Nathan Bell: A Dead Man Talking

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Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we’ve been huge fans of Nathan Bell ever since we heard his 2016 album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love. We spoke to him back then and now, on the eve of his UK tour to celebrate the release of his new album, Red, White and American Blues we caught up with him again. First off, we asked him if he was looking forward to visiting the UK and whether he was certain he would make it given the current travel issues.

Well, I’ve got so much to do these days that I never really slow down so I’m actually looking forward to coming over to the UK as it will almost  be like, a break. I’ll just be doing one job instead of several. When we were setting it up it looked like it might be a 50/50 chance of travelling but right now it’s much more certain. I think we’ve reached the point statistically where, if you’re smart enough to be vaccinated, and you should be smart enough, that you’ve reached the point where the real danger is to people who are really unwell in other ways. It’s also a great opportunity to launch the new album which was actually recorded back in June 2019. A lot of people didn’t put out new music during the pandemic because there was no touring and of course there’s no money to be made in streaming.

Red, White and American Blues features a full band on most of the songs.

It’s a different kind of record from what I would normally do. I mean you can still find the acoustic songs in there and I had some nervousness about making it but it turned out well and the band didn’t overwhelm the songs. It was originally going to be acoustic but when I started recording with Brian (Brinkerhoff) we came up with a vinyl release, The Right Reverend Crow Sings New American Folk and Blues, which was acoustic. This one is more electric or “electricious,” as I wouldn’t call it a completely electric album.

I saw a collection of short videos on YouTube where you play the songs from the album on acoustic guitar and talk about them and I recall that you said that Mossberg Blues was the closest you get to one of your favourite albums, Let It Bleed.

That’s maybe an exaggeration. I did those videos on the back of having Covid but I mean I’m not going to get the sound The Stones’ had. This is my record, I’m not trying to recreate Let It Bleed. It’s just the approach, it was pretty down and dirty and all of the songs here are first or second takes, I don’t think we got around to doing a third take on any of them. And some of it was just the instrumentation. You know, when someone else produces your record you have to hope that they hear the spaces the same way as you do and luckily Bryan and Frank (Swart) did.

I was very impressed by your co – singers, Parry Griffin, Regina McCrary and Aubrie Sellers who add so much to several of the songs.

I feel very fortunate to have them on the record, it was Brian who had the contacts. I really didn’t expect to have someone like Regina McCrary sing on one of my records but as I say in that video you mentioned, she adds a kind of Harlem theatre like feel to Mossberg Blues while she’s fantastic on Retread Cadillac.

You had an acoustic version of Retread Cadillac on the Reverend Crow album and here you really amp it up.

Everybody loves that song. I’m very conscious that I don’t want to mimic black blues music. I don’t want anyone to hear me and think, “He’s trying to sound like he’s black.” I think it’s clearly me, it’s my voice, but I’ve spent years playing like that, a drop thumb on a baritone guitar so it’s got a nice deep thump to it. It’s about Lightnin’ of course and there’s one line in the song, about Dowling St and when I sing it, it sounds like Downing St, so the blues fanatics will come after me for making a mistake. However, we left it in because part of the charm of those old blues records is that they left shit in, mistakes and all. I saw him in his last years and by then he was cultivating the legend because he was making a lot of money being Lightnin’ Hopkins, playing the character. I’ve no idea what he was like at home but for a 15 year old, to see him on stage was just huge. You could say that the song sort of sums up my entire development as a musician through the use of Lightnin’s legend.

American Blues pays tribute to Gil Scott Heron.

There was a period of my life when I listened to him. I grew up in a culture, which was a mixed medium of poets and their intersection with jazz. I’ve never been a jazz player because I’m not very good at it and I wouldn’t want to be a mediocre jazz musician because that’s maybe the worst thing you can foist on the world. A mediocre blues musician might be alright for a while, but a mediocre jazz musician, well, that’s just wrong. So, it’s taken me years and years to get comfortable with doing an overtly political and almost spoken word song like American Blues. It doesn’t sound anything like Gill Scott Heron but if you know about him then you can see the connection.

