Making it easier to love than hate: Nathan Bell talks about his new folk album LOVE>FEAR

Nathan Bell Press Photo* As a teenager, Nathan Bell got his first performance experience at a rally against the Vietnam War. The singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chattanooga, Tennessee admits that this is not the most profitable way to navigate the music industry. Further, he did not initially set out to be a songwriter. “I wanted to be a journalist, a Steinbeck or Hemingway,” said Nathan Bell about his inspirations. “But I can’t write prose the way I can write songs.”

I wondered what made Nathan interested in journalism. He said,”… if you are doing something as a journalist, you cannot present things the way you want them to be, and you cannot point fingers. Dylan even said that. And so, I try to keep the fingers out of it. There is some objection that goes into my songs, but these are not rallying cries in the tradition of protest music. These are stories of people.”

The songs which Nathan talks about are on his forthcoming album LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland). When I first learned about Nathan, he was described to me as a veteran singer-songwriter. For almost 15 years, he did not get involved in music. “I stopped playing altogether in the core of my adult life while my children were young… it was actually when my first born was 15 that I got back… in 2007. I came back then, but I had been out since 1994.”

Since his return to music, which was a decade ago, Nathan had been consistently writing and composing. His previous records include I Don’t Do This For Love (working and hanging on in America) Black Crow Blue, and Blood Like a River (Bell, 2017). Nathan has a keen eye for detail and an unapologetic penchant for the populist humanism of his literary heroes, John Steinbeck, Jack London and Studs Terkel. Perhaps it is no surprise that in his songs on LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland) Nathan portrays the characters with such great detail and depth, that you could not help but find sympathy for them if you were to meet them in real life (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). A beautifully played acoustic guitar, harmonica and a voice that seems to come from a narrator who does not sing to gain notice for his virtuosity, but rather his attentiveness for people and their struggles, builds each song. He tells the story about real people, the way of traditional American folk music. To learn more about Nathan’s new album, I invited him to be the subject of my full-length feature interview on Music Historian for the month of June.

When I asked Nathan about his interest in writing stories about other individuals, he said, “I have been lucky enough to never write in an artist’s place where I was looking out. I have always had people around me. I am careful never to use an actual person, and there is a reason for that; when you narrow it down to one single person, and this does not reflect negatively on Dylan doing a song about Medgar Evers, sometimes you lose the story. The story of miners,” Nathan gives an example of a song he had written about miners from an earlier record, “is not the story of one guy. It is a story of American miners, of outright criminality on the parts of the [entities] that used them. It is interesting that miners get a job they respect doing, and there is a level of collegiality there that is almost like the Marines. That comes from a real story, but I fictionalize just enough so that no one can look at that and say that was done on purpose. But I have known every character in that song in one way or another.”

Raised in Iowa City, Iowa, by his father and poet, Marvin Bell; Nathan grew up around writers. “My story is of the people I know. I think in most of them… you would not have any trouble finding me. And there are, in previous albums, [songs] that are biographical and autobiographical. But when it comes to the human conditions and talking about the world we live in, my opinion is just my opinion. The more I could talk about the actual lives of people, the more I could effectively communicate what is out there, what is happening. I look at, and there has been an evident distaste for this book in the past few years which I feel is illegitimate, Steinbeck’s, The Travels of Charlie. I realized when you look at the story, and what he does, which is put himself smack dab in the middle of human beings, and reacts to them and they respond to him. That’s how I think you get the stories out there that are legitimate.”

“I know many people on both sides of the [political] aisle. I feel very fortunate to have worked enough jobs that I met my share of very proud people, and my share of great people whose politics I still don’t know anything about, and this makes it easy. I have probably taken more credit for them [the stories] than I probably should. I think the stories tell themselves.”

Nathan’s songs that appear on the forthcoming album, he had for a long time. While his tracks present a viewpoint that is journalistic, the artist also admits “songwriting is a vast field that includes everything from Bird is the Word to Townes Van Zandt. That makes it a little more complicated to speak openly as a songwriter. We tend to be a group who downplay whether our work is important or not. Again, there are so many songs we respect. They [the songs] are there to make people happy… but this is a serious record. It goes back to a time when I wanted to be a reporter, or walk in the footsteps of Steinbeck.”

One of the songs which stood out to me is about a struggle many young women go through, titled “So Damn Pretty.” Written in a major key, the lyrics in one of the verses in this track include:

She was Summa Cum Laude
as she walked across the stage
into 40 years of fighting for a fair and honest wage

Then the chorus follows:

You’re eyes are pretty
your hair is pretty
everything about you is just so pretty
you should be so happy to be so damn pretty.

