ABOVE: THE BLACK BELLES. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSHUA BLACK WILKINS
It’s probably safe to say that, as head of Third Man Records, Jack White likes to do things a little bit differently. Whether complaining about the Guinness Book of World Records, having Gary Oldman direct one of his live performances, or opening up to Buzz Aldrin, White is a man with an eye for the eccentric. The latest apple in his eye? The Black Belles.
The Belles, much like White and the Third Man label itself, are for the lack of better words, cool. Their steely-eyed stoicism and Victorian sense of fashion initially appear too good to be true—they look as though they might have walked out of one of White’s fever dreams. Like the singer-songwriter, they adhere to classical Third Man mysticism: a simple Internet search yields little about the band and its members. According to the band themselves, even the most up-to-date information is dated. At the time of the interview, it was discovered that the fourth band member, Christina Norwood, has since left the band—a fact about the group that has yet to be published. “We just haven’t communicated that to a lot of people,” says lead guitarist/vocalist Olivia Jean, with a sly chuckle.
Jean, along with drummer Shelby Lynne and bassist Ruby Rogers, owe more to Jack White than many—and potentially even themselves—realize. Despite the literal darkness of their outfits and their songs, they know how to laugh at themselves, and revel in doing so. While organizing this interview, the group expressed great interest at the prospect of being interviewed by former Project Runway judge Kelly Ryan O’Brien, who was gracious enough to agree to participate in this interview. Despite the girls taking our conference call from Toronto, where they would not be able to use their cell phones, they agreed to sit down with us. In conversation, learned more about the Belles’ relationship with White, fashion, hotels, and ghost stories.
KELLY RYAN O’BRIEN: Now we’re all here.
THE BLACK BELLES: Yay!
JOHN TAYLOR: Wow. There are five people on the phone right now.
O’BRIEN: John, you are now outnumbered by the feminists.
TAYLOR: I totally am, but I’m just really happy right now. I’m not even remotely intimidated.
O’BRIEN: You should be! [laughs]
TAYLOR: Guys, could you all introduce yourselves?
OLIVIA JEAN: I’m Olivia Jean. I play guitar and I’m the lead vocalist.
SHELBY LYNNE: I’m Shelby Lynne, and I play drums.
JEAN: Shelby’s sick, so her voice is kinda going out.
RUBY ROGERS: I’m Ruby Rogers, and I play bass guitar.
O’BRIEN: And Christina?
ROGERS: Oh, Christina’s not in the band. We changed our lineup to a three-piece. We’re all the original members of the band.
O’BRIEN: Was there another member also? Was Erin Belle a member?
ROGERS: She was at one time.
O’BRIEN: Okay. I asked because I was doing some research, and I didn’t find anything that said she wasn’t in the band, but then I kind of figured it out.
ROGERS: She helped us out in the studio, and we needed someone with more of a commitment. She’s also a model. Her scheduling didn’t work out. We just haven’t communicated that to a lot of people.
O’BRIEN: So how long did it take you guys to put together your first album?
ROGERS: Probably just a couple of months.
O’BRIEN: Oh, nice!
ROGERS: We did it really fast, and then we recorded it really fast too.
TAYLOR: At what moment did you guys know that you wanted to join together as a band? Was there a signal from the sky?
JEAN: Maybe God was behind it. [laughs]
LYNNE: We all had the same haircut! We all looked alike already, and we were all about the same age.
JEAN: I had a recording that I gave to Jack, and it was mostly instrumental music, but it was a jumping-off point for like, some project to begin. I did it for myself, but I didn’t play anything live, because I didn’t have a band. But once we all met, we kind of collaborated together and shared ideas, threw all those ideas together and we had a lot of material to work with.
O’BRIEN: Speaking of all having the same look, how much of that is natural and how much is that playing into your image?
ROGERS: Well, as you’re talking to us right now, we look exactly like what you would see in a photo of us. [laughs]
LYNNE: It was just natural that we look a little bit… off, because that’s how we are in our day-to-day lives as well.
JEAN: We are okay with playing with that label of Goth. Because, we don’t really try to be the way we look, we just kind of are.
[laughs] That’s what we like.
O’BRIEN: I think it’s pretty cool that you can embrace that, if you try to say, “Is it part of your image?” You go, “No, it’s totally not!” and kind of take offense to it. I think it’s pretty awesome that you know who you are.
ROGERS: Last night at a venue, I was talking to somebody, and they were convinced I was wearing a wig. So I actually had to take my hat off and let them tug at my hair and prove that it was real.
O’BRIEN: [laughs] So what if one of you wanted to chop all of your hair off, desperately, would you do it and wear a wig, or what?
JEAN: We’ve all had long hair since we were children. If you look at our baby photos, we have the same haircut. I don’t think we would [cut our hair]. For health reasons, maybe?
LYNNE: I think none of us have any interest in having a different type of hairdo.
ROGERS: Our lives would have to be at risk. Something drastic like that.
O’BRIEN: Let’s talk some fashion. Obviously, you guys have the same look. But how do you go about picking your outfits? Do you have a stylist? Do you pick everything out yourselves?
ROGERS: We do not have a stylist. We all enjoy going to vintage shops and finding our own clothes. We’re all into lacy things, and velvet, and the color black. [laughs] Stilettos, platforms, you know. We all like the same stuff, and we like to shop.
TAYLOR: I have to ask, when you guys go thrift shopping, do you go thrift shopping together? Is it like, “Hey, I’m thinking about this outfit. Does it match what everybody else is wearing?”
