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

Advertisements

Todd Carter a.k.a The Looking Make Old Folk Songs Great for Rock ‘n’ Roll

The Looking perform at Symphony Space on February 25, 2013 Todd Carter (a.k.a. The Looking), the New York City-based singer songwriter, is in the process of releasing their third album, Songs for a Traveler. In this record, Todd turns American folk classics and old country songs from the years 1850 to 1950, like “Wayfaring stranger,” “900 Miles,” “River in the Pines,” and “Blue River” into rock ‘n’ roll.

My personal love for rock music motivated me to talk with Todd about his newest album, which is set for a release date in April of this year.

In our conversation, I learned that Todd’s love for the archaic folk songs The Looking covers in their latest record doesn’t stem from a deep understanding of American folk music. Instead, he has developed an appreciation for how some of the crazy, romantic and mind-boggling themes and stories within these songs easily transition into the rock genre. This is why I am happy to introduce Todd Carter as the subject of my March full-length interview feature on Music Historian’s, Hear; Don’t Listen.  

The Perils and Romance in Travel-Themed Songs

I asked Todd what he liked about these folks songs and he said:

“I love travelling, and a lot of these folk songs have some sort of traveling theme in them. “900 Miles” is about a man trying to get back home to find this woman, but he’s lost on a train somewhere. “Hobo’s Meditation,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “River in the Pines,” all share this theme.

“It really comes down to, not necessarily being about the music but how much I love these songs. It’s about taking the listeners on the journey of these songs. I just want to articulate that and present it in a way that is really available to people.”

To enumerate on this point, he took me through the process of recording “Blue River,” a ragtime song that was popularly performed by jazz singer Sophie Tucker in 1928.

“We ‘unragtime-ized’ the song by taking it out of its original 4/4 time signature and made it 6/8. We put some heavier guitar in there and we thought it would be fun to leave some of the jazzy influence. We also removed some of the lyrics that are found in the original version, which are really hokey.

“I really wanted to move it to another dimension.”

Some songs on The Looking’s latest record underwent fewer modifications. This enabled Todd to focus on conveying the tone and themes they presented. One example is “River in the Pines,” a song made famous by Joan Baez. He explains:

““River in the Pines” is a wild song that takes place around the Chippewa River in Wisconsin. It’s about a logger named Charlie, who falls in love with a woman named Mary. Later in the song he dies in a river accident; and at the end, Mary also ends up in the grave, but it is unclear how she got there. You think she was so bereft by Charlie’s death that she couldn’t handle it anymore. There is something romantic and a little hard core.”

The Story of Finding These Songs

Stories about danger, loneliness, and suggested taboos that one learns about on the road have graced many rock songs. Based on my experience, I always felt rock ‘n’ roll was a more popular and familiar genre among urbanites than American folk, especially in New York City. So then, I became curious about what motivated Todd to release a rockin’ cover album of folk music.

“Last year, I completed a residency at The Underground on 107th and West End, and I had two hours to perform every Wednesday night,” says Todd. “So, I started to gather a repertoire of more songs I could perform besides my own.

“I found some old Bob Dylan, which led me to look at Townes Van Zandt, which led me to examine all the versions of “Wayfaring Stranger.” We also found some old Gospel tunes like “Angel of Death” written by Hank Williams.

“My band and I started experimenting with these songs; and we started playing them live for the audience in different arrangements and keys.

“I really enjoyed playing the songs and started recording a lot of them in my studio. Then, I tried to figure out which ones I liked most and got the idea that I really wanted to make a record.”

Todd’s Musical Influences and Performance Background

Todd Carter aka The Looking at Symphony Space 02/25/2013 When I first listened to Songs for a Traveler, I had no prior knowledge that these songs were covers of folk and old country tunes. I simply judged them as originals. In doing so, I developed the following thoughts on The Looking’s record: the lyrics express an old country feel and tonally, the songs convey rock ‘n’ roll. Then, I picked up subtle influences of classical music, like the minor to major key modulations, and the simple duple meter in the song “Blue River.”

This led me to ask Todd about his performance background. He enumerates:

“Growing up, I loved listening to Michael Stipe from R.E.M. As you listen to Michael’s vocal evolution, you hear that he started becoming more of a crooner. Although he was never exactly a crooner, it was interesting to hear.

“During my early years, I was into Brit pop, and bands like New Order and Joy Division. I mixed that with my old-time love for country music – Johnny Cash, Ray Price, and Bob Dylan.”

Todd adds, “I started out singing in my parents’ garage in Carmel, Indiana. I played a lot of punk rock and didn’t have any real training until I moved to New York in about 2000, when I decided to study at the Mannes School of Music. That’s when I became really interested in vocal training.

“I began to study with various teachers. I eventually trained with a singer at the Metropolitan Opera, Edna Lind. I studied with her for quite a while and started putting on some Operatic performances around the city.”

The Recording Experience of Songs for a Traveler

During the time that Todd was performing Operatic pieces around Manhattan, he also worked on two other albums recorded with The Looking: Tin Can Head (2005) and The Cabinet of Curiosities (2009). Both of these albums were created under his label, Astraea Records. I asked Todd how his experience with making his 2013 album differed from that of his last two records.

“That’s a good question,” he remarked. “I wanted this record to have more of a live feel. I wanted to come out of our recording days with Ken Rich over on Grant Street Recording and record a lot of live music off the floor. I really wanted to try to deliver some of the vocals in the studio while we were recording the instrumentals live.

““Sail Around” included a live vocal recording. Then the vocals for “Blue River” and “900 Miles” were recorded in the studio. I sang the lyrics right back into the speakers.

“I love the way this record sounds. The man, who mixed the music for the latest record, Songs for a Traveler, Myles Turney, did an amazing job.”

At the moment, people can listen to some of the tracks on Songs for a Traveler on The Looking’s website. When I listened to the tracks prior to interviewing Todd, I received no auditory indication that these songs were recorded live. In short, the album lives up to its promise of being finely mixed.

As for Todd’s love for the musical styles and genres he previously touched upon, listeners can expect to hear something different on each record that he will release with The Looking. Todd already has another complete album he hopes to release in the next couple of months.  

Todd’s Plans for the Future

“I actually just finished another record that I’m hoping to release in the next couple of months called 1969 to 1984, produced by Roger Greenawalt,” he says. “It is another cover project I have been working through. We recreated songs by Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Echo and the Bunnymen.”

When Todd is not recording or performing with The Looking, he works with an intermediary company that helps him place his original music on spots for television programs on channels such as Bravo and Discovery. Then, there is Todd’s record label Astraea Records, which he has been running for ten years.

Todd explains that owning his own record label “Came out of helping of friend who wanted to make a record. Her name was Morley; she is a New York singer songwriter. We got a couple of people together to help her and we created this record to get that project off the ground.

“It was really out of the spirit of assisting some friends that needed to get their music out. I felt it was important at the time because Morley made an incredible record that helped her get signed to Universal in France.

“Then, other projects came into play like Camomile, Parmidian One, and then mine.”

Todd continues, “Astraea has become more of a production company than a label per se. We’ve had a few releases. Astraea has been around for quite a while and it has created a presence on-line which enables people to listen to the different artists. I would say it’s more in its twilight sphere now. I’m actually moving my attention to The Looking.”    

At the moment The Looking are planning an official launch party for Songs for a Traveler sometime in April. A tour for this album and a potential release of 1969 to 1984 are also possible plans for later in 2013.