Intimate and ethereal, singer/songwriter Andrew Belle’s fourth album ‘Nightshade’ is an emotionally stirring and sonically soothing experience.
Stream: “Nightshade” – Andrew Belle
My goal – as it’s always been – was to create a moody, impactful, sonic atmosphere that someone will find, ingest over the course of 3-4 listens, and leave a mark on a season of their life.
Intimate and ethereal, Andrew Belle’s fourth album is an emotionally stirring and sonically soothing experience. Ambient and expansive, poignant and nuanced, Nightshade blurs the lines between electro-pop and indie folk as Belle immerses our senses in a beautifully lush world brimming with intoxicating sound and vulnerable, raw feeling.
Eyes made, weightless on repeat
Nightshade, our youth in your backseat
Float down, a fighter out on my feet
Punch drunk, we’re hiding out in our sleep
We’re dreamin’, we’re dreamin’
And I don’t wanna wake up
Last laugh, illusion of control
Shorthand, a fraction of the whole
No doubt you’re pulling me from the fold
Slow down kid, you are not as you’re told
You’re dreamin’, you’re dreamin’
– “Nightshade,” Andrew Belle
Released August 20, 2021, Nightshade arrives four long years after 2017’s Dive Deep, ushering in an exciting new era for Andrew Belle’s artistry. Active now for well over a decade (he released his debut EP in 2008), Andrew Belle challenges our (and his) notions of what it means to be a “singer/songwriter.” In reviewing the Chicago-based indie/alternative artist in 2017, Atwood Magazine writer Kendall Graham observed how Belle “has re-worked his image in the last few years towards an affinity for blissful waves of soft electro-pop, lulling percussion, and ambient electronics.”
Dive Deep signified a major shift for Belle’s sound and style; retrospectively, the album acts as a transition between the acoustic guitar based music he began with, and the synthesizers and electronic instruments he now embraces in the 2020s. A deeply padded album that feels light, yet heavy, immersive, yet quite delicate and even effervescent, Nightshade is a world unto itself. The album’s smoldering R&B influence and electro-folk bent puts Belle into the camp of such contemporaries as James Blake, SYML, and Leif Vollebekk.
“To me, this album feels like the next logical step in the evolution of myself as a ‘singer-songwriter,” Belle tells Atwood Magazine. “When I first began my career my songs were mostly acoustic guitar based but then I discovered a love for synthesizers and other electronic equipment. I eventually decided to take my music in a much more alternative direction and so I would say this record captures where my musical taste is right now and where I see my songwriting headed in the future.”
As Belle explains, Nightshade has been quite a long time coming. Beyond the writing and demo stages, there was the matter of finding the time to get everyone in the same place, at the same time, to record together. Ultimately, it took the pause afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic to make it all happen.
“I started writing songs for this, my fourth full length album in the spring of 2018, just after wrapping up a long season of touring,” he recalls. “After a few months I had written a handful of demos so I went to Norman Oklahoma where my producer Chad Copelin lives and we began chipping away at songs that would eventually become Numbers, Surprise Surprise, Spectrum, and You’re the Sea. We were joined in those sessions by our friend and longtime collaborator James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens, the National). I still needed to write the second half of the record, so I returned home with the idea that we’d all come back together to wrap up in the early part of 2020.”
“My goal – as it’s always been – was to create a moody, impactful, sonic atmosphere that someone will find, ingest over the course of 3-4 listens, and leave a mark on a season of their life,” he adds. “Trying to finish the album during the pandemic was obviously challenging but looking back at it, I believe that the down time gave me an opportunity to thoughtfully finish writing the rest of the songs, uninterrupted and with a different perspective than I had the year prior. In many ways, I feel like this album would not have become what it is without that pause from what I knew as normal, day to day life in that season. Eventually, after rescheduling several times, we came back together; this time at a studio called Sonic Ranch, just outside El Paso Texas where my producer has made many records. We are all married with kids now and so having a remote, destination type of recording experience ended up being crucial for us to be able to concentrate and be as efficient as possible with our time and goals for the album. After laying the foundation at Sonic Ranch, I took 4 or 5 more trips to Norman to finish mixing and by early 2021 we closed the book on what I eventually titled Nightshade – an accomplishment that at many points in the process felt like might not ever actually happen.”
From a words-evoke-emotion perspective, Nightshade is the perfect title to capture the hazy, moody atmospheric nature of this album. Yet for Belle, it goes well beyond just a feeling: “My wife and I went to a nutritionist some time ago and they told her that she should avoid nightshades – a term we had never heard of before,” he says. “It turns out that a nightshade is a plant or vegetable that many believe are harmful to your overall health. Ironically, they’re extremely common and in foods that we eat a lot like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, etc. and so naturally we have a hard time staying away from them (and by that I mean, we don’t try very hard). This album has a lot to do with mental health and coping with the difficulties of life with things that we know aren’t good for us (relationships, substances, technology…fill in the blank) and yet people (myself included) are drawn to them regardless. There’s something perplexing and yet fascinating about that reality and so I decided to explore it in a bunch of songs on this album. Also, aside from that very literal explanation, this is a heavy, sometimes dark, collection of songs. So the title Nightshade seemed to capture the sentiment perfectly.”
Each time we leave I think about it
What if we don’t come back?
If all of this is chasing the wind
Why is my head like that?
Am I to believe?
Am I to admit?
That you’re the sea
I’m raging with?
