The Lone Bellow

Its been six years since The Lone Bellow was first formed by Zach Williams, multi-instrumentalist Kanene Donehey Pipkin and guitarist Brian Elmquist. But one only needs to get the lead singer and guitarist speaking to their songwriting process to witness firsthand just how passionate he remains about its teeming creativity. “It’s a beautiful process,” the effusive singer says of the almost epiphany-like manner in which the band typically translates its vivid ideas to melodies and lyrics. “You’re trying to figure out exactly what it is you’re trying to say. And then, ‘Bam! Lightning strikes, everybody’s in the room, and it’s like the heavens open. Suddenly you’re able to write a song.”

The Lone Bellow, which also now includes Jason Pipkin on keys/bass, has long nurtured a deep and highly personal connection with their music. But with Walk Into A Storm, their third studio album, due on September 15 via Descendant Records/ Sony Music Masterworks, the band turned inward like never before. “We covered such a broad range of emotion on the album,” Elmquist says of the raw, intimate and undeniably soulful Dave Cobb-produced LP recorded in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio A. The 10-track album, Elmquist says, is centered on “the human condition and how you’re trying to connect with it,” and with stunning tracks including “Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy?” and “Long Way To Go,” it features some of the band’s most poignant material to date.

When creating the follow-up to 2014’s cherished Then Came The Morning, the band confronted — and ultimately overcame — a host of personal obstacles: not only did all the members and their respective families work through a relocation from New York City to Nashville, but on the day they were to begin recording the album Elmquist entered a rehab facility for issues stemming from alcohol abuse. “There’s a thousand different ways this could have gone down but it’s the way it did,” says Elmquist, says the tumultuous experience helped “put what we’re doing in perspective.” “I got to see the love and friendship we have for each other in action. I’m thankful.”

“Our band was the receiver of a lot of grace and kindness from the music community,” Williams adds, citing peers and industry folks offering words of encouragement as well as the non-profit MusicCares greatly aiding in the costs of the guitarist’s treatment.

Elmquist’s situation presented a logistical challenge for the band — they now had nine days to record instead of the pre-planned 20. But as Pipkin notes, the sacrifice “paled in comparison to what we have with each other. Without our friendships we don’t have anything,” she says. “That’s the reason we do this. To forge ahead without taking care of each other doesn’t work. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”

Working with the notoriously no-nonsense Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), was a richly rewarding process. It was also one that helped the band kick out the jams in short order. “There’s no real bells and whistles,” Elmquist recalls of Cobb’s no-frills recording process. “You go practice a song, play it, record it and put it on a record.”

The results are stunning: from the orchestral, uplifting “May You Be Well,” to “Long Way To Go,” a beatific piano-anchored ballad Elmquist wrote while in rehab; and “Between The Lines,” a harmony-drenched sing-along Williams says acts as both a letter to Elmquist and an exploration of the push-pull of drawing art from pain.

“There’s this lie that the only good and worthy art that can be made has to come from tragedy and darkness,” Williams offers. “And I get it. But it doesn’t only have to come from that. It can also come from joy and gratitude.”

And that’s exactly what The Lone Bellow is full of as they look to the future. The band kicks off an extensive tour on September 21st with Central Park’s Summerstage supporting The Head and the Heart. And as they crisscross North America they’ll have a new member in tow. “‘How early is too early to teach a child how to tune guitars?’” Pipkin, whose newborn son will be joining them on the road, asks with a laugh. “It’s going to be really exciting and different.”

Williams seems nothing short of in awe of where life has taken him and his band. The process that led to Storm, the forthcoming tour, the deepening of bonds with his band mates -- it all adds up to The Lone Bellow “becoming even more like family,” he says. “I just love being able to have that opportunity with these friends.

The singer pauses, and with a supreme sense of contentment in his voice, notes proudly of his band mates: “They’re pretty good musicians. But they’re truly amazing people.”
"The feeling I get singing with Zach and Brian is completely natural and wholly electrifying,” says Kanene. “Our voices feel like they were made to sing together."

