Bellows is the Brooklyn-based recording project of Oliver Kalb; Lillie West is the Chicago-based frontperson of Lala Lala. Here, the friends discuss, among much more, West’s latest album The Lamb and Kalb’s The Rose Gardener, from which we’re premiering the music video for “The Rosebush.”
— Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse
Oliver Kalb: I was reading some of your old interviews, and something that resonated with me was something you were saying about how [your] previous album Sleepyhead felt like it came from such a different place than your new record that it felt like it was almost a new project. I wondered if you could talk more about that, and what it means to sort of like have such a divergent sound?
Lillie West: I feel like, being like the front person — or sometimes the only person — in the project, it’s just going to be that way. If it’s a group of people, I feel like there’s a group objective and everyone’s there reminding each of the sound that you started with, or maybe you would talk about what you want it to sound like and you’re still collectively working towards that. But if it’s just me, or if it’s just you, we can do whatever we want. We can go off in a totally different direction without compromise.
Oliver: Just listening back to that record, it feels tonally like it’s almost like a punk album, or something. It feels like it has direct emotional line, whereas The Lamb feels a little more kind of unsure, or sort of reserved. Does that jive with your feeling about those records?
Lillie: Yeah, totally. I think with The Lamb, I did a lot more disguising than I had done with Sleepyhead — which is actually something that I wanted to talk to you about, because I feel like your lyrics are so rich and mysterious and reference so many other things, and I was wondering how much disguising you do intentionally?
Oliver: I’ve actually heard that from other people, as well. I think it might just be something about my way of using language, or something, because I feel like especially on the last few Bellows records, I’ve tried especially hard to write in as direct a way as possible. I think of both of those records as very topical, or about coming to terms with a particularly fraught moment. I’m definitely trying to speak in as direct a way as possible, but I feel like with lyrics it’s sometimes hard to like get the level of directness that you’re attempting to have come across actually feel direct to people who aren’t in your life.
Lillie: That’s true. I was talking to Felix [Walworth] about this the other day — there’s something to be said for giving someone the tools to feel a certain way with lyrics as opposed to just saying “This is sad.”
Oliver: Actually, Felix is an interesting person to talk about lyrics with, because they’re such a minimalist. Felix and I talk a lot about using the fewest amount of words possible. I feel like that’s something that [Felix’s band] Told Slant is particularly good at — not embellishing the world, but just giving, like, one anecdote that sort of gives you the whole story.
Lillie: Yeah, that is so cool. I often write a song with too many words. I have to take them away.
Oliver: That’s something I fall into too, because I write a lot of songs where I have a rhythmic flow that I become really attached to — like, the lyrics have to hit a meter before they’re fully written. So I end up filling in words that don’t actually have to be there, except that I really love the flow that I’m using and it feels like preserving that is sort of more important than being spare with the lyric writing.
Lillie: It makes sense to me that you would be attached to that and be such a fan of Why?
Oliver: Actually, this is something that I was going to ask you too — this is something that we kind of have in common in terms of having been really influenced by Why? first, and then touring with them and meeting them as artists. The gap between having this force in my life as an influence throughout high school and early college and kind of trying to emulate Yoni [Wolf]’s songwriting style, and then meeting them and having them be sort of humanized was an interesting thing for me as an artist.
Lillie: I feel like you did such a better job at being influenced by Why? I feel like with Fist & Palm in particular, I can tell that you’re influenced by Why? I loved Why? so much for so long, and it doesn’t show through my music and I hate it. I’m like, Why didn’t it infiltrate? I don’t know.
Oliver: Even if it doesn’t come across sonically, I feel like there’s an approach to lyric writing and creating an emotional world through albums that maybe is more shared with them than it seems like from the actual sound of the record. I know what you mean formally, but I also feel like you and Yoni have a lot in common as lyricists and sound builders, specifically in the sample use that you guys do live.
Lillie: Yeah, I definitely am influenced by him lyrically. It was interesting writing that song with him, seeing how he does things. Like you were saying, being attached to like a rhythmic cadence — he writes everything that way. Or, he’ll write an entire lyric and then create a rhythm out of it, which isn’t the way that I do it at all.
When we were writing lyrics together, I came to him with half a song and he was like “Tell me exactly what this is about.” So I did, and then I would throw out a lyric and he would be like, “How does this serve the message? What does that mean, exactly?” Which is not something that I agree with necessarily — I sort of like writing nonsense lyrics, and I also feel like sometimes you think you’re writing nonsense and then it turns out to be about something that you’re going through.
