Electropop Producer Olga Bell Explores Rhythm’s Visceral Mysteries On ‘Tempo’

Olga Bell. (Nicholas Prakas)
Olga Bell. (Nicholas Prakas)

There is a lyric in “ATA,” a tingly, downtempo jam by the Brooklyn electropop artist Olga Bell, that jumps out with jagged candor: “Am I, am I, am I f---ing useless?” Bell delivers the line with rising urgency, each “am I” arriving more quickly, more desperately, than the last.

It’s a moment of bracing despondency on an album — “Tempo,” Bell’s second full-length effort — that flickers with musical wit. But Bell, who was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, says she comes by it honestly. “I'm Russian, so it's in my DNA to suffer and make art about it,” she says, only half joking.

“ATA” harks back to moment of crisis in 2005. Bell had just graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory with a degree in piano performance and planned to continue her studies at Julliard — only to learn she hadn’t gotten in.

“It's such a ridiculous first-world-problem turning point: ‘I didn't get into my first choice graduate school and so my life was changed forever.’ But it was,” Bell remarked recently over the phone, a week before she was scheduled to go on tour with the avant-pop musician Jenny Hval. (She opens for Hval at Great Scott in Allston on Tuesday, Oct. 4.) Bell recalls the episode now with some chagrin. But the rejection changed her life: She packed up, moved to New York City, and starting writing songs.

“I was like, ‘I'm going to do this, and it's really scary, and I'm starting from nothing, and it's because I just really love it,’ ” Bell says. “And suddenly let myself entertain the notion of participating in an art form that you love, as opposed to one that you're just working in."

At first, Bell tried her hand at piano-driven ballads, but she found herself increasingly drawn to electronic sounds. "It's funny, because I just never listened to classical music for fun,” she says. “I love doing it, I love playing it. But I wasn't obsessed with it. I was obsessed with playing rap beats — like Wu-Tang beats — and doing Alanis Morissette voices, and Björk voices."

Music always came easily to Bell. Though she recalls having to be prodded by her “Russian tiger mother” to practice, she was gifted enough to get into the prestigious Aspen Music Festival at 15. (The program counts Joshua Bell and Philip Glass among its alumni.) At 21, Bell seemed to take just as naturally to synths and production software as she did to piano. In 2011, she recorded an album, “Diamonite,” under the handle “Bell” with drummer/producers Gunnar Olsen and Jason Nazary, and in 2012 toured as a member of the experimental pop darlings Dirty Projectors. In 2014, she released “Край (Krai),” an electro-acoustic concept album exploring her Russian heritage. 2015 saw the release of “Incitation EP” and Bell’s continued movement toward dance music.

Bell approached “Tempo” with characteristic diligence. She made it her mission to go out as often possible, diving headlong into the vast and obscure world of electronic dance music. The songs on “Tempo” were written with the aid of a metronome, inspired by the possibilities contained in different speeds: a quick beat could be triumphant or frenetic, a slow one languid or ominous. In that sense, “Tempo,” like “Krai,” is a concept album of sorts, albeit one interested not so much in personal identity as in rhythm’s visceral mysteries.

“I'm sure to a lot of people, I’m not a legit electronic person,” Bell admits. “I kind of feel like an impostor all the time.” Yet that insecurity can be motivating. “Just like I felt like I didn't practice enough, I feel today like I don't watch enough tutorials, like I don’t know what I’m doing, I don't have the right gear. And I think a little bit of that discontent or fear or agitation is healthy. A little bit.”

Perhaps it is thanks to Bell’s classical background that even her pop compositions contain a note of cerebral eccentricity. Though she is fond of many of the same sounds and textures as her peers — glittery flourishes, sternum-buzzing bass lines — Bell relies as much on deliberately deployed silences as kick drum and hi-hat. Rather than reward expectations, she is apt to pull the bass out just as a song is gaining momentum, or throw a beat off-balance with slicing counterpoint, or write a languorous melody that seems to exist in another universe from the skittering rhythm that undergirds it. Hers is music enamored with space, with the dizzying discombobulation brought on by brief, momentous absences.

Bell describes her process as something of a balancing act. “If the harmony is really weird and the lyrics are really esoteric and the beat is all syncopated, then people are going to get lost,” she explains. “And I think then it won't be called pop music anymore. Something needs to help people feel firmly anchored. Or at least, the kind of music that I personally enjoy is one where you're partly moored, and in a safe space, and then you're partly being pulled around in totally delightful and unexpected directions."

A few of the songs on “Tempo” read like “pop songs” in quotations. “This pic is so sick/ Got a million clicks,” Bell sings on “Doppio,” her voice dropping precipitously like a record played at the wrong speed. Others, like “ATA” are more existential, intent on finding meaning in a life defined as much by artistic failure as achievement. But even as “ATA” dives into the mire of creative anxiety, it reaches toward optimism. Moments after Bell wonders, achingly, if she is useless, she sets her jaw and soldiers on. “Baby it’s tough/ But don’t lose hope,” she sings. “Our work is humble/ Daily I rise, daily you write that poem.” The song was inspired by the Frank O’Hara poem “A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On Fire Island,” itself an exploration of artistic struggle as told through an imaginary conversation with the sun.

“Basically, you should just show up and do the work as an artist,” Bell says. “Instead of pining away for fame or achievement. Or some sort of outer validation of what you're doing. You should instead just be really humble about it and treat it like it's just what you do."

You might think, given Bell’s preoccupations, that her music would be heavy. But there is an ebullience to her compositions, perhaps as a result of focusing on the work and not its reception. Fear, after all, is apt to leave you paralyzed.

"You're always telescoping between 'I'm terrific!' and 'I'm a piece of shit,' and I’m the best!’ and ‘I suck.’ It's healthy,” Bell says. “Just do some jumping jacks in between. That leads to a long and dynamic life."

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Amelia Mason Senior Arts & Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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