Olga Bell , a classically trained, Brooklyn-based musician, calls her efforts to craft vibrant experimental pop laced with electronics “wonderfully breezy” compared to the years she spent in conservatory.
“Being in a band, and getting to play and sing and write pop songs, growing up it always seemed so awesome, but unattainable,” she says, brimming with excitement as she talks about Bell, the musical project that bears her name, at a Williamsburg coffee shop. “It always to me seemed like the world of fun. And classical piano was like the world of work. And it was good work. And it was what I did… But it just seemed like over there, people were having fun…So now I’m in fun world.”
Both lightness and lightheartedness permeate Bell’s sparkling vocals, which she layers with gorgeous keyboard lines and dense percussion bathed in effects and intermingled with samples. As someone who’s relatively new to the pop world but performed complicated classical compositions for years, Bell brings an enlightened curiosity and openness to her musical exploits.This translates into unpredictable turns and kinetic energy throughout her self-titled EP, which she released last year, from the stunning highs and lows of her overdubbed, reverb-soaked voice on “The Miner” to the shimmering blasts of “Housefire.”
Though Bell began performing under her own name in 2006, her project morphed from a quartet to a duo, and then, last December, into a three-piece. Bell handles most of the singing, in addition to keyboards, samples and electronics. And she’s joined by two percussionists, Jason Nazary (of the Brooklyn avant-noise quartet Little Women) behind a drum kit and wielding a “box of electronic trickery,” and Gunnar Olsen (who’s played and recorded with numerous bands from the experimental dub-noise group Dragons of Zynth to the garage-rock revivalists in Earl Greyhound) playing Rototoms, crash cymbals and other percussion.
Bell gravitated toward electronic music versus traditional instrumentation because it represented “the unknown” and a “whole new science to learn about.”Though she originally composed all the songs herself, she’s lately been working closely with Nazary and Olsen and likens the trio’s process of arranging and rearranging various contributed snippets to constructing a sonic collage.
“It’s flowing in a more collaborative direction. I think it’s something that I’ve always really wanted,” she says, adding that this new approach is a happy departure from most of her musical background. “You know, it can be a lonely existence being a solo classical pianist.”
Born in Russia, Bell moved to Anchor age, Alaska when she was seven and started studying piano shortly thereafter, composing her first suite in her teens. But at the same time her mother was instilling in her a love of fine art, ballet and classical music, Bell was listening to everything from Radiohead to Björk and hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde.
She later studied at The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but despite having devoted more than a dozen years to classical piano, by the time she finished her program in 2005, Bell wasn’t sure she wanted to continue on that path.
“I feel that if you try really hard, and you dedicate all your energies to this, and at the end of the day you’re still questioning, and you’re still saying, ‘Well, what about this other type of music’… that’s really something to answer within yourself,” she explains.
So she moved to New York after graduation and began a soul-searching quest that eventually landed her at Sidewalk Café, the anti-folk haven, where her pop explorations drew comparisons to Regina Spektor, also a Russian-born, classically trained pianist and singer.The singer-songwriter route, however, never appealed to Bell. Instead she branched off into electronic territory. And soon her sonic resemblance to another pop singer with a powerful voice became a topic of discussion.
“I love Björk and I love her music, and I think that it’s easy to hear somebody using non-traditional rock harmonies and singing really strongly in some parts, and make a comparison,” she says. Though the Icelandic icon’s influence is clear, any mention of a similarity stands as a huge compliment to Bell’s rich, soaring vocals, and Bell takes these observations for what they are—sincere praise of her talents.
“It’s like when you’re a child, and you emulate your parents, and you rebel against that, and you kind of find a middle ground where you are perfectly comfortable acknowledging who’s influenced you but at the same time having enough confidence in your own original mojo to sail on without having any chips on your shoulders about people saying ‘You remind me of so and so,’” she explains. “And you kind of say ‘Thanks,’ and go on.”
April 27, Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St. (at Essex St.), 212-260-4700; 7, $12. Also April 28 at Monkeytown.