Analogue Music | Andrew Belle

Andrew Belle

By Matt Conner

It turns out Andrew Belle likes this particular mood.

The sonic leap from his heralded debut, The Ladder, to his sophomore release, Black Bear, was a complete right turn, an unexpected curve from his acoustic beginnings as a singer-songwriter to a deep-end jump into synth-pop's darker waters. Where The Ladder was heartfelt and relational, Black Bear was ominous and distant, perfect for long night drives with the windows down and your thoughts collecting. 

If you were wondering where the Chicago native would land on his third full-length, Dive Deep, he's actually right where you left him (or vice versa), exploring the twilight textures he first found an album ago. Even as he lets other collaborators into the creative process, Belle says he's still finding inspiration in these shadows. If you've heard the hooks of "New York," "Dive Deep," "Down" or "Black Clouds," you know he's right. 

We recently caught up with Belle as he began his fall tour, a coast to coast run with sold out shows on both sides and in the middle. It seems he's not the only one anxious to hang out in this darkened corner.

Analogue: You just began the new tour. How did it feel playing the new songs last night?

Andrew: Honestly, it was great. Thankfully, the record’s been out there for I guess going on three or four weeks. On top of that, I laid out five singles over the course of the last year before the album even came out, so I feel like people were pretty familiar with the new stuff. A lot more so than when I toured for my last record four years ago. Then I made the mistake of going out when the record hadn’t even been released yet. I had it in my head, "I’m going to play all the new stuff." I was sort of really disappointed to find that people didn’t know what to make of it and just sat there with their arms crossed. It made for a very awkward experience. So this time around, I was thrilled that we’re playing five new songs from the new record, and people were head-bobbing and singing along. It was a lot more receptive than it was last time. So it’s been good.

Analogue: I couldn't help but notice a number of sold out shows on the tour but they're all over. You've got sold out shows on both coasts as well as the Midwest. That's gotta feel good. 

Andrew: Yeah, it does. I remember being at Taylor Univeristy, when I was there my senior year, I was the music guy on the IFC, which stood for Integrating Faith and Culture. It was a group of students charged with integrating art into the campus. Anyway, I was booking the bands and stuff, and I remember bringing somebody in to Taylor named Denison Witmer, who's a singer/songwriter. 

I remember looking at that in college and thinking, "That’s the model. That’s what I want. I’d like to have a family, have a small house, and sell enough records and tour and have maybe a hundred people show up."

Analogue: Yeah, what year was that? Because I went to a Denison Witmer show at Taylor.

Andrew: My senior year was '05 or '06. 

Analogue: I’ll bet I was there. 

Andrew: Yeah, I put that on. I remember he came and he played his set and maybe there was like 100 to 150 people. I remember looking at that in college and thinking, "That’s the model. That’s what I want. I’d like to have a family, have a small house, and sell enough records and tour and have maybe a hundred people show up. I don’t need to play in arenas or whatever." That was like my base line of what I felt like success could look like. 

Fast forwarding to now, it really blows me away, like you said, to see sold-out shows across the nation, like on both coasts and in the middle. It’s really humbling and flattering and exciting, too, because this is my third record. I’ve been doing this for about seven or eight years, and things are continuing to grow. Like last time I toured, I’ve sold out shows before in the bigger markets, but I’ve never sold out eight before the tour even started.

It all just indicates that things are growing, even though this is my third record now. Sometimes when you get to your third record, things are maybe plateauing, or even decreasing, and so it’s exciting to see that things are on a trajectory. 

Analogue: You mentioned the response to playing songs people weren’t familiar with, but that was also a different sound. Black Bear took a serious synth turn away from more straightforward or acoustic-centered fare like The Ladder. Now you’ve kind of doubled down on that sound.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. When I made that first record, maybe I didn’t totally know musically where I wanted to go, direction-wise. I owned an acoustic guitar and that was all I knew how to play, so those were the songs I wrote, and that was the record we made. After that first record, I bought a keyboard and some digital recording software and began exploring more synth-y, alternative music. It began to resonate with me to the point where I was like, "This is the music that’s exciting to me now." I was bored by my acoustic guitar, and I would rather play keyboards and explore the sound. 

I remember my manager being really cautious and afraid to go against what was working really well, but I just was like, "Man, I’m not really interested in being an artist and playing music if it’s going to be music that I don’t really enjoy or I’m not excited about." So when I found that sound and I found that producer and the team of people that I work with, it really sounded like it was a perfect fit for what I wanted to create. Rather than changing directions again on this record, I doubled down on it.

Andrew Belle

Four years or so passed between those two records of recording, and I feel like we all just got a little bit better, a little bit more honed in on what we’re good at, a little sharper. So I think in a lot of ways this record feels like, technically and conceptually, almost like a sequel to Black Bear. That was pretty intentional. I’m still very interested in and inspired by the sound that I’m in now. So my next record could be another continuation. We’ll see. I don’t plan to shift again. I’m not going to be that kind of artist for whom every record is a new exploration.

