Hailing from Oakland, California, Jennah Bell's stripped down and raw sound, her thoughtful lyricism, and unique fashion sensibility are hard to place. A hint of a distantly distilled deep south twang in her guitar strumming, carries her hardened lyrics through a sweet throat. The honeyed voice, coupled with saddened melodies and melancholic lyrics, will be certain to kill you softly. I was engrossed with her "Live at Mother NY" album that Okayplayer put out earlier this year, and replayed song after song the same way that I plucked through each track on Joni Mitchell's Blue back in high school, wholly ingesting each word and note. Similarly, Ms. Bell's album breaks the monotony of internet singles, and breaking news, and gives listeners a certain stillness that we didn't even know we yearned.
I met up with Jennah Bell at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to pick through some classics (her preferred reading), and some old records. With our resident photographer Seher Sikandar there to hang and also document, Jennah told us about her newfound collaborators, Charly & Margaux--the violin + viola duo who we featured a few months ago--who are her busking partners. She also expressed to us her feelings about being categorized as a folk artist, the categorization of music and human identities in general, and the need for visceral music.
You are such a thoughtful and deliberate storyteller. Do you ever fear being so vulnerable or exposed?
Yes. But I feel like when--maybe this is just me, but when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there's always an initial fear that you're going to be vulnerable, because you're going to have to work towards it in a way that you've never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I'm trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn't have to be this way. I've made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that's scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that. I'm very introverted most of the time. I like being by myself, I play well by myself, but I think that's where it balances out. I can get up there, and I can be vulnerable, and I can be quiet for a very long time too. I think that if I couldn't do that, I would be making even more of a risk of exposing my feelings in such an obvious sort of way.
What do you think the reward is?
I get to listen to myself talk, but much later, like listening to a conversation you had ten years ago, where at the time, you try to be conscious of what you are saying, but you can't hear what's coming out of your mouth. I go back and listen to songs that I wrote even five years ago, two years ago, and I can listen to where I was, and that's as invaluable as a human being trying to grow, and I think that listeners experience the same thing. You identify with a song because you know how it feels, and that same song—especially with songs that you listen to over the years—the meanings change, so you might be in that same place in a different way. Songs are just markers of growth, and I think it benefits everybody to know where they are. Since I made my passion communication, I feel like I'm able to help people to know where they are. That's a great feeling.
Regardless of your personal preference of music, you’re of the hip-hop generation. How does that identifier play into your work?
It's funny because I've been doing a “Big Poppa” [Notorious B.I.G.] cover at shows. I think that throws people off, because they're like, “you don't make music like that,” but it's the very same thing that you're saying. I'm of the hip-hop generation, and I grew up during The Blueprint [Jay-Z] era. It's very relative to how I think about rhythm and lyrics. I had a friend ask me, “how do you get better at timing in music?” I told her to take her favorite rap lyrics and learn it word for word, rhythm for rhythm, until it's not a thing and you don't think of it twice. And mine was “Big Poppa”, so I learned it word for word, rhythm for rhythm. It's like Dave Chappell who learned that Thelonius Monk song because it's relative to comedic timing.
Tell me about busking. Many people are spectators or witnesses of busking, but most people don’t understand that side of it from the perspective of the performer.
From the spectator, everyone wants to know about something, everybody wants to be a connoisseur. People like to speak from a place of knowing. So when they see me on the subway, all of a sudden they are like, "I know music. I saw Carrie Underwood on American Idol. She sings country. This girl sings country, so therefore I'm qualified to be a judge." It takes them 30 seconds to decide whether or not they are not going to tip based off of what you are singing, how you are singing, and where you are standing. These are all the very intricate parts of being a subway or street musician. It's really crazy.
Sounds like there’s a science to it.
In the morning—the people on their way to work—they don't want to hear anything too abrasive or too much talking. Charly does really well in the morning, because it's the violin—it's all very soothing. For the masses who are transitioning from waking up in the morning to going to work, voice is less conducive to that environment then being a violinist. That's when we play more instrumental stuff. I would say that in the afternoon we do better if I'm singing, and singing top 40s at that. How long have you been playing with Charly & Margaux?
For a few months now. I did it a couple of times on my own with my guitar, but I also don't have the kind of voice where I belt. Well, I can belt, but I don't really like doing it. Once you start doing it, you loose the kind of sensitivity of your talking voice. Your talking voice is at a register where you don't have to use your diaphragm, so when I'm singing in the train station, I have to become a different singer. I don't always like to get my Whitney Houston on, but you have to sing ballads or people don't get it. It's much harder to attempt to do a Joni Mitchell song at the train station than it is to sing Kelly Clarkson. I think it has a lot to do with what people “know” about vocalists from shows like American Idol and X-Factor as I mentioned before.
In our interview with Charly and Margaux, they mentioned that a passerby once said “black and so talented?” as though it was unheard of for two black women to play so well, and to play classical music at that.
You know what's sad about that? At least they said it. For instance, if you are at 59th street or above, like the Upper West Side, people give you a dollar without even listening to anything, and you can almost tell what it is out of. At least someone had the balls to walk by and say, "hi, I'm ignorant," rather than put a dollar and be like, "ah black girl playing the violin,” or “another black girl who sounds really folky." Music is still segregated like that, and black people still "can't play folk" and that's just what it is. There are still gates on those kinds of things, so it’s still crazy to people who wonder how I can play “that kind of music.”
Do you ever get the sense that people are more excited with your music because of the seeming novelty of you being a 'black girl playing folk'?
