On The Cover Interview - Bell


Interview by Dan Didier

About two minutes into "Brown Bear", one of the songs off of Bell's highly regarded six song EP, something happens that I feel sonically personifies the current position of Bell. A breath in; in which, for a short instance there is anticipation and excitement before an ultimate explosive downbeat. So, if you were to draw a line diagram of the song as it relates to the bands current success we would be right there; a breath in. What should come next is an explosion of interest, fame and even more critical success. Bell is Olga Bell. Born in Moscow.

I recently had a conversation with her and it started something like this (after calling, getting her voicemail and leaving a message)‚ my phone rings seconds after I hang up.

B: Hey, this is Olga Bell did you just try calling me?

Dan Didier: Yeah, I did just try to call you.

B: Sorry, but my phone just missed your call.

DD: Cool. Do you want me to call you back, or...

B: Umm, you know what? Can I ask you is there anyway that you, that we might be able to do this later? Ummm, I was just hit by a car an hour ago.

After saying it wasn't serious and that she's just a bit shaken up we hang up, I go downstairs, sit on the sofa and watch the rest of Make Me A Supermodel with my wife. Of all the things I expected from this interview that was the farthest from my mind. Hours later, when I get her back on the phone, we officially started our conversation.

DD: So, what happened?

I guess I was jaywalking. There were no cars on the street and I crossed behind this car that was stopped at the intersection and I guess they decided to park or something because the kind of backed up and I sort of skipped off of the back corner of the bumper. They ran over my foot a little bit, just a little bit. They kept asking if I was okay and I didn't take their number, or name, or license plate or anything.

DD: I see.

B: Next time I'll know exactly what to do when I get hit by a car.

DD: There should be a handbook, right?

B: Yeah, take a beep breath and start asking questions.

DD: So, being born in Moscow and growing up in Alaska before heading to the east coast for school and now living in New York, how do you think this has inspired the music you are making right now? How much of your upbringing do you draw upon for inspiration?

B: Inevitably everyone is a product of their various environments in which they grew up in and, of course, all of this piano training that I had. I started playing music when I was five and piano when I was seven and was doing that very seriously until I graduated at 21.

DD: What did you graduate in? Was it performance?

B: Yeah, piano performance.

DD: I started my first year of college as a performance major, I'm a drummer, and I was in for percussion performance and realized at the end of that year that I don't think I can do this. Way too much practice.

B: Sure, all the time.

DD: Yeah, I‚d rather just play in shitty punk rock bands in town.

B: Yeah, it's such a greener grass thing.

One thing that somebody once told me about my music is that they said it sounded really "northern"‚ and that I took as a tremendous compliment. Cause, you know, I listen to a lot of Bjork and Sigur Ros and that. The association that I have with, not so much Russia, but definitely Alaska are the textures that we can associate with, you know, snow and cold and lots of room and I think they are all very beautiful and I sometimes process this in my head into different kinds of reverbs and things being sparkly in a very natural sense. Something that is organically crystallized.

DD: Letting each chord progression, each note breathe.

B: Yeah, production-wise there is a discernible string of texture and decisions that do sound kind of northern.

DD: If you would all of a sudden do Southern roots rock, I think it would be a lot less convincing. What comes natural is what comes natural, which is what you grew up near.

B: I feel that having done classical music for most of my life that the density, the sounds, translate into how I enjoy hearing chords and writing songs myself.

DD: As you said, you started doing music fairly early. Were your parents musicians? Or were they just hell bent on having you become one. When I was 9 or so, one summer my mom told me and my brother to get in the car. She drove us to this school and said "You're taking drums." I didn't really have a choice. Did you also "just get in the car?"

B: My parents are not musicians but my mom did the requisite "music in school is an important part of a well rounded Soviet education." She worked in radio, actually, as a producer of various kinds of programs that involved quite a lot of music. Like Russian folk music, which is really cool.

From a really young age I started tinkering around on this old decrepit piano that we had in our apartment in Moscow and I would create these little songs. Once, my mom took me to see Swan Lake with her when I was four or five and I came home and tried to sing multiple parts at once. She also had this friend that was a musician and said to her that there was this preparatory school, like an elementary school, junior high, high school thing. They were having auditions and she took me there when I was five and through various auditions I was admitted. But then we moved to Alaska when I was 7 and I met this wonderful woman, Svetlana, and I started training with her for eleven years.

DD: Then after high school did you go straight away to the New England Conservatory?

B: Yeah, I graduated from high school when I was 17 and went directly there and studied piano very intensely for four years. While there, I studied chamber music, which is probably my favorite thing because I think that is what's great about having a band, or collaborating, because I think collaboration is very important.

DD: What is your process for writing the lyrics? Do they come out as stream of consciousness or are they compiled from notebooks and napkins?

B: It's a little like a collage, really.