Analogue: You had a Flannery O’Connor quote that was central to Black Bear's content. Was there something literary driving the new album?

Andrew: It’s funny. For my first two records, The Ladder and Black Bear, the theme to those records both were pretty definable from the very beginning. On this third record, there wasn’t really that experience where I knew early on what the direction of the concept would be. However, it was interesting in retrospect, when the album was done and I hired a publicist to help me promote it, she asked me these questions and I was forced to look back at the record and reflect. I realized, without even realizing it, that there kind of was a theme all along. 

I don’t want to make a wrong decision. A lot of times, I find I can be paralyzed by that, lost in my indecision.

There’s a track in the middle called "T R N T", or The Road Not Taken. On the very first track, there’s a reference to The Road Less Traveled. So there’s like these literary references sprinkled throughout that were sort of inspiring. When I had to kind of summarize what this record was about, what I concluded was that I’m 33 now and I’ve been married for 5 years. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. We had a baby this year. I feel like I’m in a season of life where a lot of big changes and big decisions are being made. A lot of times those things can be really scary and almost paralyzing when you don’t really know whether you should go this way or that way.

I don’t want to make a wrong decision. A lot of times, I find I can be paralyzed by that, lost in my indecision. Looking back on the record, songs like "Dive Deep" and "Down" are about those very things, where you’ve got two paths to go on. You can only choose one. Who knows how, if you turn left, that’s going to affect your life, or if you go right, but regardless, don’t be paralyzed by fear of making a wrong decision. Instead, make a decision, move forward in faith and see how things unfold. And whatever you do, be all in on it. Don’t be half in on anything. That’s just kind of something I’ve been trying to get better at doing. I didn't mean to really write a record sort of themed around that, but in retrospect, that’s kind of how it turned out.

Analogue: How is the songwriting process for you at this point? Was it easier in the beginning because you didn’t have an audience, or is it easier now, given the experience?

Andrew: Man. I think it was definitely easier three records ago, because everything was new and all the ideas were new. I hadn’t done that before. Every time I write or create something, there are only so many new ideas. I only have so many important or interesting things to write about. For this third record, I let into the process a couple of people to help with songwriting, musically. Everything written on this record lyrically and melodically was all me, but I let other people into the music process more so than I ever have before. 

I tell people this all the time, but I’m more of a writer than a musician, to be honest. I’m proficient at a handful of instruments, but to the degree that I can continue to write innovative, inspiring music, I kind of do what I do. I felt like on this third record that a lot of these ideas I’m coming up with sound like things I’ve done in the past, so maybe I should allow my producer or just allow a couple of collaborators into the musical process to help me write some songs that sound like things I haven’t done before. I definitely found that it was harder this time around. It will probably be even harder the next time I try to make another record, but I’m starting to get a little bit more open to the idea of allowing other people into the collaborative process. 

Analogue: Who were you working with that you haven’t before? 

Andrew: My producer, Chad Copelin, who also produced the Black Bear record... one thing that we hadn’t done before was to literally just hang out with no real agenda except to just create some song ideas for me to go home with and work on. That was something new, so we spent a couple days just churning out a lot of 30 second ideas. It was all, 'This is a cool sound' or 'This is a cool four-bar section.' We were brainstorming where you’re just whiteboarding and no idea is a bad idea, and a couple of the ideas for songs that ended up on the record came from that process. 

This guy, James McAlister, who played on my last record, was another collaborator who basically emailed me a few ideas. He'd write me and say, 'Hey, man, here’s 30 seconds of music or 60 seconds of an idea I came up with. See if you can turn it into anything.' Another couple of songs came out of that process. 

The final collaboration on this record came later. I sort of thought that the album was done after I had written 10 songs, but a guy named Dustin [Wise] emailed me and said, 'Hey, I’m a friend of a friend and I’m a producer here in Nashville, and I have some song ideas that I thought I would see if you were interested in collaborating or writing on.' I was pretty bogged down with finishing the record, and my wife and I had just had our daughter, and I remember emailing him and saying, 'Man I’d love to, but it’s not good timing right now. I’m pretty slammed. Maybe in the future.' 

However I ended up having a free day, and I was just sort of playing around with this song idea that he had sent me. Before I knew it, I had come up with an idea that I really liked a lot. So I emailed him and said, 'Hey man, is that song still available? Have you already given it to somebody else? I’ve got some cool ideas.' He wrote back and said, 'No man, it’s all you.' That’s how "Down" came about was from that experience. That was totally random and unexpected, and I loved the song so much that we ended up quickly squeezing it onto the record. 

It’s funny to me because we’ve literally never met. We’ve never spoken on the phone, and we’ve never met in person. It’s been 100% over email, where I think we've sent 15, 20 emails back and forth. We'd ask each other, 'How about this? We need a bridge here.' Before you know it, we had a song. And so that was a unique and new experience for me. And it went really well, so that’s something I might explore further in the future.