Mark Kemp writes in the liner notes, “Red White And American Blues is not a protest album, although it has protest songs, It’s not a Black Lives Matter album, but in these songs, Black lives matter. It’s an American album. It’s a set of songs about a broken country and its broken people.”

I’ve always been a political writer. Just in the subject matter. But then there’s marketing of protest music and then there’s protest music. Leadbelly wasn’t marketed as a protest singer until long after he’d written his songs. My songs don’t have the symbols of protest music. If you listen to the lyrics you’ll find some humour in there if you’re looking for it. American Gun for example, it’s not quite what you might think it is about so you have to listen carefully to the whole song. I think that if the record is marketed as a protest album it does it some disservice to it but there’s no question that it’s political. I left out Trump’s name on purpose because he colours the scene so much. Dave Chappelle (Americana comedian) said that the problem with Trump is that he’s scary as hell and as funny as hell, and that scared him. I mean even people who hate Trump can’t help but laugh when he says some of the stupid shit he says. So, I didn’t want his name in there because it would take up too much space and I mean, he’s not the only one. There’s Viktor Orborn, Bolsonaro and that crazy guy in Belarus who’s willing to hijack a plane to kidnap a journalist. There’s plenty of people who fit into that slot so I didn’t want it to have any specificity to one guy if that makes sense.

But America has made a lot of mistakes. The problem with any country that offers a great deal of hope, but which requires you to be subsumed into it, is that it also offers the possibility of a great deal of oppression. When 9/11 happened, and the album’s being released in the United States on the 20th anniversary, the reaction in America wasn’t, “What is our role in the world?” Well, maybe it was for a few forward thinking people, but for most, it was. “Well tomorrow these guys are going to drive a truck full of gasoline and blow it up in my back yard.” There was no realistic reason to expect that but the guys who know how to pull the levers and make money pressed that on to the American people. So our reaction was aggressive, it cost millions of people their lives all across the globe and it ruined thousands of American military people’s lives. Not just those who were killed or injured, but everyone who was sent over there, it affected them and their families. I mean, I’m going to take some punches to the face if this gets noticed out there because I’ll be seen as unpatriotic, antifascist, and supporting groups that want to see America change. But America has to change, if we don’t, then at some point we’ll just go full circle back to the way we formed the country which was on the backs of native American and black people.

The album’s subtitle alludes to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a demagogue who is elected to the White House.

That was actually Frank’s idea. We were sitting around talking about a title and I just said we should call it Red White and American Blues. Now, I think there have been plenty of songs or albums called that. If you look hard enough you can find a guy who is as far to the right as I am to the left who has an album with the same name. So Frank said, we should just call it, It Couldn’t Happen Here and so we just joined the two titles together. The thing is, it could always happen here, or anywhere. Part of my family comes from Ukrainian Jewish stock and if anyone knows anything about it couldn’t happen here it’s us. I’m only one generation away from the immigrant and like most people with a Jewish background I’m very aware of what can go wrong.

A Lucky Man seems to be the most personal song on the album and it’s dedicated to your late father, the poet Marvin Bell, whom you call the original Dead Man.

My father wrote a series of poems that eventually morphed into a collection called Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems. It is really something to read, it was his crowning achievement. He used the character of the Dead Man as the speaker or the subject. He was like a representation of something, a voice like you might have in the Tibetan Book of the dead. Obviously, I knew the whole series of books and I guess some of it rubbed off on me. I had characters in my songs like Ghost or Crow that work in the way of the Dead Man. I don’t know if any of my music had any influence on my father’s concept of the Dead Man but I know that to some extent we became intertwined over the years. He and I were going to do a joint project. He was going to do 12 poems about jazz and I was going to do 12 songs about jazz but which weren’t jazz songs, a bit of a challenge. But it never really got started before he died last year. Anyway, when I was writing these songs I realised that I had borrowed some of the Dead Man’s persona so I thought I should acknowledge that.

Do you write any poetry?

I’m a dreadful poet, I really am and I know when not to do something. Having said that, I know that many songwriters say their words aren’t poems, but I’d argue that any lyric that isn’t poetic has failed.

Well, Nathan Bell has made it to the UK and he kicks off his UK tour tonight at the Glasgow Americana Festival. All tour dates are here

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