The Lone Bellow
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“I want it to bring comfort,” The Lone Bellow guitarist Brian Elmquist says. “But it’s not all hard conversations. There’s a lot of light and some dancing that needs to happen.” Brian is reflecting on Half Moon Light, the band’s highly anticipated new album.
Half Moon Light is an artistic triumph worked toward for years, earned not by individual posturing, but by collective determination and natural growth. With earthy three-part harmonies and songwriting as provocative as it is honest, the trio made up of Brian, lead vocalist Zach Williams, and multi-instrumentalist Kanene Donehey Pipkin creates sparks that make a stranger’s life matter or bring our sense of childlike wonder roaring back. On Half Moon Light, The Lone Bellow mix light and dark to muster a complex ode to memory, a call for hope, and an exercise in empathy. Anchored in the acoustic storytelling that first so endeared the band to fans and critics, Half Moon Light also takes more chances, experimenting with textures and instrumental fillips to create a full-bodied music experience. The result is The Lone Bellow’s most sophisticated work to date.
“We try to invite as many people into the process to see what we can make together,” Brian says. “I like that spirit and that freedom. Then, the songs speak for themselves.”
That wholehearted embrace of collaboration defines Half Moon Light. The record marks a return to recording in New York with Aaron Dessner, whom the band counts as both a hero and a friend. “We already had a friendship with Aaron and a strong, shared understanding of our musical vision,” Zach says. “It’s really important to us to be a part of a community of musicians. We like that way of making something. Aaron showed us a new way of trusting. His idea of bringing in Josh Kaufman and J.T. Bates was such a beautiful gift. The meekness that these friends brought to the table was something that we will never forget. A sense of controlled fury. Lightning in a shoebox.”
“Aaron has a powerful quietness about him,” Kanene says. “A lot of people I meet in the music industry have lots of bravado, and it’s something I have trouble believing. Aaron doesn’t have that. He is a joy to work with. A true friend.”
For the first time, the band stayed where they recorded, sequestered from the world at Aaron’s studio in upstate New York. They fell asleep at night to the sound of coyotes howling and felt the freedom to fall into rabbit holes that would have otherwise been left unexplored. “We made this record in a place of joy with our friends. We were trying to do something bigger than ourselves,” says Brian. “I think we’ve been wanting to make this record for a while now. It just hasn’t come together as perfectly as it did this time.”
A lone piano launches into a hymn as the album’s intro track. The pianist is Zach’s grandmother, playing at the funeral of her husband of 64 years––Zach’s grandfather. The hymn returns as an interlude and outro, underscoring The Lone Bellow’s intention for 12 songs to be experienced together, as an album.
Wonder––feeling it, losing it, finding it again––underpins the entire record. Pulsing with the trio’s signature harmonies, the track “Wonder” is a loving call to reclaim the childlike awe and appreciation age takes away. Zach pulled from vivid childhood memories to craft the song, which transports listeners to moments of breathlessness experienced in the everyday: cheap coffee, backroad car rides, pine-tree views, and powerful songs.
Jubilant “I Can Feel You Dancing” rolls into a cathartic celebration. The song pays tribute to “lionhearted” free spirits with horns and soaring vocals. With a winking jungle beat, “Good Times” tells tales Zach has collected over the years. “Some stories were told on a boat I worked on in the Caribbean in the middle of the night. Some were in old Irish pubs in Manhattan. Some were in backyards down in my hometown. Some were in a hospital bed,” Zach says. “I wanted to shine light on the fact that there are still people living with beauty and reckless abandonment.” Delivered over intimate acoustic guitar and hushed backing instrumentation, “Enemies” is a self-contained call and response that reconnects life-defining moments with the frustrating or tenuous present that threatens to snuff out the magic.
Lead single “Count On Me” reminds us to lean on one another with soul-shouting intensity. Praise for deep friendships pops up again and again throughout the album: “Friends” celebrates the relationships forged after years together in the trenches––with a musical swagger that nods to David Byrne and Tom Petty.
Kanene takes the lead on tour-de-force “Just Enough to Get By.” Her inimitable voice––capable of grit and smoothness––pushes through line after line with steely purpose. The performance would saunter were it not for the rage bubbling underneath. Kanene wrote the song about her mother, who was raped at 19, then sent away to have the baby that resulted. When she returned home, she never spoke of what had happened until 40 years later, when Kanene’s half-sister––the baby––found them. “I’ve met my half-sister many times. She’s wonderful and lovely and an amazing story of something never being too broken to be fixed. But my mom had to work through the trauma,” Kanene says. “This song was me putting myself in my mom’s place, releasing a lot of complex emotions. Anger is definitely one of them. Hurt, frustration, sadness. We all have experiences that could be better if we could talk about them, but we keep them hidden.”
Album standout “Illegal Immigrant” also features Kanene’s vocals. Brian took the lead writing the song, which tells the true story of a mother and child separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. The chorus’s “I promised I’d find you, wherever you are, wherever you are / Here I am” is equal parts haunting, heartbreaking, and reassuring––and the unfiltered words actually spoken by the immigrant mother into a press conference microphone. Kanene sings with weighty restraint––like a parent burying their own terror so they can be their child’s rock. “I was trying to tell her story the best I could,” Brian says. “I wanted to keep myself as far out of the equation as I could and just try to connect––to help find some compassion.”