LYNNE: We all shop separately because we would probably want exactly the same thing. It’s better for us to shop on our own and then be like, “Hey, look at this cool dress I found!” Sometimes we’ll end up with the same pair of shoes or tie or something completely on accident, because we’re slightly different versions of the same person.
O’BRIEN: Do you guys have significant others? Boyfriends?
ROGERS: No, we don’t. We’re too busy with… we’re too selfish right now. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: Selfish is good! Pick up a few fans along the way. So, what’s your relationship like with Jack? I hear a lot of people say that working under a fellow artist can be challenging, because they tend to get a little too involved, and things sometimes can get a little incestuous. Do you find that it’s like that? Or the opposite?
JEAN: None of us feel that working with another artist who’s able to help us out and mentor us would be like that. It was not negative at all. [Jack] was always helping us out, and believed in all of our opinions and what we wanted to do, and helped us make those things happen. As you said about all of us having the same taste, he really has very similar taste to us as well! It was very easy to work with him. He helped us out the entire way.
LYNNE: We learned so much about recording, and the recording process.
ROGERS: It’s inspiring, really. It makes you want to be a better musician when you’re working with somebody like Jack.
TAYLOR: I’ve always wondered—with Jack being the way that he is—did you ever find him randomly popping up on your doorstep to offer a note of encouragement?
JEAN: It’s happened on more than one occasion. Especially during rehearsals. When me and Ruby lived in a house together, we were rooming together, one time we were discussing the band, and then all of a sudden this face pops up in the window above our door, and [Ruby and I] screamed at the top of our lungs! [laughs] It was Jack. [sighs] He’s really supportive.
ROGERS: This has actually happened more than one time! I had this waitress job that I hated at the time. I came home, and [Jack] was there.
TAYLOR: Wait… so Jack was hiding in your house, waiting for you to come home so he could cheer you up at the end of a shitty day of work?
ROGERS: It was just like that! [laughs] He’s such a positive person.
LYNNE: There was that one time where were rehearsing before a show—
ROGERS: We had just finished recording the debut, and Jack came by just to congratulate us.
O’BRIEN: How many times have one of you fallen off your heels?
ROGERS: Today? Several times today alone, if you do the math correctly.
LYNNE: What we learned while touring this fall is that carrying heavy drums and amps in heels is very, very dangerous, but we can’t stop doing it.
O’BRIEN: So what’s your ideal tour location?
JEAN: We’re talking amongst ourselves.
LYNNE: [pauses] We’re taking this very, very seriously.
JEAN: We were just talking about how we would love to go to Japan, as far as tour locations go.
JEAN: We love the culture, we love the style. And if we got to go to the Harajuku district, we might burst into tears of happiness.
O’BRIEN: I love it! That’s what you need. A picture of you guys, in your garb, in the Harajuku district, just crying your eyes out.
O’BRIEN: Obviously you guys are on a huge upswing, but you’re fairly new. When you’re on tour, what’s your lodging situation? Do you have two rooms? Four? Or have you graduated to better accommodations?
JEAN: We all usually just share a room. Get a couple of beds. An air mattress, if we’re lucky. Sometimes, when we do special things, like in New York, we stay in nice hotels. Like, The Standard is really nice. Then there’s the Ace Hotel in New York.
O’BRIEN: Love the Ace!
LYNNE: Last night, the only room available in Pennsylvania was the Honeymoon Suite. So we got that. It was very romantic!
JEAN: There was a Jacuzzi.
ROGERS: From now on, when we go to hotels, we’re gonna ask for the Honeymoon Suite, because they’re so much better.
O’BRIEN: Where does the name come from?
ROGERS: Well, we wear all black.
JEAN: And then there’s this “Bell Witch” that’s in Tennessee, near Nashville. There’s a story of a real witch that lived in a small town.
ROGERS: It’s a pretty well known, haunting story. I think it’s one of the more well-known ghost stories. It’s the only recorded one as being a “true” ghost story. You can actually visit the cave and everything.
O’BRIEN: Have you been to it?
ROGERS: We tried, but it’s seasonal. We hope to go there someday.
LYNNE: And play a show in the cave.
TAYLOR: [laughs] Is that your ideal show? In a cave? Who would come to see you? Besides the ghost, of course.
LYNNE: He’s the only one that matters.
TAYLOR: Do you guys believe in ghosts?
JEAN: We exchange ghost stories in the van sometimes.
LYNNE: We were going to tell a couple of ghost stories a few nights ago, but it was 5:30 in the morning, and we had to go bed.
TAYLOR: Tell me a ghost story.
JEAN: I have a lot of Oujia stories. I used to be really big into that. There’s a song of ours called “Hey Velda,” which is about a Oujia board experience I had at my house.
O’BRIEN: What happened?
JEAN: We were just using the board and we were like, “Who are we talking to?” And she was like, “Velda.” And then it spelled out a year. 1953.
TAYLOR: That’s creepy.
LYNNE: It was creepy.
O’BRIEN: Have you ever had any backlash from using Oujia boards?
ROGERS: There’s proper instructions in the box. You’re supposed to open the board when you use it, and then you’re also supposed to close it, saying a statement or a prayer. And then you should be good to go. Go on with your day.
O’BRIEN: I don’t know anything about séances. Like, what do you do?
ROGERS: I mean, we usually just bake chocolate chip cookies.
TAYLOR: When was the last time you used a Oujia board?
ROGERS: It was a couple of days ago, and nothing happened. [laughs]
THE BLACK BELLES WILL PLAY AT THE KNITTING FACTORY ON SATURDAY, JUNE 16. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.