We talk with two members of the short-lived but accomplished Madison ensemble.
Very few people have had much of a chance to see The Bellhops, a band that grew out of UW-Madison’s First Wave program in 2013. Most of the group’s shows were at private events or at First Wave-centered events, like the Line Breaks Festival or Passing The Mic, that deserve a bigger audience but don’t always attract much crossover from outside the campus community. And that probably won’t change, since several members have recently graduated and moved away. But this summer the band released an EP, Hero Of My Own Tale, which is a strong document of The Bellhops' effort to give black women singer-songwriters a collaborative platform.
Vocalists Taylor Scott, Hiwot Adilow, Myriha B., Natalie Cook, Dantrel Cotton, and EJ Newble form the core of the songs, foregrounding blues-influenced melodies and a bit of spoken-word, but the band also boasts a strong team of instrumentalists in Morgan Ryser (keyboards), Nathan France (saxophone), Lauren Koehler (flute), Andrew Schroeder (drums), Max Perkins (drums), Quinn Jacobson (bass and guitar), and Spencer Hobbs (bass and guitar). Even with so many people, and so many writers, in the mix, Hero Of My Own Tale coheres around harmonically rich arrangements and lyrics that movingly couple the personal and the political. On opening track “All I Know,” Taylor Scott sings about striving to be strong in a chaotic world, with a chorus—“We all care about things we cannot change”—that gels nicely with the song’s Marvin Gaye-inspired music. “Be Alone,” written by Adilow, explores the moments where the restorative power of solitude and self-reliance bleeds over into depression and loneliness. On the closing track, “Backwards God,” Natalie Cook writes and delivers a spoken-word piece that attacks the concept of patriarchy through a cosmic lens. The quality of the recording, made at Madison studio Audio For The Arts, certainly helps, but more importantly it’s the product of several young artists coming into their own as singers and songwriters, and of gifted musicians who were integrated into and emotionally attuned to a highly collaborative songwriting process.
Though The Bellhops’ members have dispersed, several are still active in Madison and have made their mark on the local music community in other ways. Adilow, Newble, Perkins, and France are all members of a similarly sprawling R&B/hip-hop collective, Me eN You. Several members frequently collaborate with other First Wave-affiliated acts–both Adilow and Myriha B. have powerful features on CRASHprez’s album More Perfect, released in February.
Scott, a senior who is studying abroad in London this fall, and Adilow,a junior who’s also working on a new solo project, recently talked with me about the EP in separate conversations.
Tone Madison: Taylor, you started The Bellhops as a way to give yourself and several other women singer-songwriters a platform. How did it end up coming together?
Taylor Scott: I knew there were all these dope female writers, but none of them were given the opportunity to collaborate with males. There was a group beforehand called Not Enough Mics, which was founded by Sofia Snow and Blair White, and they were in the first cohort of First Wave, so I kind of took after that format for The Bellhops. As far as the group coming together, we had a show at Passing The Mic in 2012, and some women got together and we did a tribute for John Vietnam, because he had passed a month prior. We wrote songs dedicated to him. That was actually my first full-length song that I have ever written. Before, I would just write choruses and hooks and people would just use them in cyphers. That’s the moment I really started taking my music seriously, and I saw everyone around me taking music seriously too, because John took it seriously. That was our first taste of what an all-woman band could do—there were white instrumentalists backing us up, but at the fore were these black women writers. That’s how I first got the idea of what I wanted to do for my Line Breaks show, because I applied for the 2014 Line Breaks festival. In preparation for that I had to do auditions. Nobody made it into the band without an audition beforehand. We had to quality-check people’s voices, people’s songwriting skills, people’s instrument-playing.
Tone Madison: How did you arrive at the format and lineup that you have, as opposed to any other instrumental lineup?
Taylor Scott: I didn’t really have a preference for what instruments I wanted, actually. If two pianists came and they were both dope, I would go, “OK, one of y’all play organ and one of you play piano.” No matter what instruments came, we would have made it work. We had two violins. We still have a bassist and guitarist. I wanted harp at some point. It probably wouldn’t have mattered—as long as it’s not a clarinet. I discriminate against clarinets. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: Why?
Taylor Scott: I just don’t like the sound of them. Just not a fan of the clarinet. But other than that, most of the instruments that came, I was pretty open to. Thankfully, no clarinets came. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: So for you, was it more about the lyrics and the ideas and the process?
