The start of 2020 has the majority of people looking back upon the last ten years and reflecting heavily over their lives, their relationships, the things they accomplished, the milestones they reached, the things they lost, the places where they fell short, what once was, and perhaps, what could have been. Regardless of what kind of feelings most people have about the past decade, it can be universally agreed upon that ten years is a pretty long time, during which a lot of important things can happen.
That is nearly the amount of time between the release of Mercy Bell’s first two solo albums. For a recording artist, that may seem like an eternity. It has certainly been a long journey for Bell, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter who’s migrated from Southern California to New England and through the south in order to find her footing in the world of music.
Like everyone else, the last ten years for Bell were filled with life-altering decisions, events and experiences, all of which can be heard loud and clear on her new self-titled album. Overflowing with deeply personal lyrics and moving vocal performances, Bell’s sophomore LP establishes its ground with a refined set of country-pop tunes laden with her likeness for earworm hooks. It gracefully blends multiple idioms – folk, pop and country – into a lush brand of modern Americana that is simple yet also serene.
For as polished as the album’s production is, the songs ooze with the loose energy of Nashville’s most happening dive bars, a testament to the chemistry between Bell and her backing band. Unsurprisingly, the songs are equally captivating in the acoustic format. Bell has a stunning, stop-you-in-your-tracks voice that would undoubtedly sound incredible on a live record – a trait that speaks to the power and enduring quality of the songwriting, which flourishes thanks to her unwavering honesty.
This openness deals directly with the personal growth of Bell over this recent span of her life, both inside and outside of her music. When she released her first album in 2011, Bell was still in the closet about her sexuality. Prior to making this album, her mother passed away. From times of grief and anxiety arose captivating songs loaded with introspection on what it’s like to discover your identity amid heartbreak, losing someone you love, and chasing your dreams.
“I needed an outlet and had all these songs,” she says about the new album. “It gave me something to focus on during the hardest time of my life. It gave me an anchor.”
The album is an amalgamation of Bell in every facet. From its autobiographical songs to the bright fluorescent photo on its cover, everything about the record signals a special kind of strength and confidence. Pain is an essential part of life and growth. What we choose to do with it is our choice. In that regard, Mercy Bell flies. Her voice ascends through and above her music, lending down to earth candor to both her struggles and victories in a remarkably human way.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Mercy Bell over the phone to talk more about her amazing new album, pop and country music obsessions, the therapeutic power of writing, and more. Check out their conversation below.
You have some shows lined up to kick off the new year. What else is on your schedule for early 2020?
Mercy: I’m playing a bunch of shows the next month and a half, and then the vinyl comes out, which is really exciting. I’m trying to get more into co-writing in 2020 also, but for right now, I’m just trying to ride the momentum of this album.
You released your first album nearly nine years ago. Looking in the mirror, what’s the biggest difference between then and now? Both in your life and in your work.
Mercy: Back then I was still in the closet. I wasn’t okay with being out about being gay. I didn’t know a lot about music production or even playing with a band. I had only been in college and garage band type stuff. Nowadays, I’m way more honest about who I am as a person, on record and in my personal life. I really dug in learning about songwriting craft, production and how to play with a band. A lot of personal stuff happened in between that was fodder for songs. My mom died and I went through a big heartbreak, but that’s life just going on, you know?
What’s the biggest thing you learned in setting out to gain knowledge about music production and other areas you were inexperienced in?
Mercy: I spent a lot of time trying to outsource, like find the person who would be my magical producer. I had to learn how to trust myself and stop waiting for someone to do it for me. That doesn’t mean not collaborating or taking constructive criticism, but it was really about getting the people you trust and if they think something is off, they’re usually correct about that. I had to learn to be selective with who I work with on a lot of levels.
The fact that you self-titled this record couldn’t be more perfect. Not only is it an introduction to you and your music, it obviously comes from a deeply personal place. Can you sum up your feelings in seeing this project go from its creation to being finished and released for people to listen to and absorb?
Mercy: We started making it right after my mom died. I needed an outlet and I had all these songs. My bandmates said, ‘Why don’t we make an album?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t have any money, you guys don’t have any money, who’s going to pay for it?’ But we just started to rehearse it, sync up arrangements and book studio time. It took a couple years to get it out, but it gave me something to focus on during the hardest time of my life. It gave me an anchor. It was really fun to take these songs that had been floating around for a decade, looking at them and saying ‘How do I want this song to sound for this?’ If I was going to have something with my name on it, I wanted it to represent me as a person.
It’s funny to realize that the people you’re going out and hanging out with are also incredibly talented. It never felt sterile or transactional. It felt like I was hanging out with my friends the entire time, because I was.
Your lyrics are quite upfront and autobiographical. Why is it important for you to embrace the ups and downs of life within your art?
