Photo: Laura Dart and Samuel Richard

Singer-songwriter Andrew Belle talks with C&I about his new album, Dive Deep, available August 25.

From organic acoustic sounds to electro synth, Andrew Belle’s music is hard to pin down to one genre. Whatever evolution it’s undergoing, Belle’s smooth, melodic, and unique voice remains an unstoppable driving force that continues to draw people to his music.

Following the success of his sophomore album, Black Bear, Belle’s newest musical endeavor, Dive Deep, available August 25, continues the artist’s experimentation with sounds and songwriting. The tracks are more personal here, and the lyrics convey stories and ideas of a true musical expedition — one that listeners will enjoy joining.

A nice continuation of Belle’s musical voyages is the album’s wavy and introspective opener, “Horizon.” Other standout songs include “Dive Deep,” about the early stages of his relationship with his wife; the dance-inducing “Down”; and the grunge-rock-synth anthem “You.” Whatever song, Belle finds a way to grip listeners with his original talent.

C&I recently talked with Belle about the new album and experimentation in sound, his time in Music City and what he’d be doing if music never came to him.

Cowboys & Indians: It’s been a little while since we’ve heard new music from you. Your last album, Black Bear, was a such a revelation of your talent and range in musical genres. Your upcoming album, Dive Deep, is being released August 25. What’s the journey of this album been like, and what do you hope listeners will take from it after the wait?
Andrew Belle: This album has been a long time coming — a lot like the last one really. I began writing for it in 2014 and wasn’t quite sure what sort of album it was going to be in the beginning. The first songs that I wrote were “Black Clouds” and “TRNT” — which have a lot of vibe and mood to them — and so I thought maybe that was what the rest of the record would feel like, too.

I was having trouble coming up with fresh ideas for songs this time around and so I solicited longtime collaborators Chad Copelin and James McAlister to help me work up some short musical ideas that I could write to. And that’s how songs like “Horizon,” “New York,” and “Drought” came to life — short 60-second ideas that I took home and turned into songs. “You was a song that I had started writing seven years ago and couldn’t quite figure out how to tie it all together until I finally was able to make sense of it with Chad’s help.

After I’d written 10 songs for the record, I assumed I was done and began recording. But one day while on break from making the album I got an email from a writer-producer in Nashville looking to collaborate on a song idea. I was so busy that I almost put it off, but I ended up messing around with the track for an hour one day and came up with the hook for the “Down chorus. I loved it so much [that] we kept chipping away at it until we had the entire thing written in a few days — all over email.

This record in many ways feels like the next step or a continuation of the Black Bear record, and so I hope that people connect with it as strongly as they did the last one and that the music can become intertwined with the various seasons of their life.

C&I: In your bio, it says that you lost your voice for a short period of time after the release of Black Bear and during the time of writing for Dive Deep. What was going on with your voice, and how did losing it affect your creative process and influence the album as a whole?
Belle: I don’t really know, to be honest. I was recording vocals for “You” and probably just got carried away trying to hit this note exactly the way I wanted to, which is pretty typical. I spent all afternoon on this one line of the song and the next day I woke up and my voice felt a little off. A few days later I attempted to sing again and was really surprised to find that I couldn’t make my throat do what I wanted it to do.

It wasn’t like a vocal strain or fatigue or anything like that — it was almost like my mind didn’t know how to make my body do what it wanted it to do. It was so bizarre.

Weeks went by and still no change. I went to specialists and no one could quite figure out what was happening. On a whim, I went to an acupuncturist, who had a suspicion that I had pulled a muscle in my neck and that it was causing the issue. I was a little skeptical, but after two sessions I began to feel slowly like myself again with regard to singing. And after two weeks of slowly easing back into it, I was able to regain the control of my voice that I’ve become accustomed to.

I was so relieved! All of this spanned more than two months, and so it forced me to consider the possibility that my voice may never return to full form. Coming to grips with that — as scary as it was — forced me to see just how much I love to make records, even if it can be stressful and exhausting. I tend to get so caught up in the details when making an album that I forget what it’s all for. This scare was able to remind me of my love for creating and show me that I truly love what I do.

