Interview: Nathan Bell spills the beans re his forthcoming album as he prepares for his latest tour

Picture: Paul Kerr

The Chattanooga based songwriter chats about his current recordings and considers being measured for a kilt for his Scottish appearance

Nathan Bell made a splash this side of the Atlantic when he first appeared over here back in 2017, in fact, he was awarded our Male Performer Of The Year in our annual Readers Awards poll. Since then he has been a regular visitor on the roots-based UK tour itinerary, even dashing over here to play as soon as Covid restrictions were briefly lifted in 2021.

That 2017 tour was based around his album ‘I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love’, the third of a trilogy of albums, based on life, work and family, with Bell working firmly in a blue-collar folk singing tradition. However, the election of a peculiarly tangerine tanned bully to one of the most powerful offices in the world enraged Bell, leading to the much more pointed album ‘Love>Fear (48 Hours In Traitorland)’. Bell has never been one to shy from puncturing the absurdist balloon which is modern day politics but that he does so with such passion and craft is only one of the reasons he has become so popular over here. A prolific artist (11 albums between 2007 and 2019), Bell’s last release ‘Red, White And American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here)’), recorded in 2019, was delayed by the pandemic but he’s already well into recording its follow-up and he’s about to embark on a European tour which, sadly, only includes one UK appearance.

Itching to get the low down on the new recordings, AUK spoke to Bell via a Zoom call which also took in some politics and his ongoing love affair with Scotland, a country he seems to be particularly enthused with. We kicked off with some words on the forthcoming album.

I’m hard at work on the new album. It’s been five years since I recorded ‘Red, White And American Blues’ and I’ve never gone five years without an album out but with the pandemic and everything else it just never got done. The pandemic was like a great black hole in time, we went in one day in early 2020 and when we came out it was 2023, a very strange time. Anyhow, I just got back from California where I spent four days with the guys who produced the last album (Brian Binkerhoff and Frank Swart). We did 25 songs in those four days, most of them with Alvino Bennet who drummed on the last album, the pair of us just sat and played and got the tracks down, most of them in just a couple of takes, it was great fun. Now I’m back home the label will send me those tracks and with my little studio setup I can add guitar, harmonies, harmonica and whatever and send them back in a matter of hours. You can’t beat that frankly, I like digital and there’s something to be said for working in the studio which we did with the basic tracks last week but it’s so easy just to add the rest from home. I think the label is going to release the songs as a series of singles in the first instance. I let them do that as it’s their record and if that’s what they want to do then so be it. I’m an album guy but this is the new business model so we’ll see what happens. So, a series of singles you can download and then a physical release on CD.

What can we expect to hear, any significant departures from the previous albums?

Some of the song titles might give you an idea of what to expect but it’s not really different from my usual take on the world, I wasn’t suddenly going to sing an album of rock classics. If you like what I did before you’ll like this, if you didn’t then you’re probably not going to change your mind. The working title is ‘Commoner’ and I’ve been writing again about the working world, labour and unions and the like. I have a song called ‘Working In Tennessee’ which is about all the people who dress in working clothes but who never had a straight job in all their life, ‘Smart Money’ deals with gentrification and ‘Tied to the Tracks’ is another song like ‘Wrong man for the Job’ about the chaos we live in. I’ve also rerecorded ‘King Of the North’ (originally on ‘I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love’) where I switch it over to being about a boxer and I manage to include the Kray twins and Jim Delahunt, the Scottish football commentator. I’ve mentioned him on stage in the States and no one has a clue who I’m going on about. There will be a couple of songs from my invented friend the Right Reverend Crow, bluesier numbers, I’m playing more electric guitar on this record than I’ve done in 15 years, aiming for a pretty raw sound, kind of like the electric blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins which is pretty much the blues that I grew up with. I think there’s one love song going to be on it, not much I know but my wife knows that one love song an album is a lot of love songs for me.

On ‘Red, White And American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here)’ you had Patty Griffin, Regina McCrary, Aubrie Sellers and Ada Dyer singing with you. Have you any of these lined up for the next album?

I’ve got a fairly extensive wish list which the label has already started to reach out to but I guess I’d curse it if I mentioned any names at this point. But hopefully Patty Griffin will be back on board. Ada Dyer is working with Springsteen right now so I don’t know if she’ll be available.