Taylor Scott: I think so. How a song would start is that we would call a rehearsal on Thursday, three people would bring in a new song, no instrumentation behind it, just the lyrics and some idea of what the melody is. We’d just sing it straight and get the chords behind it, piano and guitar, and then slowly the other instruments would start to come in. We might meet beforehand, like just myself and the sax player, who also plays piano, just get some chords out of the way so that rehearsal with everyone could move quicker. If a singer comes in, of course she can’t sing her own backup and might not be able to hear the parts where she needs backup or where the song might benefit from backup. We’d have lyric sheets and pass them out to everybody, and everyone would highlight the areas where they are needed in their talent.
Tone Madison: What were some of the songs on the record where you were particularly happy with your contributions.
Taylor Scott: I think I was particularly proud of “All I Know.” That’s a song I wrote and sang. That’s mainly because of where the song came from. I wrote it to a Marvin Gaye instrumental—I don’t know if you got the gist of that.
Tone Madison: Sure, you can definitely get that vibe from that song.
Taylor Scott: As far as how the song grew, I think that’s the epitome of what it means to collaborate in this ensemble, is that song. Because me, by myself, I’m a very boring artist [laughs]. It’s not that I need all this pizzazz, but definitely I find great value in collaboration. I think everything just fell into place. I had a different pianist beforehand, and all of a sudden Morgan comes along, who’s the pianist you hear on the project. We were freaking out before this one gig because we didn’t have a pianist, and my sax pianist said, “Oh, I happen to be in this jazz group with a really good pianist named Morgan.” So Morgan came to one of our rehearsals at the studio, and he has this piercing in his ears, he’s this 6’ 9” dude, and we’re just like, “Who is he?” So we’re doing “All I Know” and we’re like, “OK, here’s the piano solo.” And I still have the recording of the first time he did the solo, and everyone in the room, you can hear the surprise, just laughing even, in awe that this dude is so talented. So from there, I think we got like two times better, just by our pianist being so great. I think everyone was like, “OK, we’ve gotta step our game up.”
Tone Madison: It sounds like the band has this environment where you have to be willing to take risks, whether that means jumping in and working with someone new, or trusting other people to handle something that you’ve written.
Taylor Scott: There are some things that we’ve tried, like some group experimental things. There’s this one song I wrote called “Shams of Tabrizi” and another that I wrote called “Serving Trouble.” They were fantastic songs, but at the same time they were out there. They were really out there and I don’t think anyone was prepared for how out-there they were.
Tone Madison: How so?
Taylor Scott: The content, just where I was going with it. “Shams of Tabrizi,” no one knows what that means. He’s a Sufi poet. If you’ve read any of Rumi’s poems, the name Shams of Tabrizi shows up a lot. I read Rumi every day, it’s kind of what I do for my morning ritual, so I kept seeing this name pop up. Long story short, Shams of Tabrizi was this guy who went around asking people these deep philosophical questions, and people just thought he was crazy, like, “Get out of my face, Shams.” So he went up to Rumi and asked him this question, and Rumi felt like that was the question that unlocked his soul. He fell to Shams’ feet and started weeping. Then after, they had kind of a teacher-student, teacher-teacher relationship, if that makes sense. Everyone thought they had a romantic relationship, but they were just really that close. Shams ended up leaving Rumi because Rumi’s other followers got jealous. But he didn’t tell Rumi that he was leaving. That’s what the whole song was about—just that relationship. I think the lyricism was definitely there, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for the groove of it. It was almost operatic. It’ll probably work out with another band or at another time. I still haven’t lost hope in the song, because I know it’s a part of something larger.
Tone Madison: On this record, did you want the songs to have a certain thematic flow?
Taylor Scott: I just think all these songs could stand by themselves so well. There was actually another track that was supposed to be on there, but we just couldn’t get it together. It had really great lyricism, but as far as being on the same wavelength as a band, we just weren’t. So we decided not to put it on there. That would have messed up the arc of the EP. But like I said, I don’t know how it happened, but things just fell into place. It wasn’t hard coming up with the actual order of the songs, or the theme, because everyone was writing about the same things anyway. We all have similar references, so it’s no question that the work would all inherently connect.
Tone Madison: What does the title, Hero Of My Own Tale, say about the songs or about the band?
Taylor Scott: It says that nobody can tell my story like I can tell my story.
Tone Madison: So it’s about the mix of individual perspectives at work in the band?
