The term “Brooklyn-based band” has all but turned into one big cliche, with the world of indie rock and Americana now as gentrified as a Park Slope side street.
But in the meantime, there’s enough room for one more good band from the borough before we completely write Brooklyn off – especially when that band is The Lone Bellow, a trio headed by songwriter Zach Williams. The group combines deep folk and gospel roots with soaring harmonies and has garnered a lot of attention in the last year, thanks to its soulful single, “You Never Need Nobody.”
The Lone Bellow formed two years ago, but Williams had been making a go of it as a singer-songwriter since moving to Brooklyn with his wife and several friends in 2005. It was his wife’s near death and precarious recovery following a horse riding accident that pushed him to write songs and eventually relocate. They now have two children and another one on the way.
Williams released a solo album called Story Time on iTunes in 2010, and toured with Ben Folds the following year, all while serving as music director at a small Brooklyn church. Like fellow band members Kanene Pipkin (vocals, mandolin) and Brian Elmquist (vocals, guitar), Williams left his day job to pursue music full time. We spoke with Williams in advance of The Lone Bellow’s tour stop at the Strand-Capitol this month.
Fly Magazine: You’re not originally from Brooklyn. How did you end up living there?
Zach Williams: We moved up here about seven years ago. I was raised in Georgia, and you probably couldn’t pick two places that were more different. But I love it here and it seems to be a place where you don’t have to follow the kinds of expectations you might elsewhere.
FM: Even then the borough was a musical hotbed. Did you find it competitive or a difficult place to find places to play?
ZW: There were two places that very much fostered the singer-songwriter kind of scene: a theater called Rockwood, where we would eventually record our album, and a place called Bar Four. Either place would have a line out the door at 6 o’clock to sign up, and you might not play until as late as 3 a.m. There was a climate of understanding and honesty, and people were encouraging.
FM: And you had never really written a song or performed much at all before your wife’s accident?
ZW: No, not at all. But while we were waiting for a miracle, basically, at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, I started journaling as a way to deal with what was happening. I wasn’t really writing them as songs but they did rhyme. I read them to people who were staying there with us. A friend of mine convinced me I needed to learn to sing and play guitar at the same time and turn these into songs.
FM: Whose idea was it to move to New York?
ZW: I think it was either me or my friend [pastor] Caleb Clardy. What ended up happening was that about 15 of us – friends of my wife and me – decided to move to New York together. Most of them were artists or actors or creative types who didn’t have the kinds of jobs that dictated where they needed to be.
FM: So with all that going on, how did The Lone Bellow come to be?
ZW: Brian and I had been friends since we were kids. He had been in Nashville playing for a while, but eventually he ended up here. Kanene grew up in Virginia but her older brother, Mike, was one of the transplants that came to Brooklyn with us. I first sang with her at Mike’s wedding. When we finally did get together to sing, all three of us â€¦ I don’t want to say it was magic, but we hit on a sound together that was simply amazing.
FM: Some songs have dark or introspective lyrics, but they end up sounding bright and uplifting when the three voices are together. It sounds like there is quite a bit of a gospel influence in the music.
ZW: All the songs come from a country, or folk, or Americana tradition â€¦ whatever you want to call it. But yeah, we grew up in the South in church. It’s in there for sure. My grandmother sang in a gospel trio in the 1940s. Brian learned to play guitar as a kid in order to play in church, so it is bound to be there.
FM: You became friends with acts like Charlie Peacock and The Civil Wars. How important were they to The Lone Bellow’s career?
ZW: Hugely important. I had met Charlie three or four years ago and always had the idea that I would love to make a record with him. One night a few years ago, he called and asked if Joy Williams and her husband, Nate, [who comprise The Civil Wars], could crash with us. We said sure. Then a blizzard came, and we were all stuck in our 500-square-foot apartment for three days. We became very close. Not very long after that, The Civil Wars really took off.
FM: So maybe Brooklyn isn’t just for knit-hatted hipsters and latte-swilling Prius fiends?
ZW: I will say that the little piece of Brooklyn that we have found has, for us, been a safe place to be honest about work and art, and how you want to raise your family. We live like sardines in the top of this brownstone, and maybe my kids won’t have the experience of growing up on the beauty of a farm like I did, sleeping in the barn with the horses. But those 15 friends we moved here withâ€¦they’re still here. And I can go out on tour and my wife isn’t alone with the kids, because we are part of a community.