You recently appeared as a guest vocalist on Malcolm MacWatt’s album ‘Dark Harvest’. How did you meet him?

Malcolm and I are friends. We met when he was setting up his deal with Need To Know Records, the label we both appear on and he’s supported me on a couple of shows. I think that he’s a terrific musician, it’s all there in his heart and it comes out in his music and without naming names that’s not always true. There’s a lot of calculated music out there and I would say that Malcolm is the opposite of calculated music. At times he writes about the sort of things I write about but he does it in a very distinctive fashion with a Scottish and Irish viewpoint to it. He’s a terrific writer and while I don’t think I added much to his album it was really nice of him to ask me to appear on it. He doesn’t know it yet but I’m going to send him a song from the new album for him to add his particular touch to it.

Credit: Paul Kerr
Before the album comes out you are touring Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands in May.

Yes, I seem to be doing well there at the moment so I’ll head where the crowds are!  For a time I was thinking of coming off the road. I send out essays via my substack, writing about things around me and there are a couple that are about being on the road, writing about small time heroes playing small clubs. A lot of the musicians who are on that road, well, it wears them out and a lot of people have actually died in the past few years, some only in their sixties, younger than me, and I see a lot who are physically damaged by the toll it takes on them. It got me to wondering how much longer I could do it. I cut my touring in the U. S. about 10 years ago because there was no point to it. There was little money, the drives are endless and it became a fool’s errand. It’s different in the UK and Europe. At first I wasn’t sure how much was there for an older guy like me but it seemed to work and when I did my last tour in 2023 not only were the shows well attended but I loved playing for some great promoters in places like Glasgow, Scarborough, Leicester and Kingsmead. I realised that there was a place for someone like me but I wanted to have a new record out before I did a full tour so I plan to return to the UK in 2025 to promote ‘Commoner’ and hopefully I’ll celebrate my 65th birthday there. When we were setting up the European tour I managed to fit in the one show in Glasgow to help Kevin Morris (of Glasgow’s Fallen Angels Club) celebrate his 20th anniversary of promoting shows and after that my wife and I are just going to hang around Scotland for a week or so, visit some castles.

As a Scot myself it’s quite touching to hear that you are a fan of this wee country.

I’ve never forgotten the effect my first show in Glasgow, at Oran Mor had on me and I’ve had a soft spot for Glasgow and Scotland ever since. In fact, a guy got in touch with me about selling me a kilt and I considered that for a while but I haven’t got a tartan, there’s not a lot of Ukrainian tartans about. There is a Bell tartan  but that’s not my family, we just changed our name to that years ago. I’m part Ukrainian, German, Dutch, maybe a bit of Ireland in there, I’m a European/American mongrel, in fact you can use that as a title for the interview if you want, the Euro/American mongrel comes home! As I said, I’ll be doing a full UK tour next year but this time around it’s the one gig, that’s it. It’s going to be special, in fact I think I’m going to sing one song, 90 minutes long for that – one show, one song!

You could write a 90 minute epic about your favourite politician.

Oh, don’t even take me there. You know, I’m surprised by how some characters seem to be able to hang on in and he’s one of them but it’s not like you haven’t experienced it yourself over there. Take your Liz Truss. I do enjoy the fact that she’s refused to admit that she’s an idiot. I think that if you go back in history you find that people who had the drive to be successful in politics, with very few exceptions, have the need to be dominant over everybody. Take LBJ. For all of his domineering traits, he was, I think, the only President who wanted to leave politics and disappear back to his farm and therefore he made a lot of right decisions. People talk about Vietnam but he did a lot of good domestically. I think Biden has done a good job but the sad thing is that you can’t persuade people of that because they believe he’s too old or going senile. They think he’s running the show all by himself but he’s not, there are people all around him, younger, smarter, who help him on policies. I don’t want to sound high and mighty but I think it takes a little bit of intelligence to enjoy my albums and right now in The United States I don’t think I’ve got an audience.

Nathan Bell’s tour dates are here and you can subscribe to his substack, I Don’t Do This For Love (Homage to the Songwriter) here.

About Paul Kerr 432 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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