Thursday, January 24, 2008

NMW Spotlight : A Conversation With Nathan Bell

From Nathan's Bio:

"Songwriter-singer/guitarist Nathan Bell toured the US and Canada throughout the '80s, playing at clubs, concert halls, and (as a member of the duo, Bell and Shore) most of the premier North American acoustic music festivals, including the Walnut Valley Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and the Mariposa Folk Festival. His work on acoustic, National steel-bodied, and electric guitars was often overshadowed by his songwriting, which is an amalgamation of ideas inspired by writers ranging from Jack London, William Faulkner, and the poet Marvin Bell to Townes Van Zandt and southern short-story master Larry Brown. He stopped touring in 1992, and with the arrival of his first child in 1995 left the business altogether to concentrate on raising a growing family. During the '80s Bell shared the stage with Emmylou Harris, Eddie and Martha Adcock, Stompin' Tom Connors, Townes Van Zandt, Kathy Mattea, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Ricky Skaggs, and a whole cast of scofflaws and gypsies from the folk and bluegrass archipelago. During the early '90s he was a staff writer for Ten Ten Music in Nashville and was regularly featured at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe, often as part of the "writers in the round" series with many notable songwriters, including Grammy-Award winner Don Henry, Craig Bickhardt, and CMA award nominee Angela Kaset. In 1991, he recorded an album of songs with producer/guitarist Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart) that was never released. His first cd release in almost 20 years, "In Tune, On Time, Not Dead," is now available from CDbaby."

Going where many fear to tread lyrically, this tough-voiced rock poet may put some in mind of a more aggressive Richard Shindell or Richard Thompson. There's a heart and soul here that belies the street tough demeanor. For one thing, Bell is willing to sing about fatherhood in a deeply tender way (listen to "The Nest (Go Slow)" next time he posts it on MySpace). When he has a political point to make, he doesn't hedge (listen to "Six Long Years" and "Traitorland"). He may well be the best kept secret on the American indy rock scene.

I recently had the chance to discuss songwriting and artistry with Nathan.

Ninety Mile Wind : Tell us a little about your upbringing. You're a mid-westerner, as are so many great singer-songwriters-- Dylan, of course, Woody Guthrie, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Jimmy Webb. There's an earthiness and an expansiveness of imagery that's distinctly different from southern, west coast, or New England writing. What is it about the mid-west that turns out such great songwriting and how do you think the local color affected you or the memories you draw from?

Nathan Bell : I was raised primarily in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. My upbringing was decidedly bohemian but in a grounded way. I was expected to work, as are, I think, most Midwesterners. Midwesterners are by and large a realistic bunch. Being realistic tends to set one up to not think too highly of one's prospects, which in turn leads to an art informed by a kind of personal modesty. I think it's interesting that Dylan, the one mid-western songwriter to truly become an international phenomenon, reinvented himself immediately upon his arrival in New York City as somebody more exotic...because it's true that it isn't very "exotic" to be from the middle of the country. I would probably still be living in Iowa if I hadn't decided to follow the songwriting dollars to Nashville and then leave those same dollars on the table and keep going South. I miss the local color of the mid-west a great deal and always consider myself first and foremost an Iowan. We're sneaky...nobody even knows where Iowa is anyway...

The expansiveness comes from the geography, something that's been explored in painting as well. When you can see a long, long way you learn to see very small gradations...a sunset looks different from each corner of a cornfield and from different places in the rolling hills of Eastern Iowa. I'd say growing up there taught me to look very carefully before making up my mind.

Being mid-western means being taken for granted by the rest of the country and not minding all that much! I hope this makes sense. So much of where I grew up just settled in my heart and defies explanation.

NMW : Yes, it makes sense. Another thing that seems to spring from the mid-west is a great, dry wit. This goes back to Twain, of course, who remains one of the funniest writers ever to set pen to paper. You notice it in some of Dylan's, Prine's, Goodman's, and your songs. Great humorous songs are probably the hardest types of songs to write because jokes tend to get stale if they aren't somehow interwoven with pathos, romance, imagery, and intelligent concepts. How did humor intersect your evolution as a songwriter -- what influenced you, did you read Twain, was there humor in your family, or is this type of writing something that's innate ?

