Olga Bell is a versatile musician, one who’s breathtakingly talented, yet immensely underrated. Born in Moscow, raised in Anchorage and currently residing in New York, complete with a classical musical background under the instruction of reputable pianist, Svetlana Velichko, and education from Gnessin in Russia and New England Conservatory in Boston, in addition to a purely crystalline voice, Bell is in her own category of acuity. Her own band, BELL, is arranged electronically, and it’s through her enthrallment with sound where the songs truly take cadence.
“When I’m first putting together a song, there are different corners from which an idea could come for me,” she states. “One is a snippet that I sing into my phone of a vocal line, and sometimes it’s words. The other way is with an instrument—I’ll just be going through sounds in [music production software] Ableton Live and find a synthesizer sound that really hypnotizes me and I’ll do a chord progression. Or, it’s a sound, beat or sample of old recordings from me and Jason playing in his attic or a field recording; it’s from anywhere—it’s quite a potpourri of material. I’ve never just sat down at a piano (or yet) and written a full song—it’s kind of manic.”
BELL released the album Diamonite in May 2011, and for that particular material, the process was just as varied as the rhapsodic sounds produced.
“There are quite a few songs where [band mates] Jason [Nazary] or Gunnar [Olsen] would actually send me a beat, and then I would cut it up, rearrange it or maybe put it into a creative song form or the first bits of a melody,” she explains. “Some of them started just with an idea in which we worked out the old-fashioned band way, where I brought an idea into our rehearsal space, and we hashed it out in person there; it’s very different from the back-and-forth, computer/email way of exchanging music, which I also enjoy and find to be very fruitful, just being in your own private space and sending whatever you’re confident in to your most trusted colleagues. More than half of the songs from the album are beats from my two different drummers. It’s interesting—if you listen to the album—to hear which are more like Jason beats and off-kilter, and then Gunnar beats; even though I’m the primary songwriter, the beats that I got for the songs from them, influenced a lot of the material.”
While this band remains active, it’s not the only priority playing in Bell’s agenda. In fact, it’s only a portion of her multifacetedness as a musician; while mixing a portion of Diamonite with Jorge Elbrecht, another performing opportunity arose.
“He was living with Caroline (Polachek; vocalist and synth player of Chairlift) at the time, and we just got to know one another through mixing music,” she expands. “At some point, she and Patrick (Wimberly; drummer, bassist and keyboardist) invited me out for drinks and then they invited me in a gradual way to join the band, and it was a good fit; it was in the spring/summer of 2011—I played with them just under a year and it was really fun; I really like their music.”
Bell’s most recent endeavor, however, is serving as a member of indie rock stunners, Dirty Projectors. Ironically enough, Bell had actually been listening to the band since their early beginnings and was completely transfixed.
“The first time that I saw them, I was really star-struck,” she admits. “I had been to a show of theirs at Glasslands in 2007, totally blown away, and I remember brushing by Dave (Longstreth, lead singer and guitarist) at that show—it was really crowded—and mumbling something like, ‘How do you do what you do?’ and Dave was like, ‘We just do it!’ I was so embarrassed, and then I met them at this café on Bedford Avenue just in passing. I devoured all their releases, found myself accidentally memorizing parts and thinking, ‘I should find a way to let Dave know that I could do this if they ever needed a sub’.”
Beyond the minimal encounters, Bell had never formally interacted with the band before. It was through being in the same musical circle as Bryce Dessner (The National) and his eventual recommendation to members Longstreth and Amber Coffman during their search for an additional member that triggered Bell’s most recent transition.
“In the spring, Bryce sent me a mysterious email saying some friends of his might approach me to be in their band, that I would ‘know who they were,’ she recounts. “I eventually met Dave and Amber for brunch, and it sort of became evident that it was a good fit, and then it all just worked out really well.”
So well, in fact, that Bell mastered as much of Dirty Projectors’ catalog necessary for touring purposes in just a little over a week before the band started touring in July.
“I love performing, and this music is wonderful,” she gushes. “The people are amazing, and Dave’s writing is so good—we’ve done 60+ shows since I joined, and the music never gets old. I’m really lucky I’ve only had to play music that I really loved and believed in; I think it’s a luxury, doing what you love.”
One of the stops included Chicago at the Pitchfork Festival, which Bell professes as a particularly fond experience.
“Last summer was my first time attending and playing Pitchfork, and it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to,” she says. “After the Dirty Projectors set, I caught Hot Chip, Flying Lotus, Atlas Sound—all amazing, I was totally star-struck. We ended one of those epic show days at Mirai, some of the best sushi I’ve ever had.”
With such ebullience for the business, it’s no wonder that the preparation for the tour, despite the intensity from limited timing, proved so feasibly for Bell.
