The Lone Bellow: Cutting The Eagle’s Wing
For their second go-around with The National’s Aaron Dessner, The Lone Below take a collective leap of faith, retooling their anthemic Americana sound and letting the stillness truly seep in.
During the funeral of Zach Williams’ grandfather, the late man’s widow walked onstage with the aid of their six children, sat behind a piano and belted out her favorite hymn—a tribute to her husband of 64 years. “I will meet you,” she sang in a wide vibrato over gospel chords, joined in unison by her family. “I will meet you in the morning over there.”
“She could barely walk,” Williams recalls of the service, which took place in his hometown of Marietta, Ga. “I was at the funeral, and it was a special thing that my grandma got up and did that. I found out a day or two after that my dad had recorded it, and it [stayed] in the back of my mind.” He found a symbolic home for that treasured audio on The Lone Bellow’s fourth LP, Half Moon Light—piecing out snippets between their soulful indie-folk tunes to form the stirring trilogy of “Intro,” “Interlude” and “Finale.”
“Because of my grandma’s way of playing piano—with this banging, Southern Gothic sound—I thought it could express where we were coming from and, with the album, where we’re going,” Williams says. The sample marries a comforting past with a more exploratory present, nodding to the singer-songwriter’s Georgia roots and highlighting the experimentation and varied dynamics of Half Moon Light—their second collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner.
As singer/multi-instrumentalist Kanene Pipkin notes, The Lone Bellow were eager to “find a different color” on the LP. But she admits that retooling their sound “felt risky for sure.” In the seven years since their self-titled debut, the trio—which also includes singer/guitarist Brian Elmquist—have played up their reputation as full-blown belters, delivering catharsis through robust harmonies and scene-stealing high notes.
“When we first started making music as a band, it was like, ‘OK, can we hit this big note?’” Williams says of their early days in Brooklyn. “And we were like, ‘Oh, we can!’ But after so long, it’s like, ‘There’s gotta be another hidden door we can swing open.’”
Dessner helped them open it, empowering the group to chart new paths toward emotional release. The indie-rock luminary first linked up with The Lone Bellow on 2015’s Then Came the Morning, expanding their twangy Americana universe with layered arrangements that included orchestrations from his brother and National bandmate, Bryce. Half Moon Light also paints outside the rigid lines of modern folk, sometimes with the sounds it pulls in (the percussive intro groove and boiling brass of “Good Times,” the atmospheric guitar riffs of “August”), but equally by what it leaves out.
“We started stripping away,” Williams says. “He was like, ‘I’m not going to let you guys lean on what’s easy to you anymore. You know you can hit a big note. You know you can sing loud.’ He just kept saying, ‘I’m cutting the eagle’s wings. We’re going to try to express emotion in a different way.’”
The Lone Bellow’s reinvention took place at Dessner’s Hudson Valley, N.Y. studio, Long Pond—the 18th-century farmhouse he has rebuilt into The National’s recording sanctuary. There, the group was fully immersed in the process: falling asleep to the sound of coyotes, waking up and seamlessly resuming their work. “We didn’t ever leave that reality,” Williams says. “We just stayed in it. His studio is out in the middle of this field, and you sleep there and eat there. You just live there. It was going to be this time capsule of a record. I heard Kanene say to someone the other day, ‘If you’ve ever fasted or meditated, after several days, then you know that these feelings come out that you didn’t realize were there. It took that long to get there.’ That’s what it’s like working at that studio.”
It was hard not to feel relaxed in that idyllic space, but they were also more confident in their artist-producer relationship, having grown to become friends with Dessner over the previous few years. The trio even joined a cavalcade of indie superstars on his 2016 tribute project, Day of the Dead, covering “Me and My Uncle,” a John Phillips tune popularized by the Grateful Dead. (During those sessions, they also met guitarist Josh Kaufman, who rounds out the core studio lineup on Half Moon Light, along with drummer J.T. Bates.)
“The National’s Trouble Will Find Me had come out not too long before we started recording Then Came the Morning,” Pipkin says. “That was such a huge record for all of us, and I think we were all extremely starstruck and extremely nervous. We really wanted [Dessner] to think our music was cool. You want someone you’re a fan of to be your fan, and I think that’s natural. There was maybe a little trepidation going into that record. We were probably less likely to speak up if we disagreed or to bat around ideas off the cuff. It was still a wonderful experience, but there was definitely an ease this time. My husband and I went to his, and Bryce’s, 40th birthday party. We’ve all shared meals together. And we’ve just grown as people and friends, so there was more familiarity and more of a willingness to say any idea without fear, without feeling like [Aaron’s] going to think we’re not cool or not work with us again.”
Williams, who enthuses about Dessner’s work with Justin Vernon on the 2018 album Big Red Machine, “didn’t think [his band] could get any crazier” than what they’d done on Then Came the Morning. But the producer, using some unorthodox techniques, helped them “hit this other level.”
