Prior to the pandemic, New York-based artist Karen Bella was performing eight to ten shows a week, including the well-known venues of The Bitter End, The Landmark Theater in Port Washington, the Great South Bay Music Festival, and the Philadelphia Music Festival. Continuing to write, record, and release an album while playing shows, she earned a VIP audition for NBC’s The Voice and has been an endorsed artist of Fishman since 2019.
Searching for recording sessions at age nine and songwriting by age 12, elementary school was when Bella first started studying music. Her debut album, Ordinary Girl, was released in 2013 after she graduated college, marking her pursuit of music full-time. Growing up on a multitude of genres, her love of folk, country, pop, R&B, and rock all make their way into her songwriting.
Set to release her six-song EP, Karen Bella, in March of 2020, she premiered the songs at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC, but the pandemic hit the day after.
After the performance, she suffered from a broken wrist which required surgery and months of therapy, just before she contracted the virus herself. Instead of promoting the album, she decided to put her health as a priority and focus on getting better.
Now in 2021, Bella is eager to release her EP, which is officially slated for March 13th. She describes the project as “transcending genres and symbolic relationships, inviting listeners to take a journey through triumph and tribulations, wonderment and weariness and, most of all, love and hatred.”
Produced by Josh Dion of Paris Monster, engineered by Grammy-nominated Jake Lummus, mastered by Nate Woods, and featuring esteemed musicians such as Teddy Kumpel, Geoff Kraly, Chris Parker, and Ryan Scott, an authentic, timeless, and dreamy sound permeates throughout the album.
Songs like “Jack Honey” starts off smooth and then rolls right into pure rock, while “Indio” brings more of a relaxing and tropical feel. “Needle in the Hay” is chill and gentle, with lyrics like, “I never wanna leave the past behind, I just wanna be one of your kind/I wanna feel your arms melt into mine, don’t beat around the bush and waste our time”. Although at times free and airy, the album takes twists and turns with details of traumatic relationships and substance abuse. Even with different messages, the songs still flow right into each other and work to create a cohesive sound.
We had the chance to chat with Bella about the new EP and more.
Is there a common theme that inspired the collection of songs on your upcoming EP, Karen Bella?
That’s a great question. Initially, when I was collecting the songs together for the project, I wanted each song to be singularly strong as well as collectively strong. This record definitely has some genre versatility while maintaining a dreamy and timeless vibe throughout each tune. We all have many different sides to ourselves; therefore I wanted a bilateral theme to this EP. The album artwork, designed by Elizabeth Lauren West, represents that as well.Some songs are gritty and raw. Some are sweet and free.
What was the process like of working with Josh Dion, who produced this project, and how did you get connected with him?
Working with Josh was an incredible and inspirational experience.
We met at a Funk Jam at Lagond Music School, where he was the special guest. I thought he was one of the most talented and humble drummers I’ve ever seen live. After meeting him, I knew that I wanted to work with him so I asked him to play drums on a few tunes for the EP (that I was self-producing at the time). It was rather clear in that first session that he was naturally producing the songs – even though he was just supposed to play drums initially. It was at that moment that I knew he was the perfect producer for this. It was so organic. The creative process went smoothly and felt more fun than anything.
He definitely put in a lot of time and effort to make sure that each song’s beauty was expressed sonically. He brought such talented musicians to play on this record; some of whom became good friends of mine including Teddy Kumpel.
In your song, “Needle in the Hay”, there is a lyric that says, “But nothing hurts as much as when I hear your name”. Do you typically draw from personal experiences and emotions, or more just relatable storytelling?
Ah yes, sometimes the pain of someone’s name hurts more than anything. That’s still something I experience. Typically, I do draw my inspiration from my personal experiences. It’s as though each song is a chapter of that moment in my life. My feelings and my perspectives are, of course, a creative process. For example, a writer may use similes, metaphors, freedom of poetic justice and freedom of self-expression. With that, I also do write from pure imagination. “Indio,” the second track on Karen Bella, was my desire to just pack a bag and drive out to Indio, CA – the city of music festivals. It’s funny, this melody played over and over in my head with lyrics: “Today I wanna go to Indio.” I had no clue what or where Indio was. So, I looked it up and saw it was the city of music festivals! It’s rather ethereal actually. In my experiences, I relate to my songwriting as being a conduit; like a fax machine. The melody or idea gets sent to you from wherever it comes from.
Even though you put your latest EP on hold for a year, how long was it in the making?
The project began in August 2018 and finished in the beginning of January 2020. There was a lot of down time in between recording, editing and mixing due to busy schedules but it also allowed time to make sure everyone was happy with everything. I believe in taking you time with creative projects. At the end of 2019, the release date and performance was set and booked for March 13th, 2020 (the day after my birthday), which no one would have predicted that that would be one of the last live NYC performances with an actual audience before global lockdown.
How did you cope emotionally after your last performance in 2020, and were you able to get any songwriting out of it?
Well, right after the performance, I was flying high because that night was almost cancelled. At the time, we as the world, didn’t know how long this virus would defer live performances and/or regular life as we know it. I did celebrate at home post-show and thought… ‘now what?’. Looking back now, I’m so grateful to have performed my original music, including the songs off my EP, on stage in front of an audience of brave fans with a full band that included, Josh Dion, Teddy Kumpel and Brian Killeen at Rockwood Music Hall. It was a true birthday gift.
The next few months, I did experience depression and a feeling of failure, which included fear because I wasn’t working for months. Performing has been my full-time gig since February of 2018. And this pandemic really tested me. The promotion of the EP was delayed and I tried not to make the record too public because I felt it was selfish to ask people to buy my music while the world has been turned upside down. I relied on my financial cushion for a few months – and that was hard.
Finally, the pandemic unemployment kicked in. During this period, I tried to be physically active and spend a lot of ‘me’ time. It made me realize what I want in life and what I don’t want. This also made me understand that if I want to get through this, I must adapt and made it work.
In June of 2020, there was a rebirth of outdoor live music on Long Island; and it felt good to perform again. Then, in early August of 2020, I fell and broke my left wrist. The radial bone was fractured which resulted in an internal plate fixation surgery. Though I am bionic now but a titanium plate, along with physical therapy and some time, I was able to play my guitar at gigs again by mid-October 2020. That temporary setback brought about great emotional distress on top of the existing panic of this pandemic. Several songs were written during 2020 which expressed the trauma that I was going through.
On December 31st 2020, while I was battling the virus myself, and I managed to write a song about the loss of my father, who had passed away four years prior to the date. When you get sick yourself, if makes you question views on mortality. I am thankful to have survived the virus and am hoping to record some of these new tunes within the next year or so.
While it may be like choosing a favorite child, do you have a song from the EP that’s closest to your heart or perhaps you’re most excited for fans to hear?
That’s 100 percent right! Choosing your favorite song from your own record is like choosing your favorite child. Each song has its own special place in my heart so I cannot have a favorite, but I’ll say that I’m most excited for people to hear “Jack Honey” because that tune is just so much fun!
Thanks for such great questions!