NB : My family pretty much laughed all of the time and continues to do so to this day. My favorite media art has always been driven by comedy. I read Twain, of course, and listened to the great comedy albums of my childhood, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Firesign Comedy Theater and everything by the great core group of National Lampoon writers. TV was mostly sports or Monty Python, Bob Newhart, MASH, Barney Miller, and a host of other well-written shows. I was late to the Smothers Brothers but that kind of sly political comedy-- where sooner or later the powers that be figure it out and run you out of town-- also appealed to our clan. I also remember vividly getting Martin Mull's live album and playing it over and over.

Humor has always leavened tragedy and I guess the humor of songs like "Dear Abby" that had an underlying sense of humanity helping to make the song relevant even after the joke was no longer new influenced me a great deal. I think it's interesting that Ghandi had a terrific dry sense of humor that he wielded brilliantly during the darkest hours of the rebellion against the British.

My favorite movie of all time is Slapshot, a Paul Newman/George Roy Hill movie that profanely and beautifully tells the story of a dying minor league hockey franchise in a dying mill town. It is a story of corporate greed, malfeasance, and manipulation told in a way that reduces people to gasping for air.

My other career choice would have been to be a stand-up comic but that's the hardest thing of all and I wasn't that brave.

NMW : I've always been intrigued by your ability to create unique characters in your lyrics-- "Walking Iron" about the Native American steel welder who thrived on the heights of skyscraper construction; "King Of The North" about the kick-ass hockey player; "Johnny El Gato Miguel" about the faded career of a professional barrio boxer. Many songwriters would like to know more about this ability, myself included. How much of this from your imagination, and how much of it is just keen awareness of the world around you?

NB : My father [Marvin Bell] is a poet whose bread and butter was examining the "regular" things around him for irregularities, and writing about the beautiful flaws in our lives. I grew up with an understanding that every moment something was happening and all you had to do was open your eyes. My father is a keen observer of people and I think I have inherited that from him. I often understand the motivations of others almost immediately upon meeting them. "King of the North" comes from that "gift" -- I played a lot of sports and often found myself a member of that group of athletes who may have unique talents on a small scale but find that on the big stage they fall short. This character's defining moment is his realization that it's better to fail at something amazing than to only wonder if you could have succeeded. For me this is the noblest of things, to make your life great and look back only for historical perspective and amusement.

NMW : I think that's the essence of the American Dream-- attempting big vs. the regret of never trying. You and I have talked about your own optimism before, and how it colors your world view. There's even a heroic quality to some of these characters, not Rambo heroics, just the heroism of people who rise to adversity. Very un-superhuman. Is that intentional ?

NB : You'll find that almost all of my characters are fundamentally optimistic and kind when they could easily be bitter and harsh. So I suspect that my characters reflect how I most want to be perceived. My father also insisted that I should experience a lot, so I've worked more jobs than I can even recall -- out in the cold picking up 200 pounds of something, cleaning out drains and grease traps in a restaurant kitchen, working my 75th hour with little sleep, or, as in the last 13 years, managing people with seriously real lives and problems. I didn't go to college, even though I spent one official year at Boston University. This means I spent a lot of years rubbing shoulders with the characters in my songs. I never found my own thoughts about myself anything but a nuisance, a roadblock to living a mindful life. Therefore, in writing about others I avoided boring myself.

NMW : It's interesting that some writers are self-obsessed, Thomas Wolfe for example, who had to medicate with alcohol to keep his memories from driving him crazy. That's what I appreciate about your writing the most-- your ability to inhabit these characters so completely that they come alive and they're different in every song. It sounds like you're somewhat of a student of human nature. This is precisely what great actors do and I suspect to some extent it's the same type of study that produces some great writers. What else do you do to study or observe characters ?

NB : I also read constantly, much of it American fiction, contemporary and otherwise. Some of my favorites are London, Hemingway, Robert Olmstead, Craig Leslie, and Rick Bass -- writers whose characters are often flawed in common ways yet have uncommon approaches to life. The American Dream as it applies to all Americans, all of us immigrants, has been my thesis since I started to write. It helps that I've lived a parallel life with many of these characters. I also read a great deal of sports journalism. Sports Illustrated often has the best non-fiction writing you will find anywhere. Writers like Gary Smith and Frank Deford have introduced me to people who also find their way into my songs.

