When Zach Williams burst a blood vessel in his voice box earlier this year, the Lone Bellow's career nearly ended before it had begun. Just days before the Brooklyn country-folk trio was set to release its eponymous debut, which they'd been working on for more than two years, Williams lost his voice completely. "I wasn't used to singing numerous times in a week, and I really hurt myself," he recalls. "I couldn't speak for six days." It couldn't have come at a worse time for the rising stars: Not only did they have a new album, but the band had to bow out of a show with two of their heroes, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.
Fearful that the injury might be permanent and his career might be over, Williams began working with a vocal coach to relearn his craft from the ground up. He became a student of the Alexander technique, a strict regimen for reducing mental and muscular tension during everyday activities. It's commonly used for patients with Parkinson's disease, but it proved helpful to the singer as well.
"I go in and this lady teaches me how to breathe, how to stand, how to talk, where to focus," Williams explains. "Instead of pushing on my vocal box and out of my chest, I think of sound coming from behind my ears. There's a little pocket of air right behind your ears that you're supposed to push out when you sing. If you push from anywhere else, you're not stewarding your muscles very well. I haven't nailed it down yet. I'm still learning, but I can do shows again now."
Williams blames the predicament on "poor writing," by which he means he wrote too many throat-straining choruses and too many exultant sing-alongs without realizing the toll it would take on him. That, however, is exactly what has drawn so many fans to the band in a short time.
The trio — which also includes multi-instrumentalists/singers Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin — has been making music together since 2010. Williams and Elmquist were old friends from Georgia, although when they first met Pipkin, she was living in Beijing. Eventually, she relocated to the same Park Slope neighborhood, and the three discovered a shared affinity for old folk and gospel music. To record their debut, they raised money via Kickstarter, although Williams says the band moved forward cautiously: "I wanted to steward the music, so basically it took us two years to put together a team. We took our time." The Lone Bellow refined their songs, signed with upstart Descendant Records, and hired CCM-artist-turned-Americana-auteur Charlie Peacock (the Civil Wars, Holly Williams) to produce.
During those two years, the band also watched as a movement of new artists — most notably, Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers — reintroduced acoustic folk music to the mainstream, playing emotionally intense sets of rousing anthems. Williams is aware that the Lone Bellow will be lumped in with the new crop of revivalists: "People are intrigued by storytelling music right now," Williams says. "I'm very grateful that the average listener is listening to stuff like Mumford & Sons, the Civil Wars, even the Tallest Man on Earth, but I also think it's kind of funny that we made the record a few years back."
Even so, the revivalist label is not a perfect fit for the Lone Bellow, who boast a broader palette than most of their peers. Steeped in the same folk harmonies popularized by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, their debut draws from contemporary country and even classic rock. The opening "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold" sounds as large and as propulsive as a Fleetwood Mac hit, despite being unplugged and much more romantically generous. "You Don't Love Me Like You Used To" could have been a hit for country singer Lynn Anderson circa 1970, and "Bleeding Out," with its blood-vessel-bursting climax, is the Arcade Fire gone Nashville.
Perhaps most crucially, the Lone Bellow's fervency is born from — and perhaps represents a triumph over — adversity. Never mind Williams' vocal cords. He started writing songs in a hospital room, where his wife lay paralyzed after being thrown from a horse. While he was taking classes on how to feed, bathe, and care for her, Williams started a journal detailing some of his darker thoughts, which eventually became his first batch of songs. His wife made a full recovery, which made those songs easier to sing.
The songs on The Lone Bellow are born from similarly traumatic experiences, which make them emotionally as well as physically painful to sing. "These songs aren't from the time when Stacy had her accident, but they're from another sad season in life," Williams explains. "Some are personal, and others are story-songs about really close friends of mine. I'm grateful to be able to relive those hard moments night after night. It's one of those things that reminds you that you're alive and you can feel, that you're not numb."
The Lone Bellow with Marcus Foster and Ruston Kelly
1884 Lounge at Minglewood Hall,
Sunday, April 7th, 7:30 p.m., $12