The Brooklyn-based country-folk trio The Lone Bellow made their Charlottesville debut this Saturday at The Jefferson Theater. Before the show, Arts & Entertainment had the chance to speak with Virginia native and William & Mary alumna Kanene Pipkin on the band’s recent success and their anticipation to play at “one of the most culturally vibrant and beautiful places in Virginia.”
Arts & Entertainment: Just to get our audience acquainted, tell us a little bit about your band — how did you meet and what kick-started the formation of the group?
Kanene Pipkin: We were all friends long before we started playing music together. We’re all originally from the South and ended up in Brooklyn one by one. Zach [Williams, guitar/lead vocals] and Brian [Elmquist, guitar/vocals] are both from Georgia and met when they were teenagers. They both moved to New York several years ago to pursue their own solo projects. My husband and I are from Virginia, and the first time we ever played together was when we were both in undergrad at William & Mary. It was a sweet campus gig called Homebrew and he was trying to get me to date him, so he contracted me to be his bass player. It went favorably for both of us, and after school we ended up in China, got married a couple years later and then moved to New York in 2010 to go back to school.
When we moved to Brooklyn, I immediately got in touch with Zach, who was my brother Mike’s best friend from college. We had sung together at Mike’s wedding in 2008, and that one experience was still vivid for the both of us. He had just written a whole batch of songs he wanted to workshop, so he rounded up a bunch of neighbors, including Brian, Jason and me, and we all got together to work out the songs. We’ve since pinpointed the formation of the group to one moment, when Zach, Brian and I first sang the bridge to a song called “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional.” It was an electrifying moment, hearing the sound of our three voices belting at the top of our ranges, yet still sounding like one beautiful force. That’s when we knew this wasn’t just a side project, that it was something that deserved our full attention. That was the beginning of The Lone Bellow.
AE: What are some of your greatest influences and how have they contributed to your own style?
KP: I’d say the essence of our style comes from having three really strong voices as part of one band. You always have that in mind when you’re writing and thinking of the structure of the song and the leaps you can take in the melody. Zach is a huge Jim James/My Morning Jacket fan, Brian loves Kris Kristofferson and I grew up on Sam Cooke, Harry Nilsson and the Beatles. We all have a very healthy obsession with 90s R&B, which has probably infiltrated our style quite a bit.
AE: What landed Charlottesville a spot on the tour?
KP: We’ve only been to Charlottesville for radio stops, and we are more than ready to play a proper show there. I’m from Fredericksburg, and I’ve always thought that Charlottesville is one of the most culturally vibrant and beautiful places in Virginia. I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces at the show.
AE: You have seen a lot of publicity in the past few months, including an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. How have moments like these changed the course of the band's success?
KP: From our perspective, playing Late Night and having big press moments are thrilling, and they certainly give you an air of legitimacy. My roommate was trying to tell her coworkers about our band, and they were understandably dismissive until she said we had been on Letterman. Then they responded with, “Oh, they’re in like…a REAL band! Tell me MORE!”
That’s definitely a positive thing those big looks give us, but they don’t necessarily cause much change in our daily rhythms. Touring is still a grind, and we’re still driving ourselves around in a van for now. However, the more your name gets out there, you start to see more and more people you’ve never met coming to your shows, singing your songs with you, telling you how they’ve made your band a part of their life and story. That’s what we’re aiming for.
AE: There has been a change in sound from your self-titled album to “Then Came the Morning.” How has your style changed since then and what influences have led to those changes?
KP: We’ve spent the last couple of years together, almost every day spent driving, playing, working things out with each other. With all of that relational development, it’s hard to quantify exactly how our style has changed, but if anything it has become more collaborative, more of an expression of the whole. We have had to learn the ins and outs of trust, of how to believe the best in each other and how to fight with and for each other. I think that spirit really finds its way into the songs. When we made our first record, we had to scramble to get enough time off just to record it. Time was a commodity we did not have, so we recorded what was basically our first set list in just a few days in New York, then recut the vocals in Nashville a few months later.
This time around, making “Then Came the Morning” was not just a dream, it was our job. We had the space and time to create something very intentional. We also had the opportunity to make a record close to home, with one of our very own musical heroes, Aaron Dessner from The National. We used an old church turned studio near Woodstock, N.Y. called Dreamland and did all the vocals together, live in the old sanctuary. We got to play with as many sounds as we wanted, try out new instruments, take risks in our creativity. The result is something we are truly fond and proud of.
AE: Have there been any defining moments for your band in the past years?
KP: About six months or so after the first record came out, we got to play a hometown show at Celebrate Brooklyn, which is a phenomenal outdoor concert series put on every summer at the Bandshell in Prospect Park. The park is right in the heart of our neighborhood, and basically functions as our communal backyard. We had just returned home after our first taste of touring life, of being away from friends and family, of being a professional band, and we couldn’t believe we were headlining at Celebrate Brooklyn.
That night there were hours of torrential downpours, and everyone there waited in the rain and was completely drenched. The rain finally cleared up right before our set, and when we took the stage we looked out at this sea of people — our families, our friends, our whole community of support at home, dancing and singing with all of these other people we didn’t know, everyone equally soaked from the rain, singing their faces off and carrying the night with us. It was one of the purest moments of joy we’ve had as a band, to be part of something like that.