When bearings become burdensome, the last measure is to stay stifled and refrain from moving forward, as easy as it may seem. An example to learn from is Austin native, Heather Smith, who initiated the band Bone and Bell.
“I spent many years pursuing visual arts and computers, but music kept haunting me,” she reveals. “I wanted it more than anything, but it also scared me more than anything; that's a pretty good indicator. I was in choirs and musicals from a young age, but I really hated the competition and the way they made me sing; it felt inauthentic—lots of overly round vowels and vibrato. Plus, I suffered from pretty bad stage fright when performing solos. It sounded like I was singing through a seizure. My high school (Dallas Arts Magnet) has produced some pretty famous musicians—Eryka Badu, Edie Brickell, Norah Jones—so the bar was set pretty high. As intimidating as that was, their successes have also really inspired me; they showed that it was achievable. I had been a closet musician for too long; I couldn't wait or make excuses any longer.”
She continues, “For years, I wanted to write songs, but I didn't play any instruments. It took a few years of teaching myself how to play before I started feeling confident enough to perform in front of other people. Meanwhile, I had been writing and stockpiling songs. I released my first batch of songs (Loom) in September 2010. I consider that the real start."
By that time, Smith had already transitioned well into adulthood and a new phase of her life.
“I moved to Chicago about eight or nine years ago to attend Columbia College,” she says. “I wanted to do a double major in music and visual art. They offered a ‘build-your-own’ degree plan. I ended up graduating with something totally different, though: Interactive Multimedia.”
Despite the shift in paths, music was still a priority for Smith, and she instantly became drawn to ukuleles.
“Originally, I bought a ukulele to bring on a camping trip,” she explains. “At the time, the portability was the main attraction: I could bring it anywhere, the scale of the instrument fit me, and their simplicity makes them songwriting machines. Sit down with one, and you'll see; the songs just fall out of them. They're also quiet. I can sing and play and still hear all of the little vocal nuances. They can be really intimate instruments.”
Despite Smith’s immediate, intimate and infallible affinity with the instrument, she soon realized that what she desired was more than just a solo project.
“I wanted more sonic options,” she says. “One girl and one instrument have a somewhat limited range. I started writing songs that required more instruments, and I was interested in collaborating. I'd already been in a few bands with a couple of the future members. One is my longtime boyfriend (Jason Tuller), and one is my longtime friend (Rick Roberts). We were lucky enough to find drummer Ryan Farnham through a mutual friend.”
The band name, according to Smith, originated from a poem she wrote about creativity, how, as she says, “it’s born out of our experiences, the hardships and the joy.” It is as follows:
Like bone and bell,
stone and shell
tossed upon the shore.
Rattle still this heavy head,
this shaking in my core.
She elaborates, “’Bone’ refers to the beastly bits, and ‘Bell,’ refers to the beautiful ones. [The band] make[s] melodic, haunting music—beauty laced with tension; it can be quiet and intense, but also has loud, “rocking out” moments. We like to play with dynamics. We've been jokingly describing it as ‘Smooth Doom,’ but I actually think that fits pretty well.”
To date, Bone and Bell has two EPs out; the first, Loom, was released in 2010, and the most recent, Organ Fantasies, came out last May (last Valentine’s Day, she also released a single called “Be Sweet to Me”).
“The inspiration [from Organ Fantasies] came from the instruments,” Smith clarifies. “Jason and I have collected a bunch of organs from back alleys and flea markets over the years. My songs are very directly influenced by the instruments I write them on. These are the songs that came from those particular organs.”
When comparing it to Loom, she admits that there’s much differentiation.
“Loom is more of a straightforward folk album, while Organ Fantasies is an experimental album,” she says. “I played around with all sorts of aspects: sequencing, form, vocal quality. Honestly, I was just trying things out. I try not to take myself too seriously; it gets in the way of playing. Play is important: it's getting to be creative without all the weight of trying to be good or trying to do it ‘right.’”
This work ethic runs parallel to Smith’s philosophy of working hard and having fun.
“Trying your best goes without saying,” she says. “Half-assing is a waste of talent and time. If you're working hard and having fun, the good stuff will come. If you try to extract it like an impacted tooth, it'll be painful and most likely not successful. Songwriting, especially, is like that.”
Settling in Chicago beyond educational aspects has indubitably made this method much more effective for Smith and her band mates.
“The Chicago winter was a new thing for me when I moved from Texas,” she states. “Suddenly, I had lots of time indoors, but it's a great excuse to hole up and make shit. There's also a really incredible musical community here. Specifically, Jason and I started participating in a songwriting competition on the Electrical Audio online forum (Steve Albini's studio); it introduced us to a ton of talented local musicians. In fact, I've never known this many musicians before... and I'm from Austin. That's saying something.”
Smith also had the opportunity to be filmed for Rooftop Sessions Chicago at the Navy Pier in 2011.
“Sneaking on to the Navy Pier Ferris wheel to record a video was pretty awesome,” she says. “We had to hide all of the recording equipment in bags, board the Ferris wheel undetected, set everything up, record a song straight through, then strike everything before we arrived back at the bottom. I think they got suspicious when we rode it multiple times in a row.” **See one of those videos below.**
Among said recording session, Bone and Bell has also been featured on Brooklyn Vegan and Daytrotter, among others. Despite the well-deserved success, Smith admits that the band still faces challenges.
“It can be hard to communicate creative ideas sometimes,” she says. “They're slippery little buggers—hard to pin down and describe to others. We just keep talking until we sort it out. Luckily, we like each other, so that makes it easier.”
Anyone is bound to enjoy Bone and Bell, not just because of their music, but because of their quirkiness (i.e., Smith has shared something that others likely don’t know, but should simply for preserving humor): Katzenzungen, which, means “chocolate cat tongues” in German. Feast on that while listening to the band’s tunes!
Bone and Bell is currently working on a new album, which Smith says will be her first recording with the full band. For more information on the band and upcoming shows, check out Bone and Bell’s Facebook and website.