Bel breaks down her tender debut album, 'Beaches' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Isabel Furman lives the music. Making her debut album, Beaches, out last month on Philly’s Eclectica Division, she traced the toughest moments in the last five years of her life, confronting self-doubt, betrayal, deep family love and distance with a realism that I only appreciated after talking through the album with her firsthand. Tender lyrics touch admiration and interdependence, (“to you, you are all that you need”) untangling personal changes that she says mark the most volatile moments in her young adulthood. In spite of their gravity, these nine rock songs are packed with delightful grooves, from the earnest push of “Beaches” to the hush of “Epilogue” to crashing power on “Or Nothing.” Together, they demonstrate honest growth as a writer since her self-recorded MedicineEP from 2020, pointing down a path, too, where I believe she’ll continue to succeed – she’s also my neighbor and a friend I look up to

Bel recorded Beaches during the pandemic at Headroom Studios in Philadelphia with Johanna Baumann, and she keenly remembers how the studio process helped her reckon with all the fraught songs she had collected since college and fit them together. Some weeks ago, she invited me to her porch to break down the album, what it means to her friends, parents and brothers, Eli and Ethan – “middle child indie rock,” her Bandcamp confesses – and just how much her songs grow, trip and twist over time.

Bel - Beaches (Cemetery Tapes sessions)

Thomas Hagen: When did you first start recording music, and what inspired you to start?

Isabel Furman: I think I started messing around with recording freshman year of college, home on breaks. My brothers knew more about this stuff when I started recording, so they were really helpful, showing me how to use the equipment. My younger brother had this Tascam that he used to record drums, and he showed me how to set up a DAW and plug everything in, and that I had to use headphones to reduce the noise bleed; giving me the basic means to do stuff and then I took it from there. Having some songs, bored with nothing to do on college breaks, I tried to put some stuff together and I ended up recording a couple of demos. But I always hated recording until I did it in a studio, because you’re just sitting there with all the mistakes you’ve made, and that you continue to make every time you do a take. Being in a studio really streamlines the process.

TH: When did you first start working on the songs on Beaches?

IF: It’s been such a long time! [laughs] That’s part of what feels so funny about this album – I think the oldest song on the record is “Desert Creature” and I wrote that in the summer before my senior year of college – it’s just been a hot minute. So I feel like I’m trying to puzzle-piece together all these different snapshots of the last five years of my life, and try to turn it into some kind of cohesive narrative, some kind of thematic similarity, but they really are from all these different parts of the last couple of years.

TH: How did the recording process for this album compare to the process for past recordings you’ve made?

IF: This is my first studio experience – I felt like I was staying in a luxurious hotel compared to a crappy AirBnB. [laughs] So it was very cool, very exciting, really scary. My EP Medicine was recorded in my friend’s dorm room in college, and basements and other bedrooms and small DIY setups. Really just one interface and one microphone on each instrument and nothing fancy, no pedals, nothing, just trying to make it as simple as we could. And then “Amelia” was recorded virtually, just sending files back and forth between my brother and I.

And then I just went for it with this record; I knew that I wanted to do it in a studio because it felt like a big deal, and it was great. I guess I didn’t realized how fine-tuned you can get with studio recordings, editing down to the word to get the right vocal take. [laughs] it’s kind of crazy. But I think it helped me take the process a little more seriously and also have fun with it, because you have this big room where you can just play, and you can let things happen kind of spontaneously because the resources you need are at your hands.

Headroom is great, I had just so much fun there with Johanna Baumann. She had a lot of input, she’s a seasoned pro. She was really helpful in terms of [feedback like] “I think doubling the vocal here would give it a cool effect,” or “Let’s try to use this effect on this track,” or “If I mic the drums in this way you’ll get this kind of tone” – so she had a lot of really good ideas about how we could get the sounds we wanted. She also helped with production stuff; she sang backup vocals on one of the tracks and played keys on one of the tracks. It was me, Johanna and Eli really pushing through the whole thing.

TH: Has the meaning or importance of any of these songs changed since you first wrote them?

IF: Oh yeah. Like before, about when I started writing these songs – I think part of writing something over the course of so many years is that, you write something in the moment that you’re feeling that thing, and then you’re gonna look back on that and feel totally different about that feeling. Especially because so much of the record was written in emotional volatility, I was just feeling like I really needed to get everything out without thinking about what I was trying to say. It’s only later that I can look back and suss out the meaning, where those songs were coming from. But there’s a real-life heat-of-the-moment effect that happens when you’re just trying to get it out.

Bel - Swim

… I’m thinking about this now. I think a good example of that is “Swim,” in that I wrote the verses several weeks or months before I wrote the chorus; just jotted down in my notebook, I didn’t think it was going anywhere. I think the verses were written in the heart of a breakup and the chorus was written kind of in the aftermath, and the chorus was sort of a way to reflect on what happened in the verses. So the meaning changes even as you’re writing it, I think.