Long before they combined their voices, the three members of the Lone Bellow were singing on their own. Brian had been writing and recording as a solo artist for more than a decade, with three albums under his own name. Kanene and her husband Jason were living in Beijing, China, hosting open mic nights, playing at local clubs and teaching music lessons. Zach began writing songs in the wake of a family tragedy: After his wife was thrown from a horse, he spent days in the hospital at her bedside, bracing for the worst news. The journal he kept during this period would eventually become his first batch of songs as a solo artist. Happily, his wife made a full recovery.

When Kanene’s brother asked her and Zach to sing “O Happy Day” together at his wedding, they discovered their voices fit together beautifully, but starting a band together seemed impossible when they lived on opposite sides of the world. Brian soon relocated to New York and Kanene moved there to attend culinary school a couple years later. The three got together in their new hometown to work on a few songs of Zach’s, he’d been chipping away at the scene as a solo artist for awhile by then. After hitting those first harmonies did they decide to abandon all other pursuits. Soon the trio was playing all over the city, although they considered Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side to be their home. They opened for the Civil Wars, Dwight Yokam, Brandi Carlile and the Avett Brothers, and their self-titled debut, produced by Nashville’s Charlie Peacock (the Civil Wars, Holly Williams) and released in January 2013, established them as one of the boldest new acts in the Americana movement.

After two hard years of constant touring, the band was exhausted but excited. By 2014, they had written nearly 40 songs on the road and were eager to get them down on tape. After putting together a list of dream producers, they reached out to their first choice, the National guitarist Aaron Dessner, who has helmed albums by the L.A. indie-rock group Local Natives and New York singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten.

“It occurred to me that it would be fun to get together and make music with them,” says Aaron. “My main interest in producing records is community and friendship more than making money. I already do a lot of traveling and working with the National, so when I have to time to work with other artists, it should be fun and meaningful.”

“Aaron is just so kind,” Zach says. “And he has surrounded himself with all these incredibly talented people, like Jonathan Low, the engineer. His brother Bryce [Dessner, also a guitarist for the National] wrote these amazing brass and string arrangements, and he got some of his friends to play with us.”

Dessner and the Lone Bellow spent two weeks recording at Dreamland in upstate New York, a nineteenth-century church that had been converted into a homey studio. The singers found the space to inspire the emotional gravity necessary for the material and the acoustics they were looking for. (For Kanene, Dreamland had one other bonus: “I’m a big Muppets fan, and it looks exactly like the church where Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem lived.”)

Aaron set them up in a circle in what had once been the sanctuary, with microphones hanging in the rafters to capture the sound of their voices bleeding together. Most of the vocals were recorded in single takes, a tactic that adds urgency to songs like “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” and “If You Don’t Love Me.” “There were a couple of times when somebody sang the wrong word or hit a bad note, and we just had to keep going,” says Zach, who says that recording “Marietta” in particular was daunting—especially the moment near the end when he hits an anguished high note, bends it even higher, and holds it for an impossibly long time. It’s a startling display of vocal range, but it’s also almost unbearably raw in its emotional honesty.

“‘Marietta’ is probably the darkest song on the whole record,” Zach explains, “and it’s based on something that happened between my wife and me. The band was getting ready to record that song when all of a sudden my wife showed up with our youngest baby. It was a great surprise, a beautiful moment. So I was able to go out and sing that song, knowing she was there to help me carry the moment.”

“These are true stories,” says Brian. “These aren’t things we made up. We tried to write some songs that had nothing to do with our personal stories, but we just didn’t respond to them. But we’re best buds, so we know each others’ personal stuff and trust each other to figure out what needs to be said and how to say it.” Case in point: Brian wrote “Call to War” about his own struggles during his twenties, but gave the song to Kanene to sing. “The content is painful and brutal,” she says, “but the imagery, the vocals, they build something delicate and ethereal. That kind of contrast illuminates the true beauty and power of a song.”

Says Brian, “We do this one thing together, and we carry each other. Hopefully that makes the listener want to be a part of it. It becomes a communal thing, which means that there’s never a sad song to sing. It’s more a celebration of the light and the dark.”

