Performing with industry heavyweights and songwriting with some of Nashville’s finest has helped South Island singer/songwriter, Kaylee Bell, take a slice of Kiwi country to the world. But Bell is far from satisfied with the current status quo, for her own career or the general country music scene in her homeland, as she reveals to Megan Gnad.
Fresh from her second tour appearance with Keith Urban, and a game-changing opening slot for the Dixie Chicks’ NZ Mission Concert in April, Kaylee Bell’s relishing every opportunity and is thrilled by what it means for the genre here. For someone as passionate about country as Kaylee, who had to head to Australia to get her career properly started, it can’t come quickly enough.
With a heightened demand for roots music and technology changing the way people consume music, she is convinced the tide is turning and the chance to perform with people she has admired – in her own homeland – makes it all the more worthwhile.
“Keith Urban would never have come to NZ five years ago and he played to a massive crowd in Wellington. That’s pretty cool,” she says.
“I think he was quite shocked and he’s definitely coming back, he loved it. And the energy NZ gave him was massive. It went off, it was so cool.”
Following a Wellington performance with Urban during his 2016 Ripcord World Tour – where Bell hit the stage with the globally famed NZ-born country star – she instantly noticed the exposure translate to positive traction on social media.
It’s this connection with fans seeking out country music that pushes her to continue making the best music she can.
In 2014, the Waimate-raised performer won a NZ Music Awards Tui for her album, ‘Heart First’. Her latest single Getting Closer is the first offering from a new EP (or album) due later this year. The track was written during an annual trip to Nashville, with Australian country musician, Morgan Evans.
Inspiration took hold following a relationship break-up and she took the phrase and what she had learnt from the “massive life lesson” into a writing session.
“Morgan just took it and ran,” she remembers. “He’s really rhythmic in terms of writing. He comes up with cool rhythms and I’m really melody-based, I guess, so we wrote the song in about two hours in his apartment.
“Morgan did a demo and it’s funny, that song stuck with me, it’s one of the first songs I wrote on that trip and I was there for three months. Every few days I would go back and listen to it and when it came time to choosing a new single, it definitely had to be that one.
“It just summed up my life situation as well. It was very much about where I was at the time, but I wanted to turn it into an empowerment song. I think that was my biggest thing, because it came from something very negative, but I like to look positively at life, so I really wanted to come in from that angle.”
Evans has been a friend ever since Bell first moved to Australia at just 22. She played her very first gig in Western Australia with him and ever since has opened for his album launches around Australia, and toured as his support act. They also share a band across the pond, and he joined Bell in opening for the Dixie Chicks, alongside Avalanche City.
The opportunity was mind-blowing for the artist, who has been playing country music since the age of four – despite the fact it wasn’t always at the top of her friends’ playlists.
“Country wasn’t the cool thing to do when you were a kid, it’s crazy,” she laughs. “I played sport and I was a normal kid at school, you know, as considered in NZ. I played netball and basketball and tennis, and did all that stuff, but then that [country music] was always the thing on the side that friends didn’t actually know about.
“It’s something that I never could let go of. It’s always fulfilled me in a different way to sport and all that. When I felt normal and whole was when I was away doing music.”
Kaylee started learning guitar when she was eight and began songwriting at 14, but access to the genre that would change her life, still proved a challenge.
“It is weird because country music was actually really hard to get in the South Island,” she smiles.
“My granddad used to get Readers’ Digest compilation CDs with like, The Road to Tamworth and something about Nashville, so you’d get a mixture. And then, every holidays, we’d go to Christchurch and we were allowed to get a CD, so it was like LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks…
“It’s amazing we sung country, because it was all we could get our hands on to access. You kind of grew up listening to talent quests and what other kids sung, that’s kind of what we were inspired by, which sounds weird!”
She enrolled at NASDA, the performing arts school in Christchurch, and despite its musical theatre focus knew it was part of helping her performance evolve.
Three years later she moved to Bathurst and joined the Australian circuit, regularly playing CMC Rocks, The Gympie Music Muster, Tamworth Country Music Festival and collaborating with other artists.
This led to annual Nashville trips where she feels she found her feet, her musical tribe, and began earning her international stripes in writings rooms and performance venues.
She says that the very first time she arrived at Nashville’s international airport she felt she had arrived home.
“You can’t help but be inspired,” she reflects. “You’re constantly getting new song ideas, you’re going to songwriting gigs, and you’re around it the whole time – which I think naturally puts a pressure on to step up.
“I know any time I’ve been there, I’ve written some of the best songs. And I know it’s one of those things, if you base yourself there you can only get better, because you’re surrounded by it, but it’s interesting to see how it’s treated so much as a business.
“Here, it’s such a hobby, and to tell someone here you’re a songwriter, you almost get laughed at, but in Nashville it’s like that’s just the norm and what everyone’s working towards.”
Spending such valuable time in Music City – and learning from the very best in the business – has changed her approach to songwriting. With many of the songwriters she works with, undertaking up to three songwriting sessions a day, there’s a healthy pressure to perform, so she had to make sure she came well-prepared with material to kick-start the creative process.
“It’s a matter of going through your backlog and finding ideas you’ve had in moments of real inspiration,” Kaylee explains. “It’s kind of a rule in Nashville; you’ve got to have an idea of some sort.
“I used to think you had to go to song writes with a song half-written, but you’re actually better to have a line or a really cool concept, so if you kind of look at it like that, it’s a lot easier to get your head round.”
She’s also been part of Nashville song hubs with LA writers, providing the opportunity to work with the guys from Hot Chelle Rae, and closer to home, a song hub in Auckland where she was able to work with Emily Warren who has written for The Chainsmokers.
The reception of Getting Closer – her most personal song to date – has, she says, helped her realise the need to be as honest as possible in her music.
“It’s made me so aware of how important it is to really believe in what you’re saying and really connect,” she said.
“That’s been a massive lesson for me, to be honest, in my writing. It’s scary, but I think that’s changed things a lot for the direction.”
Learning directly from country stars at the top of their game has also provided Kaylee with a unique insight into what makes other artists tick. She now hopes to create a following both here and overseas and to see country receive the recognition it deserves.
“One thing I would love to change in NZ is the attitude towards country. People can’t like something they haven’t heard, and that’s why I really want to work hard and try and break some doors down and hopefully get some songs on radio and hopefully help the next generation, because there is so much talent in this country.
“It’s something that will take some time, but we are on the way to making it become a thing here, too.”
Bell is planning to tour Australasia in 2017, kicking off with a NZ summer tour and opening for The McClymonts on their 2017 tour, across Australia.
Her upcoming new single, Next Somebody, written with Brooke McClymont, has received NZ On Air funding, and looks set to be released late April.
“I don’t operate without music. I’m always thinking about it or talking about it, or writing it and I remember country music; the lyrics and the stories, they affect me. I’ve always felt I’ve learnt a lot about life just through country songs.”