Getting to Know... Bell Horses
Bell Horses is the duo of Xian Hawkins (known for his electronica work as part of The Silver Apples and as the solo artist Sybarite) and Jenny Owen Youngs (the melodious-voiced singer-songwriter whose latest album, Transmitter Failure, helped land her among our Best of What’s Next picks for 2009). Along with the contributions of Sybarite collaborator Alex Ericson, Hawkins and Youngs combined their divergent talents into Bell Horses’ debut album This Loves Last Time (out now).
The result is a harmonious mixture of organs, percussion and vocals, a mellow amalgam that’s consummately enjoyable. But making the album was hardly simple: It was pieced together entirely via e-mail, with Ericson, Youngs and Hawkins sending tracks and lyrics back and forth across the expanse of the Internet. Just before the release of This Loves Last Time, Hawkins spoke with Paste about the album’s complicated creative process, his ever-evolving musical style and the future of Bell Horses.
Paste: How did Bell Horses begin?
Xian Hawkins: I was working on my solo stuff as Sybarite, and I’d been trying to make another record. It started off exclusively as an instrumental project, and then I started to work with more and more vocalists with each record. On this one I was working on, I wanted to shift even further in that direction and so I decided that I was cramming too many things under one moniker. I wanted to liberate myself and separate the projects. When I started working with Jenny, the music shifted and became something less electronic. I wanted to get away from that and do something really different. I’d never heard her music before but I heard a song of hers called “Voice on Tape,” which is a little bit of a different sound from some of her usual singer-songwriter-y stuff. And I just fell for her voice—I loved it. So I got in touch with her. Out of the blue, I e-mailed her, and sent her some of my music—and we ended up meeting and having a drink. A friendship bloomed between us and we began working together. Then the male vocalist, Alex Ericson, had worked with me on the Sybarite record Cut Out Shape. This Loves Last Time came about from just wanting to collaborate more, because the Sybarite stuff is completely studio-based and it’s just me.
Paste: How would you characterize Bell Horses? Is it a duo with collaborators, is it a trio, or something else?
Hawkins: I think I would characterize it more as a duo. The songs with Jenny are something that I think we’re going to explore further. I think the songs with Alex fit in with all of it, but I don’t know how much he and I are going to continue to work together. Working with him was a little bit more difficult because there’s a language barrier, and also he’s in Europe. First, he was in Germany and then he was in London. He’s pretty busy with his own stuff, too. So I would say he’s more of a guest on the record. And Jenny and I have talked about working on more stuff. Because the recording took so long to finish, due to her being on tour, and with Alex in Europe, the music didn’t end up exactly where it started. I mean, it’s all in there but the stuff that we’re working on now feels a little bit more direct. What I had in mind when we first started working, things kept shifting a little bit. Now, my intentions are to do it as a live endeavor at some point. My friend [drummer] Michael Lerner, who plays with The Antlers, and I are recording next weekend. I’m bringing him in from the beginning, whereas before, he came and played on a few [songs] that were completely done. I want to involve him from the beginning this time to make it a little more collaborative, a little looser, and also something that we can do live—not quite as studio-oriented. I’ve always had that problem with the Sybarite stuff, too. I did a small European tour and it’s really hard to replicate music that’s specifically born in the studio, especially when you’re just doing it yourself.
Paste: At this point, do you think you’d like to tour and play the album live?
Hawkins: Yeah, I mean, we have talked about it. I think Jenny would do it in a flash. She’s performed so much and is in that mode. It’s been a couple years since I’ve played out so for me it’s a little more complicated. Also, we’re physically not in the same place. It makes it more challenging. But I think with another group of songs, we’ll probably try to reinvent some of the stuff off this record so we can do it live. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.
Paste: How long did this record take you to make? About eighteen months?
Hawkins: Yeah, I’d say probably about that, with doing other things in between. The process for recording and making the record was that I would send Jenny rough things that we did, and then she would work some stuff up, and send it back to me. Her producer for her record, Dan Romer, records all of her vocals. She doesn’t have a studio, so that took a while because she had to work with him, too. Then she’d send a [vocal track] back to me and I would change something in the music around what she did and then send it back to her. Because we were physically never in the same place, it was really slow. Plus, she’s pretty active with her own career. She was trying to record her album Transmitter Failure at the same time. So that definitely had to take priority for her.
