As glamorous as a career in music seems to outsiders, there’s a lot of work and sacrifice that goes into it – as well as plenty of adjustments that need to be made to your every day life, simply to be able to go on tour. Andrea Lo knows this as well as anyone – and the knowledge is particularly fresh when we connect over the phone in mid January.
Lo, lead vocalist for ethereal pop band Belle Game, has just arrived in Chicago after a long, grueling drive. Her and her bandmates are in town to play as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows Music Festival, and like many acts on the bill, they’ve come into town on their own set of wheels. However, unlike most, they drove in all the way from Vancouver, British Columbia – a 34 hour trip one-way, completed in just over two days.
“It was definitely not a leisurely drive,” Lo says, surprisingly upbeat for someone who just spent a prolonged period of time in the back of a cramped minivan. “I would love a scenic drive, but when you’ve got these long stretches, you just want to go.”
Despite the brutal nature and upheaval of the touring life, Lo recognizes she is fortunate enough to make time and space for performing in her life, and her sunny disposition reflects as much.
“We only stopped to sleep in between, for safety,” Lo continues, “but I’m excited to play this festival and kick off our tour!”
Brightest Young Things: Belle Game has been a band for almost nine years, and you released your first EP eight years ago. Does it feel like it’s been close to a decade? Is there anything you know now you wish you had known at the beginning?
Andrea Lo: Asking the big questions! [Laughs] Yeah – holy crap, I guess it’s coming up on nine years. But we’ve been through quite a few incarnations of our band. Our current setup we’re touring in now, as a four piece; we’ve been in this lineup for over four years now. That feels more so when the band actually started. Everything leading up to it…wow. I don’t really think about it too much. It hasn’t felt arduous, it hasn’t felt like wasted time, or anything.
Every portion of what we’ve been through together has been absolutely necessary – whether that be different formations, or ways of experiencing or writing music. It’s kind of funny to think it’s been a decade, so in that sense it has flown by. We’ve been constantly reinventing ourselves within ourselves.
And to answer your second question…I’ve got to ponder on that for a little bit. [Pauses] I’m totally happy with the way things have turned out. Of course there are parts of me that wishes that parts of our career could have been expedited. Even the four years it took us to get Fear/Nothing out – it was so pertinent and so important in the process that I wouldn’t have wanted to rush any of that. Everything was exactly as it should have been. So, no there’s nothing I know now I wish I had known when we started – I guess in a sense I would have been too immature to have the full understanding of what it is that I needed to do and integrate. I’m pretty happy. [Laughs]
BYT: It’s interesting you allude to having the requisite maturity to handle artistic success. I interviewed someone a few years ago and he was basically like “I would have been a disaster if I had all of this at age 22.”
Lo: [Laughs] It’s kind of how things are quick fires and they die out quickly. I’m a person that wants to go for an idea if I get inspired by it – I want to put all my energy and focus into it immediately, and it dies out quickly. Right? [Laughs] But I think what this band has been – and speaking about many things in my life – is about the lesson of temperance. Doing things at a slower pace, tilling the soil, and doing that work to reap the benefits.
BYT: Let’s talk about Fear/Nothing – which you released a few months ago. You produced it with Dave Hamelin from The Stills and Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. How was working with the two of them? How confident did you feel in expressing yourselves fully around them?
Lo: They were huge catalysts in our lives, both of them. I’ll speak to Kevin Drew first, because we met him initially and he was who connected us with Dave. He was like “I’ve worked with this guy”, so we were going to work with him.
When we first met Kevin at the Residency [at the Banff Indie Music Program] – growing up were huge Broken Social Scene Fans, and one of the main reasons we signed up for the program was because we wanted to receive a bit of – if any – instruction from Kevin; we looked up to him and his music. We definitely got more than what we bargained for. [Laughs] But Kevin himself was floating in and out of the room as we were writing this record, and his presence alone spoke so much to us. He helped us begin that shift from logic to feeling. Ritual Tradition Habit was a super safe album; it was our first album, and we wrote the music as we understood it then. We weren’t taking a lot of risks, although at that time of course it felt exciting and new because that was our first time doing that. Kevin really pushed us to stop thinking so much and that was so important.
“Spirit” was the first song to emerge out of that residency, and I think that even by listening to it you can sense that it’s carefree – there’s a lot of freedom and ease and play in it. He really inspired us to do that more, and I found myself creating more music and melody as opposed to logic and structure and “ABC”. Allowing it to thrive via physiological means, if that makes sense? Even instead of saying “oh I feel sad” and writing something that emotes sadness it was letting that hint of sensation in your body open the gate and lead you where it wants to go. So, that was really fucking cool. [Laughs] And I think my bandmates experienced the same.
And Dave Hamelin, on the other hand – you know what, he is so important to us as well. I can’t express enough gratitude to the both of them. Dave was the one who really pushed us with sound and things that we wouldn’t have necessarily conjured up on our own or felt safe enough to explore on our own. And also, he has access to so much cool stuff, as well as the knowledge. It was really amazing to work with someone like that.
