Singer/songwriter Andrew Belle recently released the follow-up to his acclaimed debut album The Ladder. A conceptual scrapbook, Black Bear is a continuation of the narrative begun with its predecessor. Belle, who has garnered comparisons to Mat Kearney, David Gray, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, created a nuanced and polished work. He chats with American Songwriter about “wrestling with God,” his songwriting formula, and how Nashville will forever be his musical home.
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Tell us a bit about your new album, and how it talks about your “wrestling with God.”
Leading up to the writing for this album, I went through a season where I was questioning and wrestling with the faith that I had grown up with. There came a point where I came up against a lot of tough questions that I had either been too scared to ask or too worried there weren’t really any answers to be found. I only really had two choices; I could open the door or I could keep it shut. So I opened and, for that time, I felt like God was inviting me to come in and ask my tough questions – to wrestle with him. And in the end I discovered that nobody can ever grow or develop any depth, just by being told that they need to change. You almost always have to be shown; you have to wrestle and actually experience weakness first hand. And that’s what happened to me. How could I not write an album about that?
How would you compare it to your last album?
From a songwriting perspective, they are pretty similar. My focus has always been on the depth/weight of the lyrics and the emotion in the melodies supporting them. That’s not something I plan to change. Sonically, however, these albums are night and day. I basically wrote The Ladder on my acoustic guitar, while performing in bars or restaurants in 2008 – my taste in music has shifted dramatically since then. The style, the vibe, the production – this album is much more ambitious. Basically, in the three years since I released The Ladder, I took all of my favorite moments from that recording and performing it live, and just amplified them. I was trying to make something closer to an alternative record, rather than staying in the folk-pop genre I had previously been known for. My last record was really inspired by Greg Laswell and Mat Kearney. Black Bear was inspired basically by discovering Radiohead at way too late of an age. Bands like M83, Washed Out, and Beach House were big influences too. The new sound has a lot more of an electronic presence to it; it’s more ambient and moody.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville. What are your thoughts on the music scene at this time?
I love Nashville. All of my friends and family are in Chicago, so that will always feel like home to me – but Nashville will always be my musical home. When I first came to town in 2008, I was very quickly accepted and integrated into the community. Looking back, I realize just how much of that was timing and who I met – being asked to join the nationally acclaimed touring group, Ten out of Tenn, played such a huge role in that process. I had practically zero touring experience, my first real album had not even been released, and yet I was given the opportunity to stand on stage every night with some of Nashville’s most promising young talent. Joy Williams, Mikky Ekko, and Ashley Monroe (to name a few) were a part of that first tour and in retrospect, I’m really blown away that a guy from Chicago, with basically no ties to Nashville at all, was accepted and welcomed into such a tight knit community. I will always be thankful for that and I plan to keep Nashville my musical home for as long as they’ll continue to have me. For this most recent album however, in order to achieve a fresh perspective and change of pace, I opted to leave my musical comfort zone and spend a few months in Oklahoma making an album with perfect strangers. It was a little scary embarking into the unknown like that, but it ended up being exactly what I, and the music, needed.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Adam Duritz — August and Everything After is single-handedly responsible for my very interest in music in the first place. It taught me what true and raw emotion in songwriting was supposed to feel like.
Jesse Lacey — I learned how to write by pouring over and studying Deja Entendu. His approach to lyrics was so clever and layered – it was the first time I realized how much fun writing is and that I actually had a talent for it .
Chris Martin — It’s sort of ironic that citing Coldplay as a major influence will probably be seen as lame or cliché, but who can deny Parachutes or Rush of Blood to the Head? I learned how to sing by listening to those albums – how to control my tone and use falsetto instead of trying to force my voice to go where it wasn’t designed to go. A watershed moment in my career was discovering that I had a naturally throaty, mid-range tone and that I could turn that into a strength, simply by accepting my limitations.
Thom Yorke — again, probably cliché – but I actually learned to appreciate Radiohead much later in life than I like to admit. Going back and discovering OK Computer and Kid A – as well as Thom’s more recent solo albums – has really spurred my musical growth in the last few years and has done wonders for my musical imagination. As a singer-songwriter, I’ve found a temptation to be limited to a simple, acoustic instrument, but studying Radiohead has exponentially inspired me to push the boundaries of what a singer-songwriter can or should sound like.
When did you start writing songs?
