For those who love the foundations of The Lone Bellow's sound — the blend of acoustic guitars and mandolin that lies at the heart of many of their songs, the trio's bracing, powerful vocal harmonies, the way their songs straddle folk and country — their next project has to sound exciting. Singer/guitarist Zach Williams, mandolin player and vocalist Kanene Pipkin, and lead guitarist/vocalist Brian Elmquist have eschewed a big-name producer (the red-hot Dave Cobb, who has worked with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, produced their last album) and hunkered down in a home studio to make a new, largely acoustic EP themselves.
"I'm literally taking a 20-minute break from recording a song right now," Williams says at the beginning of our interview. "We're dead in the middle of it. This EP we're making is particularly fun because we've never made a record where we were producing ourselves. It's great to be able to take our time and be able to do it exactly the way we want to do it, and not be in a situation where we're punching the clock at a studio, worrying about how much we're paying. It's a lot more relaxed and loose and I think that every musician should try to figure out how to record in their home. It's a great thing to do just to help aerate your creativity and try to pinpoint things that maybe you were scared to do, and take the time to get over that fear."
Moments later, though, Williams does admit that working as both an artist and a producer is a two-sided coin.
"This is a new venture, so I don't know if I can lay out the pros and cons 'til after it's fleshed out and done," he says. "But I do think that one thing that's probably both a good and a bad is that when you have a producer, you have someone who's outside of the bubble who can take in an idea and say it sucks or it's great, and it's really nice having that there sometimes."
The Lone Bellow is a band with seven years, three albums, and hundreds of live shows behind them, and Williams says it's only because of that experience that they're in a position to work on a set of songs on their own.
"I don't think we could've done that before," he says. "After making three records together, we have a stronger understanding of what pisses each other off, what brings us joy, how to give each other space or not . . . it's like a dance."
Perhaps there's another advantage to recording at home, as well; that informal atmosphere might help the trio forget the uncertain circumstances in which they made their previous album, 2017's Walk Into A Storm. During the making of that album, the band was in the process of moving from New York to Nashville, and the project was eventually put on hold while Elmquist sought treatment for alcohol abuse.
"There was just a lot going on," Williams says. "And I think that the songs we wrote because of that were pretty cathartic for us."
Other than that brief thought on the period of time surrounding that album, however, Williams says he doesn't really think about the past at all.
"I'm kind of the type of person who has a hard time remembering things," he says. "I know how I feel right now. We're in the middle of making a stripped-down acoustic record at one of the band member's houses, and we've got some new songs, and we're revisiting some old songs and doing some really fun covers and just loving the process of making music. I love the mystery that comes along with songwriting, the mystery of, 'What is it, why does it exist, why do people want to listen to it?' It's just such a strange thing that we get to do."
One of the clichés one hears about songwriting is that a song isn't truly good unless you can strip it down to a bare-bones, acoustic arrangement and have it still shine. And since The Lone Bellow are currently doing just that, one might think that this critically acclaimed trio believes in that maxim. But Williams is quick to say that he doesn't have many hard-and-fast rules for measuring the quality of a song.
"I think every song is different," he says. "I think if you listen to some of my heroes, like Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) or Jeff Tweedy, they've both talked about doing it so many different ways. Like they'll completely record all of the music and instrumentation of the whole song, but they discipline themselves not to write lyrics or melody until everything else is recorded and then wait for the words to come."
Having said that, though, Williams does admit there's one place where the mettle of a song can still be tested, and it's the reason The Lone Bellow is looking forward to their closing performance at Spoleto.
"We're going to be trying out the new stuff," he says. "That's always been a really big part of my process, to feel a room when they hear your song. That helps me decide, 'Is this something that should be recorded, or something that should live forever in my Dropbox where no one else will ever hear it?' So, we'll be singing them and trying our best to read the energy."