Dessner urged the trio to leave behind the easy comfort of massive climaxes, to savor their softer moments, to let songs slowly build—to even drop the keys of many tracks. In short, they took a collective leap of faith.
“I think Aaron felt a lot more comfortable pushing back this time,” Pipkin says. “It was two sides of the coin. A lot of the vocal experimentation on this record is singing quieter and with more nuance. We’re so accustomed to doing that thing that’s so effective live, which is singing really high and really loud. And Aaron helped us find another voicing for that, something a little more delicate and vulnerable—and I think it’s so effective.”
The producer pushed them in some unique ways, allowing them to shake up their process without thinking too much about it. The most innovative technique pops up on the gently grooving “Martingales” and slow-building anthem “Wonder,” on which Williams sings about trying to recapture life’s childlike spark.
“We really wanted the vocals to move ‘Wonder’ along, to make this bed of vocal sounds as a jumping-off point,” Pipkin says. “They played the click for the BPM that we chose, and we hummed over and over again. You can hear me going low and then sending a quiet, super-high one at the end. Everyone’s figuring out new parts and trying out different things. We kept everything from those first couple takes, so it grew naturally. It’s one of those times when we did it and then stepped back, and no one imagined the effect it would have until we heard it. It was really moving. For me, that song is the emotional centerpiece of the record.”
She relished the chance to sing with more nuance. “We were enjoying living in this mellower vocal space, trying out different tones and textures,” Pipkin says while laughing about how exhausting it can be to sing their earlier material onstage. “We got to lean into that during our acoustic tour, which we’ve done for almost two years since we stopped touring [around 2017’s] Walk Into a Storm. We’ve been playing these shows just around one mic. If you’re going to play for two hours with just one microphone, three voices and some acoustic instruments, you have to plumb the depths for new things to give the audience. We knew we had it in us. We knew we had these different textures and things, and I’m very pleased we finally captured them on record.”
The resulting album is also their most varied thematically. With “Good Times,” Williams draws on the epic tales he’s gathered over the years—including some late-night memories he soaked up while working for the newspaper heir Peter Pulitzer on a fishing boat in the Caribbean. (“The song talks about a situation that happened with these pirates,” he says. “And I saw him punch a shark in the head that was trying to take a grouper from him.”)
On the Elmquist-penned “Illegal Immigrant,” over a fragile bed of airy guitars and ghostly harmonica, Pipkin channels the story of an immigrant mother separated from her child at the U.S./Mexico border.
“We have a version where Zach leads it and a version where Brian sings it,” she says. “Brian wrote it, so that was kind of a natural avenue. It might have been Aaron, but someone said, ‘This is from a mother’s perspective. Maybe Kanene should sing it.’ My son was about a year-and-a-half old at the time, and I hadn’t seen him in maybe a week or so—the bond between [parent and child] is so visceral at that point. I decided to put myself in a place of allowing myself to miss him, imagine him being taken from me, reuniting with him and trying to calm him down. That’s kind of where I’m coming from in the vocal take: me falling apart on the inside but trying to be a strong, calming presence.”
Pipkin nails a scorching lead vocal on the twitchy gospel-rocker “Just Enough to Get By,” which used an old Elmquist melody as a springboard into a turbulent story about her mother.
“Brian has this way of creating these almost jolly melodies and hiding some absolutely crushing lyrics in there,” she says. “It’s like a champagne hangover: It feels so good going down, and then you wake up and you’re just wrecked. He had that line: ‘Just enough to get by,’ kind of a saloon song. It was like, ‘Just enough whiskey or just enough weed,’ whatever substance. It was weird—the first time I heard that little line, I thought about my mom and a half-sister I didn’t know I had until I was in my mid-20s.
“My mom Skyped me when I was living in China many years ago, and she told me, ‘Kanene, they found my baby,’” she continues. “And she told me that she’d been raped when she was young—19 I think—and gotten pregnant. And, because of conventional wisdom or as a way for it to be less painful, she got sent away to have the kid. She’s the oldest of 10 kids, so most of her siblings didn’t even know. She had the baby, came home and then just had to adjust to make it seem like everything was fine and normal, when this insane series of events had transpired. She didn’t know if anyone believed her. This song is me putting myself in her shoes and trying to imagine what it would feel like to try to shield people from my own pain while at the same time completely crumbling emotionally.”
Half Moon Light feels so assured that it’s easy to forget how much of a gamble it was. But like the funeral samples scattered throughout the album, The Lone Bellow sound most alive in their stillness.
“Toward the end [of the process], I was pretty scared,” Williams admits. “You get used to doing something one way. You’re like, ‘This is our thing!’ But we needed to surprise ourselves. We needed to scare ourselves. I’m thankful we had the patience to walk out into those waters.”