sound is elevated to a new dimension as the New York City-born, now-Nashville-bred trio offers their latest LP, Half Moon Light, to the world on Friday (Feb. 7).
"We made this decision to not rest on the things that we're known for on this album," lead vocalist Zach Williams tells The Boot. "There aren't a lot of wailing, high, screaming notes. When you've got a little thing that has worked in the past and then you don't do it, it's exciting new territory. But, it's freaking me out ... in a good way."
Williams admits he's nervous for the release of Half Moon Light, which is out via Dualtone Records, in a way that he's never been for any other record. "I'm excited," he says, with a pause. "But I haven't been able to pinpoint why I'm nervous.
"I think I'm just really excited about seeing what these songs will do live," he continues. "We just finished rehearsal [earlier this week], and we've been working our fingers to the bone getting ready. I am excited, and I'm trying not to worry about what people might think about it — there's always that balance when you put something out there."
Williams' nerves are likely not just about the new sound Half Moon Light brings, but also about how the band created that sound. He and his bandmates, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin, did something they've never done before when recording: They decided to work with a producer with whom they had previously worked.
"This was the first time that we did that," Williams explains. "Every other record it's been like, 'Oh, hi, I'm Zach. Where do you want me to stand?'"
That returning producer is Aaron Dessner of the National, who first worked with the Lone Bellow on their sophomore LP, Then Came the Morning. This time around, he helped the band venture into new creative territory.
"We slept in the studio, and that was a very interesting thing," Williams admits. "That ended up making this record kind of like a time capsule for us. When we listen to it, it's like that time in the studio.
"That's really been fun. When we've been rehearsing these songs, we all know exactly why we wrote each song," he continues. "I'm really excited about what could potentially happen at these live shows."
Beyond living in the studio for a few weeks, Williams and company also invited more people than they were used to into the space, marking a highpoint in the Lone Bellow's collaborative process. "We started the process of building the foundation of these songs where we would pick a tempo and pick a key and then we'd just hum in that key for several minutes," Williams says. "Then we'd go back and we'd sing that song on top of those hums. And then Aaron had the beautiful idea of inviting Josh Kaufman and J.T. Bates into the process.
"Building that foundation first and then having them bring their expertise into it helped open the songs up to be, truly, works of collaboration," he adds. "It was really fun."
Williams is obviously enthused by the recollection of spending time in the studio with Dessner. "That's one of the beautiful things about working with Aaron," he says. "He could easily make a whole track by himself -- I mean, he can play everything -- but he sees a bigger opportunity than that, to collaborate with so many people."
While the Lone Bellow have been known for their deeply personal songwriting — Williams actually picked up the hobby of writing songs as a way to cope with his wife being diagnosed as a quadriplegic following a horseback riding accident — Half Moon Light finds the three friends putting themselves in other people's shoes for a change.
"It was a new challenge to write like this," Williams confesses. "It was a new experience. I know he won't remember, but I reached out to Jim James one time and had coffee with him in LA. We were talking about how it's so easy to create out of pain, and talked about what it's like creating something when you're not just pulling from your own personal tragedies. He had some really beautiful insight into that. Jason Isbell has been able to do the same thing in such a beautiful way. We were really encouraged by both of those guys."
Pipkin radiates in this new creative endeavor, particularly as she assumes the role of a mother who has lost her child at the U.S.-Mexico border in "Illegal Immigrant."
"That song came from something that a mother said on the news," Williams remembers. "These politicians were talking behind microphones, and then this mother stepped behind the mic and, in Spanish, said, 'I promised I’d find you wherever you are. Here I am. You'll never be alone again.' It was nice to be able to make that into a song."
Williams himself pushed his writing, too, most notably on the album highlight "Good Times," a fun amalgamation of several different stories.
"Those are some crazy stories that I've heard from people I've worked for over the years," he explains. "That really was a fun one. I used to work on this boat out in the Caribbean for the Pulitzer family, and Mr. Peter, he was in his 80s. If you stayed up late enough, after all of his kids and grandkids would fall asleep, he'd start telling you these insane stories. I remembered them for years. It was fun to be able to put a bunch of those stories into a song."
Half Moon Light finds Williams a lifetime away from that hospital room where he learned to write songs as a way of dealing with his wife's devastating injury. Miraculously, his wife completely recovered, and Williams continued to write, now inspired by the likes of John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Iron and Wine. Moving from Atlanta, Ga., to New York City, Williams dedicated his first couple of years to playing open mics and performing at bars all over the city.
"My first show was at the 169 Bar in Chinatown," he says with an obvious hint of laughter in his voice. "It was, like, two in the morning. I think that bar might be cool now, but it was definitely not cool back then. I remember I used to play at this Irish pub on 38th Street. They'd never turn down the volume on the basketball games, so I'd be singing my sad songs and people would be cheering all night long."
Now, however, as the Lone Bellow celebrate the release of their latest record, Williams, Pipkin and Elmquist are also preparing to headline the historic Ryman Auditorium for the first time ever on April 24.
"When I think about that show, I have one thing going through my head that I'm not allowed to tell you," Williams says. "There's this certain guest that I'm going to ask if I can get her to get in a car and have somebody drive her up to see if she'll open the night for us. She's a feeble, older person, so it's going to take some coercing."
Secrets aside, Williams quickly notes how excited he is for the opportunity to headline the legendary venue. "We've lived in Nashville for a couple of years now," he says, pausing as he reflects on the reality of what it means to be Mother Church's topbill. "This little town has been really, really kind to us. My wife opened up a business here, and it's been fun getting to know this city as we try to honor its musical history. I'm grateful to get to play the Ryman and headline it."