Ollabelle bringing its unique rootsy mix to The Ark
“Yeah, I guess most of us weren’t finished starting families,” says Byron Isaacs, the group’s bassist who, like the other four members, also adds his stellar vocals to Ollabelle’s shimmery vocal harmonies.
And, in mid-August, about the same time the disc was released, one member, Amy Helm, had her second child—after having given birth to her first baby back in ’08, after the group had already started work on the album. Helm is the daughter of Levon Helm, the iconic drummer / singer for The Band, one of the greatest, most venerated groups in rock history. (Given the recent birth, Amy Helm is not on this leg of the tour.)
Speaking of family affairs: Most of the members of Ollabelle—who come to the Ark on Saturday—have played with The Levon Helm Band in recent years. Also, Isaacs wrote a song for each of Levon’s recent Grammy-winning albums—“Calvary” on “Dirt Farmer” (2008) and “Heaven’s Pearls” on “Electric Dirt” (2009).The gigs with Levon helped Isaacs, Amy Helm and the others maintain their musical / vocal chops during the protracted writing and recording of “Neon Blue Bird”—and during all of that “family-starting.” Along the way, Ollabelle also made sure to maintain their presence with live Ollabelle gigs.
“We never went more than a month without doing a show,” mostly around New York City, but also in other East Coast locales, says Isaacs during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn.
On the new disc, says Isaacs, the group’s goal was to “capture the energy of the first impressions of a new song. In the past, we’d go to a rented house upstate, and demo the songs as we wrote them, and there was always some sort of magic in those demos that we felt never really got captured on the final studio tracks.”
So, this time, they took a different tack. When they began work on the new disc in ’08, they didn’t have a record deal: Ollabelle was one of many groups that was dropped by their label, Verve Forecast, when parent company Universal overhauled the label in ’06.
“So, since we didn’t have anyone looking over our shoulders, we decided to produce it ourselves, and we wrote and recorded the songs as we went along. So, after we made the basic demos, we just re-recorded them and mixed them—so the final versions sounded a lot like the original demos, in terms of retaining that magic and energy.”
The new disc includes five strong, new original songs; two traditional tunes re-arranged by the group; re-worked cover versions of Paul Kelly’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Arms” and Chris Whitley’s “Dirt Floor”—and a modernized take on Stephen Foster’s chestnut, “Swanee River.”
As usual, the group’s gospelized vocal harmonies provide the foundation, and they continue to weave gospel, blues, soul, jazz, New Orleans and Appalachian styles into their unique musical mix. And on some tracks, they retain the swampy atmospherics that made their previous albums sound so distinctive.
“The sound on this record is purely our own vision, without the input of an outside producer,” says Isaacs. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to work with a producer again, but we thought it was best to go it on our own this time. I think this one really captured the energy of our live shows. On our previous records, the songs were usually live takes, but the final versions, to our ears, sounded too smoothed-out and more ‘produced’ than they really were.”
One challenge was taking a song like “Swanee River”—which has been heard so many times, and has often been delivered in almost cartoonish fashion—and making it sound fresh and relevant.
“That song has a great melody, and the lyrics are about a yearning for home, which is something we can all relate to—missing a place that is special to you - but we created a simpler musical bed for it, and left out the verses about the plantation, obviously, to make it a more universal song,” says Isaacs.
Given the current state of the record business, and since they weren’t signed to a label, the group also had to get creative when it came to finding funds to pay for the recording, distribution and promotion of the new album.
First, they took out a bank loan, and then turned to Kickstarter, a website that lets artists solicit funds from their fans for various projects. That helped them raise $14,000, by offering incentives like pre-release copies of the disc for $25 each, and holding a private acoustic performance at the Greenwich Village apartment of a friend—where fans donated up to $700 each.
“That was an awesome, amazing experience, and we were so filled with gratitude,” says Isaacs. “It’s a very big deal when people put out that much for you. And along with that, I think, comes a feeling of responsibility, to continue to keep making the most honest music we can possibly make.”
Kevin Ransom, a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com, can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.