Zach Williams of country soul trio the Lone Bellow has become a pro when it comes to handling life’s curveballs. Or it at least he plays it off that way.
Calling from a stop in Austin, Texas, the charismatic frontman explains why our interview two days prior had to be canceled and politely apologizes.
“Oh man, there was a crazy flash flood in Baton Rouge,” he says. The venue flooded, but the water was pumped out in time for the band to play one of its signature, foot-stomping gigs.
“Hope that doesn’t happen in Richmond — or worse, an ice storm!” he says. Laughing, Williams goes a bit sideways fleshing out the details of a hilarious concept: the Lone Bellow on Ice. It’s childlike in the most endearing way.
If you’ve seen Williams lead his band, you know humor is a big part of his stage banter. The Georgia-born singer and songwriter is a resilient old soul enamored by both beautiful and boorish things, and he delves into the intersections where they come into balance throughout his work. Along with his bandmates, Williams has come to understand the importance of perseverance and the perspective that goes along with it.
About 10 years ago, Williams’ wife was thrown from a horse and diagnosed a quadriplegic. Williams processed the tragic experience by journaling. Parts of those entries eventually became some of the first Lone Bellow songs at the suggestion of his close friend, Mike Pipkin. As fate would have it, Pipkin is the older brother of now bandmate and native Virginian, Kanene Donehey Pipkin, with whom William sang for the first time at his friend’s wedding.
In time, Williams’ wife miraculously recovered and the pair headed off to live in New York, where Williams reunited with Kanene and old friend Brian Elmquist to form the Lone Bellow.
“When I was like 21, Brian was my roommate and I was singing in the shower. He busted in and told me, ‘You should try to sing in front of people someday,’” Williams recalls. Elmquist probably had no idea just how many people he’d play for in the not-so-distant future.
In 2013, the Brooklyn-based trio released its Southern-soaked, self-titled debut to critical praise and instant adoration of fans who caught it opening for artists such as Brandi Carlile and playing historic festivals such as Newport Folk.
The early sets were pure, powerful, and kind of like a tent revival with plenty of sweat and the overwhelming sense of something special going on around you. The occasional cover of John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery” could hush a crowd that only moments before was on its feet, hootin’ and hollerin’. At the end of the night, everyone had to know the answer to a critical question: Who is this?
The trio is slated to release its follow-up sometime in January if all goes as planned, and Williams is confident people will like what they hear. But he didn’t always feel that way.
“Folks who were old friends and some interviewers were like, ‘Oh, recording the sophomore album, eh? Are you worried?’ I was like, ‘Well now I am! Thanks!’” Williams says, laughing. He explains that unlike the first record for which he was the primary songwriter, this one is a true collaboration. During the past year the band wrote 40 songs on the road. It painstakingly honed the track list down to 13 that tell what Williams explains is “a cohesive story and little work of art.”
“Some you just undeniably know are important. Others we would have healthy arguments about for a long time. That’s the beautiful part of people making something together. Not being afraid of conflict, but rather seeing it as an opportunity,” Williams says. “Obviously, it wasn’t all conflict.”
The first single and title track, “Then Came the Morning,” explores the cavernous corners and ragged edges of a broken heart, but ultimately feels hopeful.
“Songwriting is a cathartic thing in general for us,” Williams says. “These songs come from a personal place. Some of joy and celebration and others the darker side of life. That’s what I love about music though, you can just delve into those things and come out on the other side.”
The National’s Aaron Dessner produced the album and suggested the band record at Dreamland, an 1800s church turned studio in New York near Woodstock. “Something that’s really important to us is the physical location where we actually record,” Williams says.
The sacred spot is a perfect fit for a band that cites early church experiences, family folklore and living in the South as influences. “Something that is different this time is that the three of us sang everything in an old sanctuary together,” he says. “There’s a lot of natural blues in the harmonies on this one.”
Despite the success of the Lone Bellow in the past year, Williams is humble, enjoying what he calls the “great honor of being able to do music” for a living. He isn’t taking anything for granted and certainly isn’t overly confident with his craft. While admitting he is still challenged when it comes to songwriting, he isn’t giving into doubt.
“There’s always that fear of failure, that you shouldn’t even try to start to create or learn something new,” Williams says. “Pushing through that is important.” S
The Lone Bellow plays the Modlin Center on Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. with guest Robert Ellis. Tickets are $10 for UR students, $22 for adults. Modlin.richmond.edu.