“After coming from a classical background where it’s not uncommon to practice or rehearse for many, many hours a day very meticulously, dissecting, interpreting and committing to memory someone else’s vision—a composer’s score—it seemed really natural to just dive and sink my teeth into this music that I had been such a big fan of,” she asserts. “Some of the older stuff was already there, and I just had to be told what part Dave wanted me to do in it. What I was doing for most of my life until I was 21, it felt so satisfying, so satiating, to have this harmonically restless, rhythmically complex and vocally demanding music that was created by someone else, just like classical music—like in performance to bring a freshness to it, as though you and the audience are experiencing it for the first time. So, it was very intense—much shorter than what sanity would have liked—but I loved it. I would arrive at the rehearsal space at noon and for three or four hours, I would be building keyboard patches and learning those parts with Dave. Then, Amber and Haley (Dekle) would arrive, and we’d spend three or four hours practicing and learning vocal lines. In the evening, it’d be the whole band, and we’d just dive into the whole songs, so it was several days of that, and once I had learned all the parts, the band just rehearsed; we had some pre-production days where we’d rehearse with full sound and a light rig, and we’d play the set over and over and then we had a show. By the end of the day, I was a poor-functioning conversationalist; I would get home after those rehearsals and just be done.”
Ultimately, though, the experience has been more than rewarding for Bell.
“If I can figure out how to move my solo work forward while continuing to play with Dirty Projectors, I will be the happiest human on the planet,” she claims.
Despite the busy schedule Bell has maintained in performing with Dirty Projectors, she’s managed to make time for a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Tom Vek.
“Tom and I go way back to MySpace,” Bell says with a laugh. “I was just a big fan of his on there, and we were both featured in the ‘All Songs Considered’ program ages ago. I sent him a message one day saying, “I love your music, and I’m going to be in London.” It was my first trip there, and he miraculously responded, even though I could have been a stalker! We just met up and hit it off, and then we stayed in touch occasionally; I saw him twice in the time. Then, Chairlift performed at The Creators Project show in Sao Paulo in August 2011, and Tom was there; I hadn’t seen him in four or five years, so we had this really joyful reunion and started playing music for each other in person, and just decided that we needed to collaborate. He gave me one track that he had finished—an instrumental track—and an idea just came really quickly for that melody; I just cut it up, changed the form and added keyboard, and we had a song; it happened pretty quickly. Every time I’m in London, I try to meet up with him, and we do some recording, sometimes we just have tea and decide it’s just better to work remotely. He’s a great musician and has a great aesthetic sensibility. We’re calling the project ‘Nothankyou’—we both decided it was a name that we liked, and we definitely have other things in the works.”
An interesting fact about that particular song, according to Bell, is that the vocal line/talk-over, “Have a little control,” is actually her with a British accent.
“I just pitch-shifted my voice down so it sounds like Tom,” she expands. “I sent him my vocal ideas and was like, ‘Here, this is your part,’ but we got so used to the pitch-shifting that when he recorded those parts as himself, they somehow didn’t have that shifted Je ne sais quoi of pitch-shifted me, so we mixed them so the zombie voice is still there. It’s definitely me trying to be Tom Vek!”
Another musical undertaking Bell avidly contributes to is remixing.
“I did a lot this past year, just trying to practice the platform of production,” she expresses.
Remixes that she has openly released include tracks by Test House, Son Lux and CHLLNGR, but there are even more that haven’t quite surfaced the public domain, yet.
“I’ve done a bunch that may not see the light of day, but they were really good practice in some surprise forms,” she notes. “I really relish the chance to rearrange things and collage them into something completely different and incorporating; I’m into recontexualizing something and how extreme you can make that. I guess it’s another branch of interpretation, which allows me to be more creative in that interpretation than just performing someone else’s music; it adds a degree of originality to it.”
In regard to her process with remixing, Bell admits that, much like her songwriting process, there is no set way in how she does it or what material she chooses to work with.
“A lot of the time, I’ll just delete all the stems except the vocal lines and see how much I can build up of my own,” she unveils. “It’s really like looking up recipes: ‘Oh, this looks good, this looks good; that’s nice. I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna get in there and really dig around in it and make it’—that’s what it is.” Bon appétit and happy listening!
Beyond continuing to tour with Dirty Projectors, Bell has yet another daunting experiment up her symphonic sleeve: a semi-classical and semi-electric piece.
“I’ve been working on it for over a year, and some parts of it I performed at a concert in 2007 in Manhattan,” she expands. “The piece is called ‘Krai,’ and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done because it’s all in Russian, it’s nine movements, and it’s through-composed, so there’s a score and there are parts; I hope to premiere it sometime in 2013, so that project is coming together slowly, but surely.”
Indubitably, Bell will only continue to succeed in whatever musical outlet she immerses in, and it’s with her eloquent contemplation, along with her dexterity, that continues to propel her to the top of the resplendent sound waves.
“I recently came across this great Nabokov quote where he says that a writer should have “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist,” she says. “I really love when something is so fully focused, so rooted in what it is that it can reach out for its cardinal opposite. Cookies taste better with salt. Huge complex symphonies work best when the listener is lead through them by a series of hooky themes. I love thinking about opposites and extremes! Maybe it’s a yin-and-yang thing, or maybe I’m trying to illustrate my desire for balance. I don’t think it’s a motto or a philosophy per se, but it’s a pretty reliable wellspring for ideas.”
For more information on the ever innovatory Bell, check out her website. She is also on Facebook and Twitter.