C&I: Where did you get inspiration for this album? How does this record stand out from your other two?
Belle: I didn’t have a defined concept for this record before I started. I just continued to do what I always do, which is write songs about my life and everything going on, then stepping back and looking at it from a distance to figure out what the common thread appears to be.

On this one, I was thinking a lot about the choices I’ve made in my life: why I chose one path over another, and if I had gone another route what life might look like. Making choices used to be easy for me, but I find that the older I get, the more indecisive I’ve become and the harder it gets to feel confident in the unknown. Maybe because the more time goes by, the more I build and the more I have at stake if I make the wrong choice.

And so songs like “Dive Deep” and “Down” are about learning to make a decision and move forward in confidence — to not be paralyzed by indecision and to let your life unfold in front of you as if everything was part of a plan and you weren’t really in control of it anyway.

So in that way it’s pretty similar to my other two releases, but musically I would say it’s much tighter and focused. I brought back all of the same guys that made Black Bear with me, and so if last time we were exploring and searching for a sound, this time we were more confident and had more vision for what it should sound like. And I think the songs are better for that.

C&I: Since the release of your All the Pretty Lights EP and your debut album, The Ladder, your music has gone through many stages. When you first started, your songs were acoustic-piano-driven before transitioning into more electro-synth on Black Bear and Dive Deep. Was this a normal progression in your music or something you’ve always wanted to experiment with?
Belle: I don’t really remember when exactly my taste began to change, but some time ago I realized how much more inspired I was by more progressive, electronic, alternative sounds and how, if I was going to continue on in music, I needed to be creating sounds that filled me with excitement and creativity. James Blake’s first record, Thom Yorke’s Eraser, and M83’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming were records that first opened me up to that realization. I also remember being on a plane watching the film Drive and being captivated the entire time by the juxtaposition of heavy subject matter against the lush synthetic soundscape arranged throughout.

I had a lot of success with the more organic acoustic sounds on The Ladder and I knew it would be risky to go against the grain so quickly, but I had a strong sense that my fans were too getting older and their taste was changing — so I was hopeful that they would embrace something new.

C&I: Where do you see your sonic experimentation taking you in the future?
Belle: Well, I’d like to keep things in the same alt/electro sonic world but maybe simplify and strip down a bit. I want to see how much we can do with less tracks and less instruments. Making a record these days, it’s so tempting to keep adding tracks and make something sound HUGE, but as I do this more I’m realizing the benefit to be found in editing down and doing more with less.

C&I: On the upcoming album, you collaborated with two other songwriters: James McAlister on the songs “Horizon” and “New York,” and Nashville musician Dustin Wise on the song “Down.” What were those experiences like and how did those collaborations influence the record?
Belle: I collaborated with James at a time when I was really struggling to find inspiration and unsure where to get started. He sent me two 30-second ideas for those songs and I was immediately filled with excitement and had fresh ideas immediately. I think I just needed to get out of the box that I normally operate in and let someone else into the process — something that’s hard for me to do generally but always leads to the best outcome.

My collaboration with Dustin came at the very last minute, but I think that what we created really helped tie the album together and solidify the concept. I was really happy with the record as it was before “Down,but I think having one more upbeat, singable athematic track really helped push it over the top.

C&I: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you start with the lyrics or the melody first? What instrument do you compose on?
Belle: It’s almost always melody that comes before specific words. Typically, I find a sound or a beat that feels inspiring and I just tinker with it until something comes out that feels like it was meant to be there. It’s hard to describe how I know when something is worth keeping, but it’s a gut reaction that I’ve learned to trust over the years.

Everything now starts on a keyboard and a laptop. I love to record ideas while I write and then revisit them the next day from a fresh perspective. I usually forget what I did the day before because it hasn’t yet sunken into my long-term memory and so listening back feels like listening to a stranger. I then try to be as objective as possible and either continue fine-tuning the idea or continue building.

