Olga Bell is an American singer-songwriter, composer, and producer based in Brooklyn. At home in a wide range of musical settings, Bell has worked with composers Osvaldo Golijov and Philip Glass, soprano Dawn Upshaw, the rap group Das Racist, members of the St. Petersburg, Tokyo, and Juilliard string quartets, and the data artist Zachary Lieberman. Bell’s festival appearances include Banff, Norfolk, Aspen, and SXSW. In New York, she’s played uptown at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, downtown at the Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom, and over in Brooklyn at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. She is a graduate of the New England Conservatory and a recipient of the 2011 Composer’s Forum JFund grant. Both live and on record, Bell’s performances have landed consistent critical acclaim and wildly varied description: “Ethereal”—Pitchfork; “a powerful advocate”—The New York Times; “lustrous”—Consequence of Sound; and “…electronic face-punch”—Ninjatronics.
This lady is intense and full of energy, just like her music. With a background in classical piano and a love for everything electronic, Bell’s music is her own confection—a world of layered beats, swirling synth textures, and sometimes poppy, sometimes haunting, but always beautiful vocals. We can’t believe she never considered singing professionally!—more about that in the interview. Olga, who was born in Moscow and raised in Alaska, shared with us about the years she spent studying classical piano, the risk she took in branching out into new musical territory, her brief dream of being an MTV news anchor, why she’s not yet satisfied creatively, and her hopes for the future. Thanks, Olga! We can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Interview date: May 23, 2012
Describe your path to becoming a musician.
I think I always knew—there was no question that I would always do music. When we lived in Moscow, my mother used to take me to the ballet; she says I would come home singing snippets of the score. I started studying music when I was five and two years later, when we moved to the States, we found this amazing piano teacher who had also just moved from Moscow. I studied with her for the next ten years until I went to school in Boston.
In college, at the New England Conservatory, I studied very intensely with a few wonderful pianists but it was this one off-major jazz ear training course that started me down the path to the kind of music I do now. The professor made us listen so closely to a few of his favorite recordings: Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis. For our weekly assignments, we had to record our own vocal renditions of the solos to tape, no matter our singing ability—even if we weren’t really singers, which I wasn’t at the time. I was a piano major.
When I finished school in 2005, I moved directly to New York, got an Apple computer, and started messing around in GarageBand. I love that all Macs come standard with that program! It seems like lots of people start tracking and programming with it—for better or worse. Maybe I would have been better off if I had begun with a band in a garage, but whatever. Now I do a lot more work at the computer than anything else—that’s my path so far!
Have you always just done music or have you done other things as well?
I’ve mostly focused on music. Growing up, it was pretty intense piano study. I guess the closest thing apart from piano would be some acting that I did as a kid. I was in a couple of commercials. I also did a little acting on the side when I lived in Boston, but I’ve never done it seriously, I always just do voices and accents with my friends. I’m either sort of introverted or a huge ham—very rarely in between.
Where did you grow up and was creativity a part of your childhood?
I was born in Moscow and I moved to the States when I was seven. My mom was always extremely supportive of everything I was doing, especially the music. She took me to piano lessons several times a week, shuttled me to recitals, and lots of competitions—I think it was all very nerve-wracking for her! I also did some composing as a kid, which I’m very happy to be doing again now. My mom and my step-father, who joined our family when I was 10, have always been supportive, I’m very lucky because they’ve never given me grief about not having a “real” job.
When we lived in Russia, my mother worked for Radio Moscow and sometimes she took me to work! I heard so many different things there, from the BBC to her weekly folk music show, which I loved. When we moved to Anchorage, she starting working in a different field, but there were always art books and music and lots of wonderful stimulus around our house.
Have you had any “aha” moments along the way?
I sort of had a reckoning moment after I finished at the conservatory. I was all set to go get a Master’s in piano performance and then I suddenly thought, “Stop! Stop the train!” I wanted to sing; I wanted to make beats and write songs. I had too many questions about all the other music that I loved to decide to only focus on piano for the rest of my life.
In my last year of school, I had a wonderful teacher, Patricia Zander, who told me that everybody needs to come to terms with their “wiring”. She gave me the courage to defer grad school to go to New York for a year and try some other things—acting, theater music, pop music, songwriting. I mean, I love classical music and I think piano practice is a tremendous meditation, but it demands a lot of time and a very single-minded focus. Most of the music I listened to for fun, especially when I was younger, was not classical music. In the back of my mind I always thought, “I can do this. I want to do this. I want this palette of synths and drums and things, but I have to do my serious work. My job is being a pianist and I shouldn’t dabble.” So that was an “aha” moment—out of school, off the rails!
