Brooklyn-based composer, producer, and performer Olga Bell started training in classical piano when she was just seven years old. After graduating from Boston’s New England Conservatory, Bell moved to New York and switched her focus to electronic music. Her highly anticipated LP “Tempo” follows Bell’s 2014 release “Krai”, (meaning “edge” in Russian) which was an exploration of her Russian roots. “Tempo” is a dance party, but it’s also a testament to Olga Bell’s strength as a composer and producer, with layers upon layers of ear-pleasing intricacies that reflect hours spent studying ’90s dance music and old school hip-hop. The single from the album, ‘Randomness”, is a reminder to let go and just be—because sometimes, we just need to dance.
Your last album was obviously creatively different from “Tempo”– what was your creative vision for this album?
Yeah, super different. The last one was so brainy. It started with all these heavy concepts, and I wanted this one to be lighter and more simple. I wanted to dance. I didn’t want to deal with any complicated issues or cross-cultural themes. I just wanted to have some fun, because it’s kind of a brutal time in the world. Maybe it’s always a brutal time in the world, but I just needed to do some dancing.
You said you listened to a lot of twenty-year-old club music when you were doing this, and I know when I was listening to “Randomness” I got major “Pump Up the Jams” vibes. It’s almost as if you find yourself searching for this memory when you hear it.
Yes! Oh my gosh, that’s perfect. I studied all that stuff. I actually did this really thorough diagram of “Rhythm is a Dancer” by SNAP! and it’s like, there’s four bars of this, then this beat comes in, and the kick drum comes out. So I really studied exactly that era.
What was it about the ’90s specifically?
I moved—not to bring back this, like, Russian immigrant girl narrative—but I did move to the country in 1990 when I was seven, and it was some of the first music I heard here. Like that sort of elementary school field days, and my earliest memories of watching MTV were Crystal Waters and Marky Mark and Robin S. I think as a child, like it was so much fun to be in a gaggle with all my friends at sleepovers and do, like, the running man and the Roger Rabbit and watch the fly girls on In Living Color and try to imitate them. It was such a joyful carefree time, and it ties into all the fashion of that time with the bold colors.
I think personally my favorite song on this album is “Ritual”.
Sara Lucas (who is featured on the track) kills it. She sings with such intensity. She has this laser focus, and it feels like if you make eye contact with her, you’re going to turn to stone.
Is there any one song you most connect with?
It really varies. I mean, I have a super dynamic, kind of moody vibe. I think that’s life in New York. Some days you’re really up, and I relate to those more upbeat, happy songs, then other days—like, I have this one song on the record, “America” that is pretty dark and almost fatalistic. And that song, especially the sort of wind instrument sounds in the verses, that was kind of inspired by the song “Talk Show Host” by Radiohead. I’m pretty proud of “America” lyrically, too.
You wrote and produced this yourself. That’s something a lot of artists either can’t do, or just don’t do. Do you feel like that gives you more creative freedom that you wouldn’t otherwise have?
I can’t imagine not doing it this way, really. Because I spent most of my life studying piano very intensely and being a classical musician, I really can’t imagine a scenario where I’m not really in charge of the music, and the rhythm, and the composition because to me, that’s really my strongest skill, so I’m very happy to get to have a voice as a producer and composer, in addition to singing. That’s why I’m really excited to feature another singer on a track that I’ve made because I hope that it’ll draw attention to the fact that I produce. As a female producer, of course, especially as someone who sings, it’s just this label of “Oh, you’re a mysterious chanteuse, and you’re a songstress,” and I’m like, “No! I’m a musician. I made the music. Like, can you talk about the music. I’m not trying to be a siren. I’m trying to be a producer.”
There aren’t a lot of women producers as it is.
Right. And I don’t know why that it is. It’s a tricky thing to talk about because on the one hand I’m totally in the fight for equality for women everywhere, as much as men, working in the same capacity, being paid the same wages for the same work, but then, I’m also leery of special treatment. Of course there should be women in music, of course there should be women producers, but it’s about wanting equal treatment for that, not so much special treatment. I want to live in a world where we’re past the patriarchy, but I guess [the lack of women producers] is a relic of that.
You moved from Russia to the states, were raised in Alaska, then moved to Boston, and from Boston to New York. That’s some drastic changes in scenery. Did it impact your creative process?
I think so. I think the one characteristic that manifests itself across everything I do is like this omnivorous, voracious—like my taste is all over the place. I think because I’ve been exposed to a lot, and the last few years getting to play in some other bands and getting to travel a lot, I’ve been very grateful. It makes you telescope between this microenvironment of thinking about yourself and your feelings and being myopic, and then kind of telescoping way out, and thinking about your place in your society. It’s like the Nina Simone quote: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
Who do you look to within the industry for inspiration?
I think kind of from the beginning of being conscious of pop culture and music, I’ve been obsessed with Radiohead and Björk. I think they stand as these pillars of how to do it right. They’re superstars, but everything they do has so much integrity. There are tons of people, really. Beyoncé is pretty rad, and seems to be doing exactly what she wants, exactly the way she wants to be doing it and at a very high level. I really respect artists—I guess it’s what everyone says—people who are true, people who are vivid about their ideas, people who are thorough, where you can see how hard they work.
What’s the last song you listened to?
The last song I listened to was, well, I’ll just be honest with you, it was “Panda” by Desiigner. I’ve been playing it on repeat all morning, trying to figure out the subtle differences between Desiigner and Future. I do this thing where I get obsessed with a song. Maybe I like it because everyone in the country is having this moment, and I’m part of this collective consciousness.
It’s basically the great analysis of “Panda”.
I know! I do this with songs. A couple of weeks ago I probably listened to “Needed Me” by Rihanna fifty times in a row without listening to anything else. I think that comes from being a classical musician, and learning a piece of music. You dive in and you learn it measure by measure, and you study it so intensely. I think my brain really enjoys going totally ham with attention on a piece of music, so I still do it with these Billboard hits.
“Tempo”, out May 27th, is now available for pre-order on iTunes.
OLGA BELL LIVE
*supporting Nancy Whang
†supporting Empress Of
May 6 /// Knitting Factory /// Brooklyn, NY*
June 5 /// Berghain Kantine /// Berlin, Germany†
June 7 /// Botanique /// Brussels, Belgium†
June 8 /// Pop up Du Label /// Paris, France†
June 10 /// Oslo /// London, UK‡
June 13 /// The Hug and Pint /// Glasgow, Scotland
June 14 /// Waiting Room /// London, UK
June 15 /// Eagle Inn /// Manchester, UK
June 16 /// De School /// Amsterdam, Netherlands†