“DON’T GET IT TWISTED — I’m a mess.” Emily Bell laughs from behind her iced coffee. “That’s the number one thing,” she adds. “And then we’ll go from there.”
Cueing up her mix of almost contagious confidence with just the right amount of humility, Bell possesses all the qualities of an artist on the edge of a major breakthrough. The signs are there: the independent spirit that launched her celebrated 2013 debut, In Technicolor; being picked as the No. 1 artist to watch at SXSW on Sirius XM’s “The Ron and Fez Show”; being named Best New Austin Act at the 2014 Austin Music Awards — not to mention the outside plaudits that continue to roll in.
Americana mainstay Hayes Carll says Bell will “burn up the stage and leave you begging for more.” The Houston Post compares her to vintage Tina Turner mixed with Grace Potter. Austin soul singer Nakia calls her “electric” with “the voice of a heartbroken, fallen angel.” Dusty Wright of the Huffington Post calls her “a ginger-haired flamethrower,” adding, “She’s got plenty of sass, snarl and sex appeal.”
So for a self-proclaimed mess, Bell must be doing something right.
But while she’s riding the wave of a successful debut record and soaking up “best new act” accolades, the soulful songstress feels anything but new to the music scene. “I’ve been performing my whole life,” she says.
Born into a love of music, she began playing instruments at age 5. It was a part of her family. Her uncles called themselves “the poor man’s Von Trapp family.” “I always knew,” Bell says, “that I loved my mom, my dad, my sister and music.”
Ironically, it was her pursuit of music that ultimately led her away from her family.
Bell grew up in College Station, acting and singing her way across the community theater stage. “But there was no way I was going to high school in College Station,” she says. “That was my worst nightmare.” When her dad told her of the prestigious performing arts high school in Houston, she packed up and moved away.
One of only a handful of students accepted to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts (see p. 49), Bell received a formal education complete with vocal coach, acting coach and rigid curriculum. But while she loved performing and her classmates, she didn’t really love school. “My education is extremely complicated,” she says. “I was an impatient person — I decided I wanted to graduate early.”
She finished her classes online and moved away from her friends and family for the second time in just a few short years. “It sounds sociopathic, but at the time it was very easy for me to just leave everyone I loved,” Bell explains. “I don’t think I prepared myself emotionally for it.”
Bell moved to New York to pursue an acting career; she’d already spent a summer there when she was 11 (“I landed a Nickelodeon commercial!”). She enrolled in Marymount Manhattan College to focus in theater studies. “I quickly realized it was still school, so I dropped out,” says Bell — “not that I’d encourage anybody to drop out,” she clarifies with a smile. Regrets? “No, not at all. At that time all I wanted to do was learn how to write songs and get into the recording studio.”
In many ways, the end of Bell’s formal education was just the beginning of a whole new kind of schooling. She couch-hopped around New York, making ends meet and meeting some of her first musical influences. She spent some time with a touring hip-hop artist, Monk, whom she met because “he and my sister were on the same broken-down Greyhound bus.” With him, Bell got her first taste of recording, laying down a verse on one of his tracks. “It didn’t matter what the genre was,” says Bell. “It was the most eye-opening experience.”
But eye-opening experiences don’t pay the bills. Facing homelessness, Bell returned to Houston to bartend at the eclectic club Helios (now AvantGarden). “It was a place where you just knew something was being created in this environment that would eventually be a really awesome story,” says Bell.
She quickly befriended many local musicians, including the Southern Backtones’ Hank Schyma and roots-rocker and Houston hero John Evans — who’d eventually prove to be one of the biggest players in Bell’s nascent career.
She cut her teeth by joining such artists on stage. “I remember seeing her get up and sing a song between Southern Backtones’ sets,” Evans says. “I’d known her for years but had no idea she had pipes like that.”
She worked in studios around Houston, putting together something that resembled who she thought she was as an artist — though she’ll later admit she felt too young to really know who she was. Around age 20, she caught the ear of some industry insiders who convinced her to move to L.A. “It was just me and my cat George living in a tiny little closet,” Bell recalls.
The California years were a defining time for Bell, landing somewhere between inspiring and intimidating. She dove headfirst into the R&B scene, spending years working in R&B legend Raphael Saadiq’s studio. And what did she learn? “Professionalism,” says Bell. “I got to watch Raphael rehearse his 10-piece band; I watched the way he worked. What a gift.” She recalls seeing a picture of James Brown taped to Saadiq’s console, a reminder to strive for greatness.
But while she was learning professionalism, she was also learning the bitter truth of the commercial business of music. The people who brought her to California became increasingly controlling. “They had an idea of who I needed to be,” Bell explains. “I felt almost…” She pauses. “Like a puppet.”
Years went by without any product being released. “I realized if I put this music out, I was setting the groundwork of how my career was going to be for the rest of my life,” says Bell. Her voice slows and lowers: “When girls in the industry start to believe what people tell them about who they should be, they’re whitewashing themselves — you know better than those men who tell you they know better.”
So she left.
Bell’s experiences in California could have easily crippled musicians of lesser resolve. “It’s good that happened to me when I was younger, because I felt totally invincible,” she says. “When you get older, you second-guess yourself.”
But she still carried frustrations from the West. She spent two months traveling India to clear her head before returning to Texas in 2010, back to square one. It was then that Hank Schyma recommended she get in touch with John Evans to explore a new musical relationship. Their relationship would end up much more than just musical.
“It was dynamite from the first time she pulled me off the stage and planted a kiss on me,” says Evans. “Absolute fireworks,” Bell adds. “I wasn’t even thinking about music at the time.” Eventually Bell moved to Austin and began writing, pouring out years of hope, frustration, happiness and uncertainty onto the page. Much of what she worked on, including co-writes with Evans, would turn into In Technicolor.
Bell enlisted Evans to produce the record. The pair built a studio in a family lake house and secluded themselves from the outside world for nearly two months, save for the presence of Grammy-winning engineer Steve Christensen and the band. “She’d been in a big studio in L.A. for four years,” says Evans. “She didn’t feel like she needed to be in a big studio to create a worthwhile project.”
The pair’s chemistry has a lot to do with the record’s signature sound. “It’s hard work writing and recording with your significant other,” says Bell. “Judgment is off the table, or else we would’ve broken up six months into our relationship. But it’s fun — it’s deepened our relationship.”
Bell’s lead single, “Back To The Way I Was,” is, in many ways, an amalgamation of her experiences from east to west and all the way back to Texas. “There are a lot of innuendos in these lyrics about the past,” says Bell. But the record is as much about moving forward as it is looking back.
Completely free of outside control, Bell bends genres effortlessly on In Technicolor, a liberty she compiled from her experiences in hip-hop, soul and her first true love of rock ’n’ roll. She needed that freedom. “There’s no way I was going to release this record on a label,” says Bell. With In Technicolor, Bell finally makes her statement.
And she’s already at work on her follow-up, traveling for writing sessions and exploring potential new producers. “I wish I could make a public announcement and say ‘That was just our first try,’” says Bell. But after arguably a longer education in music than she ever thought she’d get, Bell says there are moments she has to remind herself to put it all in perspective. “I step back and realize — we’re doing it,” says Bell, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re really doing it.”