A modulation to a minor key follows – to the sixth chord I believe:

They talk about her
like she was not even there
they talk about her like she wasn’t anywhere
then she says, I won some, lost some, like everybody does
I didn’t care about what people thought I should be
I was happy with who I was
I’ve tried, to be honest, and kind and hoped to be brave and strong, to be everything…
they could never see
there was more to me
than just so damn pretty. 

I asked Nathan about this song, and he explains, “I was raised by a man who… in all the ways, that you would say, he was truly a feminist-allied man. But that did not stop me from being a chauvinist as a kid because that was the society I lived in. I think I was talking to my daughter when she was 14 or 15 years old. That’s when I realized that it was so deeply ingrained in me that no matter what I say about rights, civil rights, economic rights, I still have work to do. I had thought about these things actively and out loud to try and help change things, but I was still part of the problem. It took me years to realize that one of my initial responses to my daughter who was a dancer most of her life, until she went to college and decided to pursue social justice, [was that]… Everything is pretty; everything is visual. My daughter is beautiful, and I would focus on that and see that. This song is my apology.”

“The fact that we are talking about salary equivalences… the longer I stay with it, I realize there is more work to do with myself before I have any right to hold anybody else accountable. That is something I would need to change before any real change could take place. That is kind of me throwing myself on my sword.”

The name of the new album LOVE>FEAR stems from Nathan’s big goal in life – to make it so much better to love people, that after a while, hating people seems like a lot of work. On the subject of the music, many of the tracks were recorded live-in-the-studio in front of a small audience, with no doubling and almost no overdubs. The second part of the name, traitorland comes from a concept which has been around a while, rewritten and reworked quite a bit. Nathan elaborates on this idea. LOVE>FEAR Album Cover*

“It was written in 2009, and then several others, with different incarnations… traitorland came up because there are some lessons which I would like to take away about loving people, about fighting back [in the face of tragedy], and about understanding people… it is a real miracle to learn to love your enemy.

“Love is greater than fear because everything I am comes from hard work and because I have love. I feel when you have enough love, it is manageable and workable. If you don’t have love, you are going to be miserable. [Then] It is just a question of who gets to take advantage of who.”

Nathan’s down-to-earth philosophies and once-sought-after desire to follow in the footsteps of an author who gained popularity for creating fictional stories of common people – especially during the great depression – definitely makes a sound basis for a folk record. However, plenty has changed for the musical landscape, in particular for the folk genre.

“The folk genre suffers from one major problem – people don’t hire performers anymore. I grew up… I played acoustic sets regularly… and that’s how it worked. That’s how I got on stage.

“In those days, you were also expecting people to get albums, not one song. The internet is great to help you find what you never [thought you] could find. If you are a kid and go to a concert, and you don’t know the first thing about folk music, you could go on the internet and find 9,000 ways to hear it. That’s fantastic! I used to go to the university library, and on their record player, play their collection of folk records until I had heard them all. That was a lot of work. Now, it is ‘just download a playlist of everything you need to know about the history of the music and hear it within an hour.’ That’s cool.

“However, for the performance… I make more money per show than I do for putting out an album in the United States… I [also] don’t think there is a lot of community out there… I see the album form as having been abandoned. I want to be sure that does not happen with me.

“The positive is the accidents. Somebody in North Dakota can listen to someone in Florida and, also, you can make a record at home now with $10 of software. That’s pretty amazing.

“There is some good. But I think the business itself has suffered terribly.”

I agree with the artist about this point of view. However, based on my experiences interviewing past performers, there is a growing Americana community both inside the United States and outside. The thought of whether the folk community is merging with the Americana might open up discussions or debates.

As a member of the folk community, Nathan had the opportunity to share bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. Norman and Emmylou would work with Bob Dylan at one point in their career (Wikipedia, 2017). Taj worked with Muddy Waters, along with other musicians including Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Lightnin’ Hopkins (Wikipedia, 2017). Most of this success happened in the ‘80’s for Nathan. During this time, he performed as part of an acoustic duo.

“Those were still the days a record contract was necessary to do more than [being] a local act. We signed with a serious acoustic label at the time. We got the opportunity to put out two records, one of them was reviewed quite positively, which was unusual at the time for an acoustic duo. We played many shows where we were the opening act, and also, played with Taj Mahal. There were times when I was sharing the stage with people… we are talking about mid-to-late eighties, where there was still a record business.”

Meanwhile, he and Emmylou and worked with the same producer. Nathan adds, “In Nashville, there is a lot of that kind of stuff. I did, work within performance settings where Emmylou was on the bill, and we were at a festival, with all of these singer-songwriters. It helps to understand that it was a less isolated musical world. You had everybody; it was a little more communal.”

After the late ‘80’s would come the ‘90’s and in 1994, Nathan would take a long break from music. In regards to his newest record, LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), Nathan says “I would like to see it get attention in the singer-songwriters’ type of circle.”

