Q&A with Ten Out of Tennesee's Andrew Belle

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The Ten Out of Tennessee tour (due at the Bluebird Theater this Thursday, December 10) is the brainchild of songwriter couple Trent and Kristen Dabbs. The idea behind the tour was to find some of Nashville's best up-and-coming songwriters and bring them together for a tour and have them serve as a backing band for one another while each performer played two songs. This could have been a horribly misguided gimmick, but it turns out, the individual talents of all the players has helped each other shine. Andrew Belle is a young singer-songwriter who's been part of the tour since this past fall. He came to the attention of audiences around the country when his song "I'll Be Your Breeze" was featured on a few TV shows and became something of a college radio hit. We had a chance to speak with the affable Belle about his background, his upcoming album and his serendipitous connection with Los Angeles songwriter Greg Laswell.

Westword (Tom Murphy): How did you get hooked up with Ten Out of Tennessee?

Andrew Belle: A year and a half ago, my girlfriend's sister had lived in Nashville at one point -- we all lived in Chicago at the time -- and she said, "This thing called Ten Out of Tennessee is coming through town, we should all go and see it." I was a little skeptical, but I went and saw the show for the first time, and I was blown away by it. I remember thinking I would absolutely love to be a part of something like that. Coincidentally, I started making a record down in Nashville about a year ago, and I hit up Trent Dabbs, who created the tour with his wife, to do some writing for my record. We became buddies and started writing and recording together, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a part of it.

WW: Do your songs change significantly when you perform them on this tour, and how do you approach playing on the songs of the other performers?

AB: Everyone's songs change up a little bit just because we're not playing with the core bands we're used to playing with. We work on the details about a week before we leave on the tour. Everybody does the best to play all the parts that were on the record. That's kind of easy when you have ten people and finally have a chance to replicate all the little intricacies of your record, all the production techniques that made the songs sound the way they do. I think that's my favorite part of the tour -- getting to play on your buddies' songs, and playing the parts you love so much when you listen to their records.

WW: Can you tell me what it was like preparing for this tour?

AB: We have a dialogue beforehand, a few weeks before, and we all let each other know which songs we're planning on doing on the tour. We email each other the songs, and we all make an iPod playlist to get familiar with the songs beforehand, a week before we left. For this tour, we had two days of rehearsals. We got into a space in Nashville, and worked for twelve hours a day, and just hammered out the songs. It took a show or two to get into the groove, and now we're really cranking them out every night. We did a fall tour and did four days of twelve-hour days, and we were very prepared.

WW: How did you break into playing the Chicago and then the Nashville circuits when you first started out?

AB: I graduated college in 2006 with a degree in business, and I came home that summer and tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do something in music but wasn't sure how to go about doing that. So I started waiting tables and playing gigs anywhere they would let me play -- bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants and stuff. I slowly started accruing a fan base through that, and I got to the point where I was ready to start playing legitimate venues about a year later.

I started putting a band together, and putting together an EP. About a year ago, I self-released the All Those Pretty Lights EP, and with that recording, all the sudden the venues were booking me more. I think they listened to that record and thought it sounded pretty good, and suddenly, I was a legitimate artist being booked at legitimate venues. I started climbing the ranks in the Chicago circuit a little bit, but before I could ascend too high in that area, I moved to Nashville.

Right before I moved, I had taken on a manager who had helped me get acclimated to the Nashville community. With his help and that of Trent and Kristen Dabbs -- they played a crucial role in getting me affiliated with the Nashville community than I ever could have all on my own.

WW: Did you have any mentors of any kind when you were first playing out, and if so, what did you learn from them?

AB: Not so much in Chicago. In Chicago, I was very much doing things by myself, and just trying to figure out what each step was. It wasn't until I moved to Nashville and met Trent and Kristen. Especially through touring and the opportunities I've been given by them being part of the tour, I've learned a great amount about tour preparation, life on the road, how to be on the bus, how to go about booking in Nashville, tour routing and all that stuff. Trent is also a phenomenal songwriter. He will get up and write a song every day -- either by himself or with someone else. That's kind of an inspiring to see someone who literally gets up and writes a song a day. If it's no good, you throw it away and get up the next day and write another. That's something I'm starting to try to do myself. It's more exercise than trying to write a hit song most of the time.

There's another artist named Greg Laswell out of Los Angeles, I've been kind of buddies with him, as well. He's also very inspiring. I think he asked me, when I was first starting out and still living in Chicago, "Do you have a plan B if music doesn't really work out?" I couldn't think of a plan B, and he said, "Good, because if you have a plan, you're never going to make it." So I've tried to live by that motto.

WW: How did you meet Greg?

AB: One night I was playing at a local piano bar type of restaurant, and my roommate comes into the bar and he has a girl with him. They're hanging out and listening to the music, and then she asks, "Hey, do you know any Greg Laswell?" He's not a household name or anything, so I was surprised she knew who he was. So I played one of his songs for fun, and she loved it, so I played another. Then she told me, "I'm friends with Greg in Los Angeles and he would flip out if knew you were playing his songs so well." He came to town about a month later, so she got us tickets to go see him and we hung out afterward, and now every time he comes through town or we cross paths on tour, we get together and have a great time.

WW: You have an album coming out next year called The Ladder. What can you tell me about the album, its themes and the significance of the title?

AB: The theme of the record ties in with the title. I wanted to write a record about transition periods in life and going from one place to another -- both literally and figuratively. I was trying to think of a creative title to go with that theme, and a friend of mine suggested The Ladder to me as kind of a conduit to go from one place to another. I took the title, and I wrote the title track, and we had a title at that point.

WW: You've had music featured in the TV shows 90210, The Real World and Ghost Whisperer. How did that come about? Were you approached by the music supervisors of those shows?

AB: When I put out my EP last year, I didn't really know what to do. I didn't have management or anything like that. For some reason I got solicited by this company in Minnesota that does some TV but mostly college radio campaigns. They contacted me and told me they liked my record, and said they would love to do a campaign and send 1,200 to various college radio stations and non-commercial radio stations around the country, and try to see how it charts in CMJ, and so forth. I didn't know what else to do, so I invested some money in that. Luckily somebody at KCRW in Los Angeles, Nick Harcourt, the DJ that does Morning Becomes Eclectic, opened my disc and played "I'll Be Your Breeze" on his show. He also happens to be the music supervisor for 90210, so I got a random call one day asking if 90210 could use my song. That kicked it off. The rest came through non-exclusive license companies we've signed up with to shop our music to television and film. A few months later they'll call back and say, "This show wants to use your song on Friday night, here's the contract, here's some money etc."

WW: Maybe this is a bit premature this early into your career, but what has been the most gratifying moment for you as a performer and songwriter so far?

AB: Probably I could point to the fall Ten Out of Tennessee tour, when we came through Chicago, my hometown, and we'd been out on the road for three weeks, and it was the last leg of the tour. We were all very familiar with each other's songs, and it was a sold out show at this place called Schuba's Tavern. All my family and friends, who were wondering what I was up to, were all there. I played the very first song in the set, it went well, and the crowd cheered for two minutes. That moment of realization where I thought, "I'm home doing this thing I love and all my friends and family, all the people I love, are here." That moment was kind of overwhelming for me.

Ten Out of Tennesee (Andrew Belle, Erin McCarley, Andy Davis, Katie Herzig, K.S. Rhoads, Tyler James, Matthew Perryman Jones, Trent Dabbs, Butterfly Boucher and Jeremy Lister), with Dan Craig, 8 p.m. Thursday, December 10, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax, $13.25 - $15.00, 303-830-8497.

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