Deftly fusing blues, gospel, and soul, songwriter William Bell is one of the architects of this Stax sound. Seriously, there’s no denying his power: this is the guy who penned “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Everybody Loves a Winner,” and “Born Under A Bad Sign.”
His latest, 2016’s This Is Where I Live, was recently nominated for two Grammys, for Best Americana Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance. It touches on the classic sounds and themes he’s known for, and was in some ways a homecoming for him, his first album on Stax after leaving in the ’70s.
We phoned Bell at his home studio shortly after the release of This Is Where I Live for an episode of our Transmissions podcast. You can listen to that episode here, and below you’ll find a minimally-edited transcription of our discussion. The Transmissions podcast returns in this month with new episodes. Subscribe on iTunes or via RSS feed.
Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s start with the title of your new record, This Is Where I Live. It’s a very resonate title and it feels in some ways like it’s a comment on the kind of songs you sing, but also on being back on Stax after a long time apart. How does it feel to be back on the label after leaving back in the ’70s?
William Bell: It feels great. I’m coming full circle here back on Stax, and I started my career with Stax. It feels good, it feels comfortable.
AD: You were an essential part of building Stax. When you’re a young man, making records and working, I don’t imagine that you have much of a sense of how historic what you’re doing is. But looking back, signing to the label again, did you take some time to reflect on the legacy and the heritage and the history of what you guys built with that label back when you started?
William Bell: Of course…when we started we didn’t have any idea we would have the longevity that we’ve had. I did [reflect on history]… that was uppermost in my mind and [I was] almost always conscious of trying to — not to duplicate, but to recreate — some of the magic and make sure that we had some great songs with good lyrical content, good melodic structure, and all that. Because that’s what Stax was about, trying to keep it as honest and real as possible.
AD: You say honest and real…when we talk about the magic of Stax, is that in part what you’re talking about? That [the label had a] raw honesty and maybe a little bit of a grittier take than some of your contemporary labels at the time?
William Bell: Absolutely, I think we were in direct competition with Motown. Motown had some great songs and great artists [but] they were more polished than we were. We were right out of church, right into secular music, and we brought that feel, that honesty that a common man or woman could relate to. When I say common I mean, just your average working person, household person, that weren’t as sophisticated.
AD: That said, there’s lots of sophistication going on on those Stax records and certainly on this new one. But you felt like back in the [early] days…you were trying to reach out to a specific kind of person with those albums?
William Bell: We were just trying to do great music that we thought the people would relate to. Most of the songs that we wrote were about life. They were about life, loves, hard times, and just coping with life. That resonated with a lot of folk.
AD: You have this way of writing lyrics that tap into a kind of honesty that is hard for a songwriter to get to. When I listen to “The Three of Me,” “More Rooms” or “I’ll Take Care of You” [on This Is Where I Live] I hear the words of a guy who’s able to grasp at this universal truth, put it into a song, and say it in a way that feels very relatable. I imagine that as a songwriter, and having been one for a long time, that the perspective you’ve gained over all these years sort of informed these new songs. They sound like the songs of someone who’s lived a lot, seen a lot, and learned how to write about it.
William Bell: Yeah, it’s definitely reflective. As you get older and you look back on your life you try and see where you’ve come and how far you’ve come, kind of look back on the mistakes you’ve made. Or the impact you’ve made on another person’s life, all of that. It’s about being reflective and it’s about love also — but not that hard, hot, passionate love that you have at 22. It’s more of a reflective kind, when you’re looking back on your life and of the loves you’ve lost, the loves you’ve had and gained. It’s all about that; being honest and expressing that.
AD: I feel like you write in a very specific way. In a way that — there’s use of metaphor, obviously. You’re a very lyrical guy, these are beautifully illustrative songs. But there’s also a restraint. The language never gets too flowery… It never seems obsessed with itself, or taken with tricks of phrase. How did you come up with your writing style?
William Bell: Well, I was an only child until I was probably, well I was 10. My mom remarried and of course she had some more kids, but I was an only child, and I was kind of a strange one because I was surrounded by grown ups. My eyes and ears were wide open, and they would say certain things that I didn’t really understand what they were talking about at that time. Like, “You don’t miss your water,” or things like that. But it really stayed with me, and as I grew older and knew a little bit more about life I realized, OK that is a common thread with a lot of people. So I can write about that, and write in such a way that people won’t have to second-guess what I’m trying to say. I’ll just write it simple where they can understand it, and look at that song and say, “I could’ve written that, that’s about my life.” Or, “I’ve lived that life.”
AD: It feels like that relatability, that connection between listener and singer, is very important to you.
William Bell: It is. I think as a songwriter or as an artist, you have a responsibility to put your best foot forward so that your fans and everything will have something that they can identity with, and relate to. [You can’t be] be so introspective that you just totally [write] about things within yourself. But even if you do that, you have to write it so that another person that’s experiencing that same situation can relate to it.
AD: You reprise “Born Under A Bad Sign” on this new record. That’s one of your most famous songs. I think about that classic lyric, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” I’ve heard so many people sing it and often with such poignancy and gravitas, that I kind of forgot until listening to this version that it’s kind of a funny line, you know what I mean?
William Bell: [Laughter] Yeah, it is. It’s like, “Thank God for bad luck,” you know? John Leventhal, who produces and worked with me on the songwriting and everything, he said, “Why don’t we do ‘Born Under A Bad Sign?'” Of course, it’s such an iconic song, and so many great artists have done it. So I told John, “I don’t know.” I’ve done it a couple of times on a couple of projects, and he said, “I hear it a different way. I hear it kind of acoustically, a swampy, more of a laid back situation.'” And I’m thinking about this and I said, “Well create me a track and let me listen to it.” He did that and I listened to it a couple of days, and the more I listened the more I got into it. We came in about the third day and cut it.
