Saturday, April 11, 2015

Interview with Sarah Elizabeth Haines and Jess Taylor Clinton of Bellehouse

There's a natural juxtaposition between Brooklyn band Bellehouse's music and its metropolitan surroundings. Maybe that's naive: Greenwich village, after all, boasted Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, and a young man named Robert Zimmerman who would eventually make waves under the pseudonym Bob Dylan. Nevertheless, there's a Romantic notion in folk music, resulting from the never-quite-gone time when people like Alan Lomax and John Fahey would travel impoverished, rural sections of a country civilized only in name, that stringed acoustic music comes from a place of isolation and innocence, which isn't to say innocence and isolation are strangers to modern conurbation, but perhaps (and perhaps unwisely) oft left in assumed opposition to city living.

Bellehouse, however, isn't strictly a city band: it casts a wider net. Even in the immediate details of how they met, Sarah and Jess can't help but mention crossing paths while studying abroad in Prague, which, by many experts' standards, is pretty far from New York. While a story that specific and grounded in the day to day may be unheard in Bellehouse's music, it isn't any less relevant. On a song like "Even Shiva," the band pulls from sources as diverse as Hinduism, Judeo-Christian history, housebuilding, and modern love.

That's indicative of the band's scope, at once both familiar and novel in instrumentation and substance. Bellehouse also wields the confidence and technical expertise of a much bigger band, surely a sign of things to come. If you're still reading and unconvinced, let me say it simply: Bellehouse is a joy to listen to - if you click on the first link at the top, you should be able to hear most of their songs. I haven't been able to catch them live yet, but they seem to play the Rockwood Music Hall in New York with some frequency. If you're in the area, do yourself a favor. They have a new EP coming out this summer too so stay tuned, sportsfans!

Jordan Reyes: Tell me a little bit about how you all met. A cursory glance at the bio on your website tells me that 3/5 of you are from Eastern New Jersey, though Miss Clinton appears to be from California. I know you guys are based in New York now. Is that where you guys met? Did you play music together before Bellehouse?

Sarah Elizabeth Haines: Jess and I actually met at NYU in Prague; the first time we really connected musically was on this sort of field trip we took to wine country in Moravia, and this Bohemian string band came and played a bunch of Czech folk music and arrangements of Beatles tunes in the hotel where we were staying... we ended up drinking and jamming with them and I looked at Jess and just said "Do you know Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah? I know the harmony..." and we started singing it... I think someone had a guitar...

Jess Taylor Clinton: (laughs) Yeah, I like to say that we started singing in harmony before we really had had a conversation! Obviously we kept each other on the radar after that. When we came back to the states, I was working on a solo EP called “A few for the road” – this was in 2012 – I recruited Sarah for viola and vocals, and she introduced me to Nick, our bassist. The three of us just kind of had this combined work ethic that flowed – and we’ve just kept the chemistry going. We’ve been doing it officially as Bellehouse for the past year or two.
JR: Do you find many like-minded artists in New York that you enjoy playing with?

SEH: There are so many incredible bands and musicians in this city...  it gets a little overwhelming sometimes.

JTC: Totally! In fact, almost every member we have is in another band doing crazy amazing things outside of Bellehouse. One of my favorite things to do is go sit in the audience and have my mind blown. Makes me feel super lucky I have such talented band mates who believe in this music – and to remember what it’s like to watch them in the crowd.

JR: Let's talk a bit about your instrumentation. I know you have guitar, viola, banjo, and an upright bass - all string instruments - do you find yourselves more drawn to string instruments in general or is that simply a side effect of the style of music you play?

JTC: Yeah, I’d say we all have a soft spot for purely acoustic Americana. There’s something kind of rogue about it in this day and age, despite its inherent elegance. It’s a more traditional instrumentation, to be sure. We usually rehearse without any kind of amplification. Besides – at this point, anyway – we don’t have a real rhythm section; and you can get some great rhythmic textures from all that acoustic noise against the vocal harmonies we kind of sport as the centerpiece of our sound.

SEH: And the viola is nice in this context instead of the violin because it adds an extra degree of warmth against the brightness of the banjo and guitar, but it can still fiddle when necessary. Plus the viola is just great, generally.

JR: Do you guys predominantly listen to folk-related music? Who are some of your favorite artists?

SEH: I listen to all sorts of music.  In the folk category, I absolutely adore Anais Mitchell--and I was lucky enough to get to meet her and work with her for a few weeks over the summer on a project of hers.  She's one of the most incredible storytellers I've ever met, and she's just a really beautiful person.  There are lots of others--Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Aiofe O'Donovan to name a very few.  And I'm a classical music nerd, but I still work out to Beyonce.