The Wild Reeds

The Wild Reeds are a band led by women, and that matters. Not a sister band, not a girl group, but a band fronted by three women, all talented singers, songwriters, and multi-instrumentalists in their own right: Kinsey Lee, Mackenzie Howe, and Sharon Silva, with drummer Nick Jones and bass player Nick Phakpiseth providing the Los Angeles-based band’s rhythmic foundation. Like a harmony at its euphoric best, the leads’ powerful — and powerfully distinct — voices merge to form a sound that can only be The Wild Reeds. On their third LP, Cheers, the band comes together to create an ode to the joys and pains of camaraderie.

The Wild Reeds’ previous LPs, Blind and Brave (2014) and The World We Built (2017), and EPs, Best Wishes (2016) and New Ways To Die (2018), caught press attention from outlets including NPR Music (including a Tiny Desk Concert), Billboard, Rolling Stone Country, Noisey, and Garden & Gun, in addition to radio play from influential stations like KEXP and KCRW. And now arrives Cheers: a career highlight achieved by giving each writer considerable latitude, in the end creating a singular work out of three striking songwriting voices.

On Cheers, Lee, Howe, and Silva leaned into their differences for the first time, giving one another unprecedented amounts of freedom to execute their own songs. Each was allowed room to pursue her vision, while always leaving an open door for the other members to step in and collaborate. “We decided to explore our individuality,” says Howe. “It was a scary thing for us, because when you have three writers, you often have to do your best to tame your differences and come to some sort of agreement writing-wise, sonically, stylistically. It was the first time we said, ‘Screw that, why don’t we just record the songs the way they should be done?’”

For all the exploration on Cheers, the result is still tight and cohesive. The album makes room for infectious sing-along anthems (opening track “Moving Target”), tinges of R&B (“Lose My Mind”), lilting ‘60s pop-rock waltzes that build to resounding finishes (“Cheers,” “Get Better”), haunting balladry (“Run and Hide,” “My Name”), and even a gloriously hook-heavy track Lee sheepishly admits started as a tongue-in-cheek pop punk throwback (“P.S. Nevermind”). Every song sounds fresh, but all of them sound like The Wild Reeds. “For me, it felt no holds barred, limitless, like I could step up to the plate,” Silva says. “The record feels very communal, and that’s part of the reason we called it ‘Cheers.’ It felt like, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together and we’re all focusing on what we’re getting better at.’ We could let go of what we’re supposed to sound like and all reach a higher potential.”

Cheers was born out of a strange and painful time, full of tough break-ups, family deaths, and discord within the band itself. The 13 songs are snapshots from that upheaval, touching on illness, therapy, heartbreak and disconnection from three perspectives. Some of Cheers’ sunniest songs contain the darkest undercurrents, and The Wild Reeds don’t shy away from sadness or open endings. The album creates beauty out of contradictions: It finds community in individuality, tenderness in confrontation, joy in the midst of grief and pain. Threaded throughout is a deep sense of gratitude for the band itself, and the songs became a way for the members to talk to each other — an intimate language that was at times contentious, but in the end, healing. Silva explains, “When Mack first showed us the song ‘Get Better,’ I was just walking back after an argument at practice. I came back in, she played us the song, and I sat on the floor and played the guitar line that’s in the chorus…We just sat there and we played it and it was so soft and gentle, and it was exactly what I needed. I’ve always felt that way about the girls’ songs, and that’s what keeps the wheels rolling for me.”

“We’re really confrontational in our band, in a good way,” Lee says. “A lot of bands have fallen apart without even having a conversation. When you’re ‘married’ to five different people for 10 years, things come up that you need to discuss with each other. I think we’re all really good at challenging each other to grow and keep coming back to a place of love.” Ultimately Cheers is hopeful, celebratory, and communal; life can break your heart, but friends can mend it. The Wild Reeds’ trials have only strengthened their commitment to each other, and resulted in their strongest and most unified record to date.

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