The sky has cleared, and last night’s snow is blowing off trees and onto the sidewalks of Park Slope. It’s January, but a father is showing his son the Christmas toys that still sit in the window of an optometrist’s office. Older kids are already at school, but there are plenty of signs that this Brooklyn neighborhood is full of families, from the abundance of minivans parked along each street to the plastic toys in front of every third brownstone to enough parents and nannies pushing babies to give Park Slope the nickname “Strollerville.”
I meet the three members of The Lone Bellow at Dizzy’s, the diner where singer/guitarist Brian Elmquist worked until last year. All three live in the neighborhood and have since before they were a band. Williams has been here nearly a decade—before he and his wife Stacy had three daughters of their own to push around in strollers. But if Park Slope is about family, then so is The Lone Bellow. Zach Williams, Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin—the band’s trio of singers—were friends first, and now they call their relationship more like a marriage, something of which they are all familiar. Pipkin’s husband Jason tours as their bassist. Elmquist got married just before the release of their self-titled debut. And Williams’ wife is the reason he started writing songs in the first place.
A year after their marriage, Stacy broke her neck in a horseback-riding accident and was initially diagnosed as a quadriplegic. At 22, thinking his wife would never walk again, Williams began processing his grief through journal entries. “I had this group of like 15 friends who came and stayed with me and just sat with me in the silence of it all,” he says. “And I would read my journal entries, just to try to process because I was going through the different stages of grief.”
Those friends encouraged Williams to turn those journal entries into songs, even though he was a novice on guitar who couldn’t yet sing and play at the same time. But he learned, and songwriting quickly became a way to deal with the intensity of his feelings. “I remember this one day in the hospital, we were like, ‘Man, if some miracle happens and Stacy gets better, let’s all move to New York together and just try to pursue whatever it is in our hearts.’ There were actors and this and that. And this absolute miracle happened, and my wife is completely healed.”
Two years later, Williams and Stacy followed some of their friends to New York, though it was Stacy who decided on Park Slope. One of Williams’ closest friends was in Astoria, but Stacy couldn’t imagine living there. “One day we came over to Park Slope, and she was like, ‘This is where I’m going to live,’” he remembers. “It’s a great place to live long-term in New York because you can have kids here. This neighborhood is a joke when it comes to how many kids are in it. It’s insane. They’re all in school right now, so you haven’t been attacked. When school lets out, it is Sesame Street.”
Williams speaks with such a fondness for his community in Park Slope that it’s easy for him to forget how difficult that original move was. “My first two years in New York nearly broke my back,” he says. “It was awful. Our marriage barely made it through. For us, it was the situation where such a huge mirror was showing you all of your insecurities. It was really lonely, trying to get to know people. It was a really, really hard transition. I don’t know how we made it through, but we did. But like, nine years later, you can be thankful for the hard times.”
While Williams worked a series of jobs from organizing denim in the basement of G Star to assisting in a real estate office, he kept writing songs and playing around town. Throughout it all, he tried to be careful with his expectations about where it would go. “Maybe too careful,” he says. “I played in the city for about six years, and in the meantime had a couple kids. My wife and I were working kinda tough jobs. It wasn’t really a sustainable way of life to be like, ‘Just wait, babe, one day we’re gonna make it; I’m gonna make a living playing music and everything will be fine.’ It was more like, ‘Hey, we love this, let’s just do it while we can,’ and we kept working our regular jobs.”
Still, he couldn’t help but get discouraged trying to support both a family and a dream, all while paying New York City rent. “I just saw the strain that it was putting on my home,” he says. “I would go out all the time at night, and Stacy would stay home and I was like, ‘This is no good.’ I lived on Presidents Street and this place called Bar 4 was on the other side of the neighborhood. It was the wintertime, but my buddy was like, ‘This place has a killer open mic,’ and we just started going down there every Tuesday night—30-minute walks in January in New York. The first night I performed, I played this brand new song I had written that day and afterwards one of the songwriters told me, ‘You need to keep doing this, you need to keep writing and coming here and singing.’ And he didn’t know that just earlier that week I was like, ‘I’m done.’”
