The Russian American shows us her things
Olga Bell left Russia at the age of 7 to spend her formative years in Alaska; that most northern of U.S. states that bizarrely has Canada between it and the rest of America. While her friends were out skiing, Bell spent whole days sat at the piano, which is how she went on to graduate from Boston’s New England Conservatory – the country’s oldest and most reputable music school. She’s lived in New York for the past decade (playing in Dirty Projectors and Chairlift), and in her own corner of Williamsberg, Brooklyn, for the past five years, a block away from renowned alt. venue the Knitting Factory. She lives here, in a minimal, mezzanine apartment, with her partner – a designer. “Clean, empty space helps you think,” she says in her breezy way when I note just how ordered and stylish her home is.
It was here that Olga wrote her forthcoming third album, ‘Tempo’, which in many ways flips 2014’s ‘Krai’ on its head. Performed entirely in Russian and centred in traditional Russian folk music, ‘Krai’ was as intellectual as it sounds, with each of its 9 songs representing a different region of Bell’s homeland. ‘Tempo’ has been no less academically conceived and produced, but it sure is more accessible. She describes it as “a record first for the body, then for the mind.” It’s her exploration into club music and dance culture, inspired by the 1991 documentary movie Paris Is Burning, itself a chronicle of New York’s late ’80s gay ball culture.
“Even though I’m not a direct participant in that demographic, I was so inspired by how everything felt, and the energy of it,” she says. “And it being deeply connected to the community. I wanted to see if some of that energy was still around New York. I didn’t go specifically to vogue nights or gay clubs; I just wanted to gauge the general dance landscape. I wasn’t looking for Paris Is Burning, or those bankers and models gross clubs that have evolved over the last 20 years – I wanted to see if there are places where you can just go and listen to great music, where there’s no judgment and people of all ages and orientations.”
Olga says she found the community she was looking for by forcing herself to go dancing alone, at New York spots like Cielo and Output. After a month or two of partying she returned home to start work on ‘Tempo’, which is far from a record of mindless bangers. Tracks like ‘Randomness’ and ‘Ritual’ are clearly inspired by early ’90s club music, but Bell’s love for a slower BPM – and in particular Portishead and West Coast hip-hop – also permeates songs like the Bjork-ish ‘Doppio’ and the screwy ‘ATA’.
She jokes by insisting that all the late nights out were “for research, quote-unquote,” but I believe her. ‘Tempo’ is a dance record that’s too strange and varied to not have been masterfully planned. From her days studying the nuances of classical piano, I’m not surprised to hear that she now feels compelled to learn how to mix records in order to fully understand the type of music she’s now making.
“You can kind of be anybody in a club,” she tells me as we tour around her place. “You can be that person who’s totally sober and losing their shit in the centre of the dancefloor – it’s totally fine. You can leave your life behind. I don’t meditate, but I feel like dancing can fill a similar need.”