Inside ‘Tennessee Fuel’ with Carl Bell

Nine years since the release of his last record with Fuel, lead guitarist and songwriter, Carl Bell is back. Having previously created a catalog of stellar rock tunes such as “Shimmer”, “Hemorrhage” and “Falls on Me”with Fuel, Bell has turned to his roots and reestablished himself as a country artist.

Carl Bell, Tennessee Fuel, was released this past Friday, June 16th. Though the genre of music has changed from rock to country, Bell’s knack for writing incredibly moving, relate-able and catchy songs has not. It’s here where Bell truly opens up and takes you on a journey back to where it all began. Key tracks such as “Dad” and “Faces in a Photograph” express deep appreciation for Bell’s upbringing while others such as “Kiss” and “Run Away” exude the various emotions of love.

I recently had the chance to speak with Bell the night before release day. Seeming excited, relaxed and proud, Bell took me inside the record, discussing how this all came to be, and the liberties of writing in country.

What have the past nine years been like for you? How did this all begin?

I took some time off. It was nice to take a step back and slow down. I wrote a song called “Dad” years ago for my dad. It was a tribute to him since I could not be at a family reunion that was going to honor him. I felt bad. I was still touring with Fuel at the time, this was in the early 2000’s, around Natural Selection. “Dad” was not going to be a rock song. My dad wouldn’t have listened to it. That started me down this road. The song then laid out there for a long time. I enjoyed it though, so I started writing others. Then my dad passed away in 2010. I went back to the farm I grew up on in Tennessee to be with my mom for the transition. At heart, I’m a country boy. I grew up on a farm driving tractors. My mom listens to country all the time. While I was there, I heard “The House That Built Me” by Miranda Lambert. Here I am in the house that built me. I thought if this genre will support this type of song, then I am interested in that. I started writing even more country stuff. It was a slow evolution up to this point.

Was there a turning point where you determined that what you were working on was going to be a complete record?

At the time, they were just songs that I was writing. I’ve never been able to stop writing. I was looking to pitch them to other artists. I had no intention whatsoever of doing a record. A few years ago, my old manager called me up and asked me what I was doing. I said, “Some country stuff.” He asked to hear it so I sent it to him. His response was, “Wow, what are you doing with these? You should sing them.” I said no for a few years. I just wasn’t interested. I did the Fuel thing for a long time and I was ready to just be behind the scenes. Finally, we determined nobody else was going to be able to sing the song “Dad” and a few others. I wasn’t the singer of Fuel. Finally, one day I thought — let’s just do it. I wanted to get the songs out there and have them heard.

Everything you hear on the record was me other than the drums. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun. One thing I’ve always liked about working by myself is that I don’t have to worry about if we are working too long. I can just sit down with a guitar and pro-tools and go for hours and hours. I can work 18 hours straight and be fine with that, not having to answer to anybody. So, I played all the instruments, produced everything, engineered everything and ended up mixing the record too. You usually always send the music out to get it mixed, but it turned out my mixes sounded decent. My manager came back and said, “Dude, you’re mixing the record. This sounds better than anyone else and you know the songs best.” And that’s what I did.

How do you feel about singing now? Was that an adjustment for you?

I’ve been doing this for such a long time. Before Fuel, I used to front some bands. We would do four sets a night, seven night a week for months. Having worked with many singers, especially in Nashville, you know a good singer when you see one. Whether or not I’m in that range, I’m not exactly sure. But I thought — why not let’s just do it. I think it turned out alright.

Hell yeah, it’s very melodic and it surfs the wave perfectly.

Great, thank you. I’m glad you feel that way.

Was this all recorded in your home studio?

It’s funny, not only in my home studio, but I have a mobile studio that I can travel with. I can fit it in an overhead compartment on an airplane. I did some of the recording working off that. You can carry it and a guitar and get a lot of quality stuff done. Traveling to Nashville quite a bit, I used my portable studio frequently. But much of it was done here at a little space I have in my house.

Did you ever consider stopping music all-together?

I took a break right before this record for the first time. I consciously said, for six months I am not writing anything — no songs and no lyrics for a while. It was kind of nice and peaceful. Then you start getting the itch and wanting to scratch it. I’d get jealous of other songs. I’d hear something and think — oh man, why didn’t I write that one? Next thing you know you are starting to write again.

Other than “Bad Day”, is there anything on your new record that was a Fuel outtake that perhaps did not make a previous record? Or are they all newly written?