But he didn’t really believe it could be something more until he started playing with Elmquist and Pipkin.
The first discussion about The Lone Bellow began here at Dizzy’s, which blends a classic diner feel with a menu that wouldn’t offend the foodiest Brooklynites. Elmquist jokes about the Yelp reviews that called him out for wearing short-shorts.
“I can’t deny it, that’s me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m the only one that does that. In the summer, I always cut my jeans off. So, they start [just above the knees] and by the end of the summer, they’re like Dukes of Hazzard, Jessica Simpson.”
Elmquist had been playing in a rock band in Nashville while Williams was doing the solo acoustic thing in New York. First inspired to play guitar at 13 when he saw Slash standing on a grand piano in Guns ’N Roses’ video for “November Rain,” the Georgia native got lured to Tennessee with the promise of a publishing deal.
“They ended up being sharks, but that got me to Nashville and to start writing and learning how to do that. I had a rock ’n roll band in Nashville, we had a good record that we never released but that kinda fizzled out. Then I was looking for a place to go, and every time I was on the phone with Zach he was like, ‘Don’t call me again until you move to Brooklyn.’ So I moved to New York and I started playing country music.”
Elmquist grew up in Sandersville, Ga., (population 5,873). Moving to New York, even after a few years in Nashville, wasn’t easy. But the community made it easier. “I see the same people,” he says. “The same person fixes my shoes. I see people walking on the street, so it doesn’t feel like I’m in a big city. When I look at Manhattan, I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ But here in Park Slope, walking around, and knowing most of the people, you see a lot of people that you see every day, you see your friend walking with his kids down the street, so it feels like a small town.”
One day at Dizzy’s, Williams approached Elmquist with the idea of doing a honky-tonk side project. “I was like, ‘Honky-tonk? I’m there. Like Dwight Yoakam? I’m in.’ It ended up not even coming close to honky-tonk at all. But we ended up singing together on a drive to Williamsburg, and we hit this crazy note and then ended up doing it live, and it was like this jolt. He leaned over to me and said, ‘I don’t think this is a side project,’ and I was like, ‘It’s not; we need to lean into it.’ I thought we could really do something together as friends, and keep each other in check.”
But if Williams and Elmquist’s voices together made a jolt, the addition of Pipkin’s made something beautiful.
Pipkin and her husband moved to China shortly after college, following friends who were teaching orphans how to make and sell bread. They both loved music and played around Beijing. “Jason and I were hosting an open mic at an expat bar, which isn’t exactly the pinnacle of creative license. It was mostly drunk people asking you to play ‘Hotel California’...again. It was fun though, and we got random gigs as performers at some fancy Chinese business party.”
After moving back to New York for culinary school, Pipkin had pretty much given up on music. “When I left China, it was the only place I knew living in as an adult. I moved to New York thinking I was such a tiny fish in the most giant pond. I was working two or three jobs and going to night school, and Sunday was the only day I had off, which I would sometimes spend singing with Zach, which was just the best. But I was like, ‘Man, living in New York is hard. It’s really expensive, you have to work so hard to do it.’”
When the trio started playing together, they realized they might be onto something special, but that didn’t make things any easier for a while.
“I was working a hard job as a pastry chef at this soda fountain, right before we quit our jobs for South by Southwest [in 2013],” says Pipkin. “I would bike past Brian and we’d just kind of zombie wave at each other. You can’t dismiss that work though, the mundane grind doesn’t define you as a person, it’s building your character—especially when you’re performing in front of people or spending so much time in a van with people.”
“I had to get up at 5 a.m. to work at the diner, take a nap at 2, then go do what we were doing at night,” Elmquist adds, “and it was like a year of doing that. I think I realized how much it put my head in a good space not to have these crazy expectations and just enjoy the work of it. So when we released the record, it was like ‘okay, we can do this.’ You have to learn to find the beauty of the mundane of it or you’ll go crazy. I think that time really built it up to this time being more sustainable.”
