Before he had even released his first album, Andrew Belle was making waves in the music industry. He was awarded a John Lennon Songwriting award in 2009 before he debuted his 2010 freshman album, Ladders. Three years later he released Black Bear, a sweet mix of his poetic lyrics and new electronic beats. We had the chance to sit down with Andrew Belle in Seattle to talk about his music, inspiration, and faith.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I grew up in Chicagoland, went to Taylor University in Indiana, which is a little private Christian college. I was studying business because it seemed like the most vague major to go for, and marketing because it allotted for the most creativity of all the sub-sections of business. In my sophomore year of college I began writing songs on my own and enjoyed it, felt like I had a talent for it, so I just continued to just do it as a hobby. I found some guys to play with me in a band, but really I just enjoyed writing.
In my senior year, I thought, “What if I wrote like 12 songs on my acoustic guitar?” I found a friend who had just graduated who had a bunch of sound engineering equipment and wanted to try out a project. So I was like, “OK, I can make a whole album for free and just give it a shot.”
In my senior year, I thought, ‘What if I wrote like 12 songs on my acoustic guitar?’
I enjoyed the process, and felt like I had something above average to give me enough reasons to pursue that after school. I decided not to interview for jobs and take internships, but move back home after graduation and wait tables, and just start playing around Chicago wherever, live restaurants and bars and open mics.
Eventually I realized I needed to quit my table waiting job. I was so exhausted from doing that, that I was never in the mood for doing something creative. I realized that if I didn’t just quit that job I was just going to stay in comfortable-zone forever, and maybe never have enough incentive to really try.
So I quit, and it forced me to start finding paying gigs around town. I would drive to the city, play at restaurants and bars that would pay me like a couple hundred bucks to play cover songs for four hours at a time. It’s funny because I remember at the time thinking, “This is great that I get paid for this.”
Honestly, looking back, that time helped me teach myself how to sing and how to play in front of people. There was an evolution in my singing style and my tone and all of that. It was a couple years of doing that before I thought I was ready for something else.
That was a really formative time for me, though, to be able to develop my sound and my voice. So that’s where I began and then I met someone who brought me to Nashville. And that is where things really took that next level turn.
You seem pretty open about your faith in some of your other interviews. Can you tell us a bit about that, and if your faith coincided with your focus on music?
Yeah. I went to Christian school growing up, grammar school, high school, college but [faith] is always a really tough thing to discern. At what point are you “all in”? I guess you only you really know that in your own heart.
Looking back, there was some percentage of me that was sort of interested in being a Christian, whatever that meant, but maybe there was some percentage that wasn’t.
Christian school is interesting because you’re kind of just thrown into a camp, and everyone else is Christian, so you’re Christian. But the heart of what that really means doesn’t really start to until your early adulthood. And then you come up against some sort of devastating life issue that everybody inevitably runs into. And then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh wow, life was really easy when I was a kid, and I really didn’t need Jesus. But now I’m adult, and life is hard, and now I get it.”
I felt this extreme conviction out of nowhere. It was a total ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, 180 kind of thing.
I can’t really pinpoint when I became a Christian, but all I know is that four years ago in 2010 I had one of those existential crisis. Life-blowing-up times, regarding my relationship with my now wife and stuff was just going badly. I just realized that I was living on a trajectory of life, going in one direction, and I didn’t want to be going in that direction anymore. I felt this extreme conviction out of nowhere. It was a total “Road to Damascus” moment, 180 kind of thing. I just went in the other direction from a lot of stuff that I was involved with. Came clean and was honest about a lot of stuff that I wasn’t honest about.
Really for the first time, I actually felt like I realized what it meant to be like, “Wow I’m really a despicable person at the core of me. There’s something wrong, and I can’t do it on my own.” That’s what I feel like is the humility that gets you to that point — that allows you to become a Christian.
My wife and I weren’t married then, but I was getting serious about her. I think that is a part of what lead to all this revelation. I was starting to think about getting married and what type of commitment that demands of you, and the honesty that it demands. So in order to do that I kind of had to blow everything up. Thankfully we got through it. We weren’t together for a long time, and then we got back together and worked through a ton of stuff. And two years after that, we got married. We’ve been married for two and a half years now.
In light of all of that, it wasn’t just a relational thing; there were many facets of my life that were affected. Since then it’s been about: now what do I do, how do I live my life in light of surrendering to Jesus? What does that look like, especially being a musician — how is my art affected by that? What are the things I associate with, now that I’m a musician? Especially since this all happened as I began to have success with the music.
I’m supposed to be deflecting glory —
it’s not about me.
It’s an interesting time to all of a sudden be caring about the gospel. When you start getting some small chunk of success, where people know you and like your music and want to give you glory. The gospel is actually the opposite of this. I’m supposed to be deflecting glory — it’s not about me. Juggling all that has been an interesting learning experience, over the last four years. And it’s not something you figure out overnight — you just take it day by day, and surround yourself with people that are like-minded to have a lot of conversations about it, and you just evolve over the years.