– “You’re the Sea,” Andrew Belle
From the allure and compelling pop of opening tracks “Swimmers” and “My Poor Heart,” to the utterly hypnotic title track and dramatic, provocative closer “You’re the Sea,” Nightshade pulls us deep under its covers. Album tracks like “Spectrum” and ISEFY” (along with “My Poor Heart” and “Nightshade”) showcase some of Andrew Belle’s catchiest, emotional, and nuanced songwriting of his career. On a collection like this, the deeper cuts hit as hard as the singles, leaving you winded and hungry for more.
“I’ve always wanted to compose a purely instrumental arrangement, and I finally did on ‘Shorthand’ – right in the middle of the album,” Belle says, citing his personal favorite tracks. “I enjoy pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a “singer/songwriter,” and it’s fun for me to be someone else for a minute when I’m making an album or performing live. Also, there’s a moment on ‘Numbers’ where the guitars and drums come unexpectedly crashing, taking the energy up several notches. One of my biggest, early influences was a band called Brand New, and this moment was a little bit of a nod to them and their impact on me as a songwriter.”
Belle goes on to highlight the lyrics of his song “Spectrum” as a high point, personally: “‘Where did youth go? On the young it is wasted.’ This has been said in so many ways over the years, but ironically it isn’t something you can fully appreciate until you’re on the other side of the more formative years of your life. Makes me think of Vampire Weekend, ‘Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth.‘”
You wanted a love state
You’re talking at anyone who will listen
Where’d your blood go?
How could you forgive until you’re forgiven?
Sparks fly upward, you’re learning the hustle
You’re learning that everyone in a room is in love with their own tongue
Last night I thought of you
And the color lifted me from the ground
Last night I swallowed you
Now there’s a spectrum inside my mouth, inside my mouth
Still searching for trouble
You wanted a tempt, but not a tempter
Where’d they find you?
Out looking for home that you don’t remember
Where did youth go?
On the young, it is wasted
I figure that everyone in a room is in love with you
Everyone in a room is in love with you
For Belle, Nightshade is a clear triumph: The album delves into dark depths without overwhelming, exploring deep subjects while remaining consistently engaging throughout. Entrancing and enchanting, it’s a moving, larger-than-life (yet incredibly intimate) journey from end to end.
“On the surface, my aim is for the record to simply be an enjoyable listening experience,” Belle shares. “For someone who really sits with the music and delves deeper into the lyrics, my hope is that it’s inspiring and thought provoking – but as always, it’s important to me that listeners draw their own conclusions about what they think I’m trying to say.”
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Andrew Belle’s Nightshade with Atwood Magazine as the artist goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his fourth LP!
Stream: ‘Nightshade’ – Andrew Belle
:: Inside Nightshade ::
Swimmers is a retrospect on a former relationship. I find it to be unavoidable on some level, for there to be a natural, innocent curiosity about people who come and go throughout your life – where they are, who they became, etc. The music originally began as a short instrumental sketch by my friend James McAlister that we eventually turned into a finished song.
MY POOR HEART
My Poor Heart is a love song that chronicles the different phases of a relationship; exciting/scary, comfortable/apathetic, seasoned/mature. The verses explore these various seasons while the choruses recall the initial spark. This song was a pretty simple demo until my producer Chad Copelin made it much more musically dynamic and exciting.
Spectrum describes someone who uses love, relationships, and co-dependency as a way to cope & deal with the difficulty of life. Originally the music was a lot darker but eventually it became happier sounding, adding a counterpoint to the heavier theme. It took me several attempts to find the right structure and mood for this song but it was worth the struggle.
ISEFY is about a relationship where two people heading in different directions but don’t really know it yet – although one of them is starting to suspect it. This song was a demo I wasn’t sure what to do with until I brought it to my friend and fellow artist SYML in late 2019. Over the course of a few days he helped me shape it into what became one of my favorite tracks on the album.
Written during the apex of the 2020 pandemic, Inside Voices touches on mental health, addiction, unhealthy coping, and self-medication. The lyrics are a dialogue between the protagonist and their inner-self, bouncing back and forth, making it hard to tell who is who – reminiscent of the way mental health struggles generally work. It’s very dark but probably the song I’m most proud of on the record.
On all of my previous albums, track 6 or 7 is reserved for this sort of outlier song where I get to put on a disguise for a few minutes and create something you wouldn’t expect from a “singer-songwriter”. I wanted Shorthand to start off simple and moody – slowly adding layers and becoming more chaotic as the song progresses.
Surprise Surprise describes someone who thinks they know best but is continually falling into the same figurative holes over and over again. We used a vintage modular synth on this track that created the bass tone that carries the entire song.
Although told from the perspective of a struggling relationship, Numbers is really a look at our culture and obsession with individualism/autonomy. I was sort of in a David Bazan phase when I wrote this so that’s probably why it sounds the way it does.
The album’s title track; Nightshade recounts the early stage of a relationship when newfound passion leaves you in a dream-like state that you don’t quite want to wake up from. Lyrically, this song may sound a bit dark but it’s actually meant to be more of a hypnotic love song. This is another track that began as a short instrumental demo from a producer friend of mine (Brandon Zedaker) that I was inspired to write to.
YOU’RE THE SEA
You’re the Sea was actually the first song I wrote for the album. It reminds me of songs found on my second album Black Bear in that it explores more existential themes like wrestling with the idea of faith, God, etc.
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? © David O'Donohue
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