“We’re still in a van,” interrupts Zach Williams, singer-guitarist in the Lone Bellow, before the rest of the group begins to laugh. I’ve just asked how they felt about getting so big after only a couple years of touring behind their self-titled, breakthrough debut record when Williams steps in to remind me that the country/folk trio still has plenty to prove.
“My husband and I still have to share a hotel room with Zach,” says mandolinist-singer Kanene Pipkin. “It has been really incredible though. The trajectory has been a lot faster than I think we could have ever dreamt it to be.”
After a whirlwind couple of years for the New York-based group, the Lone Bellow is entering their next chapter with their second record, Then Came the Morning. Produced by Aaron Dessner of the National, the album explores new sounds and dark edges, from the big stadium drum sounds of “Take My Love” and “Cold as It Is” (“that’s our jock jam,” Pipkin jokes of the latter) to vulnerable acoustic ballads like “Telluride” and “Watch Over Us.”
Despite success, the group remains confounded by its own popularity.
“When people show up to our shows, we still have that feeling of like, ‘Why are you here?’” says singer-guitarist Brian Elmquist. “I never want to lose that feeling.”
CMT Edge: After the success of your first album, what was most important for you all moving forward? What were you most concerned about getting across on this album?
Williams: We wanted to be honest about the stories that were going on around us and not be scared that sometimes those stories are hard to tell. We’d heard people’s stories on the road and shook people’s hands and hugged them, and we didn’t just hear things like, “Oh my God, you’re great.” We heard some hard stories. Our songs had become a part of people’s lives and helped them through hard times, and we definitely wanted to honor those stories we heard on the road when we started to think about doing this record.
Did any of those specific stories end up as songs, or were the influences less explicit?
Elmquist: I think those kinds of conversations we had with fans brought a certain gravity to the songs. Conversations like that remind us why we want to do our best and absolutely try to create something worthwhile.
Pipkin: It was definitely my greatest hope that people would hear the spirit behind the lyrics and music on this new album and receive hope from it. From the stories I’ve heard so far, specifically about “Then Came the Morning,” I’ve been overwhelmed by the stories I’ve heard from people who really felt like who they were had been ruined by things that had happened to them.
And then they heard that song and they were like “I feel like things are actually going to get better,” or “I feel like this situation can be redeemed.” The idea that you can play a small part in someone’s recovery is a huge honor and a huge responsibility that we choose to take on and choose to make part of our music.
What new music have you all been into? Anything that influenced your new record?
Williams: Oh man, we’ve got so many recent favorites. There’s been some incredible music that’s been made. I think if anything, these groups ended up being encouragement for us going into the second record, but I love Jim James’ solo record, I love Jason Isbell‘s record, I love the new Blake Mills record. The War on Drugs are great, too.
Everyone is starting to compare you all to Van Morrison. What’s that like?
Williams: We are absolutely not worthy of that. I grew up listening to Van Morrison. When you even hear his live shows where he really lets loose … I just love his vibe.
There’s a real soul sound on this new album. Maybe that’s where the comparison is coming from.
Pipkin: I think the way we recorded the vocals lends more to that sound because we recorded the vocals in a church. When you’re all singing at the same time in a big room with lots of natural reverb, you don’t want to sing with any restraint. You just want to sing with all of the soul and passion you can muster. That lends itself to that sound that a lot of people are saying is more soul or more gospel.
What was it like working with Aaron Dessner?
Williams: He definitely had a strong case of what he called ‘demoitis.’ He kept wanting everything to sound like the crappy demos we made. On this record, there’s a lot of material, like “Diners” and “Telluride,” that I would call just pure American country songs. It was a lot of fun working with Aaron on those because he didn’t have any assumptions about them. He would literally only care about the melody and the lyric. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this song could fit this category” or “This song needs this sound this way.”
Elmquist: I think the reason Aaron kept going back to the demos — and this is what I’m most proud of about working with him — is that he wanted to feel strongly about the songs on an acoustic guitar. He wanted to make sure the songs can hold their own. We kept going back to that idea to make sure we weren’t playing a bunch of instruments and making a bunch of sounds just because we could.
Pipkin: Aaron’s also incredibly detail-oriented and meticulous, so there’s no unintentional sound. Everything is so well-thought-out, and he just takes the time, so we never felt rushed. We felt like when we were in the studio with him, every single thing we were working on at that moment was the most important thing to him, because he cares about it as much as we did and just really wanted to make the most beautiful record that we were all capable of making.