In terms of what Nathan hopes listeners would take away from his record, in addition to understanding his goal of making it easier to love rather than hate, he would like “for the topics in the song to become part of a conversation. If you hear these stories, and you say to yourself, I did not know that person, or I did not realize I did not know that person, then I would wish that person well, no matter what their position is in the world.”

Nathan Bell Press Pic* Listen to Nathan’s record, and you will hear the story of a broken widower in the midst of a crisis of faith; a first-time mobile-home owner staring down a foreclosure; a beautiful woman struggling to be appreciated for her talent, intelligence and hard work; an obese veterinarian in love with a skinny, secretly transgender patent-attorney rodeo clown; the impoverished sick committing armed robbery to pay for healthcare; an active-duty soldier turned conscientious objector who opts for the stockade over the battlefield; and a middle-aged man caught in the for-profit prison system, his best years slipping through his fingers. There is no black and white, no oversimplification, and no ‘us versus them left/right’ posturing, just inclusive and somehow vibrant shades of gray (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). Further, I believe the best way to learn how to love someone, is to find a way you could relate to them. In LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), you might be able to find a character whom you could relate to, and hopefully, this realization could help become part of a conversation that matters.

LOVE>FEAR (48 Hours in Traitorland) will release on June 30th on Stone Barn Records.

Works Cited

Bell, N. (n.d.). Store. Retrieved from https://www.nathanbellmusic.com/store

Emmylou Harris. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmylou_Harris

Norman Blake. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Blake_(American_musician)

Taj Mahal. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal_(musician)

*All photos were published with permission

Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice

Holly Henry, Singer Songwriter Holly Henry, the 20-year-old musician based in Minneapolis experienced the turning point of her musical career when she performed Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on season 5 of “The Voice.” Getting all four judges to turn their chairs after her beautiful performance marked the first moment she introduced herself to the public as a major talent. When time came for her to choose an artist to work with, she picked country musician and producer, Blake Shelton.

“I said to myself, ‘I will choose who turns first,’ and Blake turned within two seconds. He was ready to work with me,” recalls Holly.

While the young singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist chose to work with a country music producer, Holly does not define herself as a country musician. After finishing her time with the reality television show, Holly met with producer and founder of the Grow Music Project, Chris Tyng to record and produce her latest single “Hide and Seek.” While Holly exhibits the same voice from season 5 of “The Voice” within this new single; the lyrical content within “Hide and Seek” resembles something different from the pop songs she performed on the reality show.

In the chorus of “Hide and Seek,” Holly sings I’m stuck in the corner/ I swear I adore you. I asked her about the inspiration behind these lyrics.

“I do have anxiety, and I wrote the song “Hide and Seek” about that, and how it affects my life and relationships with the people I love,” she says.

I investigated her repertoire of original music further by listening to her 2013 acoustic EP, The Immigrant. The lyrics in the chorus for the song “Paper Clips,” she sings Life has just tripped you up by your laces. Then, there is the title track in which she sings Be still your love, your broken heart/ ‘cause I will kill it.

“Paper Clips” was about growing up and how we all miss childhood,” explains Holly. ““The Immigrant” focused on someone loving you more than you love them. These are the ideas that go into the songs, but the lyrics are open to interpretation.”

According to her latest interview in a documentary of her experience with the Grow Music Project, Holly is most inspired by artists like Bon Iver and Lana Del Ray.

“The artists and singers I am most inspired by are the ones who know who they are, and who have a different voice,” states the young performer. “It’s hard to find someone unique… so when you do find somebody different you can say to yourself ‘Wow, I’ve never heard this kind of music before.’ That’s [they type of artist] that really intrigues me.”

The most intriguing quality about this developing artist is that while she returns with a voice we are all familiar with, we now have the opportunity to enjoy something more refreshing – beautiful and youthful voice that expresses an old soul. At the moment, Holly is searching for a producer who will help her create her first full-length record, one that will showcase the voice she looks to present to the world. It is my pleasure to welcome this young artist to a full-length feature article for the month of June to Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

Holly claims when she tried out for season 5 of “The Voice” in early 2013, she did so on a whim.

“They [the show] always hold auditions every year, in 4 or 5 cities. That year, they held an audition in Chicago. My parents watched the show, and they really liked it, and I also found the show interesting. My Dad said to me “you should try out.”

“At the time, I was also in my gap year, I had just finished high school and I took a year off to pursue music. Not purposely the voice in the beginning.

“I went to their auditions in Chicago and went through three or four auditioning processes before reaching the final blind audition. I was not expecting to get called back at all, I didn’t think I’d get past the open call. I hadn’t planned for it, it all just happened,” explains Holly.

During this time, Holly had already published videos of herself performing her own songs on YouTube. These videos grabbed Chris Tyng’s attention.