NMW : Boxing seems to have attracted a number of great writers, and of course Hemingway loved Bull Fighting. Maybe these intensely physical activities are so sensually stimulating that they help distract a writer from his own existence to some extent. Do you find a certain amount of distraction helpful when you're working on a song ?

NB : I am hyper-sensitive to the world around me, often able to fully understand my song ideas only while I'm doing something else, almost like my brain must be diverted enough to allow a free flow of electrons. Most of my writing takes place not on paper but in my head as I drive, or ride a road bike, or walk. I am a slave to my small notepads and micro-recorders. I work very quickly when I do work, but the ideas ferment for as long as it takes. I've found that the songs I record are often almost instantly playable from memory after being committed to paper. I am also a vicious editor, terrified that somebody will find one lazy line. I'm sure that such lines can be found, but before I even write a song down I try to kill as many of those bastards as possible!

NMW : It's good for writers to understand this process of incubation and self-editing . Too many writers believe that a song is just born and that's the end of it. I want to get back to character for a moment because many of us are interested in that aspect of writing. How do you create such authentic characters ?

NB : A wonderful conversation from the movie Good Will Hunting really sums up my approach to writing: Robin Williams' character (Sean Macquire), sharing a bench in Boston Commons with Matt Damon's (Will), acknowledges Will's genius but condemns his lack of experiences. Every character of mine -- even though I obviously didn't fight in Vietnam or weld beams on a skyscraper-- contains a piece of something I have done. If I can't feel what's in the song, or if it's ONLY about something I've read or heard, I won't write it. At the end of the day I write about the people I admire -- the people I still hope to live up to.

NMW : You and I were recently discussing the lack of a leading "voice of social conscience" like Dylan or Seeger or Joan Baez among the major artists of today. Very few of them want to sing about tough issues, but you aren't afraid to do that. Most of the audience seems content with American Idol or else they're half brain-dead when it comes to musical taste. Do you believe a singer-songwriter's role should be to speak truth to power, or rally the disenfranchised, or take on a socio-political cause to sort of wake the sleeping masses ?

NB : An artist has to create based on what is around him/her at the time. When I left the business it was during a time of relative prosperity, when a man could lose his chance at being an NHL hockey player, or in my case, a musician, and reach out, grab the ladder and climb up to something else. So I wrote about specific lives and the positive if sometimes wistful choices the people in those lives had made. Now the choices seem fewer and I've returned to writing at a terrible time for the human animal. If I didn't write about that what would I write about? And almost all of our ills are being caused by a very few wealthy, white men. Men who by all standards of decency and justice could be convicted of war crimes. I never thought that I'd see the day when any governing body or president would even consider that our country would have a civil defense policy with even the smallest amount of allowable torture. And add to that the blatant, brazen use of the tragedy of Sept 11th to make even more money for these men and their friends, eventually leading to the outright murder of Americans trying to nobly serve their country, which is something so hideous, cynical, and impudent that to not call attention to it as best I can would mean I had chosen to ignore it for my own safety and gain.

My father is Jewish. So it's easy for me to remember that silence equals death. And as the son of the son of relatively new immigrants, I believe in what this country stands for. I even carry a pocket constitution. I own property, travel, work and speak my mind freely, protected by the greatest set of laws ever devised. I want the traitors that would use fear and economic pressure to control the populace to be removed from office and sent to prison for their crimes against the good will and faith of the people of the United States. Can I do that with a song? I don't know, Craig, but songs can be damn powerful sometimes so it's worth trying!

NMW : No doubt about it. You've mentioned something that I was actually leading up to. I personally found this courageous, and I know this will interest all of our readers. About 15 years ago, after making a couple of records that received some critical raves, which led to a tenure at a major publishing company in Nashville, you turned your back on the music industry, moved to Chattanooga, and took a day job. Writers ask me all the time if they need to live in Nashville, or if they're washed up if they don't fit in with Nashvegas's idea of music. Talk a little bit about your decision, how it affected you, and also about how it feels to pick up the recording and writing again. You seem genuinely inspired.

