Songs in the key of life

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(Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson)

As a child growing up in Fredericksburg, the colonial Virginia town that, according to one travel guide, is “as cute as a Civil War-era soda fountain,” Kanene Pipkin sang with a church group that met in the attic of a musical instrument shop. It was there that she first got the idea that music could play an important role in her life.

The Lone Bellow, with Tow’rs, Friday, Feb. 3, 9 p.m., Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, $30.75-$75, ages 16+,

And it has. After relocating to Brooklyn, she co-founded The Lone Bellow with fellow Southern transplants Zach Williams and Brian Elmquist, a trio that offers up some of the most sublimely soulful harmonies out there. With stunning tracks like “Then Came the Morning” — which was released with an accompanying live video that’s downright devastating — they’ve gone on to rack up more than 100 million plays on streaming music platforms, earned a Best Duo/Group nomination from the Americana Music Awards, and performed everywhere from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to the BBC’s Later With Jools Holland.

But one show that the singer-songwriter-mandolinist will never forget was at the  Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, which was founded by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, who also produced two of The Lone Bellow’s albums. There, the three bandmates gathered onstage around a single microphone to harmonize with the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama.

In a subsequent interview with Blind Boys leader Jimmy Carter, journalist Amanda Wicks described it as a beautiful moment that she felt deep in her chest. “That’s what we like to see,” replied Carter. “We like to touch people’s lives. I’m glad you felt something.”

The Lone Bellow can also do that on their own. In the following interview, we talk to Pipkin about the spiritual side of three-part harmonies, the group’s recently released Love Songs for Losers album, and what it’s really like to be watched over by the ghost of Roy Orbison.

Sixty35: I understand you took on the role of vocal producer for this album. What did that entail? I’m guessing it could be anything from vocal coaching and arranging to mixing and mic placement.

Kanene Pipkin: For me, it was mostly about being given free rein to capture the kind of performances I was hoping to hear. It’s funny, because we’re a vocal band, and I think a lot of times, most producers will save vocals to the end. It can almost feel like, “Oh, you guys know how to sing, just go in there and do it.”

So yeah, instead of taking the kind of autopilot approach, I really wanted to dig into all the nuances that I know our voices contain. Because I’ve sung with these guys almost every night for the last decade. So there are things that I had wanted to hear, the kind of nuances and textures and the types of vocal delivery that I know we’re all capable of.

I think all of us in the studio have different kinds of patience, you know, like things they could sit and do for hours. Like Brian could sit and chase guitar tones for hours or even days on end. And for me, my patience is really for vocals. So for me, it was just like a license to play. You know, like: I want to hear that take, but with a little more movement and a little more breath. Or maybe try that one a little bit more legato. Or do that one with a little bit more of your mixed voice, or a little bit more of your chest voice; or more talk-singing, you know? There are so many ways with recording equipment that you can capture infinite nuances.

As opposed to three people standing around a vintage microphone.

Sure, which we still do, and did on this record. Sometimes that’s just the ticket. But I think in recorded music, you never want to feel like you’re being sung at. And I think that’s really the goal, for the vocals to kind of seduce the listener into wanting to hear more, rather than be like “God, turn down those people.”

So they can become part of the music, rather than running away from it.

Exactly. It’s those quieter moments on the album, those moments of delicate singing, that are really what I’m mostly proud of. Because I know we can all project and, you know, melt faces and destroy decibel levels with our power and our volume. But it’s the careful stuff that usually gets lost in a crowded room that I really wanted to celebrate and bring out in this record.

You spent six weeks living and recording it in what used to be Roy Orbison’s house. How did that come about? Because it’s not on Airbnb.

No, it’s not. Basically, there was this builder that Zach became really enamored of named Braxton Dixon. He built a bunch of houses for classic country stars all around Nashville. Like Tammy Wynette had a house, Johnny Cash had a house. A lot of them ended up burning down.

The place where we recorded was actually Roy Orbison’s party house, which is right next to the orchard that they planted over where his old house burnt down, which is right next to Johnny Cash’s burnt-down house. Great builder, bad electrician, I guess. It’s a weird house that has a pool in the basement that’s been covered over, and a bathroom with two toilets that kind of face each other, which I think used to be a vocal booth. It also may be haunted.

“It was one of those moments where you’re like, ‘This is why I do this.’” — Kanene Pipkin

Well, Johnny Cash did claim that he was saved from the grave by the ghost of Roy Orbison. Is Roy still hanging out there?

I think so. One night, we were outside, it was really late. And there was like a kind of wireless Bluetooth sound system throughout the house, and all of a sudden Shania Twain just started blasting through the speakers at like ear-splitting volume. And no one turned it on. It was so eerie, like terrifying. So we had to go through the house, because no one knew what was causing this and find all the speakers and just turn them off.

That sounds kind of creepy. Anything else?

Brian had to stay there for a while by himself, and he swears he felt things touching his hand in the night. So, you know, if the record’s a little spooky, that’s why.

Tell me about singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama. How did you even summon up the confidence to do that?

Well, they’re very sweet people. And, I don’t know, I think all three of us grew up singing in church. I grew up specifically in a church where we sang all gospel music.

In Virginia, was it?

In Virginia, yeah. It was like a little church that met in the attic of a bluegrass instrument shop. So that style of singing is very familiar to me, very natural to me. I think there’s actually a video that our tour manager at the time took of us rehearsing with them, and we’re all just trying not to start bawling, because it’s overwhelming to be in their presence. They’re just sweet, soulful, incredible singers. And it was just one of those moments where you’re like, “This is why I do this.”

You can definitely sense that musical connection. Was there a spiritual connection as well, given your religious upbringings. Are you still Christians?

I think we’re definitely all still spiritual people. And, you know, if you feel the need to label things, like, I guess, to each his own. But there’s something so powerful, and very spiritual, and very soul-connecting about music in general. And you feel that every night when you’re singing with a bunch of strangers who have somehow come across your music, and for some reason, it connects to them.

Did you ever feel that when you were singing in other groups before The Lone Bellow?

Back when I was in college, I used to sing in an a cappella chamber group. We sang mostly Latin madrigals, which are really interesting, complicated and beautiful. And we did this version of “O Magnum Mysterium,” which is about the Incarnation — it was the M. Lauridsen arrangement of it — and I remember hitting the real big chord with, you know, 14 or 15 other people in the group.

And that kind of group-singing is unlike any other feeling in the world. It’s like pure electricity runs through your body when you hit those chords. And I just remember being like, “I have to sing with people my whole life, even if it’s just like, you know, in the most humble capacity.” Because it’s so life-giving to me.

And so it’s not lost on me that I ended up forming a harmony band. Because I love that feeling. And, you know, songs can only be so sad when there’s three people singing at the same time.

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