Oliver: You find [the meaning] later.
Lillie: Yeah! But it’s really cool that that’s what he does. It’s all serving the same message.
Oliver: It’s kind of an intimidating thing to hold yourself to — having to justify every line as belonging to the topic of the song. I definitely write a lot of things where like there’s just some kind of evocative sound to a word or phrase, and it feels like nonsense but then, as you sit there and write around it, you realize that it was sitting in your brain for a reason even though it seemed like it was just baby talk, or something. There was actually some subconscious resonance to it.
Lillie: I keep like a long note in a notebook and on my phone of random phrases that I’ll pick up places, and it’s surprising how often they end up serving the emotion that I’m feeling or expressing in a song.
Oliver: When you write songs, how close are the original demo lyrics to the lyrics that end up on the record? Like, do you revise a lot or do they end up just kind of being the first thing you thought of?
Lillie: I really try to write the final lyrics as I’m doing it, but anytime that I’m like I don’t love that, but it’s fine, I regret it later. [Laughs.]
Oliver: Yeah, me too.
Lillie: There’s like so many lyrics on Sleepyhead, and a couple on The Lamb, that I was like, Yeah, whatever, it fits enough. Now when I hear it, I’m like Fuuuuck, that’s so embarrassing.
Oliver: I totally feel that way about my own lyrics too. Pretty much the only way I’ve written songs for the last four or five years has been in these song-a-day projects I do — sometimes with friends and sometimes alone — where I’ll pick out a week or month period where I commit to writing a song every day. For some reason it’s the only way I can do it anymore, play deciding that I have to get something finished in a single day. Something about the time constraint creates a situation where there’s no room for blocking creative ideas. You just end up with these really stupid, silly songs that feel like they come from some weird fantasy part of your brain where it has nothing to do with anything. But a lot of times I’ll end up with, like, 60 of these totally nonsensical songs that I then have to translate into something that makes sense. So a lot of the time I’m working with lyrics that feel super rough and embarrassing and have to find their way into rational thought.
Lillie: That’s so cool. I’m going to try this. I’ve never done the song a day thing. I’ve been thinking about doing some kind of — quote, unquote — writing retreat where I go to Michigan by myself and have really intentional writing time, but a song a day seems like a really good solution. Being in your house, it’s so easy to get distracted.
Oliver: I find that incorporating it into my routine is helpful. I’ll just wake up and walk my dog and then immediately write a song, kind of before I’m fully awake. Something about trying to write music before I’m inundated with shit I have to do that today, or social media, or anything that clouds whatever part of my brain is trying to be creative is really helpful.
Lillie: I find myself trying to get all my errands done before being creative, but I’ve never tried opposite. Should we talk about the video?
Lillie: It’s so cool! I love it.
Oliver: It ended up being more literal, I think, than it was originally supposed to be.
Lillie: Is that Gabby [Smith of Gabby’s World] as the rosebush?
Oliver: [Laughs] Yeah, she’s in disguise.
Lillie: I love her disguise. It seems like in the video, the rosebush doesn’t want to be watered?
Oliver: So, the idea behind that was like basically: Dan Shure, who’s in Charly Bliss, and I were talking about making this video together, and he was kind of asking me what the song “Rosebush” was about. I think of that song as kind of a big extended metaphor about the practice of making art. I feel like the image of sticking your hand into this thorny rosebush and getting your hand cut — something that you know is going to be painful, but that can produce this amazing, beautiful thing if you let yourself get a little hurt by it.
We were talking about art-making as willfully stepping into painful experiences to try to really feel them fully. I think Dan had the idea of literalizing that, where there’s this rosebush that comes to life and I’m pursuing it, but there’s maybe a price to be paid for getting too close to something that you’re maybe not supposed to look directly at.
Lillie: That’s interesting. I don’t think a lot of people necessarily make art about art-making, and maybe even making the song itself is like directly looking at it.
Oliver: Yeah, totally. I actually was talking about this with Gabby about the new Why? song that you and I are both singing on [“Be Where You Are”]. It feels like the last few Why? records are kind of almost about Why?’s career, if that makes sense — like, reflecting on like having written like an album like Alopecia that’s direct about delving into painful moments. It feels like the last few records after Alopecia were almost reckoning with what it means to have been the person that made that record.
