Chicago-based Andrew Belle has made a name for himself as one of our more compelling songwriters since releasing his debut album The Ladder in 2010. Though that album held strong at number one for several weeks on iTunes's singer-songwriter chart and earned dozens of television and film licenses, Belle boldly followed a new muse on the album's electronic, alternative follow-up, Black Bear. His third and latest album Dive Deep doubles down on the ethereal electronic sound of Black Bear, and sees Belle pushing himself to new depths as a songwriter, a vocalist, and a composer. Soaring choruses and moody arrangements abound on Dive Deep, a thoughtfully crafted and deeply felt album that deserves consideration among peers like James Blake and Bon Iver. We caught up with Andrew to talk about the new album Dive Deep, what inspired it, the recording process, and touring to support the album.
[ Vinylmnky ]: You used the same team (Producer and Contributor) as Black Bear (an absolute highlight of 2013 for Vinylmnky), but Dive Deep explores a more evolved sound, continuing with electronic themes, tempo changes, and ambiance. How was the process different for this album?
[ Andrew Belle ]: Yes, it was the same team. The biggest difference was the three to four years between records and all the growth individually that we went through as artists in that time. We came together sharper and more skilled at our art. For me, as a songwriter, with each record I have gotten more dialed in on what I do well and what I don't do well. Also, for this record, I came into it with a more specific vision in mind. With Black Bear, I knew I wanted it to be it electronic and synth driven but we weren't sure how it was going to turn out. Once we had that record under our belt, it was just that much easier to continue the theme and build upon it but with more focused and tighter production. Dive Deep feels like a sequel.
Crafting such beautiful work seems to come very natural to you and your attention to detail shows in every layer and nuance of the songs within Dive Deep. Do you consciously pay attention at this level?
[ Andrew Belle ]: Yes, I am purposefully attentive to detail. I see it as a virtue and it has allowed me to separate myself a little as an artist and have a career in music. Paul Simon said something one time that resonated with me when someone called him a perfectionist, he said (paraphrasing) "I am not going for perfect, I am just trying to develop what is in my head." For Dive Deep, I would say that I reached 95% of the vision in my head. That is what I strive for until I must have my fingers pried off it when it is time to let go of the record and release it. Conversely, it can get out of control and I have been known to get into some anxiety over production details or vocal edits that have driven a share of engineers crazy.
Dive Deep seems very introspective. How much of your personal life influenced the lyrics and themes of this album?
[ Andrew Belle ]: I would say it is nearly all autobiographical. That's because what has always interested me in music is the real, honest, gritty, and ‘not always pretty’ elements. So, being real is so much more appealing to me as a writer. I have never been able to write something that didn’t attach to real life.
Regarding the theme, with each record I have had a pretty clear theme identified ahead of time. My first record, The Ladder, I was in my 20's and transitioning out of one phase of my life and into another. Then Black Bear was me expressing a whole other season of my life. But this record was a little different in that I did not have a theme to begin with. It wasn’t until after I was done and reflected on the collection of songs that the theme was revealed. I am in my early 30s and my wife and I had a daughter recently, made a move to LA from Chicago, and we were making some big life altering decisions. With that have been thoughts about how the stakes are higher with my decisions now, that I have more responsibility, and the feeling I am not as confident in my decision making as I used to be. So, in retrospect, I look at this record and the theme that comes through is about being in a position where you have to make a decision and dealing with the struggle/fear of making a mistake, and not be paralyzed by indecision. As a result, I decided to call the record Dive Deep in the spirit of "move forward in confidence” and “be 'all in' on what you’re doing.”
Drought is one our favorite tracks on Dive Deep. You posted that the melody and chorus ideas came before writing the lyrics. Is this how the process usually works for you?
[ Andrew Belle ]: This is generally how it works. I am usually first inspired audibly. I don’t always have an idea for the lyrics but I let the music and the emotion of the music bring out what I want to sing about. So very often I start fumbling around with some ideas and melody until I lock into a melody. From there I try to find words or phrases that I like phonetically and I build around that. For the song Drought, my producer and I got together and created some short instrumental ideas that sounded interesting. I took those home and played around with them and before I knew it, I had the idea for the chorus and then the verses followed after that.
T R N T (The Road Not Traveled), you called an “outlier or interlude song”. It effectively channels a bit of M83 or even Radiohead. How was the process different than writing other songs on the album?
[ Andrew Belle ]: I wrote this song on a day I was forcing myself to be creative even though I wasn’t in the mood to write another traditional structured song, with a verse and chorus. Ironically, I happened to be in a Thom Yorke/Radiohead vibe and I started on my keyboard and I accidentally created the drum beat and continued experimenting and found by accident this really cool effect that ended up being the basis for the song. In the end, the song is unique in that it has no rhythm or pattern to the notes. For the lyrics, I sometimes look at literature or poetry for inspiration or help me to fill in the blanks. In this case, I happened upon Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken and I started reading the first stanza of it and singing to put melody to it with the intention of coming back to it to replace those lyrics with my own and after I locked into a melody and recorded it, but I could find anything that fit as well, so I just kept the lyrics. Ultimately, I wanted the song to be different enough that it represented a break for the listener, given that it sits in the middle of the record, and it was fun to do something unexpected.
Who are some your musical influences and…Who would you be surprised for people to know that you listen to?
[ Andrew Belle ]: I usually gravitate to alternative R&B and am inspired by bands like Bon Iver, James Blake, Washed Out, Pure Bathing Culture, and Future Islands. One of top 5 albums ever for me is Norah Jones' Come Away With Me.
You are active on Social Media…how important is it to you to be connected to your audience?
[ Andrew Belle ]: Part of me would delete my social media tomorrow if I could. There is just something about the days when there wasn’t so much insight and visibility into every detail of our lives. It seems to me that by gaining all this access we feel more connected in a way, but really, we are more disconnected because we are not actually engaging with people in real life. Also, there is something intriguing about pre-social media bands when not knowing so much created a certain mystique that is lost on full exposure. Now, having said that and getting off my soap box, social media has been incredibly helpful as an artist and independent musician, allowing me to communicate directly with people that want to know about my music. I am thrilled that I live in an era when I can put out music as an independent artist and people can have access to it.
How has it been translating the rich studio sound into a live performance?
[ Andrew Belle ]: This tour we are playing a hybrid between a full band experience and a solo performance. To prepare for the tour, I rearranged and reinterpreted the songs, using looping and sampled sounds and beats from the record. There are three of us on stage producing a big sound. It’s been fun.
You are amidst your Dive Deep Fall Tour. What have been some highlights so far?
[ Andrew Belle ]: I have toured over the years and been fortunate to sell out shows in a handful of cities, but it has been exciting to see more sold out shows and in new markets than I have typically seen in the past. When you work so hard to make the record, it is really rewarding to have people come to the shows and affirm what you’re doing.
Awesome, well good luck with the rest of the tour! Thank you.
[ Andrew Belle ]: Thanks!