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Q&A with indie-folk songwriter Belle-Skinner

Belle-Skinner tackles mid-century pop with a modern twist

By: Ethan Ames

July 13, 2017

"I think it was natural to start writing songs from then on because I was always coming up with ditties and poems anyway, and I didn’t really think much of it. It was just for myself, like a puzzle to solve."

A truly talented songwriter based in Brooklyn, Belle-Skinner is a self-described mix of "mid-century pop and fingerstyle contemporary folk." Her songs contain a multitude of influences while maintaining a style that's all her own. On 2016 album, We Shut Our Eyes, her fluid falsetto is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsom, while the songs' structural deftness hearkens to the creep-and-crawl of Elliott Smith and the understated drama of Sufjan Stevens and Jeff Buckley. Belle Skinner landed this interview through the Music Building's "Expose Yourself" campaign. Check out the Q&A below!

What led you to start writing songs?

My freshman year of college I had a lot of anxiety so I started learning songs on the guitar to cope with that – mostly Radiohead, Iron & Wine, Decemberists, and Sufjan Stevens covers. I think it was natural to start writing songs from then on because I was always coming up with ditties and poems anyway, and I didn’t really think much of it. It was just for myself, like a puzzle to solve. Then end of junior year I auditioned for classical guitar lessons with an original song of mine. The teacher saw something in it and I ended up taking a semester of real classical guitar (notes and all) before we transitioned to just focusing on my songwriting and recording an EP before I graduated.

What facts, feelings, records inspired "We Shut Our Eyes"?

Every song has a different inspiration, but most of them were written when I was traveling somewhere, or about to travel somewhere, so there was this feeling of uncertainty and un-rootedness in myself. The first songs I wrote for it were "City" and "Desert Waltz," when I was in London and about to head back to the United States with no idea what was going to happen next. I listened to many albums in the interim, and I was gleaning ideas production-wise from them. What made things click was recording a cover of Joanna Newsom’s song “The Sprout and the Bean” where I layered a bunch of guitar parts to replicate the harp, and listening to a lot of Lana Del Rey, whose production I love. Other influences were Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Francoise Hardy’s early hits, the Norwegian artist Farao whom I discovered in London, Neko Case, and 1950s-60s pop like The Shangri-Las and The Ronettes. 

The first three songs on "We Shut Our Eyes" deal with departure. Is that a theme consciously important to you?

It’s funny that you mention it because I didn’t notice this until a few weeks ago, actually. I suppose it could be due to the fact that I don’t take well to change; I’m sentimental and I mourn the ending of things, even when the thing itself may not be so good for me. There are other reasons which are probably due to my childhood and family life - we moved around a lot as a kid so I was constantly changing schools and had a hard time making friends. Not all of my songs are about departure of course, but I think it is something that I think about quite often.

You mention Joni Mitchell as an influence. Are you a fan of her earlier, more optimistic records, or the darker ones she released later in her career? I can hear both moods in your material.

I’m not influenced by Joni Mitchell, but I do list her as someone I sound like because that is a very frequent comparison I get (mainly because of the clear soprano voice). I didn’t grow up listening to her music. A couple of years ago I learned a bunch of her early songs because I watched a documentary about her, but I actually like her darker sound more. I’ll put it this way: of the two versions of the song “Both Sides Now,” I like the 2000 version, with the throaty voice and moody orchestration. By the way, if you want to listen to something that’s kind of like 1970s Joni Mitchell but darker and more up my alley, listen to the song “Chimacum Rain” by Linda Perhacs – she was an artist from the same era who didn’t succeed commercially and went back to being a dental hygienist, but then got rediscovered during the “New Weird America” movement in the 90s. It’s a good story, and Parallelograms is a good album. 

Other than "And Then You Leave," the record notes for We Shut Our Eyes don't list a studio or engineer for the rest of the songs. Did you record/produce the record yourself? If so did anyone help realize your sonic ideas?

I recorded and produced it by myself - everything but the drums and bass for “And Then You Leave” and the bass for “We Shut Our Eyes” which were done at Nashphone Recording Co. in Queensbury, NY. It was a crazy experiment to see whether I could do it on my own, and I learned a lot from the experience. I figured out which mic sounds best with my voice (oddly enough it was the cheapest one of the lot), how I best perform when recording, and other odds and ends. Aside from the guys at Nashphone, the person who really helped me realize the record was Jason Brown from Starling Studios in Saratoga Springs, NY. He worked with my friends’ bands Candy Ambulance and MaryLeigh Roohan; and he mixed and mastered the thing to sound so much better than I could’ve ever made it sound. You can never underestimate the importance of finding a good mixer. It changes everything.

Although the record is consistently intimate and gentle, it's incredibly varied both in the arrangements and compositions: how did it shape up this way and are you able to present it live with the full arrangements?

I arrange all of my songs on the guitar first and then layer instruments around that, so that’s the one unifying factor in all of them. You may notice “Little Cuckoo Bird” is recorded on a ukulele because I wrote that song on the uke, but then for live performances I transferred it to the guitar and adjusted my singing accordingly. Most of the songs stand by themselves really well; I would say the only ones I don’t play live are “We Shut Our Eyes” and “The Double” because those have a slower buildup that loses tension if there aren’t more instruments. I’m relatively new to the music scene here so I’ve just been getting acquainted with musicians and playing as much as possible on my own – I think since October I’ve played out nearly 150 times? In the upcoming months I’m looking to put together a band and start branching out in the kinds of songs I can do, which includes covers I’ve been hankering to play live and the new songs I’ve been writing.

You're on a desert island and can only listen to three albums. What are they?

Only three! I’m gonna cheat and say Francoise Hardy’s 36 Top Hits because I have that CD compilation and I’ve listened to it already a billion times since childhood, Air’s Moon Safari, and Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies.

Who are some local, like-minded artists in your music scene that inspire you?

They’re artists that I’ve played with, worked with, really enjoyed watching live, and/or learned something from. Most of them have nothing in common with me style-wise, but I’m not really inspired by people that sound like me, nor do I listen to music that sounds like mine. I find inspiration in folks like in Candy Ambulance, Pearla, The Big Drops, Pinc Louds, HNRY FLWR, Riley Pinkerton/Henry Black, Brian Bonelli, Malaphor, Shlomo Franklin, Chris Q. Murphy, and many more. Even just seeing people creatively support each other is inspiring to me.