It’s been four years since the release of Black Bear, Andrew Belle’s second album and his first foray into electronic pop. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter returns this month with Dive Deep, an aptly titled third record that plunges further into a sea of synths and sampled beats. Belle’s songwriting is as personal as ever, and his voice is still front and center in the mix, with a falsetto made for slow jams and soaring pop choruses alike.
Dive Deep is scheduled for release on August 25th, featuring production by Chad Copelin and contributions from James McAlister (who you may know from his recent work on Planetarium). Ahead of the release, Belle was available for a brief interview on the work that went into it as well as his upcoming tour.
Ruckle: Recently you released a music video for the song “Down” from the new album. What can you tell me about the making of that, and the concept of it?
Belle: Well honestly, I had found this director [Joshua Kang] in Los Angeles a year ago, when I put out the first single called “Dive Deep.” It didn’t turn out to be the right timing to make a video with that guy, but when we put out the “Down” single, we revisited the conversation. Basically we just said ‘hey, we’ve seen that you’ve done a lot of dance choreographed videos, we’re looking for something really similar, but more attached to the imagery and the branding of what we’ve done with this record so far, and the desert stuff.’ We basically just told him what we wanted, I didn’t need to be in it, and then he had relationships with these dancers, and they went out to Joshua Tree, California and shot it. I wasn’t even there or part of it, honestly. From his point of view, he wanted to create a video that kind of slowly builds something, to quote him directly, showing a missed connection type moment at the beginning of the video, you know, demonstrating that through the choreography. It was basically some kind of freestyling in the video. It wasn’t really a whole lot of choreography. I wasn’t really too involved with the video, but I was super pleased when I saw it, and more so than I’ve ever been with any video before. I didn’t even have any notes, you know, to make edits It just was kind of perfect on its own. So I was super thrilled with the video, I thought it gave a nice energy and life to the concept behind the song itself.
R: If you had to describe the process or the putting-together of this album in one word, what would you pick and why?
B: I would say ‘intentional’ is the word I would choose for this process. I mean, it took me like three years from the first day I sat down to write for it to finish the last mix and master of it. I’ve always written really intentionally, and I write really slowly, typically, because I’d rather write something slowly that I really believe in, instead of the other approach, which would be like ‘let’s churn out like 30 ideas and keep the best ones.’ I’ve just operated a little against the flow on that one most of my career. And so, yeah, I made it with the same team of people I made my last record with, the Black Bear record. Chad Copelin was the producer, in Norman Oklahoma, the studio we work out of. James McAlister was a big part of this record, he played on my last record, he was sort of like co-producer/percussion/x-factor kind of guy. I ended up, actually, a couple of the ideas for some of these songs on this record actually came from James, just little 30 or 60 second ideas that I ended up turning into songs. So there’s a lot more co-writing on this record than I’ve done in the past. My producer Chad and I also created a few of the ideas for the songs together.
And what I mean by that is co-writing in the musical sense. I’ve always felt like my strength lies in the writing and the communication piece, and the vocal melodies, the lyrics. Musically, the more I create music and put out records and stuff, I do find that it’s refreshing to bring other people into that process. Just because sometimes I find that I’m maybe a little more limited on the musical front. I’m not the world’s best musician, and so sometimes my ideas tend to just be more of the same, and I find that it’s nice to bring somebody in for a fresh perspective. The single “Down” that we were talking about before was actually co-written over email with somebody that I never met in person. But we were introduced, he’s a producer in Nashville, and he had a song idea, he sent it to me, and that’s where I came up with the idea for “Down.” So I recorded some vocals and sent them back to him, and then he made some tweaks and sent it back, and then I wrote a bridge, and before we knew it we had a song. It was just a very collaborative effort. Maybe that would be the word, actually, now that I’m coming full circle here. It was an intentionally-made record, but maybe collaborative is the better description, because more so than any other project that I’ve done, I brought in people to help me out with it.
R: How would you say that sort of collaboration and that team exercise had evolved over time, from Black Bear to this album?
