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INTERVIEW: Nathan Bell

Photo by Biff Rendar

Hi Nathan, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’m doing well.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love”? Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

The song is really about the people who show up every day to keep things going. There would be too many events to mention all, but I did start the song after seeing a photograph of a large boat moving up the Saginaw River in Michigan.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

The video, which includes the work of American painter Timur Akriev, was just released last week. It was filmed in Chattanooga, Tenn., in an old iron hanging shed.

Why name the album after this track in particular?

I’ve been a member of the working class all of my life, with only a few of those years as a paid, professional writer/musician. Over almost 45 years of work, I’ve had a variety of jobs from well-below-blue-collar to managing a market for a major telecom company. I’ve worked with, for and I’ve managed quite a few people, all of them different from each other. The one thing they all had in common was that even on the days they didn’t want to work, they came to work. And when I was putting together this album, I wanted to represent that this is a deep and brave expression of love. Hence the title. The album has 13 songs all related to work in one way or another.

Why take so long to release this material?

Until late 2014, I worked a corporate job that often had 50-60-hour work weeks. Additionally, most of my non-work time was devoted to my family. I wrote most of the songs for this, and the previous two albums in the trilogy, in between time with work and family. I’d like to put out an album or more every year, but there isn’t enough time or money right now.

In the past 15 years, lot of cruel and violent events have happened – which one in particular led you to release this album?

The cruel and violent events have always been there. Sometimes, like now, they seem closer than usual. But they’ve always been going on. Sometimes there is a pogrom directed at the Jewish people or a dictator in Asia or South America making people disappear. Maybe it’s a drug cartel just killing and torturing as a matter of business. All these tragedies make money for somebody. A good recent example is the growth of the gun business, which sees every slaughter of innocent citizens as a way to sell more of what is doing the killing. The Military industrial machine is a huge part of our economy so we can never stop fighting wars. All of this falls on the shoulders of the working class. So maybe this album is my way of showing their stories and hoping that the act of providing witness will matter. But I don’t know. I just tell the stories. I wish I could do more.

Would the record follow the previous installments?

Yes, the album is the last in a trilogy of albums started with Black Crow Blue in 2011. Black Crow Blue was an album focusing on the lives of men in America, Blood Like a River was more about the American Family, and this album, I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love (working and hanging on in America) is 13 songs about working and workers.

What’s the story behind the title?

I think the story behind the title is summed up fairly well in the previous answers, but I’ll add that it is about a different kind of love than romantic love. It’s about love overcoming drudgery and sameness. And about love for those who depend on us.

How was the recording and writing process?

I recorded three quarters of the album live with seven-time IBMA bassist of the year, Missy Raines and her band, The New Hip, in Nashville at Ben Surratt’s Rec Room studio—it really is a rec room. The other songs were recorded by myself in my home studio, which is a tiny walk-in closet in my home.

So you consider yourself a music journalist?

As much as John Steinbeck and Jack London were literary journalists, I think you could consider me a musical journalist. There is certainly a long tradition in music of writing about the society we live in, so I’d be proud to wear that particular moniker.

What role does poetry play in your music?

I think that a poem must be lyrical and a song must be poetic. I also think they are very different forms. Rarely does a song make a great poem. Or a poem, a song. And there are certainly many popular songs and poems that fail to be either lyrical or poetic. But for my writing, which tends to be fairly unadorned, the lyrics need to read well without the music. They should have an internal poetics and meter. So poetry plays a large role in how I think about writing. I also find that most of my writer friends are poets and I regularly look to their work for inspiration. In particular, the work of three writers—Gaylord Brewer of Middle Tennessee, Trenna Sharpe of Portland, Ore., and Seb Mathews of Asheville, N.C.—is represented as stepping-off points for songs on each of the albums in the trilogy. And my father, Marvin, is a well-known poet. And a working-class poet at that. So you can easily see where I found my technique.

Having played and shared the stage with so many iconic names in music – what have you learned from these experiences and how have they shaped you as an artist?

I’ve learned that to be famous means that you usually get to to only be famous. I’ve avoided that by not being famous. I say that as a joke, but it certainly has been the key to my happiness. The best one can hope for is to have a good life and create good work. If you get to be known for the work, then I think you have something special. It takes a lot of effort to get famous and stay famous. I have yet to meet anybody famous who was happy, and I’ve kept that in mind. I never want the idea of Nathan Bell becoming more important than the songs.

How much does Tennessee influence your music?

I’ve lived here for over 26 years. I think the sound and tempo of what I do has slowed a little, a result of the heat and the calming sense of nature. That said, my songs have become more directly political from living in a state where the people who govern are so cynical and have so little to offer the people who they ask to vote for them.

What aspects of love did you get to explore on this record?

It’s all love, isn’t it? Why we work and play, how hard we fight. On the song “Unforgiven,” track 12 on the new album, I tell a little of my story, the story of a man who chose love, work, family and a home over pursuing fame. It was the best decision of my life, but it still involved hard work. That’s one of the aspects explored on this album. That we need love to be happy, but we never get to stop doing the hard and dirty work.

Any plans to hit the road?

I tour select venues already and hope to expand my schedule to include more listening rooms and theaters. I’m also planning three tours in the U.K. and Europe in 2017.

What else is happening next in Nathan Bell’s world?

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Cleveland, Ohio. In a few hours, I’ll play a show at The Barking Spider, a great music room. Then I’m going to drive home to Tennessee, hang out with my wife, Leslie, watching the Chicago Cubs win some more games. I’ll clean out the garage, trim some trees, make a new video, and start putting together the plans for the next two albums. I might even lose a few more board games to my grown children, Colman and Aileen. Then I’ll fly out to the East Coast for a few great shows near Boston. Then I’ll come home where I belong, again. I’m a pretty damn lucky guy.

Watch here.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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