Name: Bells Larsen
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Bells Larsen's Good Grief is out via Next Door.
If you enjoyed this interview with Bells Larsen and would like to find out more about their work, visit their official website. Bells Larsen are also on Instagram, and Facebook.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I’m inspired to create when I’m going through something big in my life and need an outlet through which I can process.
Most of my songs are about my interpersonal relationships; if I’m trying to figure out how I feel, I turn to songwriting.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I tend to write in chronological order of how a song unfolds, beginning with the first verse. Often times, I don’t know what a song is really about until I get to the chorus. I like to think of a chorus as the “main idea” or “thesis” of the song.
In March 2020, literally days before the pandemic erupted, I attended a songwriter residency at the Banff Centre. Tamara of The Weather Station was one of the mentors there. When I was stuck on some lyrics, she encouraged me to get as specific as I could in the story I was trying to tell. Where was I? How old was I? What was I feeling at that time?
That’s how the beginning of my song “Teenage Love” was born.
[Read our The Weather Station interview]
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Rollie Pemberton who performs as Cadence Weapon was also a mentor at the Banff Centre. I think he said something along the lines of “a tidy space makes for a tidy mind”.
This idea really resonates with me. I have a tough time writing if my room looks like it was hit by a tornado.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first thing I write is a chord progression that reflects the mood of whatever I’ll be articulating in the song. The music will usually borrow pieces of whatever is inspiring me.
For instance, “People Who Mean So Much To Me” uses the same chords from Adrianna Lenker’s “Kerina” because I was listening to her a bunch when I was writing the song.
After I have a rough idea of a song’s musicality, I try to figure out what exactly it is that I’m trying to say.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I suppose I just touched on this, but lyrics tend to come after the music. I can’t write good lyrics if the music doesn’t make me feel jazzed.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I’m reading Joni Mitchell’s biography, “Reckless Daughter” right now. She had an English teacher once who taught her that when you see a cliché, you should circle it and replace it with something that isn’t a cliché. I tend to agree with her.
I’m very drawn to lyrics that are wordy, but with simple concepts. I also like when there’s a punchline.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Writing a song usually takes me a few days. To me, that feels slow. I have a bunch of friends who can just sit and breathe out a song in a matter of minutes.
I’ve written like that before, but I need to mull things over and write different drafts before the thing is complete. I studied philosophy in university for two years, so perhaps that’s just a residual paper-writing mindset.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I prefer to let a narrative flow without employing any sense of control. Sometimes though, I do like to place limitations or restrictions on my songwriting.
In “Sweater Weather”, for instance, I tried to speak from first person as little as possible. Rules like that can make for interesting storytelling.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Sure, sometimes I find myself pulled and pushed in different directions in my songwriting! If I feel compelled by something, I will move towards it.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Last year, shortly after recording Good Grief, I read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. Essentially, this book is a self-guided 12-week course that I would liken to an alcoholics anonymous program for artists who are creatively blocked. This book changed me in so many ways.
Since reading “The Artist’s Way”, there is so much more room for play in my life. I’m more in touch with my creativity, with my gender, and with my emotions.
I initially experienced some discomfort with the book because Julia refers to “God” or “The Great Creator” a lot. The whole thing is pretty woo-woo. She emphasizes, though, that “God” can represent “good orderly direction”, which is bang-on for how I feel when I’m in a creative flow state.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
It can be hard to know when a song is done, especially when I’m posting sixty second fragments of half-written things online all the time.
For me, I know that I’m done once I can concisely and confidently play a song the whole way through for someone else (or send it to a loved one in voice memo form).
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I almost never re-evaluate the composition of a song after it’s done. If I did, I would be editing and re-vising forever and ever. I’m a perfectionist that way.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
This question is something I also ask myself.
A good piece of advice I got from Graham, who recorded Good Grief, is that the best way to spend your money while making a record is on a good mix. His words of wisdom proved to be totally true. The difference in sound between the rough mixes and the final mixes was day and night. It’s pretty astounding!
At the same time, I have demo-itis. I grew up listening to a lot of stuff that people recorded in their bedrooms, so I definitely have an affinity for low-quality production too. That’s partly why I chose to sandwich my album with a voice memo.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
To circle back to “The Artist’s Way”, Julia Cameron structures her artist recovery program with two pillar activities: morning pages and artist dates. She argues that by doing these two things, one can fill their creative well and thus have more stuff to draw from. After all, it can be hard to create when there’s nothing is inspiring you.
I feel that by finishing and then releasing Good Grief into the world, my own creative well has been a bit emptied. I plan to refill it by spending time away from my phone after the release and making more room for play in my everyday life.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I like to believe that there’s an art to everything, including the act of making a good cup of coffee. In music, however, I’m able to express nuance and other complicated feelings through words and sounds.
I don’t know if I’m able to do that quite as much when I’ve got my barista hat on, so to speak.