“Death is not the final ceiling that we close,” sings Sandra Lawson-Ndu, lead singer and songwriter of Bells Atlas, on their newest single, “Final Ceiling” out today. Opening with chirping birds and angelic synths anchored by a marching band of percussion, “Final Ceiling” is a cosmic spiritual imagining that crossover from our current physical realm into the spiritual one. Lawson-Ndu, who pens all of the group’s lyrics and narratives, describes their upcoming sophomore album the mystic (out on April 19 via Tender Loving Empire) as a “sci-fi fantasy” exploring time, space and the total question of our existence.
We spoke with Lawson-Ndu on their upcoming record and the stories and sound that influenced the mystic.
The Bay Bridged: the mystic tells the narrative of a pair of first-generation Nigerian-American women dealing with a recent mental health diagnosis; Can you tell us a little bit about who these women are and their story?
Sandra Lawson-Ndu: I’m one of the Naija American women! And I was lucky to grow up around someone who inspired my interest in the mystical, a love for storytelling and a playful fascination with the idea of expansive realities. This person, who has always embraced the intangible in grounded ways, began to struggle with their mental health. In midst of that time, they continued to move as the same storyteller and truth-seer that they’d always been, but the questions that appeared were: What expressions/actions needed a diagnosis? What caused pain versus what was the result of a different way of interpreting life and offering new paths of seeing? What was clinical versus mystical? It’s important to note that our story and connection are an inspiration for the album (and its name), but not the entire narrative.
TBB: How does last September’s Salt and Soap EP act as a predecessor for upcoming album?
SLN: All of the songs for both the EP and the upcoming album came from a pool of connected songs (some of which might be released post album). When we chose which songs would go on the EP we were thinking of which of these, thematically and sonically, felt like a good gateway to the album. The EP’s name was inspired by cleansing rituals and preservation methods. When coming up with this name we were thinking of different ways people prepare themselves for change. Each song on Salt and Soap in someway references this kind of preparation, whether that’s approached emotionally, physically or spiritually.
We also recognized all of the shifts we made when creating this music. As a band we approached writing this collection of songs in a fairly new way — We sampled grainy phone recordings from our drummers phone, listened back while watching old kung fu films, and allowed our sense of humor to show in our parts). For me, I knew that in many ways talking about this album would require a new way of being open. All of these shifts were exciting and represented growth, but we liked the idea of a gradual introduction to this world. The EP was in some ways a bridge and also an invitation to The Mystic.
TBB: As Bells Atlas, the music has largely remained genre-fluid sonically, yet the mystic is described as a “sci-fi fantasy”. How does that theme/framing work itself into this upcoming album?
SLN: When we say sci-fi fantasy we’re mostly referring to the stories and characters being presented in the lyrics. Sonically, I think as a band we’ve always been storytellers. Just as there are characters in the lyrics, there are characters and different worlds represented in the music. We were working on the music while the lyrics were being formed, so both were naturally influenced by each other.
Lyrically, a lot of the fantastical references and imagery are meant to also reflect very tangible experiences. The world can often be presented over and over again in certain ways, but these lenses that propose a different view of life, could possibly give us more tools to work with. Perhaps they excite and inspire us to seek new solutions or learn each other’s perspectives in a way that makes more space for empathy. Using this kind of mystical imagery to talk about mental health is a way to enter the conversation from a different direction and to reflect openness.
TBB: Are you guys fans of sci-fi films, books, the genre in general?
SLN: That was another reason I chose sci-fi fantasy, because growing up I rarely saw reflections of myself in these worlds. This was ridiculous because it was almost imaging a world where Black people were neither a part of the magic nor a part of the future. As a Nigerian-American woman, approaching this album as a sci-fi fantasy is also an offering to the expansion of who is included in these genres. When conjuring up images of what these characters/voices in the songs might look like, there should be no doubt that black and brown people are in this, and yes they’re playing main roles. This is just one representation of “Our” current state of magic.
Bells Atlas Record Release Party with Sugar Candy Mountain and Salami Rose Jose Louis
Starline Social Club
May 11, 2019
8pm, $15 (21+)