As far as “Black Bear” and the album, I wanted to write a record that just talked about my experience, my life. Making a mess of my life and feeling, quite literally, like there was a time where one minute there is absolutely no conviction, and then out of no where, just blasted with all this conviction about stuff and the ensuing time after that.
I don’t know where that comes from, except to say that I felt like God allowed me to go a certain route in my life for the exact number of hours and days and minutes that He did. And then there was a time where He said, “Now it’s over, and you’re going to go this way now.”
It’s the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.
In terms of Black Bear, Flannery O’Connor described [Jesus] as this ragged figure, lurking in between the trees and motioning and calling. In my head, I pictured a ragged bear — black bear — just kind of scruffy and disheveled and not attractive. That was just the first thing that popped into my head, and I just started writing lyrics. And this concept was born and evolved.
It’s the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.
It was just a powerful overtaking?
Yeah, exactly. C.S. Lewis describes it by saying that there was a very clear time where I had a choice where I could go this way, or I could go this way. But looking back on it, I don’t know if I had any choice at all, you know?
It’s just that weird mental puzzle where we have choice, but where God values allowing people freedom to chose. And really, without freedom, you can’t have love. It’s just a weird mental pretzel that you get yourself into, and I’m not smart enough or arrogant enough to think that I’ve figured it out. But I have rested in the fact that God is clearly and obviously way more qualified to be running everything, and to be coming up with how this all works. It actually only makes sense that it wouldn’t make sense to me.
Is the “Black Bear” song about being captured?
That song is a little bit more of a hybrid. There are [a few] themes in “Black Bear.” The one I just described being the biggest and most encompassing, but also my relationship with my wife and my marriage, which was very new at the time. I sort of married the two. The “Black Bear” song, in some spots, I’m actually referring to that relationship of just God and me, and then in other parts, some of the imagery and lyrics are describing events and things that took place with my wife.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m getting to the point where I need to find some more new music but I’m just more and more attracted to alternative, left-of-centre kind of stuff that doesn’t typically fit the mold of a singer-songwriter. But it’s the only stuff that is inspiring me to make music right now. I really like Beach House and Washed Out. I really like James Blake, even though his stuff is a little out there, and I would never try to go there with my music. Radiohead, I really didn’t discover until later in life, so I’m just obsessing over Thom Yorke and his solo stuff.
Is it the lyrics or the music, whether listening or making your own, that really inspires you?
I would say when I first began it was more lyrical. Writing was always my strong suit —that’s what first got me into it. I would say that shifted in the past few years, though. I have been more inspired and attracted to the music element of things. Creating different sounds, gates and atmospheres. When I hear something new, I’m reminded of what I really love about music.
What is the writing process like for you? I read somewhere that you don’t write unless the time’s right, and when you really have something to say.
It’s opening up logic on my computer and other software with libraries of samples and different sounds and things. Then, I just start playing around on my keyboard until something clicks and I’m inspired by the textures and the tones.
Typically, it’s music first, lyrics second. A lot of times you can write lyrics, but you don’t know the cadence or the rhyme scheme that makes sense. I always find that I have to sit there and hum through, and find an interesting melody that I think is neat. And then find words that fit that melody. Typically the words that start off don’t really mean a whole lot, I‘m usually just looking for words or phrases that just feel.
It’s just a process of revision and going back and reworking.
It’s funny to think about, but there are words and phrases that just sound better than others. So I just kind of float — I kind of stumble around until I find something, and then look at what it is, and why I am attracted to it. I start trying to think what can I shape out of this phrase and this word, how can I make a story out of this or apply it to my own life. I just build from there. And then halfway through the process, I can kind of see how I’m relating and tying the lyrics back to my own life. It’s just a process of revision and going back and reworking.
Going forward, I’ve been a lot more inspired musically. There is a guy who played drums on my most recent record, James McAllister — he’s a great musician who lives in Los Angeles. Him and I have been playing around with the idea of working back and forth on the same thing. I’m excited about the opportunity to work with musicians who are going to push songs in directions that I would have never thought to take, and the endless creative possibility that comes out of that.
What are your thoughts on the music industry, and how does your music fit into that?
As an art form, I really like where my music is. It has been a complete blessing to create the quality of music that I have because that has required me, just over the years, to be meeting people, meeting people, and meeting more people. However you want to call it— happen stance or fate — but my career has always hinged on working with other talented people. I’ve been so thrilled to create what I’ve created up to this point, from an artist’s perspective.
From a business perspective, I basically look at myself as a small business owner. Like I’m creating this product or marketing or selling it. You are always striving to do more, to sell more volume, to spread awareness, to have more high profile looks and all those things. That’s just what any business owner is striving to do. Not making it an absolute or end goal, but that’s just what you do when you have a business. From that stand point, I would love to continue to grow, but I can’t necessarily expect the flow of the way things are coming now to always be there.
For more of Andrew Belle check out his tour dates!
Photo courtesy of Andrew Belle.