Taylor Scott: Yeah. But also about the peace that you find in solitude as a black woman, and also in community, but mostly in solitude, doing your own thing. And even though “Be Alone,” where that title came from, is about solitude, at the same time, there’s a begging or a yearning for community, for that person to be included. And all of our narratives, though individual, still speak to our narratives, still speak to each other because we all have similar experiences as black women. All the writers are black women. “Old Man Murray,” even though E.J. sings that song, I wrote that song.
Tone Madison: What are some of the more specific ideas that came out of exploring that bigger theme of the experiences of black women?strong>
Taylor Scott:strong> Survival. Justice. Sexual agency. Agency in general. Knowing what you’re worth. Of course, womanhood. I want to say matriarchy—well, I wouldn’t say that.It just pops into my mind, because the last track is a critique of patriarchy. Also community, not just with other black women, but we definitely made a community with the band, including white males. So I wouldn’t say it was all just about black female vocalists, but centered so, but still, it was a great learning process seeing them watch us, and us watch them, especially in the society that we live in. There were a lot of songs that didn’t make it on the EP that were just as good, but we didn’t have the resources.
We used to have a videographer in every rehearsal, just making note of the moment. There was this one poem called “Peaches,” and Peaches is the stereotypical black woman. I had this poet from the seventh cohort write a poem to that theme. It’s based on the Nina Simone song “Four Women.” She just took it and had two violins do the riff from “Four Women,” and she sits in between these two violinists. And in rehearsal, no one had ever heard the poem besides myself, and you see her spitting her poem, and over by the door is the drummer Andy, and his face the whole time, he’s just in awe of what she’s saying in that experience. I definitely think our writing has definitely made them more sensible to our struggles as women, and particularly black women.
Tone Madison: Hiwot, what were some of the songs you contributed the most to on this EP?
Hiwot Adilow: So the songs that I wrote were “Be Alone” and “Nobody.” The whole process was very collaborative. The way The Bellhops was put together as a group was as a space for black women artists to bring in their own work and work with these musicians in collaboration to develop a larger performance project. So I brought in songs that I had written on my own into that space and we were able to build them together and give each other feedback about, like, “This would sound good if it was done like this.”
Tone Madison: What did you find that you got out of this project that you don’t from other solo or collaborative pursuits?
Hiwot Adilow: I think from this project, something that I really got out of it was just the intentionality of the space. Taylor curated a place for people to specifically meet up and find ways to bolster, not certain specific messages, but create an environment were we can be dedicated specifically to the work that we want to create.
Tone Madison: What were some of the important lyrical themes that drove your writing for those two songs you mentioned?
Hiwot Adilow: I think a lot of what I think about as a woman comes from things that women are told to do, or who women are told to be, and how we live in contrast to that, and I think “Nobody” especially speaks on the experience of having people tell a person what your body is worth or what your body is not worth, prophesying a certain experience for a person based on their gender or race or different things that contribute to their identity. Working against the life that you’re told you’re supposed to live, while trying to build the life that you want to live. For “Be Alone,” a lot of where that came from was talking about depression, and the idea that solitude can be positive but also has a negative impact, and what community can do for a person when they’re in that space.
Tone Madison: Were there specific experiences that informed how you approached those themes?
Hiwot Adilow: I think for me it was more just thinking about how sometimes when you get to a place that isn’t the healthiest, or when you’re very sad or in the pits of depression, it might seem like a good idea to be alone, but a lot of time that isn’t the best thing, and it’s in those times when you should reach out to people and spend time around people. It’s in part that person’s conversation with themselves—I can handle this, I can be fine by myself, and then the chorus asking, really, have you? Like, no matter how you choose to go about dealing with your feelings or no matter what you feel is necessary for you, we’ll support you, but at the same time, it’s probably better for you to not be alone, because there are people who love you and support you.
Tone Madison: A lot of people in this band are graduating or moving out of town, so it seems to be kind of over as a band, but what about this experience will inform your work going forward?
Hiwot Adilow: I think the ability to just listen to so many different people’s voices and that real-time experience of having people contribute, critique, make suggestions. That part of collaboration was something that was really new to me but also nice to watch happen. And also, even when we would come into the space with our own writing, like if Natalie came in with a poem or Myriha came in with a song, just that moment of first hearing what someone else has been thinking about, what someone else has been writing. It made me really appreciate the multitude of stories that people have.