AD: It does feel unlike some versions, which are so dramatic and tense. This one has a little bit more of a conversational feel. It feels a little bit less high strung…I think that’s why I picked up on the humor a little more, because it sounds a little bit more intimate. It sounds like friends talking on a back porch or something along those lines.
William Bell: Absolutely, and that’s what John was trying to capture. Let the story within the song seep through. That’s what we did. It took me a while because of course the iconic bass line was not there, and when we were writing this song that’s the first thing I had, was that bass line. So Booker picked on it and expanded on it, and we finished writing the lyrics on it, and everything. But when I missed that bass line, I’m going, “Where is he going with this?” But the more I listened the more I got into it and I said, “Yeah I can feel this is more like if I were living in New Orleans I would’ve recorded it in that sense.” It’s more of a laid back, swampy, bluesy kind of feel.
AD: It’s obviously a classic blues song in many ways. What kind of blues did you hear growing up? Coming up as a songwriter, what were your blues inspirations?
William Bell: Oh, growing up in Memphis we heard everything from, like I said I grew up and was going to church, and singing in church. We heard gospel, we heard blues, we heard country, we heard jazz, and what they called back then rockabilly. Which was a combination of soul, R&B, and country. We heard everything. It was just a situation where a lot of those sounds and things just stayed with you as you grew older, and grew up. So we’re all a product of our environment, and things that we have surrounded us in our lives, and growing up. That just kind of resonated with me.
AD: As a fan of music I’ve always been, one of my biggest fascinations is the fascination of the relationship between gospel and blues. Some of the wildest music I’ve ever heard has been gospel music, and some of the most transcendent or holy sounding music I’ve ever heard has been blues. It feels like the lines there are not very divided in terms of American music.
William Bell: They are not. [laughter] They are not. Actually if you think about it, most blues singers, they started out singing gospel. If they didn’t sing gospel, they heard it. Blues stemmed from the slavery days of singing in the cotton fields, and the corn fields, and talking about hard times. That is a combination of that, and then you went to church on Sunday, and shouted, and everything. But the same people that went to church, they also went to the clubs on Saturday nights. [Laughter] So it’s not that much of a stretch, and even with country music, it still has this same subject matter, and some of the same feels. You hear an early Hank Williams song and you know that he’s listened to some blues in Alabama when he was growing up, he had to. Elvis, I mean all of these guys. It’s not that much of stretch from that.
AD: That all seems to tie into the fact that your songs have been recorded by many country singers, and soul singers, and reggae singers. It seems like that versatility of having a hand so firmly on the whole scope of American music seems like… Is that just a Memphis thing, you think? That everybody had that ability to synthesize, and hear all of this stuff, and project it into songs? Does it feel like a Memphis thing?
William Bell: Well, it’s part Memphis. That was part of the Stax sound, and the mixing. Back then the races didn’t really mix, it was all segregated. But Stax incorporated Steve Cropper, “Duck” Dunn, Booker T, and Al Jackson. Al’s dad was a big band director and leader, and that’s where Al came from. But we were all from the same neighborhood, Booker and I went to the same church. He played organ in the church and everything. So he came out of church. Then Steve and Duck, they were into R&B, and that kind of blues music when they had their rockabilly group, and listened to country. We brought both of those things together. The three of them, including the gospel thing, into the creative process at Stax. So I think that, of course Stax started in Memphis so I think that was part of the makeup of our creativity.
AD: On the title track of this new album, you sing about hearing Sam Cooke for the first time.
William Bell: Right. Growing up I think my first recollection of Sam, I was about eight. I heard the Soul Stirrers, and listened to them. So I was just blown away about their harmonies, and Sam’s lead vocals, and how he expressed a lyric. Even at that age. They were, what I was fortunate enough, but unfortunate that their car had some mechanical problems, and they spent a while in Memphis there until the car was fixed. They had a couple of weeks at least, and they were singing around some of the churches there. So I got to hear a lot of Sam Cooke, and then I had my mom buy a couple records by Sam. He was one of my heroes growing up.
AD: So, another one of your classic songs, which you mentioned earlier, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” We talked about the way your songs have spanned genres, that song has been recorded by everybody from Otis Redding to The Birds, to Brian Eno, and Peter Tosh. What do you think it is about that song that makes it so universal? Does it get back to that thing you were talking about earlier? About writing in a way that just everybody feels like that song was written about them?
William Bell: Yeah I think so. And yet I’ve found out later on in traveling all over the world, people are people. They have the same wishes, desires, frustrations, whatever. If you write honestly about something, and put express it in a way that people can relate to it, it does show across genres. We’ve had some rappers cut some of my stuff, and even of course Billy Idol did “I Forgot To Be Your Lover,” which was totally…he’s rock, but he could relate to a love song, a ballad. At the heart of it, we all have the same feelings underneath that.
You realize that when you start traveling abroad, and appearing for an audience that might not speak very much English. But you get the same reaction at the same intervals in the song, where the emotion is coming through that you do here in the U.S. It’s all about feeling and how you’re expressing a lyric, and to me that’s what soul is about. To really get inside yourself and express a song the way you’re feeling it at any given moment, and that people can relate to and feel what you’re doing.
Interview conducted by Jason P. Woodbury.