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Escape Velocity

Virtual Wilderness: An Interview With Olga Bell
Ed Power , May 7th, 2014 05:23

On Olga Bell's new album Krai, the Brooklyn-based composer and singer explores the imagined hinterlands of her home country of Russia. She speaks with Ed Power about childhood memories, working with Dirty Projectors and why the album is a work of sonic fiction

If you know Olga Bell only through her music, you might imagine the singer and composer to be something of a stern presence, her mind wandering landscapes somewhere far away. Born in Russia, Bell lived in Moscow until the age of seven and continues to find inspiration in her homeland – or, more specifically, in the Russia that exists in the half-fragmented dream memories of her childhood.

A sometime member of Dirty Projectors and collaborator with Tom Vek, on her new solo album, Krai, the Brooklyn-based musician investigates the concept of 'the other' in a quixotically Russian context. The title refers to a series of slightly enigmatic hinterlands, far from the avenues of Moscow and St Petersburg, and the album has a similarly otherworldly sensibility: singing in Russian, Bell's vocals are distorted and distended, couched in arrangements that veer from folk-inflected to quasi-classical. She sounds like army of sad sirens, lost in some Siberia of the mind.

As it happens, the persona she presents on record is quite at odds with the Bell you encounter in person. Her perky American accent contains no trace of her Russian lineage, and rather than grimly mulling over the dead weight of human existence, she's chatty and effusive. Reconciling her character with the brooding outsider on Krai is a struggle; far from breaking the spell, however, that contradiction merely deepens the mystery.

Given that your early childhood was spent in Moscow, was recording an album in Russian a long-time ambition?

Olga Bell: I've always been really moved by Russian music, though I should say that all I really know of Russian music is folk. I don't know anything about contemporary Russian pop. I suppose I also have an awareness of Russia's classical tradition – as a pianist I played a lot of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Generally I am deeply nostalgic about Russia and feel connected to the Russian 'soul'. However, I didn't want to make a specifically 'Russian' record until I actually made one.

You were quite young when you left for Alaska. What are your memories?

OB: I spent the first seven years of my life in Russia. We lived in Moscow, before my mother and I moved to the States in 1990. My memories of Russia are spotty – a lot are food-related. I remember the first time I had a banana. They were really special. You couldn't get them in Russia, they were like gold, an absolute treasure. Banana was the craziest taste - I think I must have been four years old when I tried one for the first time. I also remember standing in line with my mum for McDonald's to open. We must have waited for, like, two hours – the crowd outside was huge. The subways in Moscow were incredible, but scary for kids. They are very far underground, and the escalators go fast. I remember feeling crushed on the carriages, the gypsy children passing through the train. Stuff like that.

Decades later, do you continue to think of yourself as a Russian abroad?

OB: I feel very American. It's interesting, America is unique in that it is defined by being a nation of immigrants. Especially New York, where I live, that aspect of America is really in your face. It's made up of people from all over the world and I'm very proud to be part of that community. I do try to speak Russian with my mum and my piano teacher, who is like family. But we grew up mostly speaking English in our house. My stepfather is American, my step-siblings are American. But who knows? Maybe there is a yearning to reconnect with that [Russian] part of me.

Thematically, the album explores Russia's 'in-between' places, the peripheral zones outsiders don't really hear about. Each of the tracks is named after one of nine frontier regions - 'krai' in Russian.Where did the idea come from?

OB: Russia may not be very densely populated but it is vast, covering a huge terrain and an enormous number of indigenous groups – people there from the beginning, even though the Russian language has spread into all these enclaves. I don't know how it manages to be as big a country as it is. The idea for the record started with the word 'krai' – it means 'rim' but has a secondary meaning, 'hinterland' or 'wilderness'. I Googled it one day and came across this map of the nine krais of Russia. That seemed a good outline. I thought it might be fun to virtually 'travel' to these places. From that, I realised I had the bones of a piece.

It's an interesting coincidence that the album is coming out just as Russia has become a global bogeyman, initially over the oppression of gay people, and now because of its worsening relationship with Ukraine.

OB: It's a shame the actions of one person are defining the whole country. In my opinion that's bad. But that wasn't on my mind while I was making the album. What motivated me was the fact that this incredibly ancient kind of singing really stirs my blood. Politically I didn't have an agenda. It is very interesting that all of this should coincide. I can't figure out if it is timely or untimely that the record has appeared just as the actions of the Russian executive are so vilified. If there was any remotely 'political' agenda to Krai, it is that I would like to expose people to this style of music - even though it's not a work of ethnomusicology. It is definitely a work of fiction, with ties to Russian folk music.

You are classically trained, having studied at the New England Conservatory. As a composer and songwriter, has your formal background helped or hindered you?

OB: When I started writing songs – teaching myself, experimenting – I wanted to get as far away from classical piano as possible. There was certainly a bit of that coming out in my music. I didn't want to be another 'girl singing at her piano'. Don't get me wrong – there are many incredible musicians who sing and play piano. However, growing up I was motivated by people such as Radiohead and Bjork, and by hip hop – that is, people who for the most part work with electronica, and also guitars and stuff. I didn't have it in me to take up guitar and suffer through being terrible at it for a number of years until I was proficient. Wanting to work exclusively on a laptop, as I did at the beginning, was part of an attempt to redefine myself. That said, I am grateful for my classical training. Krai is fully composed and scored, very much like a piece of concert music. I am tiptoeing back into that world of fine arts.

You were rejected by the prestigious Juilliard School of music in New York. Do you think your life and career would have been very different had you gained admission?

OB: I desperately wanted to get into Juilliard. Had I been accepted, I would probably have pursued the path I initially imagined myself following. I was on the track of being a young piano prodigy. And when you follow that route you do certain things - go through competitions, give recitals, everything is very strait-laced. Which is wonderful for some people. However, my teacher at the New England Conservatory told me that you have to be honest about your 'wiring'. When you become successful at something as a child - when you are praised for it - there is a tendency not to question that. Then you reach a certain age, maybe your perspective changes. Sometimes life doesn't align with what you want to do in your heart. What should you do? Maybe it's important that you push through. I hated practicing as a child. As a teenager I really got into it. It's complicated, I guess.

Alongside your solo work you perform with Dirty Projectors and formed the duo Nothankyou, with Tom Vek. Is it a challenge balancing so many recording and performing commitments?

OB: Tom and I met on MySpace – so it was a long time ago. I reached out and told him his music was great. I was passing through London and we met, went to a gallery, hung out with his friend Rory [Attwell] who was in that band Test Icicles. It was a magical, awesome evening – going to all these cool hangouts. We stayed in touch and, about four years later, found ourselves staying in the same hotel in Brazil, where I was touring with Chairlift. Technology had moved on - we had thumb drives so were able to trade music. He gave me an instrumental over which I heard a top line. So we wrote this song called 'Oyster' and then a b-side. We are now working on more music, however he has a record coming out and I've got this Krai thing,  so our project is something for the future.

With Dirty Projectors, I was just the biggest fan before I got to play with them. I became enamoured with their music around the time of the Getty Address album [from 2005]. To find myself in their midst, singing parts from records I loved, was really awesome. I hope to stay in the band and play music, to be a useful part of the whole. As long as [my solo project] and the band can co-exist I will be happy. I see no conflict. Dave [Longstreth, Dirty Projectors' band leader] is working on the next album. When the time comes for him to summon members of the band to record, I hope to be among those people.

Olga Bell's Krai is out now via One Little Indian