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July 28, 2015

Author Kate Christensen Interviews Musician Nathaniel Bellows

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Kate Christensen is an author, her most recent book is the memoir Blue Plate Special. Her memoir How To Cook a Moose will be published this fall.

Nathaniel Bellows is a musician and author. His new album album is The Old Illusions, and he is the author of a poetry collection, a novel, and a novel-in-stories.

Author Kate Christensen interviews Nathaniel Bellows:

Kate Christensen: Full disclosure: ever since Nathaniel Bellows and I met at a dinner party 6 ½ years ago, we have kept up a running online Scrabble game, and since we began playing, we have made great use of the "chat" box. In that tiny, incidental space, Nathaniel B. and I have discussed matters large and small, ranging from what we're eating for dinner to books we're reading to our childhoods to (most importantly and interestingly for me) moral support and commiseration, progress reports, and small victories related to our own work. Our Scrabble chat has become an open-ended, ongoing conversation that ebbs and flows through the years. So it's a treat to take our conversation out of the chat box into a public forum on the occasion of the release of Nathaniel's beautiful, original new CD, The Old Illusions.

Why did you call your CD "The Old Illusions"? Listening to it, and reading the lyrics, it strikes me that you're looking back--not in anger, but with a kind of elegiac sorrow, reflecting on innocence lost.

Nathaniel Bellows: The title comes from a line in the song, "Oh, Now," which, in its dim pessimism and quiet scorn, is also the epiphany that, in the aftermath of resignation and disappointment is evidence of the self's resilience, the spirit's begrudging reflex to recover.

KC: Each song stands alone, but they also feel cohesive and interconnected. Did you write these songs to comment on one another, or did that happen by accident?

NB: These songs were culled from a larger group, all of which were written without input or audience—essentially in my bedroom, over the period of many years. So, when it came time to narrow them down for a record, I had no objectivity. I asked my friend and artistic collaborator, Sarah Kirkland Snider, for help since she was the person that first encouraged me to record these songs properly, and she knew the material well. She made the initial cut and then, as the process continued with my friend Aaron Roche (amazing recording engineer, multi-instrumentalist, and arranger) I took out one song, and added two new ones. Once all the recordings were done (the main tracks of my guitar and vocals, and the arrangements by the incredibly gifted musicians who feature on the record), the sequencing of the record became instantly clear—each song had always contained a singular, three-dimensional world to me, but strung together, I found they formed a unified, thematic whole.

KC: You mentioned the arrangements—they sound beautiful. How did they come about?

NB: From the beginning I wanted a very spare, straightforward sound to this record—raw and intimate—and Aaron knew some exceptional musicians he thought would respond well to the songs. I didn't give them any direction beyond communicating what the overall sound of the record was to be; otherwise, they had free reign to respond and contribute, as they liked. Along with Aaron, the other musicians that appear on the record are Alex Sopp, David Garland, Julie Lee & Dan Burns, and DM Stith. I'm so grateful for their involvement because they each elevated the songs in their own distinctive way.

KC: You're extremely talented and accomplished in a lot of art forms: you've published two novels and a poetry book, you're a trained artist, you've written lyrics for the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and also, obviously, for your own songs, and you also play guitar and sing. Did I leave anything out? Have you been a multidisciplinary artist since you were a kid?

NB: Thank you. Yes, I have always worked in these three disciplines, ever since I was very young—music and art first, and then writing, when I learned how. These disciplines have always felt interconnected, if not interdependent, and, over all my years of schooling, I was lucky to have supportive and encouraging teachers, with no one insisting I should focus on one single pursuit. In the past, I used to visualize my three-pronged artistic practice as the three legs of a stool—all functionally necessary, essential for balance, bearing the same amount of weight. But now that I'm older, it feels different—more galvanizing and steadying than ever, these three endeavors are like the sharpened tines of a gardening claw, which I use to dig and pull apart the ground around me.

KC: What was your childhood like? How did art play a part in it, if it did?

NB: My childhood was characterized by a good deal of solitude, spent mostly out in nature, often with animals, and when indoors, drawing or making things, reading books, practicing the piano (I took lessons for eleven years). I was a good student, and I liked learning, but school was a blur. My parents always had music playing in the house (mostly classical), and made concerted efforts to take us to museums and plays and concerts, sharing with us not only their affinities but also their sense of cultural curiosity. At the risk of sounding dramatic—and probably a little strange—I think it's true to say that, as a kid, these private, deeply focused artistic endeavors of mine were like my friends—my true companions. They kept me engaged and challenged and entertained, and resulted—for better or for worse—in an inability to ever feel alone.

KC: To me, that sounds neither dramatic nor strange! I wonder how many of us present-day writers and musicians and painters dove into making art as kids to comfort ourselves and keep ourselves company. It's a powerfully effective way to survive a lonely or difficult childhood.

Since we first became friends a number of years ago, you and I have talked a lot about coastal New England, where you're from, and where I live--Maine in particular. I wonder if you want to talk a little about the ways in which the sensibilities and geography of this place inspire and influence your work. I hear a lot of maritime New England in these songs, in other words.

