Tennessee songwriter Nathan Bell has had a career with plenty of ups and downs, including an almost 15-year break from the industry. Natasha Mckim catches up with Nathan ahead of his visit to Aberdeen this week.
With a poet for a father and an avid reader for a mother, it is no surprise that Nathan Bell turned out to be a songwriter and wordsmith.
A man who doesn’t believe in looking back, Nathan looks to the future and crafts music around the life he sees and the things he believes in. His new album Love > Fear (48 hours in traitorland) is a stark, acoustic soundtrack for the times we are living in. Hopefully audiences will get a good taste of his music when Nathan visits Aberdeen for the first time thanks to Almost Blue Promotions, which is seeking to bring more country music gigs to the city.
You are kicking off your tour in Amsterdam – do you notice a difference in audiences depending on what country you are in?
Yes, the audiences in both Europe and the UK are very knowledgeable about American roots music. And very politically aware. I think they demand a refreshing level of honesty from the performer.
At what age did you first become interested in music?
I started playing music at a very young age, maybe eight or nine years old. But I can’t recall why. I started on trumpet and switched to guitar so I could sing and play at the same time.
How big an impact have your family played in your career?
My father is the poet Marvin Bell, who also is a jazz aficionado. His influence can be seen in my lyric writing. My mother is a great reader and I was always exposed to an almost limitless supply of books. That would indicate quite a large impact.
Tell me about your song writing process – do you set time aside specifically for it?
All writing is work. Good writing requires the same dedication as any other job. When I am writing, I start early, often before seven in the morning. I gather ideas all the time. I have notebooks of ideas filled with my terrible handwriting. But when I am in the actual writing process, it is much like a nine-to-five job.
How much do the events in your life impact your music?
I write a lot of songs from the viewpoint of other people, but every song is informed by the life I lead. I’ve worked what is often referred to as straight jobs since I was 11 years old. And I’ve lived mostly apart from creative society. My nickname in the Netherlands for my last tour was “The Family Man”. And that’s accurate. I’ve been a family man and a working man more than anything else. So there is always a piece of me in every song I write.
You were out of the music industry from 1993 for a number of years – looking back, do you regret the break?
Never. I never considered it a break. I was surprised that I ever played in public again. Those years of my life were easily the most rewarding, fun, and satisfying.
I worked long hours at a corporate job, but was home almost every evening for dinner with my family. If I could live any day of my life over again, it would be one of those dinners. Additionally, I wasn’t the writer, or player, that I am now, before that break. I don’t believe in looking back. But I have been the luckiest man alive and wouldn’t change a thing.
What made you go back to music?
My songwriter friend Don Henry conned me into playing a couple of songs at one of his shows. Then, while I was on a business trip, my wife set up a walk-in closet as a little writing and playing studio. I discovered that I missed it after all.
What song are you most proud of which you have played a part in creating?
I am proudest of two songs. “Names” which I think is an anti-war song that doesn’t capitalise on war. And “I Would be a Blackbird” which is a love song to my wife Leslie that will appear on my next album. The chorus has the line “If I was a word I would be your name”.
What advice would you give to someone just breaking into the music industry?
Play music in front of people for five years before you make a video, or put your music online. Play everywhere.
If you are still excited after five years, you’re in. Open your ears and eyes. Learn to write about people, places and events. Don’t write about feelings, all of the feelings are there in the people, places and events. Be specific. Learn your instrument. Please learn your instrument. Then be honest. Always.
What has been the biggest lesson of your career?
I learned that as a writer I wasn’t really a writer until I was over 50. And that I could learn to fingerpick if I wasn’t lazy.
Who has been the biggest inspiration in your life?
I have too many people who have inspired me to answer this question. Let’s just say that the human spirit is my biggest inspiration.
Will you ever give up music again?
A person must make a living and take care of those he/she loves. So, it could happen again, but I hope not.
Tell me about your album Love > Fear. Where does the name come from?
It comes from a T-shirt design sold by my artist friends in the US, Jamie and Martina Locke. To me it’s the obvious way to live. Fear is a constant. But love can be a much bigger constant. After all, if we love everybody, how can we harm them?
What should audiences expect?
I’m equal parts songwriter, singer and guitarist. You’ll get an honest, energetic show with some guitar flash.
Do you have anything which must be packed when you go on tour?
I have the usual assortment of guitar player gear. In fact, when I fly, I have a note in my bag that tells the security inspectors what the gear is since it’s all metal boxes and wires. I now have a 100% record of having my check-on luggage opened. And I need my AKG noise blocking earphones. Airplanes, you know?
Do you get to see much of the places you visit?
I don’t do much sightseeing. Most of what I see happens by accident. If I am around some area that seems particularly interesting, I make note of it. I have plans to return to those places with my wife, Leslie. Our children are older now. We’ve got some time and we have always discussed travelling together. So that’s something I look forward to in the next couple of years.
Nathan Bell plays at The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on November 15. For more details see www.nathanbell music.com/schedule