Most of the songs I wrote for Fuel came from a different place. It was nice to reinvent myself with these songs and explore a new topic. There’s a wider range of discussion that you can talk about with country that you probably can’t with rock. It just wouldn’t fit the genre well. Most of these songs are brand new. I did include “Bad Day” from the old Fuel days. I thought that song would translate well and link back to Fuel for the serious fans. Other than that, the rest are full-out country songs.

Bell with Fuel in 2000

What’s the biggest difference between writing a rock song and a country song?

It was both fun and challenging. There’s a sense of rebellion in a rock song. Country is a little more insightful. I don’t know many songs in the rock genre that would be endearing to your dad. I’ve heard songs that are challenging dad, but it’s not really a rock thing. That was liberating in some ways because now I can talk about stuff that meant a lot to me personally. I had a good dad and I express that in country. It was great to try and do something different from what most people would expect.

Growing up on a farm in Tennessee, was it challenging to initially pursue rock? Does your new music represent a more natural genre for you?

It’s interesting to think about. When you saw me in the band Fuel, you wouldn’t immediately think I grew up on a farm. But country is where I’m from. My buddy just recently said to me, “It’s your birthright to do a country record, look where you’re from!” Rock in the beginning was what I enjoyed. My brother was a big influence on me. On Saturdays, we’d listen to Country Countdown and on Sundays we’d listen to American Top 40. I didn’t grow up with TV. Radio was our main source of outside entertainment. Overall, I’m a fan of anything done well.

Writing country songs now, how was it for you to be able to get more personal in your subject matters?

When you track the origins of a song, sometimes you didn’t even know you were thinking what you wrote about. Songwriting for me, comes from that place. It just comes out. The song “Faces in a Photograph” was interesting for me to write. It’s one I felt deeply about. It touches upon my brother who drowned when I was younger. This record brings up that kind of stuff. That’s what is so great about the genre, I’ve gotten a chance to talk about things I have never talked about before. It was nice to bring up these deeply personal topics. There are still songs about love, fun and hanging out and those were also enjoyable. It’s unique to be able to cover all of that in one place. In general, the entire project was just a lot of fun for me. Doing it all in-house was a challenge, but a thrilling one — to see if I could pull it off.

There seems to be somewhat of a theme with this record where you reflect on your family and where you grew up with a ton of gratitude.

Certainly gratitude. I won the lottery with my mom and dad. It was an amazing blessing. We didn’t have much money and didn’t have flashy possessions, but I had good parents and cherished them. My mom is still alive today. I just spent two weeks with her on vacation. The record was never intended to be an expression of that, but if people see it that way, that’s fine. I can see where you would get that.

You mentioned “Faces in a Photograph”. That song and “Run Away” jumped out at me immediately. “Run Away’ has a soaring chorus and there’s a line in “Faces in a Photograph” — “that was real and that’s my life” that really hit me hard when I first heard it. It’s a very moving and emotional phrase.

You hope a song is engaging to others. Especially when it’s engaging to you. There’s something about music — you want to share it. Part of it is, I look back at photos of my parents think — that was real and that’s their life. It’s going to be you too. Photographs are great for preserving those little pieces of time that you might otherwise forget. The intent of that song was the way it hit you. It gives you perspective.

That line makes you think immediately. It’s very straightforward and I love how it captures what the arts allow — which is the beauty of being yourself.

Everybody is different, but at that the same time there is a universal link. We’re all going to have photographs of our lives. Even if you took them last week, you already look back and you think — this is my living, this is my process, this is my perspective. That’s where the song came from. This is life.

Will you be touring on this record?

I’m waiting to see how this all falls out. I don’t have a record label, we are doing this all on our own. This is more of a project. Don’t expect to see me at a stadium next week, but obviously I can play any of these songs. I do have a band somewhat put together that could tour if need be. I would do some shows for sure or whole tour if we reached enough people and it made sense. Right now, we’re focused on rolling out the record, seeing what happens, how its accepted and what people feel. I am already working on a second one.

So, now all things considered, you’ve done it. How do you feel and what does it mean to you?

It’s been a labor of love for me in some ways. Doing everything myself was out of necessity, but I enjoy working that way. I’m stoked about it. People will at least be intrigued to hear it. Some old Fuel fans have expressed excitement. It’s certainly a different thing for me. I’ve never done a record this way ever. I’m really excited about the way it turned out. I’m encouraged and know that I can do another one in-house on a cheap budget. I really enjoyed reinventing myself and how I wrote about things. I even reinvented the way I record, approach a song and go about songwriting. It’s a refreshing change that I am very proud of.

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