C&I: Any favorite stories about how certain songs (lyrics or music or both) came together — stories that reveal the mysteries and/or craftsmanship of the songwriting process?
Belle:
“TRNT” was a song that came together pretty quickly. I was in the mood to make something a little offbeat and dark, so I created the beat and the bass synth part without thinking too hard about a pattern or a form; that’s why it’s a little all over the place.

Often when I don’t yet have words to work with and I need to create a melody, I will pull up some poetry or use other pieces of literature to help me accidentally stumble upon a cadence or a rhythm — and then replace the words later with my own. This time I was reading Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and singing in a high-falsetto and I quickly came up with the melody. It took a bit to get it all locked in and for all of the syllables to find a spot, but eventually I came up with this melody that I loved. I then went back to replace the words with my own and just couldn’t seem to swap them for anything that sounded as good or rolled off the tongue the same way and so I just decided to keep them. The poem is about a traveler choosing between two paths in the woods and I felt like it was fitting with the other themes and imagery depicted throughout the other songs, so it felt fitting to keep them in there.

C&I: Is there a specific song of yours that your fans have really taken to? Why, do you think?
Belle: I have a song called “In My Veins” that seems to have really struck a chord with fans and is by far my most popular. It was premiered on Grey’s Anatomy and so I think that really helped make it known worldwide. But also the imagery depicted and the sincere, vulnerable lyrics about not being able to move on from someone very easily — in any type of relationship — is something that everyone can identify with or will at some point.

C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make it on the album that are on the list for the next recording?
Belle: Nope. I gave it everything I had, ha ha! 

C&I: What are some of your favorite venues or towns to perform in? And good stories about playing out west?
Belle: I love to play in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is just so incredible and exciting to travel around. More often than not we have an off day to get to Portland after playing San Francisco and inevitably I will convince everyone in the band to get up extra early and haul it all day in the van to my favorite pizza place in Portland called Dove Vivi. The semi-deep dish, cornmeal-crust pizza they serve and the local craft beer on tap is so life-giving after a 600-mile drive. But then again, it’s hard to beat the Northeast in the fall. The drive between Boston and New York might be what I look forward to most when touring in October. I’m really excited to be visiting those places again soon.

C&I: You’re from Chicago, but you lived in Nashville for a while, and now you’re based in L.A. What are the music scenes like in those places and how have the moves affected your music and your career?
Belle: I have lived all over and am actually in Chicago again now. We moved back to the Midwest from California a few months ago. It’s honestly hard for me to speak to the music scene in any of these places very accurately — except maybe Nashville — because I don’t really collaborate regularly or get involved with other projects beyond my own. I’m a little non-typical in that way.

When I lived in Nashville, I was a part of a touring group called Ten Out of Ten, and the whole concept was 10 singer-songwriters, all living in Nashville and doing the same thing, pooling their resources and going out on tour together. And that idea of artists banding together and putting aside any egos or expectations is, in my experience, unique to Nashville. Not to say it’s this totally benevolent environment where everybody helps everybody all the time, but I think there is something about it having a small-town feel and being located in the South where those sorts of values and hospitality really show up.

C&I: What musicians and songs have been influential to you? What’s on your playlist these days?
Belle: It’s been such a wide range these last 10 years. Damien Rice, Denison Witmer, Sufjan Stevens, Greg Laswell, Radiohead, Coldplay, M83, Beach House, James Blake, Washed Out — there are so many that come to mind that have shaped my perspective on production and my approach to songwriting. My go-to playlist these days is on Spotify; it’s called Lush Vibes. So chill. 

C&I: What’s something about you that people don’t know or are surprised to learn?
Belle: I was going to try and play football in college and to be a student athlete. If it hadn’t been for a random injury my freshman year, I may not have gotten serious about music or pursued it professionally after school.


For more information on Andrew Belle, his new album, and his upcoming tour, visit his website.

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