NB : My father has always said that writers write. So you write wherever you are about what matters to you. Making a living is something different. William Carlos Williams was a Pediatrician. I actually went back to working day jobs while still in Nashville and then after finding a better and bigger day job followed a great opportunity to Chattanooga in 1997. Although nobody but my close friends who understand how my mind works believe me I didn't pick up the guitar at all for most of those years. I think I played twice for more than a lullaby in all that time. Honestly, I had reached the end of my creative road, or so I thought. I fully intended to never play or write again. I threw myself completely into a corporate job and raising my children. And I wouldn't change a thing. It made enough sense that I'm not sure it took a lot of courage. But I appreciate the compliment.

Don Henry dragged me kicking and screaming on stage in 2006 and in the process of learning a couple of my own songs to play with him at a wonderful little club in Lafayette Georgia called "Music on the Square" I found myself really enjoying the guitar again. I came back from a business trip a short while after to find that my wife, Leslie, had converted a walk-in closet to a guitar room/studio. I recorded "In Tune, On Time, Not Dead" on a Roland BR-600 8 track and then decided to just put it out and see what happens. I've also enjoyed playing all the instruments...I think it's my belated tribute to the first really great JJ Cale album!

When I started playing again I felt more "one" with my self and somehow that has led to this run of songs...I have another CD, "Traitorland" that will be released this spring and upgraded my studio to give myself a little more range while recording. A third CD, tentatively titled "Incendiary" will follow shortly after that. I figure if the Who, The Stones, and all those people could put out 2-3 albums a year I sure as hell can.

NMW : Having left Nashville myself two years ago, I've learned this lesson later in life than you did ! I have one final question for you. The new music "business" has meant, for artists like us, empowerment and liberation. Yet some songwriters seem overwhelmed by it-- the technology, the Internet options, the sheer number of participants in the game. What advice do you have for people who may be hanging back, clinging to the old model, somewhat fearful of taking the plunge into the wacky world of do-it-all-yourself ?

NB : I tell them to listen to "Every Picture Tells a Story" , the radio single version. The tempo is all over the place, the vocals are distorting all over hell, the cymbals eat up all the frequency and who can even tell what the bass player is playing? And it's a great record, one brilliant piece of music from an album filled with noisy, messy songs, each brilliant and imperfect. The one thing nobody should be afraid of is making a mistake...make the right mistakes all together at the same time and you get genius!


Buy The New CD

Nathan's Website

Nathan Bell on MySpace


Anonymous said...

Good to see the passing references in this interview to Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my new 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." Please know that the book's first printing just sold out, all 5,000 copies, and the publisher has authorized a second printing that will be out in late February. To sign up to be notified about the availability of the second printing, visit my Internet site (below) and click on the "online store" page. Just trying to spread word about the book. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515
(206) 484-8008

chromehead said...

Thanks Clay. We're happy to let Steve Goodman fans know about your biography. He was a songwriter's songwriter, one of the very best.

dogfoot46 said...

Great interview Craig. You asked all the right questions to show the side of Nathan that all songwriters and potential fans should know about, that he cares about people and real life and has a great ability to "lyricize" whatever he chooses to write about. Thanks for giving him some much needed exposure.
Larry White

chromehead said...

It was my Pleasure. Thanks Larry.

Chad said...

I started reading this a couple of days ago and just finished. The part that I keep thinking about is how is father was always "examining the "regular" things around him for irregularities." That is such a simple visual and I plan to get a lot of milage from it. I'm ashamed to say Nathan was completely unknown to me. But, I'm off to check out his stuff. -Chad

JAE said...

I recently became hip to Nathan's songs and music. Music fans should definitely check him out: he's both soulful and wise in his playing, singing, and writing. Thank you, Craig, for taking time to speak with him and to publish this insightful conversation to your blog!

Tad Richards said...

Great interview with a talent who deserves this kind of attention.

A significant omission, though, on the list of Midwestern singer/songwriters with great sense of humor: Fred Koller.

chromehead said...

Thanks Tad. I agree on all counts.

zensuit said...

Tad! Go to my website and send me your email address...

Good to see your name,