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The Lone Bellow: Church for Heathens

Trying to put The Lone Bellow into a restrictive little box would be about as effective as trying to grasp a handful of water or telling a sound exactly what it’s supposed to mean and expecting it to abide.

Most will place this trio into the Americana genre, where varied roots expressions are embraced. What this Brooklyn-formed but now Nashville-based outfit delivers year after year is so multifaceted, though, any pigeon-hole feels like some unfair diminishment.

From one song to the next—or one moment to the next—you’ll hear rousing, tight gospel harmonies; bluesy country; straight-up folk; indie rock; and, more recently, a lean into a mellow pop orientation, at least with the studio versions of their newest music.

Their first album appeared at #64 on the Billboard 200. People magazine selected that record as #8 in its top 10 albums of 2013, and Entertainment Weekly heralded it as one of the “top reasons to love country music in 2013.” In the decade since, The Lone Bellow has toured with performers such as Kacey Musgrave, has received consistently high rankings for singles on Billboard’s AAA (Adult Alternative Airplay) charts, and has been nominated by the Americana Music Association for Duo/Group of the Year.

The Lone Bellow is currently touring the U.S. in support of its fifth album, the November 2022 release, Love Songs for Losers. The group offers meaningful songwriting and a musicality that’s at its best when witnessed live, where listeners can fully appreciate the trio’s visceral connection to the music and one another. The three bandmates – Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Donehey Pipkin – sometimes seem to communicate with each other onstage as if they were a single organic unit, sharing a common fervor for something deeply-felt. For this tour, they’re fully unplugged, grouped around a single microphone and creating harmonies capable of eliciting misty eyes and spine-tingling frisson. Their voices feel huge, and that immense simplicity is no less than compelling.

While it is admittedly more difficult for an act to market itself when refusing tight definitions, maybe searching too hard for that would clip their wings. The band itself (thankfully) does not clear it up all that much.

“It’s basically trying to pull these different influences in, but make it sound like it came out of the ground,” said The Lone Bellow vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Brian Elmquist. His early background in music didn’t come from a place of tradition, but like all good musicians, he evolved.

“I was in, like, punk bands when I lived in Nashville,” he said. “I would only write country songs as an exercise before I moved to New York.”

There, he and Pipkin came on board with lead vocalist Williams, who had at that time been performing as a solo act.

“Maybe because New York is just like a concrete jungle of technology…we just wanted to unplug a little bit.”

That “unplug” seems to have included a big “plug-in” to bluesy gospel harmonies.

“We all were raised up in church,” Elmquist explained. “Zach [Williams] grew up in a big ole Baptist church in Atlanta. But…you don’t have to be religious to feel this stuff.”

The lyrics don’t usually reference Christian themes…but the feeling of something deep-down and spiritual is there, for sure.

“We need more than ever to figure out how to connect to our soul,” Elmquist said. “Some of our fans call us ‘church for heathens,’... and I love that because I feel like that is it.” He said the ‘spiritual’ side of the music is inspired by the primacy of his family and friends. It sounds as if he loves the fact that they’ve been able to tap into a reservoir of harmonic emotion that’s usually the purview of a more strict religious paradigm.

“It’s an insane privilege, and we don’t take it lightly,” he said, of the fact that fans connect so much to the church of The Lone Bellow. “I see us trying to connect with humanity, still trying to find the common thread, and still trying to push to new limits,” Elmquist said of their future goals. The implication is that they strive to be as genuine as possible and hope it has meaning to listeners.

“People who are 100-percent themselves…everybody can identify with it,” he added.

Elmquist zeroed in on the reason The Lone Bellow seems so heartfelt. Perhaps, it’s because it really, really is.

“You can’t make art and worry about the outcome,” he summarized.

They went their own way for Love Songs for Losers, producing this record themselves.

“We found Roy Orbison’s old pool house and turned it into a studio for eight weeks,” Elmquist said about where it all happened.

“We’ve worked with some incredible producers [in the past], so we got to be in the room to see how the sausage is made,” he said. For previous records, they’d worked with notable producers such as Aaron Dessner of The National, and eight-time Grammy Award-winner, Dave Cobb.

This time, they wanted to take a dive into deeper, more risky waters.

“We’ve always done better when we’re kind of on the edge of the sound people are expecting,” he said. “You want to make records where your chin is in the water, where it’s almost dangerous.”

Photos by Eric Ryan Anderson

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