I definitely feel like reflecting on art making as a practice is something that I picked up from Yoni’s writing a little bit — thinking more broadly about what it means to be an artist on the same album as the songs that are about specific painful things. It makes it sort of a little meta or disconnected, but it felt like an apt metaphor that the album was working with just in terms of thinking about reflecting on why you would bother picking at the scab, so to speak.
Lillie: Personally, I think picking at the scabs is a healthier way to deal with things. Writing songs about emotionally investigating all this stuff is actually healthier than the way that most people deal with things, which is to ignore them.
Oliver: That’s really true.
Lillie: Now that you mention it, I actually totally [agree with] what you said about Why?’s album Moh Lhean. That record is so reflective to me about their career, and about Yoni in general, and I now see such a connection between The Rose Gardener and Moh Lhean. There’s totally emotional parallels. I feel like The Rose Gardener is so much about acceptance in different ways. Like, sometimes it’s accepting being really angry, but it’s still acceptance at the end of the day.
Oliver: I get a big sense with Moh Lhean that it’s trying to come from a different emotional angle than the rest of their catalog in terms of trying to approach the difficulties of life from a place of peace and acceptance rather than like railing against [them]. That’s definitely a theme on my record. I think Fist & Palm was a particularly angsty album about leaning into conflict, and I feel like this album is about conflict being sort of unavoidable. There’s something that can pop up at any moment in extreme ways and derail your life, and you actually don’t want to go looking for conflict where it doesn’t present itself because life is so full of unexpected bullshit anyway.
Lillie: Yes, totally. Which is also what I feel like The Lamb is a little bit about too.
Oliver: I got a sense of that. Could you say more about that?
Lillie: I feel like The Lamb is just like, what happens now? All these things happen and you think that you can’t handle them, and it’s painful horrible but there’s literally nothing else you can do but keep going. My life right now is in no way horrible, but, to me, in the past it’s unfathomable that the things that have happened to me would have happened and I would be OK, as silly as that sounds. Whatever happens, I know that for the most part everything will be fine.
Oliver: What do you think changed that made that possible?
Lillie: I think you just learn by experiencing. Every time something horrible happens, there’s obviously fallout, but at the end of it you’re more equipped for anything before it.
Oliver: I actually think making an album about something particularly hard has been a good way of obsessing about it to the point of not being able to care anymore. You know how sometimes you just need to cry, and if you cry you’re just like, OK, I’m done, I don’t care about this anymore? I’m over it because I gave myself that release. I feel like album-making can be like that. You end up listening to the songs so many times; I feel like making an album about something [you] previously would have barely wanted to talk about can end up bringing you to a place of more peace, because you’re just sick of caring about it.
Lillie: Yeah, it’s like playing a cover song, but you’re covering the emotion.
Oliver: Wow, that’s such a great way of looking at it.
Lillie: People asked me a lot about when The Lamb — I mean, there’s not a lot of stuff about it, but what press held onto was the very bare bones facts about a couple bad things that had happened to me. People would ask me, “Is it hard to sing like this song that’s very explicitly about one person dying?” And I was, like, “Honestly, I’ve played that song so many times, I don’t even feel that I wrote it.” It’s so far away from me emotionally.
Oliver: Yeah, I totally know what you mean. Sometimes the things that are really unresolved, giving yourself permission to play [them] out so much that you just don’t care anymore feels really needed. I feel like it’s sometimes the only way I can get through things that seem kind of insurmountable.
Lillie: I mean, it’s so that way for me that I’m stressed out for everyone else — everyone has their own coping mechanisms, but I’m like, how do people who don’t have this specific outlet deal with it? It’s so necessary for me.
Oliver: I feel like one of the great things about being a songwriter is, even if it’s unintentional, you end up thinking about your life in terms of these milestones, so you give them a lot more room to take over your life than people who are not artists would.
Lillie: I feel like it’s good and bad to be obsessive in that way.
Oliver: It feels like songwriters have this specific approach to life being hard where they’re more attuned to picking out shitty things and harping on them for the sake of songwriting.
Lillie: I wonder if that’s why I’m so high strung.
Oliver: Me too. On some level, you kind of lean into it, because you’re like, this is going to be like my material later.
