Sandra Lawson-Ndu wants you to know it’s okay to take your time.
“It’s okay to have ritual and preparation associated with getting yourself to a place and being ready,” she says. For her band, Bells Atlas, a phantasmagorical neo-soul quintet based in Oakland, the musical equivalent to this clearing of the throat is their new EP, Salt and Soap.
Since releasing their 2015 EP Hyperlust (with a few singles in between), Bells Atlas have been touring as the house band for the live edition of NPR’s Snap Judgement, as well as on their own. Now, they’re back with a torrent of new stories to tell—but first, they’re taking a deep breath.
Salt and Soap represents a moment of grounding and self-care before the band's sophomore album, The Mystic, comes out early next year. According to Lawson-Ndu, the deeply personal nature of The Mystic requires a bit of a pause before launching into its depths. She was hesitant to reveal too much too soon, but says the album would touch on mental health, fantasy and the spiritual realm.
“Downpour,” scintillating with eerie synths, is Bells Atlas' first single before Salt and Soap drops in full on Sept. 21. It's a meditative look at what might happen if you were to release all the secrets weighing you down at once.
“I grew up in an environment where I just felt like I had to hold so many secrets,” Lawson-Ndu explained. In a lengthy post on the band’s Facebook page, she detailed the unease she felt as a child about hiding crucial parts of herself. For example, she hid the reason her father didn’t live with her from neighbors, and pretended her braids were her real hair rather than explaining black hair extensions to all the white kids at school.
Musically, “Downpour” takes a more odd, experimental turn than the rest of Bells Atlas’ oeuvre. Lo-fi drum samples recorded on an iPhone contrast with crystal-clear, whistling synths; Lawson-Ndu’s wispy, malleable vocals act as an instrument all on their own. She whispers, sing-talks, launches timid inquisitions into an unknowable void and lingers in a reverb-y croon. The lyrics almost don’t even matter—the way she plays with her voice reveals everything the listener needs to know.
“Even if the words are abstract but I know the meaning of it, there’s a power in shifting your voice and expressing it that way,” she explains. “I thought about the emotion behind those moments and I was just like, I feel like ‘bleh,’ why can't I just say ‘bleh’ if I feel that way?”
Lawson-Ndu's experimental vocal techniques come in part from a deepening comfort with her bandmates and a willingness to trust their instincts. The band members stumbled upon a new songwriting process for these songs, with bassist Doug Stuart and Lawson-Ndu writing over grainy drum recordings from drummer Geneva Harrison and recording their most natural, immediate responses. This new approach stands in sharp contrast to the formal musical backgrounds of the band members, who have degrees in classical theory and jazz studies.
“A lot of first thoughts stuck because we let out all of our weird or wonderful in that moment, and we were excited enough to let them stick,” Lawson-Ndu says.
Some of this weird and wonderful is present in the music video for “Be Brave,” a stand-alone track Bells Atlas released in June that acts as a bridge between their old material and what’s to come. In the surreal video filmed in the Alabama Hills on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, Lawson-Ndu, lost and dehydrated, encounters strange, furry desert creatures. The song acts a reminder of our own super powers; the creatures are inspired by artist Nick Cave’s outlandishly majestic Soundsuits.
Lawson-Ndu found inspiration to embrace a new fearlessness in part from the evolving media landscape around her, including a recent influx of films created by and featuring nuanced representations of people of color. She says she feels freer to challenge boundaries and settle in spaces that don’t fall neatly into any one category, citing the genre-bending Frank Ocean as a musical hero.
The Oakland community, too, inspires the band. It was important to Bells Atlas to celebrate the release of their new EP with a hometown show at one of their favorite venues, The New Parish, on Sept. 20.
The venue recently changed ownership after former owner Jason Perkins was accused of harassing homeless residents in San Francisco. The band paid careful attention to the controversy as it unfolded, wanting to make sure things were made right before going forward with the show they’d already scheduled.
“I'm happy they've made a conscious effort to do what feels right. That was important to us,” Lawson-Ndu says. Known for bringing a diverse array of local and national acts to its intimate stage, The New Parish is one of the only live music venues of its size in Oakland. “It's an amazing venue, and I feel like it's brought so much to Oakland. I would hate for that to exist under the shadow of one individual,” she adds.
The show on Thursday will be just the beginning of finally letting words long held silent out into the open. Where her own words trail off, Lawson-Ndu quotes Maya Angelou to express her emotions surrounding the new music: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
Bells Atlas perform at The New Parish on Sept. 20. Details here.