JTC:  Me too! (laughs) Yep, our interests are ALL over the map! – I think we all enjoy mashing up everything we love and boiling it down for our small but powerful string band that is Bellehouse. Some of our favorite artists to cover have been Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Crosby Stills & Nash – as well as some old time traditionals that serve well our sort of intensified crooning.

JR: My first impression from your music, mostly from the compelling harmonies, is that you all have studied music. Do you all have a scholastic or academic background in music?

JTC: We all do, really, but of very different kinds. I grew up learning music at school and at home with my dad. I thought I wanted to sing opera before I started writing. Catie, Sarah and I have all had experience as members of choirs and we all write our own songs. I know Sarah’s music education was pretty formal, as was mine at times.

SEH: Definitely - I studied classical violin and viola in college, and have been singing with choirs for basically my whole life. Nick studied classical music in school as well--and Ryan and Catie studied less classically in college.

JTC:  I think it’s our shared passion and diversified skills that really benefit us as a team. And we get along ok too, I guess...

JR: Speaking of harmony, a defining characteristic of your music in my opinion, do the intertwining parts come easy to you guys or do you have to sit and write them out?

SEH: I sort of live in harmony.  My instrument (the viola) is almost always the harmony instrument of the string family--in orchestras, string quartets, you name it, and I always sang alto in choir. When Jess brings a new song to me and we start to work through it, if she doesn't have a specific idea already usually we just work it out as we go through the song, with her singing the melody and me trying different things.  

JTC: Yeah! It all really depends – for the originals, I’ll likely come to the girls with a broad sketch of the arrangement, and then they will fill in the parts beautifully in detail of their own. Everyone definitely has a principal role in crafting the specific part she/he sings/plays.

JR: I'm an English major, so I have to ask, but who writes the lyrics for your music? What inspires or influences the words you use and events or people you describe? Are they biographical?

SEH: That's all Jess.

JTC: Ha! Yeah, at this point in time, I’m the songstress. The band was kind of started way back when because I wanted to be able to play songs I had written with the energy of a group. Now it is so much more – we are starting to bring Sarah and Catie’s own songs into the mix, which is super exciting! As for the lyrics – yeah, a lot of them have some sort of biographical influence, but others are purely stories. Some are fantasies or visions – I tend to write a lot about the desert back home in the dead of winter here. I hope they all feel universal. Lost love of many sorts is a common theme - I like to say that we write songs about the things that our friends are tired of hearing us talk about (laughs).

JR: You guys have a new EP coming out this summer. What was the process behind these songs - was it at all different from the single you've released? Did you record in the same studio?

SEH: We actually did the whole EP in two days at Excello Studios in Brooklyn. For the most part, there was very little overdubbing--it was mostly going for the sound of the band in the room; and that room sounded great for us!

JTC: Yeah, it was great recording there. Content-wise, our EP is made up of songs written specifically for this band – “Back to Life” was actually the first song we ever put together as a group. The songs are all pretty different – some are ethereal and dreamy, others dark, others extremely upbeat and tenacious. We are really excited to see what people think! It’s kind of all over the place, vibe-wise. And we love that about it.

JR: Do you have any plans or desire to tour in support of the EP?

JTC: We would love to! It can be hard to just up and start touring – almost everything is done independently by the artist these days, including booking, financing, etc. – so it can take a lot of patience and planning. Maybe this Summer or Fall we’ll hit the mid-West, or go out to LA.

SEH: Yeah, we would love to do some traveling as a band. Coordinating schedules is always tough with busy humans, but we're working on it!

JR: I can see that Rockwood Music Hall is a favorite your live performance - tell me a little bit about that and how it came to be important to the band?

JTC: Rockwood is a place we’ve loved since we all moved to the city – it’s a great spot to see music or to play. It can be hard to find a room to book when you aren’t a really big name in Folk/Acoustic music. Most walk-in venues that typically give bands a leg up are really geared more towards rock, punk, alternative, etc. There isn’t quite the folk circuit that there used to be – Rockwood kind of fills that slot though. Also – Stage One has a wall of windows that look in from the street right onto the stage! How cool is that? We’ve actually had people stop and wander in for the rest of our set before. That’s rare when most small bars/venues keep the stage in the basement or at the back of the building.
JR: If you each were an ice cream flavor, which would you be and, more importantly, why?

SEH:  Ben and Jerry's "Everything But The..." because I hate making decisions. And it's delicious.

JTC: Uh – mint chip? Is reason applicable here?

JR: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

JTC: Chuck Norris.

SEH: Definitely.
JR: What all is in the future for Bellehouse?

JTC: Great things! Please stay tuned.

JR: Anything else you'd like to say?

JTC: We’ll be back at Rockwood Music Hall (Stage 3) on Monday, April 20 at 7:30pm – come catch us then! Thanks so much for asking us to interview!

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