The Times caught up with Beebe native and "The Voice" contestant Cody Belew this week. Belew recently released "Say Love," a new song and video written specifically for Little Rock-based Heifer International, at the urging of Little Rock musician and Heifer employee Shannon Boshears. The video was filmed at Heifer projects in Ecuador and in Arkansas and all of the song's proceeds will benefit Heifer. Belew will also perform May 18 at Feast in the Field at Heifer Village in downtown Little Rock. You can download "Say Love" and find out more at Heifer.org.
What first inspired you to want to work with Heifer International?
Well, to be honest they contacted me first, after my Robinson Auditorium concert in January. Shannon was there and came through the meet-and-greet line and approached me about doing the Feast in the Field event in May. She emailed me a couple of weeks later and when she did, I said I'm happy to do that event, but I want to think bigger picture, a long-term partnership. Because a year prior to that, I had this idea and it was even before I done "The Voice." I was sitting at my desk at my day job and had this idea that I was going to sing a song and start a movement for some sort of social awareness and I didn't even know what it was. I would get to work and write down ideas about how I was going to achieve this thing.
I was having these ideas about doing a Kickstarter for some sort of charity. So whenever Heifer called me, I remembered that and thought it must have been some sort of premonition. I told Shannon about that and she said, "That's so weird, because I've had the idea for a song-based benefit for Heifer. My original concept was to sing a cover, and she challenged me to write my own and that's how the whole thing blossomed.
I understand you grew up on a farm in Beebe, right?
Right. We didn't have a whole lot of land. We didn't have enough land to ever sustain our own cattle herd, but we would always have a couple of cows for slaughter and we had pigs and chickens. Looking back, I think it was more to keep me and my brother occupied. My main thing was horses, for trail riding and rodeos. My dad had always dreamed of having a large farm, so we always had animals.
Did that resonate with you when considering working with Heifer?
Well, it made sense to me, because hunger — and the issues around it and how different people have different ideas of how to fix it — my whole life I felt like I was going to have a voice in that. I always thought I'd make it in music and then use that platform to make a difference. That may sound kind of weird and kooky, but I've always put a vision out there and then gone for that vision. I check things off my list that way. I've always known about Heifer because I'm from Arkansas. But I like the whole idea of a sustainable, long-term solution in a family's life. It's not like they walk though villages and pass out bags of white paste. They are actually giving them a reason to better their own life, and it's not a cultural change. They don't go in there pressure you to change your way of life, they take you where you're at and they ask you what you need.
In Ecuador, where we went, I assumed I was going to walk in there and see these families that were hungry and starving and Heifer helped them by giving them animals — the generic Heifer story. But these people already had their way of life and their way of raising crops and animals. But they needed water, which used to come from the high up in the mountains and wasn't anymore. And Heifer pinpointed the reason and went in solved that problem. I thought that was so interesting, that Heifer really goes in and listens to the needs of the community and then tries to help them where they're at.
The reason why it was so fundamental that I grew up the way I grew up was that when I went to Ecuador and Hughes, Ark., and spent time with these families, they have all the same animals that we had. They're just in a different situation. So I could get in there and ask questions about their way of life and have answers that really surprised them. So they opened up to me and appreciated me being there in a different way.
When you were on "The Voice," one of the things I remember you saying was that you'd initially had a hard time breaking into the music scene in Nashville. How did being on the show change your experience there? Did that open new doors?
It did in a way because before there were two things that I was conveying. One was I really had this idea that I was going to come into Nashville and blaze some sort of new trail through the middle of Music Row. And I call it the k.d. lang effect, because if you remember, k.d. lang started out in country music in a big way, she was this Calamity Jane sort of character in country music and they really just threw her out on her ass.
But I just thought I was going to come here and it was going to be a new day and I was just going to do it for country music. But I was finding that I hadn't even gotten to that part. It was just the initial breakthrough of being seen and heard. There's an air of nobody really cares here. You can play in other places, like in Little Rock, and really make an impact. But live shows here are so dime-a-dozen that nobody really cares, and the live performance was where I could show someone my point of view. I was having a hard time finding my footing and getting people to listen to me.
So after "The Voice," I had a new perspective, because the only dream I've ever had to kill and bury was that I was going to be this new kind of country music. I killed that dream and buried it before I left for "The Voice," and then on "The Voice" I was able to really test the audience — and by audience I mean America and beyond — to see if they were ready to accept another male pop artist who was going to be out front in his stage show, like David Bowie and Elton John and George Michael and Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury.
So I kind of embodied a bit of all of them to see if people wanted that again and ready for that to be something that they got behind. And I feel like they did and they do, so I came back to Nashville with that in mind and that being the formula for my work. Because of "The Voice," musicians and the producer that I'm working with now are willing to work with me and stick their neck out and not really want money up front. They're willing to take the risk for the long-term investment while we work on this music.
Now when I want to play a show, there are three of the better music venues — they're not even considered bars, but venues like 3rd & Lindsley, 12th & Porter, The Exit/In, those types of places — I could call them and get a show, where before I couldn't do that. Now, I'm saving my card, I'm not really trying to use that. I'm waiting until this music is ready to do a great show, which will be in a couple of months.
When can we expect an album? Is that ongoing right now?
My producer, Dustin Ransom — who's the co-writer and producer for the "Say Love" project — and I have set a goal date for Aug. 31. I'm proud to say we've got two songs mastered and ready to go and one almost ready to be mastered. And we had to put out "Say Love" first, that had to come first. But the whole album is — and this is going to sound weird, but when you hear this stuff you're gonna be like, "Ah, shit, I know what he's talking about" — it's all going to be stuff you're going to want to roller skate to. It's stuff that, if you were at the roller rink over by McClellan High School in 1982, you'd be like, "Oh dammit, that song is playing again."
It's got that backbeat to it and it's just fun. I've let a couple of people, other producers and musicians, listen to it. I didn't even make this connection, but they were like, "This is what The Scissor Sisters and Justin Timberlake are not doing."
I don't want to give you any sort of preconceived notions because I didn't even make that connection myself, but I'm drawing on a lot of '90s and '80s stuff, for like Salt-N-Pepa kind of beats. We want it to be real instruments and we want it to be flavored with synths. We don't want it to be techno at all, which is kind of what everything is right now. We're completely against Auto-Tune. It's this kind of Brooklyn thing, which is weird for me, but I'm really loving discovering this side of myself. Because it's a side that I knew was always in there and that came out in my live shows, but it's like flaunting something that I guess my whole life I tried to sort of subdue.
You just had to embrace it.
Yeah. So we're just putting it out there like, "Here it is, bitches!"