"FILLING YOUR CREATIVE CUP," A Conversation with Oliver Kalb (Bellows, Told Slant)
What inspires you to create?
I think creativity can get messed up by over-emphasizing output and under-emphasizing curiosity. As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to look for ways to make music less central to my life, because I found that the importance I was placing on music as a career was having a dampening effect on my creativity. I notice artists who are really deep in the career conveyor belt having difficulty writing albums in the brief periods they have between tours — the pressure to always be producing can be stifling to organically creating or noticing the world enough to be a vessel for representation.
Rachel Cusk in her book Outline mentions that when she teaches writing they start each class with the prompt “what is one thing you noticed today?” I feel like that’s such a great prompt for art-making in general — just keeping your eyes open to the world and having interest and curiosity in things you’d normally take for granted. “There is a man sweeping leaves on the street” “my dog’s eyelashes flutter when he is dreaming”. I feel like just observing the world rather than writing from a place of declaring pre-wrought emotions or judgments can be such a more interesting place to write from. I started teaching film this year and I’ve found myself inspired by the films I’ve been watching — Kryszytov Kieslowsi’s Dekalog series, a set of films set in a housing project in Warsaw just before the fall of the Soviet Union that are all loose interpretations of the 10 Commandments — I’ve been thinking about these films a lot, and what they say about the fragile ties between people, all the secret things we don’t know about the people we live near. I want to try to make music that harnesses some of these non-musical ideas that maybe feels a bit more like observational art than it does like pop music.
Who are you listening to currently that inspires you?
I love the new album by the band Fust — it’s called Genevieve. Fust and Bellows share a piano player in Frank Meadows, and Frank also released the album on a very cool label he co-runs called Dear Life Records — just wanna shout out this band and record because I really think they’re special and deserve recognition. It’s brilliant country songwriting with a tremendous amount of sensitivity between the players - you can feel how much the band are listening to each other, and the songs grow and have a feeling of ebb and flow, just such great dynamics. A lyric I love:
“Did you know me Genevieve?
When rarely did I speak
For fear that you might think
Me damaged in my need
To think you family”
Describe a moment when you felt like you “made it” - whatever that means!
I don’t really feel that I’ve made it, but there was a brief period in my life from 2015 to 2019 roughly where my 3 bands all had a booking agent and we were touring often enough with guarantees that I was able to do music as my only job. We had one experience that made me feel really famous where we were playing at Third Man Records in Nashville, Jack White’s venue / recording studio. They were actually insanely generous with us - shout out Jack White - there was a huge, lavish greenroom spread with all of these amazing cheeses and charcuterie, and also a guacamole. This was right around the time when there was that article that had come out about Jack White’s rider having a signature guacamole — everyone was making fun of him for having a really complicated guacamole recipe that had to be made for him at every show. And so my bandmate Felix tweeted something about wondering whether the guacamole in the greenroom was Jack White’s signature guacamole or not. It was just like a dumb joke and none of us thought it would be noticed at all by anyone at the venue.
But then we sound-checked and were just hanging around for a few hours when somebody who worked at the venue came down and took Felix aside and asked them to delete the tweet because “someone upstairs” had seen it and was upset about it. They deleted the tweet, but we all assumed that somehow Jack White himself had seen this tweet and was mad at us. That was a moment of feeling very famous, although I’m not sure it actually was Jack White or whether the venue just had a lot of really on-the-ball employees checking all the personal twitter accounts of the individual band members of everyone playing the venue. We thought the whole situation was really funny, but it remains a mystery whether Felix accidentally offended Jack White with the guacamole joke.
What do you want the audience to take away from your live show?
My creative process has always been to record songs first and then arrange them with my live-band later. This is cool because it gives me a lot of freedom to experiment with sounds and change things around endlessly, but it also has a drawback which is that I’m not always aware of the energy or spirit of a song that will reveal itself only after playing it live a few times. I love to discover the wild energy of a song I previously thought was more understated, and as a singer I love to be playful with how I sing certain words or put emphasis on certain moments in a phrase. Playing live is a great way to reacquaint yourself with your own songs and discover secret wellsprings of meaning or energy you didn’t know they had. For instance, there’s a line in Biggest Deposit of White Quartz “I repositioned the knife in my back” - I kind of wrote that in a slew of narrative observations and didn’t think much about its tone, but now when we play that song I love to make the line as snotty as possible when I sing it. It’s such a brash and snotty thing to say that I sort of like to be as confrontational and sassy in my performance of it as I can. To me it’s the joy of singing live to be able to be playful and reckless with pronunciation. I guess to answer the question: I hope the audience comes away from our show with a feeling of the joy of music, experiencing the energy of the songs, both in their melancholy and in their fun intensity - it’s what I’m trying to do as a performer, to make our show both dramatic and welcoming and silly and fun to be at, ideally.
How do you deal with writer's block or creative slumps?
I believe in just being a vessel for creativity however you can, so I try to sit down and write a song in a single sitting whenever possible, and then go and edit it later. I think sometimes the idea of polish, especially when it comes to writing lyrics, can be an enemy to making music — so I always try to just write a song as quickly as possible, with whatever nonsense words come out, and harness an emotion first. Then later I try to go back and see if I can create something sensible. But I think music is meant to strike a chord in the human spirit that is kind of beyond sense and beyond literal meaning so I always try to write a song that feels a certain way before I think about what the song is about in any kind of literal sense.