I think I confuse people most of the time. I think people like being confused. I think anything that's not inside the realm of “I know what's about to happen”, just gets people excited. And I don’t mean that I am consciously thinking, I'm black and I like folk music and country to be different.” I grew up in an environment where all of those things were accessible. A lot of times, people don't play that music because it's not accessible. Oakland is very different than a lot of places and cities in the world.
What do you mean by that?
You can go get Thai food from the Thai temple and be from the block—like straight from the block. There’s an accessibility in the way that Oakland is set up—it's just different. I grew up in a Muslim household, and went to a French Catholic school, but had mostly Jewish friends. To me, I never thought about that until I tell it to someone else, then I think to myself, what kind of environment did I actually grow up in? Who were my friends? Was it relative to an economic background? Most of it was economics actually. I didn't think about how different the Bay Area was until I moved. When did you move?
When I was 17, and then I moved to Boston, and it became very apparent that everywhere else was very different.
What brought you to Boston?
I went to Berklee College of Music.
You said earlier that people like to be confused or challenged. Right now popular music is pretty predictable and void of real risk taking. What do people actually want?
I think people do like a sense of mystery and being confused. I think at the same time, everything has its place. I don't reject music or popular culture, because it's just as relative and useful as anything else. I just think that when things are off balanced, that's when things that are left-to-center, end up coming out more to the forefront, so a lot of what I’m talking about is timing. For me it's a good time for me to do what I'm doing, not because it's so different, but because things have been one way for so long, it seems so different to everybody, but when you think about it, Richie Havens was doing this back in the 60s. I'm not really doing anything new. I study people who I admire, and try to move in that vein, but it's a lot of timing. It took three or four people before Joni Mitchell for Joni Mitchell to sound like she did, because she was ready, and time was conducive to her. Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired--naturally. It's going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it's the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water. Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
No. I don't consider myself much of anything. But I do know that folk has apparent acknowledgment of lyrics—acknowledging the writing aspect of music—and I say ‘folk’ in terms of these things. In that respect, I do think about what I am writing and that side of music, but that's as much as I think about it.
I ask this because I have no idea, but what exactly is soul music? Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, gospel is the soul of the church, jazz is the soul of the so-called "sinners". It's no different, it's just people talking about where they are from. I have an interest in where people are from so I sing all kinds of music. The problem with categorizations is like this: Corinne Bailey Rae, when she came out, she was the comparison to Tracy Chapman. After Corinne, there's Michael Kiwanuka, who's the comparison to Richie Havens (he's black and he plays guitar). And then Lianne la Havas came out, and now she's the new comparison to Corinne Bailey Rae, who's the comparison to Tracy Chapman. But what nobody thinks about, is that to take race out of that, it all becomes very very different, and then nobody is anybody except for just doing what they love. I have been told, “you're like Adele, but black." I'm like, what does that mean? That sounds like a pseudo compliment about your individuality.
Or in some cases it means you're very particular. You are set apart from “others like you”, which is even more offensive because, like I said of the whole folk music implication, it requires a whole consciousness of literature or of education. People are like "oh you're educated," like that’s something otherwise unheard of. I don't think our generation has much to say about folk music. Either you think of Appalachia--or like you mentioned before--Joni Mitchell. Those are two extreme sides of the spectrum.
Right, they are so different. If you want to make real comparisons, you would have to know a whole lot more about music, and I don't think people have as much an investment as musicians do. When I hear certain artists, like Lianne la Havas’ record and "Elusive" came on, I was just like, that's a cover of a Scott Matthews song, which I loved. His fingerprints are all over a lot of her records. You have artists of different races and different genres doing covers of each other’s work all of the time in music. What kills me is when people see me with natural hair, and they know that Solange has natural hair, so they assume that our music is just alike on that alone. I’m just like, I don’t know what you are talking about--
I don’t think they do either—
--It just comes out. It's just diarrhea of the mouth. I get this a lot from folks in the train stations, "I have this youth organization, and you can come in and just like ummmph ummmmmph" [riotous laughter]. I mean, I rarely do any ummmph ummmmmphing, but I might be able to help [shrugs]. For some reason it's always youth organizations with "minorities" or "underprivileged youth" involved, because they assume I’m underprivileged. At the end of the day, it's all some big ignorant misunderstanding.
If you want to know my story, ask me. Don't assume anything. Sounds like an interesting social experiment in the least.
Back to the earlier topic on soul music, is the only necessary requisite authenticity?
The writer in me wants to say something really corny right now. Soul music for me is when I am the least happy. When I am so reckless with my feelings that there is no filter, and most of the time when you are blissfully depressed is when you can't decide what to say. It usually shows in your face, or in your posture, or body. I've often written from those places, and haven't been able to help that I felt that way. There is no analytical aspect of my writing when I'm sad. It's just—I'm sad—and this is what's coming out. That's where my soul is the most raw. I think for soul music on a wider case or spectrum, Gospel is soul music. It's written out of passion, I should say. I have a passion for passion. When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you're working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that's the way that I think of soul. It's a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top. If you hear Ralph Stanley's "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the music are from traditional mountain hymns that fiddle players play. If you hear that song, regardless of whatever kind of music you like, you're just feel it viscerally. It's got a grip on some very deep sentiment of interpersonal or massive sadness. I don't know why people understand sadness more than they can understand happiness, but I don't really relate to happy music all the time, because it's a bit more worked on. Happiness is something that you work towards, so when lots of songwriters say they can't write when they are happy, I understand that.
words by Boyuan Gao