By Mark Kirby,
The best thing about singer songwriters who work the margins of the anti folk and indie rock worlds are that the voice and vision of the artist can dress up in different styles and dance about various genres of music, confounding the strait jacketed ears and identities of marketing people and the Geeks whose tastes conform to their niches. Mariana Bell is one of these artists and, goddamn it, we need more of them. On her 5-song self titled EP, she weaves together musical elements as similar and diverse as indie rock, anti folk, and whatever you call the electro-tinged music that Fiona Apple and Bjork create.
Mariana blends this eclectic mix of music as honestly and naturally as she sings. As a young girl of six she began singing actual songs. “Some of my earliest memories of singing were all over the map. In school choir, we sang standard songs, hymns, Christmas music, nothing too interesting, but I remember loving being in the alto section, harmonizing to everything. I grew up around heaps of sea shanties and old civil war songs, having been dear friends with Bill Schustick since I could walk. As cliche as it sounds, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is the first!”
Mariana Bell was also exposed to different types of music in her home life. “My mom listened to Joan Baez in the car. In fact, her version of ‘Imagine’ was the first one I ever heard, so you can imagine my surprise to find out it was written by John Lennon! I had a baby-sitter who listened to Morrisey and The Smiths while driving us to school. My family went to musicals, everything from Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Weber is ingrained in me, like it or not. My dad and I would play Paul McCartney songs together, later I got into Dave Matthew’s Band, since he was around Virginia (where we lived).”
In junior high school, she started singing in the school choirs. Singing in these groups was fun and exciting for young Ms. Bell. This is even more impressive since she could barely read music. “In the alto section, I would stand next to very good singers and feel intimidated,” she said, “which forced me to listen and learn my part on first hearing. To this day I could sing you the entire alto section of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ from memory.” While enjoying this experience, like any normal teen age gal, she wanted to rock out with her favorite tunes.
[Kirby] When did you start doing your own music?
[Mariana Bell] Around sophomore year of high school, I kept bugging my best friend Blake to play for me at open mic nights. After the 12th night of backing me up in another Dave Matthews’ cover, he sweetly suggested “Why don’t you just learn to play yourself?” I wrote my first song to my boyfriend at the time. After all, puppy love compels us to do strange things.
Mariana Bell’s songs are certainly not about puppy love or the crass feelings expressed in most of today’s so-called love songs. But the love song is the occupational hazzard of the singer-songwriter and, thankfully, this hazzard she navigates very well.
The song “Scene from the Movie” is a mature, off-kilter take on the breakup scenario: “It’s that scene from the movie where the girl is in the phone booth crying/And the boy gets off the plane and comes back to her . . . But movies aren’t real life are they? No one is saved like that/ No, movies aren’t real life are they? ‘Cause then everyone would know how to act . . . ‘Cause then you would have known what I needed you to say/ It’s that sad circumstance where I’m the girl in the phone booth crying/And you don’t even know to come back to me.” The other songs take the same kind of off-kilter, yet distinct, look at people and life. The music is also distinct. Each song has different flavors, different settings for her voice.
The song “Clumsy” has music that starts with an acoustic guitar groove, then kicks into herky-jerky beat that is passed between plucked strings, bass, and drums, with Ms. Bell’s voice dancing back and forth off and on different notes and spaces. This perfectly sets up the song, whose first lines are: “Clumsy again, stumbling through the situation you thought you should have been walking on eggshells about / Foiled it again, ‘Cause you thought your tongue would swell up and be big enough to stop your silly mouth/ But we had our doubts” Then the music snaps into a country-tinged rock groove on the chorus: “And if you need a harbor for your blame aim your bowsprit for shore / And you think if you’re a martyr maybe the sea would let you go/ but she won’t let you go.” Throughout this song, and the other three, are great melodies and hooks that recall classic pop and song writing.
“Vietnam” further illustrates the width of her musical pallette. It starts out with low sonic grumbles and flighty Kalimba (African thumb piano). Her voice floats through the sonic atmosphere. The guitar and drums come in as pure rock color. The explosion dissipates, then the sounds coalesce into heart beat electro percussion beats, drones, and rhythmic angelic vocalizations in the background as she sings: “The politics of glamour see us / Through the weight of what is heinous / That is the dearth of your pursuit/ But that is not what I would choose if I were you/ Still I think it’s in my head, in my head/ I got it wrong / And what did the system make you do / You’d never dare ask for help / I’m afraid the onus lies with you . . .” The sound she creates is like an imaginary reunion of Ani DiFranco and her old band, King Crimson circa 1974.
[Kirby] What are your musical influences?
[Mariana Bell] I adore the great singer-songwriters, the silky voice of Shawn Colvin, the jazziness of John Mayer, the incredible independent lyrics and musicianship of Ani Difranco, the smooth sounds of Josh Rouse, the pain and truth of Fiona Apple, the politics of Joni Mitchell or Bruce Cockburn. And Bob Dylan. However, lately I have come to realize how strongly I require dynamic rhythms from the hip-hop and rock world. Nothing is better than a good beat. I am also more and more interested in the electronic stylings and arrangements of things.
[Kirby] What are the songs about?
[Mariana Bell] Of course, first and foremost, I write about my own life, the people in it, and my experiences. My take on relationships past and present are always involved in my song writing, but I try to keep the songs away from standard love-lost themes. I would not go so far as to say my lyrics are overtly political, but I get frustrated with known injustice and sing about it.
“I often place myself in other people’s shoes, imagining what they’re going through, be it the aftermath of the tsunami or the emotions of a Vietnam Veteran and his family. Most important, I do not discount the mundane, the every day, the unremarkable. Sometimes a simple sign on the subway “You are subject to search” or a homeless person can spark an entire song.”
Mariana Bell has what many people I have come across say is missing from much of the music these days – passion. Whether it’s an old jazz record, a new jazz artist, rock from the kids down the street or the Cream reunion concerts, good ole fashion honest passion is the thread running through all great music, be it primitive or mind-boggling in its sophistication. Ms. Bell has that in spades.
When asked why she plays music she spits back, “Why not?! Life is too short not to use all your senses. Music is aural, performance visual. The smell of the candles in a room of people; the feel of the warm lights on your skin; the taste of a round of drinks you bought with money from your own cd sales; that is living.”
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