Mostly, though, he was just tired of answering his door.
"In Mississippi, it had gotten to the point that I'd wake up in the morning, and someone was showing up at [my] doorstep," Bell, 27, says from a perch in North Beach's Vesuvio. "Whether it's to borrow a dollar to go get a burrito at Taco Bell or to just come and hang out for the rest of the day ... everybody lives to drop in. It's all right sometimes, but it got to the point where I couldn't get anything going. And also I was just very uninspired in some ways. I needed a change of scenery, a change of people."
Danville may seem like a strange place to come looking for inspiration, but that's where Bell's parents had moved in 1995. When Bell dropped out of the University of Mississippi in late 1996, his folks offered him a room to "get his feet on the ground." Although he was just killing time in Oxford, taking the occasional summer school course and playing music, he was still reluctant to accept the offer. "I was like, 'No way. I'm not moving back in with my parents,'" he laughs.
But as the distractions in Oxford mounted, Bell reconsidered his mom and dad's invitation. "It was tough at the time," Bell remembers. "But it seemed necessary."
Bell moved to Northern California in January 1998. Because he no longer had to scrounge for rent, he was able to get by on the erratic wages of an office temp. His loose work schedule also gave him the thing he wanted most: uninterrupted hours to focus on creative endeavors. Though he had been composing since high school, Bell watched his songwriting flower in Danville's desiccated cultural climate.
His new material was a happy surprise after the Oxford doldrums, and Bell was especially content with his revamped vocal style. "I kind of lost my confidence singing," he remembers. "And I tried to refind, to believe what I was singing -- be more true to what I'm singing, I guess."
On older material Bell had put as much work into the singing as he had the words and melodies, pushing his broad, deliberate voice into acrobatic ranges. In Danville he began allowing the lyrics to take center stage, arriving at a style that was plain-spoken and direct, reminiscent of a Louisiana Lou Reed.
The new voice was a productive one. Nearly an album's worth of songs tumbled out, with Bell working on the louder guitar parts whenever his parents went out of town. For the first time in years, things were jelling musically for Bell, and the small successes gave him an overdue boost in confidence. By January 2000 he was ready to head back to Mississippi to finish his degree.
Six months later Bell picked up his diploma and flew back to the Bay Area, settling in San Francisco. An important connection to Mississippi remained, however: Before leaving his alma mater Bell had struck a deal to record an album with Bruce Watson in a converted-schoolhouse studio 15 miles south of Oxford. (Watson is the infamous in-house producer at Fat Possum, a label renowned for resurrecting the careers of ornery, elderly blues artists like R.L. Burnside.)
Here was a rare opportunity to work with one of the bigger names in Mississippi music, but Bell's heart -- and apartment lease -- was now in the Bay Area. After weighing his options the songwriter decided to become a very part-time recording artist, flying into town every couple of months to get a few songs on tape. "I should have thanked Southwest [Airlines] in the liner notes," Bell jokes.
The subsequent LP, Captain of the Old Girls (out now on Upperworks), ended up taking nine months to record. While many musicians would be frustrated at such a glacial pace, Bell took advantage of the unhurried schedule to allow spontaneity and improvisation to play a bigger role in the process. "I went there with an open mind and a couple pieces of paper with some lyrics and some [chord] charts," Bell says. "I think it gave the album time to appear."
As the record slowly unfolded, it became clear that the two years spent in Danville had left their mark on the songs. The mood of Captain is searching, contemplative -- the sound of someone far from home sorting through his memories, trying to make sense of his past.
A talented musician, Bell played most of the parts on the album himself, with his cousin Winn McElroy playing piano and keyboards, and Craig Pickering sitting in on drums for a few songs. The result is spacious and open, a mix of acoustic meditation and electric abandon that puts the CD somewhere between The Velvet Underground & Nico and Son Volt's seminal altcountry record Trace.
Captain of the Old Girls -- named for the loud, popular high school girl who "usually gets taken advantage of by the soccer team" -- begins with the aptly titled "New World," an ode to growing up and moving on. As an electric guitar line meanders in and out of the scene, Bell lets his words fall like stones: "Afternoon you're walking through my thoughts/ And opening up the locks t'all those memories/ That developed you and me into these women and men." The theme of emerging adulthood echoes through "Halcyon Days" as well, with a slicing, Dinosaur Jr.-ish guitar attack pairing with Bell's quiet, journallike declaration: "Into the world we've all gone our way/ From the small towns into the cities."
The stories on Captain, though, aren't limited to excavations of Bell's personal past. In "Expatriate" the singer tackles the psychological economies of the free market. The song is a perfect example of Bell's craft, his dry vocals clipped with a hint of a Southern accent, slipping past on a warm, undulating bed of feedback. The tune is Lou Reed's "Heroin" updated for the advertising age, the deadpanned lyrics implying that our culture's most addictive junk is no longer found on the streets, but in shopping malls and mail-order catalogs.
Bell mixed "Expatriate" on Sept. 12, 2001, and he remembers the sinking feeling he got as he realized the song -- which features lines like "America's guts, drained by the money in her veins" -- was going to raise some ire.
"People are going to think this is some kind of anti-American song," he says. "It's more about just growing up and coming to the reality of how the world is. With the economy and money and things like that, you realize that you never can be completely free."
For all of Captain's complex themes, Bell also manages to inject a sense of fun into the record. "The Rounds" even veers into a Pavement-esque roadhouse boogie. The story -- about bandmates whose fantasies of stardom are undiminished by the squalor of the clubs they play -- starts with lines that would be wince-inducing in less qualified hands: "In a little while I'll be leaving town/ But I hope I'll see you again."
Bell laughs when asked about the song. "That was one of the ones that I did the guitar and did everything before I had the lyrics. It just had that all-American guitar sound. That [first line] was what kind of ended up coming out. At first, I was like, 'Oh no.' Because after the first verse you can't go back. It was so over-the-top. It's kind of the song for everyband."
The CD ends with "Vials in the Stump," the only song on the album not from the sessions with Watson. Bell recorded the track by himself in his parents' house, and its juxtaposition of unadorned acoustic guitar and quavering vocals reflects perfectly the musical nomad Bell has become. "Vials," like Captain itself, offers a bridge between his Southern home and his western wanderings -- delivering a jittery, beautiful take on roots, rootlessness, and the unforgettable places in between.
"I used to get the comment when I'd be back [in Mississippi]," Bell says, "and I'd tell someone, 'Oh, I'm living in San Francisco.' They'd be like, 'Oh, culture shock!'"
Bell laughs at the memory, taking a sip of his beer. "I never looked at it that way."