DD: So you don't make some tea, light a candle and just…

B: Ha ha, no. I have a voice recorder and I record bits into that and I'll end up writing in a notebook and on a piece of paper, bit by bit. Sometimes you just want words to feel good coming out of your mouth. You think of them much more in a sonic sense then in a meaningful sense. So sometimes it's just the textures and sounds of the words, devoid of their meaning, but of course you don't want total mumble jumble.

DD: You have this sense of "home" that comes up once and awhile in your lyrics. Now, since you have lived in so many different places, where is home?

B: Home to me is in the people who have been constant in my life and not really in a place. I guess I don't really have a single association of a home, because when I try to imagine where I would ultimately want to live it's not really clear. I visited Moscow in the summer of '06 for the first time since I was eleven and it was obviously a foreign place because I haven't been there for so long, but something in the air felt right. Although, Moscow right now is this weird amalgamation of Washington DC, Las Vegas, and New York, you know, everything there is squeaky clean and for sale. But, you know, I feel equally comfortable and at the same time restless in lots of places. After moving around so much I feel that the consistency in my life has been, without sounding cheesy, music.

DD: What is the process for writing and recording? Is it that you get these little nuggets and then flesh it out?

B: Don't you love that word. The nugget?

DD: Yeah, for the band that I am in someone brings a nugget and then it goes through the four-person filter and then the end result is the song. Do you go through, what I am now dubbing, the nugget filtration system?

B: I would say that what I try to bring is either a series of nuggets that need some connecting or a really big nearly formed nugget. What ends up happening with the band is more like the game operator. You definitely have a sentence you begin with and you then pass it around and end up with, hopefully, something confluent. The band definitely brings their own contribution to the nugget. They are all pretty reputable dudes and they play in a ton of other bands.

DD: That is something that I grabbed onto while listening to the EP. The fact that it seems like every member is really proficient with the instrument that they play. That is one thing that I enjoy about it, that you are all really great musicians and that is why I am interested in the collaboration aspect. There is a lot of talent there and I feel that it is tasteful and controlled. Is it ever too much to go around while you are writing?

B: It's certainly something to almost fight against because everyone wants so much to be, you know, we can all get noodley at times. I guess it is sort of like design. If you feel that you have the chops, you have the resources, you have the materials, you add a little embellishment and you just go nuts you then stand back and it ends up being a gaudy, unnecessarily complicated piece of shit. But, I guess, we all try to be present and outside of it at the same time. That is where technique is good and practicing is good because what you want is for it to be enough of a natural sensation. I don't want to be like a prog chop monster up here.

The reason I am doing this is because I want to convey the same euphoric ridiculously elated feeling like listening to really depressing Radiohead on a cloudy day. Where you go "This is great, I'm so down right now, and I love it!" That is the main motivation, to get that feeling going.

DD: Your singing. How did that develop? Did you also take classes at the conservatory for that? When I read that you studied at that school and after first listening to the EP I was curious to which instrument, piano or voice, you studied.

B: I was lucky because I did a ton of accompanying for friends that were vocal majors so I got to play for them during their lessons. Which is great because I got to sit in on these lessons with a lot of amazing vocal teachers while sitting behind the piano.

DD: Ahhh, interesting, so you're a total leech then?

B: Umm, yeah, so basically I was leeching off them.

DD: You received this whole other education.

B: I also got to be in this really cool choir at the conservatory. That was a really great experience because we sang Spanish renaissance motets, which are beautiful. I have an early music fetish.

DD: What do you prefer writing or recording? What do you find the most satisfaction in? Satisfying like "oh, we wrote this great song‚" or satisfying like "we've captured this great song?"

B: Uh-huh. Well, I feel like the momentum and energy of writing a song is really comparable to how you feel recording it. I don't know if that is a good or bad thing. I feel like writing a song is like a meditation where you sit and chip away at something. Whereas a studio is kind of a crazy mad laboratory where I am like "Ohh, what does this do? Let's try this. Let's go over here and turn this knob. What if I push this red button?"

Writing a song, even though it can be really piece meal, at least I sort of know where I am going and what I am going to get. I guess that is the real difference. In the studio the outcome is still sort of unknown. It's like weird chemical experiments. That experience compliments the fact that everyone is proficient on their instrument. That so many really neat sounds and happy accidents come out of recording that you end up having to teach yourself how to incorporate that accident into what you play.

DD: What are your follow up plans?

B: I guess I am always trying to work on new music. Eventually, before too long, we will make a full length. I guess people have been asking if any of the songs on the EP will be on there and I guess I don't really want to rework any of those songs any more.

DD: Yeah, since four of the six songs on the EP were already reworked from demos, you probably don't want to rework them again.

B: What would be the point? Especially if you can have new music.

Photo by Dorothy Hong

On The Cover Interview - Bell