BYT: You spend a lot of time on the road. Are you guys on a tour bus or a sprinter?
Lo: [Laughs] Oh my gosh, I wish we were in one of those two. We are in a minivan! We’re not in the tour bus or the sprinter class just yet. [Laughs] And this time we’re in a rental minivan because our band van just died on us a few days before we hit the road, so we had to grab a rental. Alex [Andrew, drums] does a pretty tight pack job, and it’s kind of amazing considering we bring an entire drum kit with us as well. I don’t know how it happens, but that’s why we all stand back and let Alex do it. [Laughs]
BYT: I’m having a hard time visualizing the real-life Tetris that goes on.
Lo: Yeah, it’s a thing. It’s a thing for sure.
BYT: What do you do to pass the time when you’re not driving? Are you sleeping? Does the minivan have screens in the back for you to watch movies?
Lo: It doesn’t have any screens, sadly, but the rental does have a rearview backup camera which is pretty similar. I just bought this cool little Darth Vader steam thing which is really good for my vocal chords, especially in dry climates, so I’ll put it on while I’m sitting in the back and just pass out wearing it and wind up with drool all over me. It’s horrible, it’s embarrassing. [Laughs]
Besides from that we’re either chatting a whole lot or sitting in silence and zoning out and thinking about life, or nothing. Maybe a book here or there, but we all work, so there’s often working while we’re on the road. Using up that hotspot life, you know? [Laugh]
BYT: I didn’t realize you all still had day jobs. What do you each do?
Lo: Katrina [Jones, keys and vocals] and Adam [Nanji, lead guitar] run a social media company. I myself am an assistant – working on the other side of the music industry doing promotions and ticketing and all that fun kind of stuff – consulting for venues. It’s a lot of fun being on both sides.
BYT: It’s great you’re all finding the time to make music and get on the road. It’s really admirable.
Lo: Yeah, luckily we all have jobs that allow that. It’s taken a while. Katrina and Adam are really good at it but also started their own business out of need. I was lucky enough to come into contact with someone who is a wonderful human but also supports me being on the road. Sorry – I’m getting emotional. [Laughs] Alex has work that he’ll probably go back to as well. But yes, it is tough – one of the biggest challenges is finding jobs that are ok with you disappearing for months at a time. Even part-time jobs want you to stick around and be available. It took me a few years to find this, for sure.
BYT: That’s such a reality for musicians of our generation – the music industry has shifted so drastically from the halcyon days of the big record labels and record deals of the 90s, in terms of finances. I was talking to the guys from Hoops and they were talking about how they hold down odd jobs just so they can afford to go on tour.
Lo: And then you gotta drop the job. It’s kind of nuts. The industry has changed so much as well in regards to touring bands – there are more touring bands now than ever. If you look back to the days of Cher, it was really just about high-budget bands basically doing variety shows! But now tours are a thing and now lots of people are doing tours. So you’re totally right in a lot of ways that the industry has really shifted. It is a delicate balance, for sure.
BYT: You guys hit up most of the U.S. and Canada on this tour, right?
Lo: Yeah! We’re doing the East Coast and a few dates in Canada on this leg, and then we’re hitting up the West Coast in the Spring: we’ll do Portland, Seattle, LA, San Francisco. We’re playing a show at Joshua Tree, which will be really, really cool. I’m so stoked about it.
BYT: Has there been any place on your tours and travels that has positively surprised you? Could be a town or a crowd.
Lo: Um, yeah! I think I can speak for the group when I say Savannah, Georgia. It’s been so amazing to us. We’ve twice played this awesome festival called Savannah Stopover and every time they’ve been so gratuitous and welcoming; Southern hospitality is a real thing. [Laughs] On our last tour with BSS, we did a small stop in Savannah although we weren’t playing the festival. We were a little bit worried because we had never played a show without the support of the festival – we weren’t sure if people were going to come out. Lo and behold, it ended up being a really wild night. [Laughs] It was so great – we played a small venue; I think some people were there to support us but generally I think they just really like that venue. There wasn’t even a stage – we were on the ground with the crowd, and it was sweaty and gross and we were really close to people. It was fucking exciting and great. [Laughs]
BYT: What are your goals and aspirations for this year related to Belle Game?
Lo: It’s funny. We usually get together at the beginning of every year and write a goals list together, but I think there are so many things that are in constant process and evolving that we got in the habit of checking in more regularly. The ideal is really important for us to get our music out there. What we really want to do, more than anything, is connect with people – we feel this album is deeply important to us, but music is humanity, and community and shared experiences, correct? If an artist is writing about something, someone else on the planet has probably experienced it before. It’s important for us to come together with people and share these experiences where we can feel we’re in a safe and supporting and loving environment.
For example, I have a lot of trouble getting up on stage – I deal with a lot of stage fright. So I know my job is to get up there and be as vulnerable and unraveled as possible in a way that still holds the space. I do that so other people feel it’s ok to that as well. I think this generation and this world has fed us a lot of ways to try not to feel or trying to stuff things down. Any opportunity for safe and healthy catharsis is what we’d like to achieve with everyone, and it gets better when we all come together.