Paste: You say that the record started as one thing and became something else. Can you characterize how the finished product differed from what you initially set out to do?
Hawkins: I think what ended up changing was—because I was originally thinking of this stuff as being a Sybarite record, it was a little more abstract and electronic. And then I realized that I wanted to make a more natural-sounding record and get away from the way I was used to working. I’m a guitar player originally, so I was always adding other things into the mix along with the electronics. I was trying to create something that you could hear as a group of songs that made sense together and had an identity on their own as opposed to just a bunch of different tracks on a record. I hope we were able to do that.
Paste: There’s definitely a cohesion and a theme to the album. So you were setting out to make more of an album per se?
Hawkins: Yeah, definitely. I hadn’t worked with Jenny before, or with Alex. Particularly with Jenny, we talked about ideas for things. But what she came up with was definitely of her own making. The reason that I gravitated towards both of them in the first place is that they’re both able to use their voice as an instrument. When I listen to vocals I always hear the music first. I notice the voice but I don’t really pay that much attention to the words—I hear the quality of the voice. That’s part of what attracted me to working with Jenny and Alex. Even though Jenny’s stuff is more singer-songwritery, I just really love the quality of her voice. And I think it’s nice to hear her use it in a different way on the Bell Horses album.
Paste: This is a unique way to make a record. Alex was in Berlin and London, Jenny was in Brooklyn, and you were in Western Massachusetts?
Hawkins: Yeah. (Laughs)
Paste: So would you e-mail lyrics one day and then an MP3 of instrumentals another? What was that process?
Hawkins: I would usually start off by e-mailing them an MP3, just as a sort of sketch. I didn’t give either one of them the same song. I usually had a specific idea of what I was hoping to hear and who I wanted to have work on it. They would send me back tracks. It became a little more complicated in the finishing process. I think the third song with Jenny, “Headmess,” probably has 16 vocal tracks on it. You wouldn’t know it but there’s a bunch of harmonies and some are just little short bits in a chorus. But when it came, that’s when it also got complicated because I would line everything up and make sure it was working with my mix and re-engineer it a little bit. Alex didn’t send me quite as many tracks, but it was the same thing. For “Small Hours,” the second song, there are a bunch of backing vocals.
It was kind of a slow way to work and I think that’s what we’re trying to counteract now and figure out a faster process. On the last song of the record, “Dust of Us,” I’d given Jenny almost more of a rock song. It was one that I had been working on for a long time that just never fit in with anything that I was doing. I started thinking maybe this could work on the track. I sent her a couple different things but she gravitated towards this one song, and did what I thought were really nice lyrics with it, and the vocals were really good. But when it was done, the music just didn’t seem to fit all of the rest of the record. So that song was the only one that I completely scrapped. I think there are parts of the bass line, maybe, that are in it, but I scrapped basically the entire thing and then wrote something just around her vocals. That was a weird, indirect way to write a song, which I hadn’t really done before, using her vocals and sort of building from there. And that’s something we talked about trying to do more if she has a vocal idea that isn’t fully fleshed out, but we’ll see.
Paste: Do you think you’ll try to be in the same city for the next album?
Hawkins: Yeah, we’ll probably do a stint! We talked about that. I go back and forth to New York a lot. And Michael Lerner has a little studio in his apartment—he lives in Brooklyn. But yeah, I think we will. Like I said, because Jenny exclusively works with Dan, if I do go work with her it would be working with the two of them. He has a really nice studio in Brooklyn.
Paste: I read that for her album Transmitter Failure, she moved in with Dan so they could work on it morning, noon, and night. I don’t know if that means you’d have to move in too.
Hawkins: I don’t know if I’m ready for that.
Paste: I read that you do your creative work out of a Victorian Church in Western Massachusetts.
Hawkins: Yeah. We live in an old Victorian church where I also have my studio. It is actually a pretty great space. I did use it to record, to take advantage of the acoustics, to record a bunch of the instrumentals. Not that you would know that, listening to it.