By ERIC SCHELKOPF
In sitting down to make his sophomore album, "Black Bear," Chicago singer/songwriter Andrew Belle decided to take his music in a new direction.
The album, a reflection of his growing interest in electronic music, has enjoyed critical and commercial success. Belle, www.andrewbelle.com, will perform a hometown show March 5 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Diane Birch also is on the bill. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $15, available at www.lincolnhallchicago.com.
I had the chance to talk to Belle about the album and his other activities.
Q - Great to talk to you. Of course, you are touring in support of your sophomore album, "Black Bear," which debuted #1 on Billboard's Alternative New Artist Album chart. Did you expect such a good response to the album?
I really was not sure what to expect, honestly. It had been over three years since I had last released a full-length album and so it was hard to know what to realistically expect.
I did know however, that it was our strongest production effort to date and my best songwriting since I started out 10 years ago. I have developed this sort of internal mechanism over the years, that helps me know when something is good or not and throughout this entire process I felt like we were doing the right things.
So aside from a healthy or normal amount of anxiousness was a calm confidence in the work we had done.
Q - The album reflects your growing interest in electronic music. Were you afraid that taking your music in a new direction would turn off the fans you gained from your previous album, "The Ladder?" In making "Black Bear," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?
I mean, a little bit but I really just got to a point where I was like, I gotta make the music that excites me if I am going to keep doing this. If I'm not doing that, then I should get a new job, ya know?
I like the idea of not being limited by a genre and I think that mentality will help my work be relevant beyond just this particular point in time. I've always set out to evoke emotion with my melodies and lyrics, but this time I wanted to achieve that with the music as well.
I wanted to create layers of ambiance and electronic warmth; arranged on top of beat-driven percussion. I wanted people to still be moved by my words and melodies when they choose to - but also to be able to ignore those things and just let the music make them feel something on a more subconscious level.
I listen back to my home demos versus what we ended up with and we absolutely surpassed the original vision; I couldn't be happier with the record.
Q - I understand that you have been back in the Chicago area for a couple of years after living for a time in Nashville. What made you want to move back to the area? How would you say the two music scenes are different and where do you yourself fitting into the Chicago music scene?
I lived in Nashville for a couple of years but was touring a lot and so I never really felt like I was laying down permanent roots. And that was sort of on purpose too - I was always careful to reserve some anonymity because there are so many talented people there; it's easy to get lost in the shuffle.
I really loved it there but I left to get married a few years ago and now I'm back in town several times a year to record or perform. So up here in Chicago, I don't really know much about or exist in the music scene.
I work a lot from home on my own but I like to keep Chicago as my place to lay-low or hideout and Nashville is where I go to work, check back in with friends, maintain relationships, before coming back up home to my real life.
Q - You had started out your career by performing under your given name, Drew Fortson, at open mics and Potbelly’s sandwich shops all over the Chicago suburbs near your hometown of Wheaton. What did that experience teach you about the music business? What made you want to change your name to Andrew Belle and how do you think it has helped you?
I made my first album in college - a collection of 12 songs I had written my senior year - and released it as Drew Fortson. When I set out to make the "All Those Pretty Lights" EP a few years after that, I had evolved so much musically that I really just wanted a clean slate to start under.
Also, the music business is sort of unique in that you yourself, just as much as the music, become a part of the overall final product and so I wanted to create some separation between my work and my personal identity. When I was first starting out, playing bars and restaurants for a living - I couldn't wait to graduate from that and get on to the next bigger and better thing.
But it recently dawned on me that that time was so necessary for me to learn the simple things like how to sing live, how to perform in front of people, what my strengths and what my weaknesses are. I didn't realize it at the time but if I had been given everything I wanted when I was 23, I wouldn't have been prepared to do things like record music of a higher quality or perform on larger stages.
I've learned it's a good thing that we don't always get what we want right away.
Q - How would you say that your music has evolved since receiving the John Lennon songwriting award in 2009?
I've always been really cognizant of my words and making sure that they have depth or meaning to them but I'm even more careful about that now. Typically, music mostly recounts romantic highs and lows but lately I have been incorporating more themes of faith and God; existential and philosophical themes that actually lend themselves quite nicely to the same time of writing that I would use to describe a human relationship.
I find that my relationship with my wife, for better or for worse, serves as an accurate depiction of my relationship with God as well and so I will intertwine the two now and again.
In my marriage, there exist the same themes of imperfection, forgiveness and unconditional love that I find in my relationship with God and so I feel like my writing is staying the same in lyrical approach but the subject matter is broadening.
Q - Your music has been featured in a number of television shows, including "Grey's Anatomy" and "One Tree Hill." Do you view that as a way to get your music out to more people? Do you think your music is well suited for TV?
Well, you can never really plan on TV or film to use your music so I sort of look at it as very helpful, unexpected promotion. For example, one of my songs, "In My Veins," was on ABC's "Castle" the other night and I saw that some 11,000 people used Shazam to find out who the artist was afterward.
That's unbelievable! So yes, it's a huge part of why we've been successful thus far, but we also can't expect it to always be there and so we really have to look at it as a gift every time we are lucky enough to be asked to license a song.
I've always been attracted to - and try to create - thematic, emotive music and so I think for that reason my songs have always lent themselves nicely to dramatic television shows. I hope that continues to be the case!
Q - You are going to release an acoustic version of "Black Bear" later this year. Are you looking forward to playing these songs in an acoustic format? Do you think some of the songs will be better suited to the format than others?
I would actually say that we are releasing a version of the album in a "stripped down" format rather than acoustic. There will still be an electronic, hip-hop element to it but it will be chilled out, slowed down, and less going on so that you can hear my voice and the words more clearly.
I've had to rearrange the entire live set and I am very excited about all of the new things that I get to do live - I'll be playing/triggering all my own drum samples and playing the keyboard rather than an acoustic guitar.
I've always seemed to thrive in a more stripped down setup, live, and so I am really looking forward to seeing what sort of evolution this brings about for the live show this year.
Q - Do you have any dream projects or collaborations?
I don't really like to co-write but I would love to co-produce something with someone like Chris Martin, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, or Earnest Greene of Washed Out.