B: The pre-production process was still basically me at home creating demos of these songs, you know, pretty crude demos at home, and writing to those, writing all the lyrics and all the vocal melodies, and parts like that. And that’s exactly what I did with Black Bear. And then I came to Oklahoma, and the three of us, me and James and Chad, and then actually a fourth guy as well, his name is Jared Evans and he was a part of the Black Bear process as well. The four of us spent about two full weeks together just taking the demos and basically stripping them apart and then rebuilding them. I would say the last record to this record, you know, there’s about three or four years difference there, I feel like everybody involved has grown musically, I think we’re all a little bit better at what we do than we were four years ago. And for that reason, I think this record sounds a little more, just a little tighter, like a little more musically coherent and it kind of sounds like, with Black Bear, we were just sort of exploring a sound, and I feel like on this record we knew a lot more, well, to use a word from before, we were a lot more intentional with the sound we knew we wanted, and we were able to get there faster.
R: I think there’s a lot of ways in which it is pushing the sound further and in different directions than before. The first track I wanted to ask you about was “T R N T” [The Road Not Taken]. You mentioned struggling more with the musical side of things, and that one is a track that’s a lot more ambient and instrumental-focused than other stuff you’ve done. What was it like putting that one together?
B: That was actually a really interesting one. I wrote that probably somewhere in the middle of the writing process for this record, and I had kind of–I was just sort of bored of the traditional song structure that I normally gravitate towards, you know, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and so I was sort of playing around, and I wanted to make something that was a little more syncopated, and something that just wasn’t a traditional song structure. So ironically, even though I describe myself as kind of an average musician, and that I need help in that department, that song in particular, the entire first half of the song I created almost identically myself. The demo that I created sounds really similar to the actual finished recording. And I was writing it, like I normally do, fooling around with vocal melodies, trying to figure out where I was going to go vocally, tone-wise with this. And I usually start in a falsetto and adapt from there. I was just sort of fumbling around, and a lot of times when I don’t have lyrics off the top of my head that I’m ready to use when I’m trying to write a melody, I’ll often find something online, like some piece of literature, a poem or something that I use as a placeholder to find syllable patterns or vowel sounds that, ‘oh, I like the way that kind of rolls off the tongue’ and that builds from there.
That Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” I just had pulled it up real quick, and taped it on the wall, and I was fumbling through it searching for melodies. And I found one relatively quickly, and I just kept honing and fine-tuning it until I really liked it a lot. The intention was always to go back and replace those words with my own, and I don’t know, something about the way it flowed and the way the words, literally the syllables and the vowel sounds, the way it all flowed together, I couldn’t beat it, you know? It turns out it’s such an old poem that it’s actually public domain, I can actually do that. I feel like the message was interesting in that song too about just having, I don’t know, I find it really fascinating, so many times in life, when you’re presented with two different ways to go, and each lead, or could lead, to very drastically different circumstances, and why people choose the way that they go. It felt very fitting with the concept of the record. So I kept it, and then I brought that song, I didn’t have an ending for it, I brought it to the studio, and one night James McAlister and I pieced together how, you know, it gets really big and energetic. That’s where I wanted it to go, I just wasn’t sure how to get there, and James from a production standpoint helped me achieve that.
R: Another song I wanted to talk about that does come off as being part of a different sound is “Hurt Nobody,” which sounds like it’s got an R&B influence going on.
B: Yeah man, I love that stuff, on Spotify I’m always searching for alternative R&B stuff, I love that genre. Stuff like James Blake, he might be my favorite artist right now. I wanted to make a song like that, and that was one of the first songs I wrote for this record. Maybe it was the first one, actually. And it’s definitely different, you know, and it’s not a big single or anything like that. As far as hooky-ness goes, or a big pop chorus or something. But it was the first thing I wrote for this record, and when I wrote it, I really dug it, and I thought, ‘you know, maybe this is the kind of record I’m going to make, and it’s going to be a little more avant-garde, and a little more, you have to sit with it and really learn to love it.’ And then as the songs kept coming out I couldn’t help myself but write songs that were a little more ambitious, and big, and poppy and stuff. But I wanted to keep this song on there because it’s just, I love the slow-jam nature of it, and it’s super sappy, it’s just a love song, you know? And when the chorus happens, to me it just feels like high school slow dance, like you slow dance with a girl you like for the first time, and all those butterflies. That was the vibe I wanted to accomplish, I wanted you to imagine in the gymnasium, you know, slow dance at the prom. That was my vibe for that song.
R: You mention this avant-garde kind of direction you wanted to go. One of the first things that hooked me about this album was that on the first half of it, you have this really interesting percussion element. The drums are a little more electronic, and a little more gritty, there are a lot of interesting sounds going on. Was that part of that?