I started writing songs exactly 10 years ago – in the fall of 2003. I remember because I was a sophomore in college and all of a sudden, instead of hanging out with my friends, I was barricading myself in a small room at the end of the hall of my dorm that was reserved for quiet studying, and would stay to 3 or 4 in the morning, writing songs with a notepad and my guitar. I’m not sure exactly why it took so long to discover, but all of a sudden I realized that writing could be fun and therapeutic. Looking back, I see now that throughout my life people would tell me that I was a good writer, that I had a talent for it, but that never got me very excited. All I wanted to do was play music. Ironically, it took me quite some time to discover that I could combine my talent with my passion, simply by writing lyrics and melodies in creative, interesting combinations. I look back at my first songs, and they were of course, quite lame. But I will say, I can tell that a lot of that was simply because I hadn’t put together all of the pieces of the puzzle yet. I probably still haven’t. My life experience and influences were few and that was reflected in the immaturity and musicianship. But looking back at those early songs, I can still smile at myself because, despite my lack of experience, I was still putting forth just as much effort and thought into those lyrics and melodies as I do today. Those two things have always been the most important aspects of songwriting to me and they always will be.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I believe the first song I ever wrote was, of course, an ultra-sappy, emo song for my first girlfriend. I cringe at the heart on my sleeve nature of it, but I remember it being really catchy! I remember playing it for her when it was done and she couldn’t have been less interested.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
The last song I wrote was “Sister”, the third track on Black Bear, about 8 or 9 months ago. I don’t write that often – the inspiration comes in seasons, rather than daily doses. I had started recording the album before I had even really flushed this song out, and it ended up being the final piece of the puzzle. It’s my favorite song on the album – I can’t imagine it without it now. The same exact thing happened with “Static Waves” on my last record actually.
How do you go about writing songs?
I usually fumble around on my keyboard, playing around with sounds, until something clicks. I will try to find 3 or 4 chords that work well together or set off something inside of me, and then I will start mumbling words and melodies until something clicks. Usually in a high falsetto (It’s easier for me to explore up there), I sing until a phrase or some words come out that intrigue me. Once I have a sentence or two, I take a step back and decide what they mean and what I want this song to be about. I find a melody and cadence that, again, strikes a chord, and start the process of refining until it all comes together. It sometimes takes a few hours, sometimes months. I can anxious about it, because I always want every song to be as good or better than the one before it. I realize that at some point that is actually, impossible, but it’s at least a good starting point.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I keep running note with little phrases that could possibly work well in a song or make for an interesting theme. So usually I’ll try inserting some of those until something fits. But if none of those are resonating, I’ll turn off my brain and just begin mumbling gibberish – basically a brainstorming exercise. Once I land on a few words or a phrase, I build on those until I discover what the song is about. Sometimes I decide and sometimes the words tell me – if that makes any sense.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Real life experiences and emotions inspire me to write. I rarely write fiction. Almost every word is autobiographical, and that’s probably what I write so infrequently. I want everything have meaning and weight, but sometimes it takes some time to find the inspiration. I mean, a guy can only realistically live out so much drama, ha. I am also very inspired by other artists and new albums that I discover. Black Bear, can actually be directly traced back to my discovering The National’s High Violet, M83’s Hurry up, We’re Dreaming, and Beach House’s Bloom around the same time that I sat down to make the early demos.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
There’s a track called “Santa Fe” towards the tail end of the album. I knew that I wanted a short, segue type track (similar to what “Reach” was on The Ladder) to help reinforce the theme and tie the album together but I wasn’t sure how it would all come together. This was the one song that I didn’t have totally flushed out before I came to Oklahoma and my producer, Chad Copelin, and I had to spend a few days flushing it out. It’s much funkier than anything I’ve ever been a part of and I sing the entire song (which is only one verse and one chorus) in a lazy, eerie falsetto. It’s a boundary-pusher, for sure – I just hope people aren’t too confused by it.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
Oh I swim in a violet sea
But I’m bending the light connecting you to me
So write a lettre de marque and see
Oh if this Dark Matter Heart can bleed out right
These were the first words I wrote for this album back in 2011. It gets me excited because in the first few lines, I’m describing a fascinating, unknown substance referred to in science as ‘Dark Matter’ (nerd alert) and at the same time, I’m describing my own heart and my relationship with God at that time. I absolutely love writing lyrics that blend historical and scientific references with emotive, personal, relational allusions.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I think that in a way, it gets harder. When you draw almost exclusively from personal experiences, and since most of my songs tend to have a bit of a dramatic flare to them, there should hopefully be a point where you run out of things that are worth talking about. Since I always desire for my words to have some weight and depth behind them, it takes me a while before I feel like I have something meaningful and important to describe – and that’s probably why there has been so much time between my releases.
Are there any words you love or hate?
There aren’t any particular words that I love or hate, but you may notice there are definitely vowel sounds that I tend to gravitate towards and others that I avoid because the clash with my tone and annunciation (or lack thereof).
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
That I’m always comparing the newest song to the one I wrote before it. Maybe that’s just an annoying thing about me.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
The b-side to The Ladder, “In My Veins,” seems to resonate most with people. It’s about trying to find hope after devastation and I think that’s something everybody can relate to at some point in their life.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Since I now have a little bit of an audience, I’ve wanted to write and share more with the people who want to know me beyond just listening to my songs. We created a dedicated blog section at andrewbelle.com so that I could do just that. My goal is to share more personal, even random, thoughts and discoveries on here and allow people a closer glimpse into my personal self.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I’m really into Ernest Greene of Washed Out at the moment. Not that I can ever understand his words, but his combination of rhythm and melody really intrigues me and I bet we could make some cool sounds together.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
‘Underrated’ sort of depends on what it’s related to but Greg Laswell is someone who has written some of the most beautiful and gut-wrenching songs I have ever heard – and yet his albums are not nearly as known as he deserves to be.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Round Here” by the Counting Crows. It’s simple and catchy yet moody, haunting, heartfelt, and passionate.