NB: I am definitely influenced and inspired by the New England landscape—the seaside and the marshes, meadows, forests, and orchards. The whole area has a haunted quality that I've always felt very deeply, which has infiltrated all of my work, like a reoccurring main character. There's something about the rough bleakness of the winter, and the almost primordial fecundity of the summer that makes you feel both at the mercy of the natural world, and that you've been invited to viscerally experience the raw beauty of its extremes.

KC: How do you structure your day? Do you wake up and go, "Today I feel like drawing. Tomorrow I'll work on poetry. The next day is for fiction." How do you keep it all going? And how do all the disciplines inform and complement one another? Or are they at war, competing for your attention like needy brats?

NB: I wish they were brats competing for my attention! Because then at least we might have some understanding of each other. As it is, it's still a little mysterious. But, I've learned I can't summon poetry or fiction or music down from the eaves to work with me at my command. The best I can do is nurture an environment and mindset in which a discipline can accessed, and then hope for the best. I make it a goal to work every day, so, if actual writing isn't happening, I revise, or I work on one of the various larger art pieces I always have going on, or I practice the guitar. I also have a pretty intense part time job, too, which helps structure my art-making life.

KC: It seems most of your work is done independently. Do you enjoy collaborating with other artists?

NB: I haven't had all that many opportunities, but for the past five years I've been writing text for the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider's vocal-based commissions, which has been an incredibly rewarding and inspiring partnership. Writing poems/librettos for her to set to music has given me the chance to approach my writing in a new way—with a different set of considerations and possibilities I wouldn't otherwise require from myself. And to hear how she takes the text, absorbs it, and makes it her own in musical form—while always honoring what I have written—is astonishing. On July 31st, her second record, Unremembered, a song cycle for seven voices, chamber orchestra, and electronics, will be released. The album is inspired by 13 of my poems and drawings, which explore recollections of my childhood growing up in rural Massachusetts. Unremembered has been four years in the making and the final product really is a stunning work of art—a true collaboration that I feel very lucky—and proud—to be a part of.

KC: When you're writing your own lyrics for your own songs, do you hear them set to music as you write, or does that come later, or does the music come first? How do you know they're lyrics rather than a poem? I notice that your song lyrics tend to rhyme, and your poems don't, so maybe the difference is one of stand-alone words versus words meant to be sung.

NB: The poems I write evolve as deliberately, tangibly built things. The poem's components—language, grammar, aspects of traditional poetic forms alongside the invention inherent in free verse—are familiar and known to me, which makes applying them to the nebulous realms of memory and human emotion (recurring themes in my work) a sturdier, more secure process (though not an easy one, of course). With my song lyrics, it's an unstable, unstructured assemblage, pretty much right up until the point the song finally feels finished. I have tried to write lyrics down and create the music from them, but it never works. The lyrics have to evolve in tandem with the music—or, rather, the lyrics emerge from the music, as the melody slowly congeals. The way I see it: the poems are built on the page and the songs are pulled from the air. They often draw upon similar themes and images and experiences, but they ultimately have a different shape and style in their form, and even in what part of me they're attempting to express.

KC: As a songwriter, whom do you listen to and admire and love and maybe even envy? In whose company would you most like to be placed? 

NB: I've always loved the songwriting of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkle, Neil Young, so many…These days some of the songwriters I admire are Joanna Newsom, Conor Oberst, Aimee Mann, Stephin Merritt….To be placed among a cohort of artists like these, who strike their own singular balance between the heart and the mind, affect and intellect, edge and abstraction, would be deeply flattering. I'm not sure where my work fits in within the tradition of singer-songwriters, but that—not fitting in—is pretty familiar and comfortable territory for me.

KC: Yes! That's the list of people, give or take a singer-songwriter, that I was thinking of when I listened to your CD.  Okay, last question: What are you having for dinner tonight?

NB: Tonight I pick up the CSA and, based on last week's haul, this is what I'm imagining: five thumb-sized, yellow onions; four kinds of leafy greens (lettuce, kale, chard, etc, possibly with stowaway snail); one top-heavy basil plant in a crumbling paper cup; a pair of prickly, stunted cucumbers; one kohlrabi the size and weight of a hand bell; a clump of sooty, fuchsia radishes. A good deal of this, as you know, gets chopped up and mixed into cooked brown rice or quinoa and left to steep on the stove for awhile, and then is eaten over greens with olive oil, spices, walnuts, and a handful of raisins, if I have them. If you'd like, I can enlist the services of this seagull hanging out on the roof outside my window to deliver some of this glorified compost slop up to you. I'm pretty sure he knows the way.

KC: Seagull CSA-slop delivery service! I hope I get the stowaway snail.

Nathaniel Bellows links:

Nathaniel Bellows' website

Kate Christensen links:

Kate Christensen's website
Kate Christensen's Wikipedia entry
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by Kate Christensen for The Astral
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by Kate Christensen for The Great Man

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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