Williams knew the time had come to forget about being careful with expectations. “There was a moment where I realized I didn’t want to do it alone anymore. I started making music with these guys, and I remember telling my manager that I wanted to put a team together and try this really hard, and I needed him to be with me and he was like, ‘Yeah, man, we have a plan.’ Then I had to make some really hard decisions, because he was one of my really good friends but my hope was really strong, and I knew I needed to part ways with him professionally. I decided that I wanted to use vacation time from my work to tour, and my wife and I decided okay, these next couple years, we won’t go on any vacations—instead we’re gonna go tour.”
The band signed with Descendent Records, a new branch of Sony, and put out their first album in 2013. Produced by Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars, Switchfoot), it wasn’t the honky-tonk they’d initially talked about, but it did have a country tinge. Filled with catchy choruses that took full advantage of the three powerful voices mixing together in harmony, the album reached the Top 100 on Billboard, and rooms started filling up on their headline tour. They played late-night shows and top-line festivals.
But that album was a snapshot of musicians just figuring out who they were as a band. Then Came The Morning, their new follow-up, benefits from two years on the road together, writing together and learning what they love to sing. The result leans as much towards the blue-eyed soul of Van Morrison and gospel as it does country, alt or otherwise.
“When we made the first album, we weren’t a band yet,” says Williams. “I mean, those were our first 12 songs, and when we recorded the album, we had probably had like seven rehearsals and four shows. It was, like, three months of being a band. Wouldn’t you say? Six months?”
“I think we had our first show in October and we recorded it in July,” Pipkin corrects.
“But we played, like, one show a month.”
The gospel elements came naturally—not only because Dreamland Studio, where they recorded is a converted church, but all three members also had experiences singing for their congregations. Pipkin sang in a cross-cultural Presbyterian church in Fredericksburg, Va. “We grew up singing gospel music,” she says, “and that was a big part of my singing training. I think the first solo I ever got was ‘His Eyes Are on the Sparrow.’ Like, very Lauryn Hill’d out, except I was a tiny, red-headed child.”
Elmquist has been playing guitar in his uncle’s church for as long as he can remember. “As soon as I knew one chord on the guitar, my mom threw me up there,” he says. The band visited the church together and lights up when talking about it.
“It’s a scene, man,” Williams says. “Halogen lights on the ceiling with just a crazy painting of Jesus on a white horse coming down with a sword or something. His grandfather sits on a, not a La-Z Boy, but one of those comfortable chairs, with a microphone and sings bass. Sits down and sets the scene, man.”
“And he slept through every sermon for the last 30 years,” Elmquist adds laughing. “My grandfather, he has this thing where he sits down, and he just falls asleep. So he’ll finish, and he’ll be crying because he’s really into it, and then he’ll sit down, and my uncle starts [nods off and laughs]. Every single Sunday.”
There are still country elements on the album, the pedal steel of “I Let You Go,” the rocking Southern swing of “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” or the hints of twang on the single “Cold As It Is.” But it’s a far cry from where they started.
“We were traveling as a five-piece,” says Pipkin, “and when we first started playing, the first rehearsal there were like eight or nine people, and it was just, like, every instrument—fiddle, banjo, mandolin, pedal steel, everything. I think that really bled into what the first record would be like, and I think having stripped a lot of that away by necessity, and just having mainly vocals, guitar, bass, keys. I think that kind of led to maybe a more gospel sound. Because we concentrated so much on how we sang together and didn’t have a lot of the other accouterments.”
This time, the songs on the album are the result of two years of writing together. Each of the members would bring either snippets of ideas or fully formed songs to the others to see where they’d end up. When it came time to choose songs for the albums, everyone had their favorites to argue for, and those discussions could get passionate.
“Oh yeah, there were some brawls,” Williams says.
“It was like Game of Thrones going on,” Elmquist adds with a laugh.
One natural thing that happened was we naturally gravitated towards the songs that meant the most to us when we sang them together,” Williams says. “And I think that that helped create the overarching story of the record—that it bubbled to the surface.”
They also traded Nashville for New York, enlisting Aaron Dessner of The National to produce. In addition to loving their music, they appreciated how Dessner and Matt Berninger talked about their work and the importance of their friendship to the band.
“We want to live here and make music here, and our families are here,” Elmquist says. “We need to get involved with the people that are curating the art that’s coming out of New York, and [The National] are on the front lines of it, just making beautiful music, so it is just so cool that we could make that happen.”