Also, I vividly remember discovering Aphex Twin, one of my artistic heroes. It was his double disc album, Drukqs, and it completely rearranged my brain. I was a freshman at the conservatory and was studying and practicing more than I ever had in my life and in the evenings, I would go running through Boston. Even though I was usually exhausted by the end of the day, the combination of his music and the dense urban setting flying by made me feel amazing, like I was in a video game. That was the moment I fell in love with really crazy electronic music.
Did you dive right into playing music once you moved to New York?
Yes! When I first got to NYC, I worked for a theater production company playing lots of auditions and a few shows. Then there was a moment when I wanted very badly to be an MTV News anchor; somehow, through a friend of a friend of a friend, I found myself in the building having an interview with Ocean McAdams, telling him I wanted to be the next Serena Altschul. I thought MTV News would be a dream job, just completely magical and wonderful. I don’t know what I was expecting, but as we talked I thought, “Wow. It’s an office; it’s a job.” The interview went well, but I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing now.
I did go to some castings in NY as well, but then I realized that this city is full of people who have been doing acting the way I’ve been doing music all my life, and I really shouldn’t mess with that (laughing). I think it would be really fun to do someday, like Carrie Brownstein did—I admire her tremendously. Maybe someday it’ll be possible for me to artfully transition into acting, but first I have to get really good at one thing.
“All anybody can really express comes from their own existence. Successful art… is something that moves a lot of people at once; in that sense, it would be bigger than the individual who made it.”
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Yes! Foremost is Svetlana Velichko, my amazing piano teacher who still lives in Anchorage. She’s a consummate musician, and she was an amazing teacher—incredibly nurturing and stern at the same time. She studied with Samuel Feinberg, who was friends with the composer, Scriabin; she premiered some of his piano music and I’ve always felt very proud to be musically related to Scriabin. When I veered away from classical music, I was mortified with the thought of having somehow let her down. After a year in New York, I finally built up the gumption to show her some of my demos and she liked them! She was really open to the music—phew!
I’ve always thought that teaching should be less didactic and more about encouragement. My favorite teachers were those who helped me to do good work on my own, like a gardener just helping things to grow. More than anything else, Svetlana taught me to listen and to be fully aware of the sounds coming in and the sounds going out.
How long did you study with her?
I formally studied with her from age 7 to age 17. She taught me the absolute basics of playing the piano and after ten years, I was playing concertos and she was coaching me on how to be a soloist with an orchestra, how to listen for balance in a hall, and how to navigate the structures of large-scale works. So, she really is an amazing teacher and we’re still very close.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward? Was it when you left the conservatory to move to New York?
Yeah, it was when I finished school. I remember feeling insane, calling my mom and then my best friend in Seattle and blubbering to them over the phone, like, “Am I derailing everything?!?” Sometimes it still feels that way, but maybe that’s a useful feeling.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I hope that my music or my output or catalogue has that cumulative effect—and that it’s genuine and rigorous, but how do you know when something is bigger than yourself? All anybody can really express comes from their own existence. Successful art, as I see it, is something that moves a lot of people at once; in that sense, it would be bigger than the individual who made it. I’d say say it’s more a compulsion than a responsibility.
Are you satisfied creatively?
Sometimes. I know I still have a lot to learn. I am satisfied with my perception of music, with my ears. Do you guys know that thing that Ira Glass1 talks about? Where you start out and you know your taste is really good, but your ability needs to catch up to that taste? I feel like I’m still in the phase where I need to put in that work. Maybe it’s a feeling that should always be there, or maybe it’s me catching up because I was never in bands growing up. I didn’t drop out of school or do anything crazy; I went to school, got good grades, and dutifully practiced the piano. I do feel satisfied creatively with the future, if that makes any sense? I know I have a lot of work to do, but I know I can do good work.
Do you have any thoughts about where you’d like to be in 5 to 10 years?
Well, I’ve always thought it would be great to be very successful as an artist because then you could put on a huge, beautiful live show. I only went to a few big concerts growing up, but each one was totally glorious and that made a powerful impression on me. Also, it would be great to have the clout and resources to make whatever kind of record you want and to collaborate with whoever you want or need! Scoring some movies? Curating a festival??? I just want to be really busy.
What are your thoughts about the pressures that go along with becoming really popular?