Lillie: I’m just so much more sensitive than other people; I see it with my bandmate Abby [Black] all the time. I just react to things so differently. She can just shrug things off so easily — something as simple as someone at a venue being rude, I’m like, “Wow, I’m so fucking pissed right now, I can’t believe someone would do that,” and she’s just like, “Whatever, they’re gone.” It’s such a better way to be. I have such rage coursing through my veins, and she’s like, “Just go outside.”
Oliver: I have the same thing. I’m so hyper-attuned to feeling dissed. I feel like tour ends up being sort of a petri dish for developing really unnecessarily complex feelings about simple interactions; I definitely feel like in the context of being on tour, I’m so much more ready to take something really minor way too seriously in the context of interactions that I have with my band.
Lillie: Yes, 100%. I think also as the primary songwriter, I’m so emotionally wrapped up in what we’re doing that if it goes badly, I hate myself because it’s my fault [Laughs]. There’s a lot of pressure: All these people are here for me, [and] if it’s bad, it’s like I punished [my bandmates]. You’re like waiting for them to be mad at you, because you feel that you trapped them, and you’re also ready for someone to be like, “By the way, you suck.” This January tour was the first headlining tour we ever did, and Abby was like, “It’s so cool that people are at this show!” And I was just, like, mentally stressed out. Or [I was thinking] there’s some other reason they’re here, and tomorrow is gonna be bad.
Oliver: That’s exactly how I feel. I can’t take “yes” for an answer. Every time there’s a good crowd at one of my shows, on some level I’m like, it must have been the opening band.
Lillie: Or, it’s the day of the week, and the show is free, and there’s a college kind of nearby…
Oliver: I won’t let myself believe that we put the work in and ended up with people that liked us. I always blame it on something else.
Lillie: It’s scary to accept that. It can go away at any point. The life that we’ve chosen is so tenuous. In one way, it’s constant — we will always make stuff. But whether we can make a living off it is completely up in the air every single day.
Oliver: I feel like that’s something my record is about to a certain extent, too — the recognition that your life and music is bound to end at some point. Even if you continue making stuff, at some point your ability to interface with the indie world, or the DIY scene, or whatever, is not a permanent position. You’re always going to be ceding ground to the next cool thing. Being a little more detached about it is the only way to not go crazy, because if you’re constantly indulging in that rat race of, am I getting enough attention? Why aren’t people interested in me?, you just become so obsessed with it that you lose everything else.
Lillie: Yeah, and there’s nothing that would ever be enough for it. It would never stop. I‘ve gotten this amount of attention that pleases me this much, but then there’s always someone bigger, faster, 19 years old, et cetera.
Oliver: The premium on youth is so real, and something that you can never get back. The only thing you actually have control over is the work you’re putting in and being happy with where you are as an artist.
Lillie: I try so often to just be like, literally whatever happens is fine. I love making music, and I’m going to continue making music forever, but it’s so easy to get caught up in being stressed out about that stuff. Everything’s so calculated, and it feels like if someone has a really calculated image or brand right from the start, that serves them very well. I get stressed out that my story is so messy. And it doesn’t fucking matter!
Oliver: Thinking about your story, or the trajectory of your life, as something that you need to package to people and sell them for their enjoyment is a weird position to be in.
Lillie: Yeah, it is weird. It’s like, what aspect of my personality is marketable? It’s so crazy.
You can catch Bellows on tour with Gabby’s World this summer:
7/7 — Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Roboto
7/8 — Detroit, MI @ Outer Limits
7/9 — Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
7/10 — Minneapolis, MN @ Kitty Cat Klub
7/11 — Omaha, NE @ OutrSpaces
7/14 — Missoula, MT @ Ten Spoon Winery
7/15 — Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
7/16 — Corvallis, OR @ TBD
7/17 — Arcata, CA @ Outer Space
7/18 — San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
7/19 — Santa Cruz, CA @ SubRosa
7/20 — Stockton, CA @ Blackwater Cafe
7/21 — Los Angeles, CA @ Morrocan
7/23 — Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress
7/25 — Austin, TX @ Hotel Vegas
7/26 — Dallas, TX @ Transit Bicycle Co.
7/28 — Gainesville, FL @ TBD
7/29 — Orlando, FL @ Will’s Pub
7/30 — Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
7/31 — Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle Backroom
8/1 — Washington, DC @ Songbyrd
8/2 — Brooklyn, NY @ Alphaville
8/3 — Boston, MA @ Once Ballroom
(Photo Credit: left, Oliver Kalb; right, Carley Solether)