“Talking to them about their songwriting, they’re really intentional,” he adds. “It’s not just one guy talking about all of these feelings underneath. They’re writing about their friends, their community, the same kind of thing we do. So, when we were talking to Aaron about it, as huge fans, and just to be able to sit down and work—you know, he and I did real work on these songs together and I got to see what his process was. Amazing. His process isn’t much different than what we do, he’s just been doing it for longer. It was a really fun process to, not just play the first thing that came, but how many layers of guitars do we need to have for one little hook that gets in your head—hopefully for a long time.”
A former scholarship football player, Elmquist also appreciated Dessner’s sports metaphors. “Like, ‘Brian, listen, that’s like AA college; we’re trying to do the big leagues here.’ And it’s like, ‘Okay,’ and we work for another hour, and he’s like, ‘That’s Big Ten but we’re still trying to get there.’ That competition, he has with his brother. They’re awesome to work with together. They’re not sugarcoating anything. They’re like, ‘Let’s get the best thing out.’”
Through it all, though, there was no serious thought of leaving Brooklyn.
“When money’s really tight with the band,” Williams says, “we’ll be like, ‘We can’t make it here. We need to move to a smaller city, because we’re just going to stay in a van because we have to pay our rent. This isn’t sustainable.’ Then I talk to Stacy, and it’s like, “Actually, this is what we want to invest money into. Into trying our best to stay and do life together with these friends. And now, our kids will know each other, and just try to get as old as we can together, you know? Just stick it out.”
The three families are as tightly interwoven at home as they are on the road. Pipkin and her sister frequently babysit the Williams kids, as will be evident later this day when we visit Williams’ apartment and the youngest daughter waddles enthusiastically towards her like she would an aunt. No matter where they end up on the Billboard Charts or which late-night TV gig and festival they play, the community they have here in Park Slope has allowed them not to let their identities get completely swept up in a life of music.
“[Jason and] I live with my sister and my best friend from college,” Pipkin says. “Just having roommates—and my cousin moved in right now because she’s between apartments—when we go home, we go home to this family that is trying to keep us grounded and keep us in the loop of what’s going on.”
But that support is needed most on the road, and it’s only grown over time. “It’s funny how I feel like, especially in a band like ours where it’s friends and people who were friends before they were in a band together,” she says, “a lot of it feels like a family or like almost marriage-level commitment to people. We’re committed to going through all these phases of life together, no matter what. I feel like there’s such a deeper level of trust and understanding. And also, we didn’t have any misconceptions about the level of commitment this was going to take—and our capacity to forgive others but also forgive each other. We’ve gone through the ringer just being on the road all the time. We’ve all had really dark moments. We’ve all been on the receiving end and giving end and just really pretty understanding forgiveness and understanding this belief. Everyone really believes in each other, champions each other.
“You feel safe and you feel protected and you feel bolstered by just knowing that people aren’t going to be mean,” she continues with her bandmates listening intently. “When you have a good marriage, I know you’ve seen the absolute worst and the absolute best of me, and I know you’re not going, and then you can make that relationship a home for other people. Then they can receive love from the two of you because you’re a home in of itself. That’s what we want to be as a band. And I even think some of the stories we’ve heard just from hearing people mention ‘Then Came the Morning,’ I can’t even talk about them without just getting totally overwhelmed. Because it’s people who’ve been through the most atrocious things done to them and they heard that song and they’re like, ‘I feel like one day I’ll wake up and not just feel totally ruined by what happened to me. I feel like there’s hope for me.’ And the songs, we didn’t have them in mind, but just the fact that we’ve been through all that, I feel like things have gone through our blood into this music, much more than the first record. Just as a unit, as a whole. And it’s encouraging to see people gleaning from that, even if it’s not obvious in the lyrics.”
As she finishes, Elmquist is the only one at the table with dry eyes, as Williams nods in agreement. “Coming to Park Slope is all about family. We’re all married, but you have this band that has broadened our community on so many different levels that it seems to be your life raft. It’s funny. Maybe we’re in this situation for a reason where we can bring people in.”