B: Yeah, James McAlister was the one who was largely responsible for all things percussion, and drums, beats, anything like that on this record. A big thing we always like to do, we did it a ton on Black Bear, we did it on almost every song on this record to, is I really love the sound of mono-miked drums, which basically just means rather than miking the kit individually like you would in a proper recording studio session–you know, you mic the snare drum, and the kick drum, and the toms, and mic everything separately–I love just being real gritty, and like let’s just throw one room mic on there, and make sure the room sounds good, and then also my producer…my producer has this really cool vintage mixing console, I’m blanking on the name of it, but it’s super cool, and it gives this slapback tape delay kind of sound to it. We’ll create beats with samples, and then we just drop James on the drums and just mono mic kit on top of it. And it just kind of gives it this nice big fat room sound to it. So that was definitely an intentional thing, and that’s why I love working with these guys, because like, I’m a writer, I have a vision for these songs, but they’re able to take it to another level and bring so much more to the production than I would ever be able to do on my own.
R: What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming tour and bringing these songs out into a live environment?
B: I’m basically rearranging the songs for the live show. I feel like I perform better honestly, I’ve discovered this over the years about myself, that I perform better in a simpler setting when I can perform the songs a little bit closer to how I wrote them, a little more stripped down. And yet, I recognize that a live show, it needs some energy. An hour of just an acoustic guitar will be boring, and so I’m trying to split the difference and find a balance there where I’m going to kind of scale back a lot of the production from the record, I’m not going to replicate it exactly. Sort of like what I did with Black Bear (hushed)*, if you’re familiar. That’s kind of the general vibe that I’m going to go with for the live show on this record. So I’m going to kind of scale things back, and use sampling and looping and stuff like that, and I’m going to have two people on stage with me helping with that stuff, but it’s going to be this hybrid of, you know, it’s not going to be the full production from the record, but it’s not going to be a stripped down acoustic set either, it’s going to be kind of right there in the middle. So I’m looking forward to rearranging and digging into these songs, which is literally what I’m doing right now today, and the rest of this month, putting all that together and re-imagining these songs. And thankfully, the record comes out in a couple weeks, and then we go on tour after that, so hopefully people will have time to digest the music, and know the songs, and be able to appreciate that when they hear them slightly altered.
R: I was kind of trying to ask, ‘is this going to be more like a Black Bear (hushed) kind of situation.’ And the other thing I wanted to ask you is as part of this production cycle, where the album is finished, and it’s released later this month, and the tour’s after that, what happens between all these events?
B: Yeah, exactly, like I said. And a big reason why I decided to do it this way too, I mean I would love to have the budget to be able to go out and put on a huge big show that replicates the record exactly, and have lights, and all this stuff. Costs can be prohibitive sometimes with that sort of stuff, so I had to find ways to get creative and still put on an interesting show but take on more roles. I’m going to be having to play drum beats myself and loop them, and do more things than I normally would do. Which honestly is kind of exciting for me, I like the idea of having to figure out how to do all that, and sort out all those details. We’re also in the process of creating a visual element for this show, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. So I can’t really speak yet exactly to what it’s going to be, but we’re kind of in the storyboarding or brainstorming ideas for that portion of the show, but we’re trying to create some sort of interesting visual element to be going along with the performance to enhance the experience for the audience.
And then as far as, I mean, I declared the record to be done in the middle of May, but since then, it’s crazy, there’s so much that goes into a release strategy these days, depending on how involved you want to get, or how much you want to put into it. But yeah, everything from, we’ve been slowly releasing singles throughout the summer, we have another one coming out on Friday [August fourth] with the preorder for the record, so this will be the fifth single that we’ve put out. There’s 11 songs on the record, so there will still be a lot of songs people haven’t heard yet. But yeah, that whole strategy takes a lot of planning, and effort, and coordinating. Music video stuff, planning for the tour, planning for the live show, planning for, I don’t know, it’s crazy how much has been going into this. I have management that helps me out with all that stuff, but I’m very much involved with the day-to-day of all that. And so my day is typically consumed with planning and figuring out social media stuff, and email marketing, and yeah, it’s crazy how the hours seem to fly by, and before I know it, I don’t have a lot of time left for creating music, which should be my main job, you know, that’s something I’m trying to find a better balance with.
R: What is the next single going to be?
B: It’s the last song on the record, called “When the End Comes.”
*Editor’s note: Black Bear (hushed) was a companion piece to Belle’s second album which featured stripped down arrangements of its songs.