Brian also penned “Wash It Clean,” which both Zach and Kanene point to as a favorite. Lilting with guitar and harmonica, the song is a letter to Brian’s dad, who passed away suddenly last year. The two had a strained relationship, and Brian spent years trying to find some common ground. They did, and then two months later, his dad was gone. The band recorded the song on the one-year anniversary of Brian’s father’s death, without Brian even realizing it at the time. “I feel like that means he was here––or in me,” Brian says. “Working really hard to find understanding was probably one of the greatest gifts and lessons of my whole life.”
The stories behind the songs matter––but they aren’t what matters most. In the end, The Lone Bellow’s music needs no explanation. Just listening offers a salve and a shelter. “In my own perfect little world, I would be able to put the music out and not talk about it––just, Here. Bye. See you next time,” Zach says, then laughs softly. “I do hope someone will find this music in a peaceful moment, when they can turn it on and get lost in the story and the sound.”
A few years ago, Early James stumbled home, “drunk, or in some kind of state” and started doing dishes. When he woke up the next morning, the young man did not have a clean kitchen, but, he’d soon realize, he did have a song. Almost immediately, James began writing “Dishes in the Dark,” a sober self-reflection about trying, and failing, to clean your act up. “This dirt, this dust, this rust/It’s what I’m all about,” he sings over a sparse acoustic guitar. “I won’t wash up/I’ll just wash out.”
Singing For My Supper, the debut album from Early James, is full of those types of poignant, straight-from-real-life-to-the-page stories. Early James has lived a long life for a 26 year-old, a life he can’t help but end up turning into art. Songs keep spilling out of him: Songs about addiction, songs about familial reckoning, songs about mental health, songs about the ways adulthood can rob us of childhood wonder. For someone raised largely by the women in his family in Southeastern Alabama, Early James, whose mother worked 12-hour shifts as a traveling nurse during his upbringing, never expected that he’d get to become a professional artist, and he doesn’t plan on wasting a second.
“I make sounds for a living,” he says. “That’s a weird thing to say.”
James’ first album is a riotous blend of styles and sounds, the type of wise-behind-their-years debut offering that makes one stop to wonder how a 22 year-old could possibly contain so much world-weary wisdom. “Blue Pill Blues” details a harrowing four-five month period when James, who was being treated for depression, quit his antipsychotic medication cold turkey. “High Horse” is a lament of the ways his adolescent excitement faded with the arrival of the vices of adulthood. “I can’t remember the last time I climbed I tree,” he sings with a world of despair, “Now when I’m high, there ain’t much that I want to see.” “Easter Eggs,” meanwhile, finds the songwriter coming to terms with some of the darker sides of his familial inheritance, a prime example of James’ ability to pack a lifetime of questions into a single couplet:
“Southern sadness from days of yore,” he sings, “Jesus Christ, when it rains it really pours.”
The album’s wide-ranging ten songs span a blend of hard-charging blues, wistful folk and ages-old pop crooning anchored by the singer’s once-in-a-lifetime voice, which can oscillate from gravel-gruff shout to honey-smooth whisper.
“Some people are good singers,” says the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who decided he needed to produce the singer’s debut album at his Easy Eye Sound studio after watching just two seconds of a video of him performing. “And some people are better than good singers, they just have this great form of expression.”
James’ voice conjures a century’s worth of American barkers and crooners, from Alan Lomax field recordings to mid-century iconoclasts like Billy Holliday and Howlin Wolf to ghostly late-century interpreters like Fiona Apple and Tom Waits. But James wasn’t simply born with such a voice; he’s entirely uninterested, in fact, in that myth. “I hated my voice for a long time,” he says. “I didn’t used to believe my voice when I heard it. It sounded like me, and I know I’m a liar, so I couldn’t believe it.”
Using prickly-poet heroes like Apple and Waits as inspirations, James realized he could arrive at a greater emotional truth if he just tried to conjure up the voice he heard in his head. Long before he ever discovered his own voice, though, Early James’ soul was full of music. He can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t obsessed with song. As a young child growing up in Troy, a small community in Southeast, AL that James says was plagued with “Walmart disease,” he would start singing “Take It Easy” by the Eagles to strangers while waiting in the checkout line with his family at the grocery store. His life was changed forever when, at age six, he witnessed a local musician who’d been hired to play covers perform at a family function at his grandmother’s house.
His life changed once again when, as a preteen, he discovered the music of Hank Williams Sr, whose music he began to sing in the shower every night. Then came the teenage years: grunge, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana. After asking for a guitar for Christmas several years in a row, his Aunt finally gifted him one at age 15. His uncle taught him how to play \“\Mary Had A Little Lamb,” and James was off to the races. “I just didn’t stop,” he says of his high school years spent locked away in his room playing guitar.
As soon as he was old enough, Early James moved to Birmingham, where he’s become an integral part of the city’s thriving music scene over the past half-decade. “Everything in Nashville is so competitive and clique-ish and cutthroat,” he says, “But Birmingham is the greatest fucking scene in the world. It’s a weird melting pot.” In town, James plays in “like five other bands”: bluegrass outfits, folk collectives, alt-country groups. “I just try to convince people to let me play guitar for them.”
James’ diverse experience in the Birmingham scene has helped mold him into a singular talent, an artist whose sound remains entirely uncategorizable. “The biggest compliment we get,” James says, “Is, ‘I was confused by your set. I don’t really know what genre to put y’all in.’”
Coming out of a local music scene as first-rate as Birmingham has also helped sculpted James into a songwriter who obsesses over the craft and texture of every word he’s ever sung. “Every line has to mean something to him, personally,” says Auerbach. “It’s not good enough to just write a good song, it needs to have a deeper meaning. He’s unlike any person I’ve ever worked with. He’s not writing a song to be universal; he’s writing a song for him.”
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