I just look at artists like Bjork and Radiohead. They’re relatively huge, yet they’re autonomous and forward-thinking; they seem to have a lot of creative control and I want that! I would love to make music videos with huge production value: dancing and lights and all of a sudden you’re on an island and then there’s a brontosaurus (laughing). All of that takes money.
Or, you’re on a boat?
I’m on a BOAT!
When you’re big, remember us.
I’ll put an alert in my calendar.
But truly, I’m really excited about the work. At this juncture, I feel like I could make music to go in so many different directions. I make new demos all the time. I’m writing a semi-classical piece now and I’m making a whole bunch of rap beats that I’m going to pitch to my rap heroes one day. I sometimes get to play in my friends’ bands, which is wonderful. I feel like things are rising to another level—it’s exciting!
Very cool. If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be?
I would have learned to play the guitar! Or the cello, or the clarinet, or the bass. And sometimes I read about these sixteen-year-old bedroom producers and it makes me wish I’d been teaching myself songwriting and production sooner than my 20’s.
You said that you didn’t sing growing up. You had never considered singing?
I never considered singing professionally. I sang in an honors choir in junior high, but I never did any musicals in high school because it was all about piano.
At NEC, I worked as an accompanist for a few vocal studios, which got me in on a lot of voice lessons for free. Also at NEC, I somehow got into the graduate chamber choir. The ensemble was only four on a part and the conductor was Simon Carrington, who founded the King’s Singers. That experience made a huge impact on me. We did everything from Takemitsu to Spanish Renaissance works. Suddenly, I was a soprano when I never thought I would be a singer. Now, whenever someone introduces me as a singer, I always pipe up and say, “I also play the piano! And produce!” So, even to this day, I see myself as an instrumentalist first.
If you could give a piece of advice to another musician starting out, what would it be?
Oh, man. I feel like I’m not seasoned enough to answer this. I don’t want to lead anyone astray! I guess—and this is for me too—just to be really prolific; get your 10,000 hours of work in2 and make things everyday, as much as you can. To get to the really good stuff, you have to get everything else out of the way.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
Well, New York is the best! And Brooklyn is a very fertile corner of it. There’s always so much going on and so many incredibly talented and accomplished people to inspire you to work harder. Somebody’s there working while you’re sleeping, right?
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Yeah. It is important to me, although I am really curious to see what would happen if I were to write in a completely opposite setting. I don’t have any specific plans for this yet, but I do hope that someday soon I can go away to work in a really remote studio. Maybe I’ll go to the desert of New Mexico.
[Tina] I’ve been wanting to visit the Joshua Tree National Park and rent a house totally off the grid in the desert, just for a week to see what happens.
Yes! I think it would be so good to have an existence where you don’t wake up and look at your phone first thing in the morning.
That brings us to the next question. What does a typical day look like for you?
Well, I wake up and sometimes I’ll do something really terrific like go for a run or go to a yoga class. I love working out in the morning, but it’s hard to keep up. Then there’s a period of technological drainage—emails and etcetera—followed by some more tangible computer work with five or six hours in Ableton, the program I use to make music. I try to play piano when I can and sometimes I cook. My days vary, but the majority of my day involves writing or recording or playing something. I’m really lucky to have a piano at home and a practice space in South Williamsburg where I keep keyboards and pedals.
Do you have a current album on repeat?
I just got into this record called Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat by Charanjit Singh. It’s from the early 80’s; it’s totally manic and insane! Every track starts with a disco beat—pretty much the same beat for the entire album—and then a little mono synth comes in and starts spinning out these crazy lines in specific Indian scales—ragas. It’s basically an entire album of noodling, but it’s sooo good!
I typically listen on the extreme ends of the musical spectrum. I love renaissance music; I love weird electronic music; and I also love huge pop hits. Anything that’s rigorous, I guess—and very little in the middle.
Any favorite movies or TV shows?
I don’t own a TV, but every now and then I love to watch The Office on Hulu.
Do you have a favorite book?
Probably The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
What’s your favorite food?
I have lots. Have you guys had the soup dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai?
Oh, you just got here. It’s a New York institution. You have to try it! I also like sushi; I could eat my weight in mackerel.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
Oh no (laughing)! Legacy, with a capital L? I don’t know! I try not to think about that and just do good work. I guess I’d want to be remembered as someone who was curious, rigorous, prolific, and everywhere at once.
“…be really prolific… make things everyday, as much as you can. To get to the really good stuff, you have to get everything else out of the way.”