Mercy: I grew up a super-striver, trying to get straight A’s and be the golden child. I realized nobody is perfect and that I was going to mess up eventually. Then I realized I was gay and was like, there goes that, since I grew up a very devout catholic. My parents were great, it was just my own mental blockage. Holding on that tightly makes you go crazy. My first foray into any kind of creativity was writing. The more I would study it [writing], the more it was like ‘You have to be real,’ you know? Putting that feeling into writing is incredibly therapeutic.
You worked with an impressive team of musicians to make this record. What was it like having that kind of creative space to flesh out and perfect your songs?
Mercy: I felt so lucky, because a lot of us met just through going out to bars, playing shows or through friends. When it came time to make the album, people really stepped up. Larissa Maestro, who did the strings, is a genius. She works with everybody in town. We bonded over the fact we were both Filipino and we would have these cooking parties over at our houses. It always just felt like a hang. It’s funny to realize that the people you’re going out and hanging out with are also incredibly talented. It never felt sterile or transactional. It felt like I was hanging out with my friends the entire time, because I was.
With this record, you’ve taken a significant step forward in terms of putting yourself out there as a serious recording artist – what better place to be for that than Nashville? How has being immersed in that environment impacted you on a professional scale?
Mercy: The thing about Nashville is you can really see the difference between if you take it seriously, things can happen, and it’s not magic or luck. It’s hard work and practice and getting noticed. I moved here and realized this is a business. I kind of felt like I was in grad school for music. There’s just a seriousness to the work ethic that people have here that’s contagious, if that’s what you want. Some people don’t, they just want to be discovered and I don’t think that happens. I think you work and things open up for you. I heard somebody on the radio the other day say it’s a mixture of hard work and serendipity – that’s basically it. I really related to that.
It’s impossible to talk about Nashville without talking about country. What’s your backstory with country music? What made you fall in love with it?
Mercy: I was raised in a very multicultural house. There was a lot of different kinds of music. The ’90s were alive and well, there was always pop music. My grandfather was always playing and singing old school country. When I heard the Dixie Chicks, I became obsessed. Wide Open Spaces came out and I was hooked. It reminded be of my granddaddy. I remember latching onto Lee Ann Womack, Shania Twain and Martina McBride. From there, it kind of spread. That late ’90s and early 2000s country really hooked me. I always felt like there was something about country music that was very truth telling – you know, “three chords and the truth.” When I moved to New York, it was the height of MGMT, The Black Keys, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was trying to find people to teach me how to write more of a country song as opposed to this indie rock way of writing, which isn’t better or worse, just different. The people who were teaching me everything were all coming out of Nashville. I started learning how to write a song from there, to which there’s a formula: start with the hook, get to the hook as fast as you can, have enough of a difference between the hook and the chorus where it keeps people awake. Have really out there lyrics, specific and straight to the point. I latched onto that. Now I apply it to different concepts. I’m not talking about Ford pickup trucks. I’ll use that formula to talk about having bipolar disorder, that’s pretty much my shtick.
You’ve spoken on how much you love pop music and song structure, and your writing admirably reflects that. What is it about pop stylings that grab you the most? What drives that to be a focal point in your music?
Mercy: I feel like catchiness is a superpower. People poo-poo it, as if it’s a bad thing. There’s moments when a good hook can make your day better. I’ve always been obsessed with chasing the earworm. There’s a certain level of letting go you have to do to be in the flow and catch that kind of a hook. There’s an element of sheer abandonment to it.
What does that hitting that “flow” in your writing feel like?
Mercy: It really feels like letting go of control. It’s where I get out of my own way, because I’m my biggest enemy in these situations. There’s an element of surrender and improvisation that has to happen, but with knowing certain rules. If I give myself a couple constraints and then improvise within those, a great song will come out of that, almost always. It can be anything: a theme, a style, ‘You have 45 minutes to write this’ or someone saying, ‘Help, I need a song!’ That’s how I wrote “Bent.” I had 24 hours to write that song. I didn’t even have an instrument, I just had it in my head and it all came out.
I really enjoyed your set in L.A. last month. The songs sounded great live and really gave your voice the space to shine and take center stage. Looking ahead, would you ever consider doing an acoustic record? What about a live album?
Mercy: Oh, absolutely. If I could release a completely acoustic album or something super rustic, I would love to do that. Then I would probably want to put out a disco album right after (laughs). I’ve been writing some songs that are kind of Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell style, very stripped. Maybe my next one will be very acoustic. There’s still a couple songs on the old album I want to redo with a “Nashville vibe” and my current band. We’ve done a couple of promo spots where we get recorded live and it’s so fun. Now that I have more confidence in myself and a band that knows what they’re doing and we’re all gelled, that would be really fun.
What do you want listeners to take away from your album?
Mercy: I just want them to feel their feelings. For real. That’s why I wrote this stuff, to not feel so alone and by myself. Every time somebody comes up to me and is like, ‘I felt that. I know what you’re talking about, I’ve been through that,’ my job is done. That is my favorite compliment, next to, ‘I can’t get this song out of my head,’ but you can’t force that on people. If I can get people to listen to the lyrics and the emotion behind the songs, I think my job is done.