“He actually listened to my YouTube videos way before I went on “The Voice.” He planned on contacting me but when he learned I was going on the show he thought “she’s probably not interested.” When he found out I got off the show, then he contacted me.

“I didn’t want to let that opportunity with the Grow Music Project go. Chris either chooses an artist, or an artist applies, for his specific program in which they record a song for free and he shoots a video documentary [of the project]. It is a first step into the industry. Chris is a great guy. He sits down and gets to know who you are and then helps show your voice to the world. I was happy to have someone help me make music that fits my persona.”

Holly Henry and Chris Tyng - founder of the Grow Music Project

So far, Chris has worked with Holly specifically on “Hide and Seek.” Holly claims she would love to work with him again. However, she is also open to working with other producers. I was curious as to what criteria an artist like Holly uses when hunting for a producer.

“Listen to what they produce,” she says. “Listen to other things they’ve produced and then figure out who they are – are they more high tech or very acoustic? Try new things; you never know exactly how you will work with someone.”

While Holly looks to continue her acoustic styling, as she presents in “Hide and Seek” and her first EP, she is also open to adding new elements to her compositions.

The Immigrant was [recorded as] just acoustic because we wanted to create something and put it out quickly. In general though, my music is not completely acoustic but more along the lines of “Hide and Seek” and some of the songs on my bandcamp website like “More Than Nothing” or “Secrets Spoken.”

“There was a lot less production on The Immigrant, whereas in “Hide and Seek,” we added cello, piano, drums and various instruments.”

Holly claims acoustic is also perfect for her because some of her songs which include topics about anxieties, reflections and love would clash with a very upbeat melody. While some producers might worry that her songs steer towards the mellower and possibly melancholy, Holly never received a negative message about her songs. As a matter of fact, she received plenty of encouragement from her fans. Holly Henry in Chris Tyng's studio

“When “The Voice” happened, the whole experience kick-started a fan base and this whole new way of life for me. They say very encouraging things, and I am very lucky to have people follow me. I receive messages all the time, both about my music and my struggles. People who struggle with anxiety and depression tell me “your music encouraged me to keep going and trying.” Honestly, that’s all I want to [hear and] do. I just want to help people out.

“People say my music is relaxing. It is not jamming music. It makes the listeners say “let me sit down and think about my life for a minute.””

The next steps Holly looks forward to most within her music career is releasing another album.

“I am excited to release new material to my followers. As of now, I have only released a single and an EP. I want to give them something new and complete, something I am extremely proud of.”

As she continues to address internal struggles within her songs, whether experienced by her or someone else, Holly describes songwriting as a therapeutic endeavor. Performing, however, does come with the territory, one she treads gracefully and with poise. One can see this in her performances both on “The Voice” and in a recent show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.

“If I am feeling anxious, I can write a song and get my feelings out. Although performing music is quite frightening for me. Performing does come with the territory,” explains Holly.

“I was less nervous during the first time I sang on “The Voice” for the blind audition because I had been practicing that audition song “The Scientist” for two or three months. I had plenty of time to build up confidence for that moment. Plus, I didn’t know what to expect when I first went out.

“In the beginning, there was not too much fear to overcome, I was not very afraid. Towards the end of the show, I realized if I were going to do music, I would have to push through the anxiety. I might as well power through, and do what I love.”

I then ask myself, if this artist’s anxieties do not show anywhere in her performances – perhaps as a result of her perfect practice and discipline – then why does she choose to talk about it in her music?

“I’ve chosen to be public about it [the anxieties] not because I want pity or attention. I do it to let people know ‘It’s all right.’ I know so many people who have social anxiety, which can be quite crippling. I don’t have social anxiety, but it’s very common amongst others. It’s also nice to talk about it because you feel you’re not alone in your problems. I just hope I make people feel better about themselves,” she expresses.

Holly Henry in the Recording StudioPopular music listeners need an artist who treats professional musicianship and public recognition with greater dignity, humbleness and respect. Holly Henry fills this need both with her music and her persona. Now, Holly requires a producer to recognize this and showcase her talent to the world with an album that features her latest single “Hide and Seek.”

“There will be an album at some point,” Holly confidently expresses. “I have most of the songs written for it, but who produces it is still unknown. I’d love to work with Chris again. He understands what I want my music to do. He doesn’t pressure me into making my music something it is not.”

Most importantly, the best producer, whether it be Chris or someone else, should realize that in order for Holly to present the world a new voice, she must continue to deliver the same type of authenticity she exhibited in “Hide and Seek.” Recalling my previous interview with music producer Roger Greenawalt, the one thing a producer might ask in return from Holly is that she is ready to push herself and handle challenges, which might include performing more or welcoming more instrumentation. By having these needs from both the artist’s and the producer’s side, Holly Henry is ready to start the process of putting her new songs on a full-length album.