[laughs] My friends and I played a game where they were trying to guess who each song was about, based on the people from my past. And a conversation I had with my parents was kind of tough. The songs sort of revealed to them how much pain I was actually in over the course of these couple of years, and their takeaway was like, As your parent, it was really hard listening to this record knowing that you were going through all of that stuff. But it was also really exciting, because we both know that you don’t feel that way anymore. You’ve gotten through this period of your life. I try not to make my songs too diaristic; I don’t want them to be an exact retelling of the things that happened in my life because I think there’s more room for imagination than that. But at the same time, you do get really personal, and it felt very scary to be really honest about stuff with the whole world and everybody who’s listening.

TH: After the release, you explained online, “I wrote this music in & around a lot of grief, loss, and heartbreak. Almost 2 years later, I find myself happier & more full of love than I’ve ever been.” Do you feel like writing and recording the album helped you get to this place?

IF: I think totally. Well, there are other circumstances that have changed, time heals everything and good people in your life heal everything, and both of those things have unfolded over the last couple of years. But I also think that I held onto a lot. I’ve been writing songs since I was in middle school, just a really long time. And I held onto them and didn’t want to share them, and didn’t want anybody to know what I was writing about, and really did it in secret. I think the process of putting the rawness of a song aside, so that you can focus on how a guitar part sounds and what instruments you’re gonna layer into it, helps soften the blow of what that song is about. I think the recordings are vulnerable in their own way, but I also think that having to do a vocal take four times definitely makes the lyrics feel a little less painful, you know? You settle into the song and it starts to hurt a little less, and as you add more instruments you start to find joy and magic in it, and it gives the whole thing more life than sitting in your room crying as you’re writing. [laughs] It’s just a special thing, and I think that that’s healing. And getting to release that and not have it be something that I’m burying in me, like a secret that I’m keeping, just feels more freeing.

TH: That’s awesome.

IF: [laughs] Yeah, I’m happy for me too.

I think the first time we recorded the vocals for “Russian Doll,” I started crying mid-take. That’s the hardest song for me to sing, that one hits the hardest. But you know, by the third or fourth take I’m like, “Alright! I just have to get this line!” Right? And it’s soothing, it’s nice! It feels good that you’re taking these words that once were unspeakable to you, these thoughts you couldn’t even admit to yourself except on paper and it’s like, “Well, now I GOTTA do it!” I don’t have to feel those feelings as much anymore, it’s kinda nice, like what a gift! Who needs therapy! There you go. [laughs]

Bel - Russian Doll

TH: What are you most proud of about this album?

IF: I talk about my brother maybe a little too much when I talk about music. This is Eli – Ethan too, Ethan’s my younger brother – both of them are musical. They’re the best musicians I know. And I think something I’m proud of is that, growing up, our parents always encouraged us to play together and to work together. My mom kind of had this idea that working together was gonna be this magic key for all of us, that by our powers combined we could unlock something. And I think we all really resisted that for a while because we all want to carve our own paths, we’re doing such different things, and it’s true that we have really really drastically different musical interests and styles.

But something that I’m really proud of is the way that this record and where I’ve gotten to thus far has demonstrated kind of a reconciliation with that idea, and a collaboration with my brothers. Eli is all over this album: there’s so much of this record that came from not just his ideas and his tastes, but also moments sitting in my living room trying to make each other laugh with different licks and different ideas. Like the whole guitar-bass duet at the end of “Russian Doll” was us sitting in my living room on our day of from recording, just f—ing around, just trying to make each other laugh. I’m really proud of the way that we’ve come together to work together and bring out the best in each other. And Ethan too, he’s in college now so I don’t get to see him as often but he’s been huge in terms of shaping my playing ability and the way that I approach writing music and my openness to other genres. And I’m proud that I get to have them on my team.

TH: Are you planning or working on anything new right now that you want to share about?

IF: We’ve got a lot of gigs coming up in May and June. We’re doing this cool direct-to-vinyl session with Leesta Vall, that’s gonna be great. And I always talk about that on my Instagram (@iz.fur), so if people are curious they can just look on my social media!

The pandemic really made me afraid of performing. And I was even nervous about it beforehand, but just so many years off from playing music in front of people made me feel scared to get back up there, and I’m starting to get back into it. Focusing on playing live and writing more, and getting back into the process. There is some new stuff that we haven’t started working on as a band yet – I don’t know when the right time is! For the most part we’re gonna play stuff from the album, and it’s been really fun to figure out how to take all of these layers of instruments and boil them down into three or four musicians, so that’s been cool. Especially since Drew and Scott were not part of the recording process, they’ve been encountering these songs fresh, which is exciting. I’m taking a break from the old stuff for a little bit; [laughs] it’s been a couple of years of playing that stuff and I’m ready to put those ideas aside for a little.


Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Beaches came out in March on Eclectica Division. Bel plays at Wilmington’s Ladybug Music Festival on May 20th, and Philadelphia’s Khyber Pass on May 21st with locals Air Devi and Jules on Expo. See Isabel and Eli Furman perform “Or Nothing” from home below, in a video for smallsongs.

bel - or nothing (a small song from home)
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