Watching Emily Bell roll a South By Southwest crowd under her thumb within minutes of taking the stage, it's evident she's full of both sophisticated soul and strutting rock 'n' roll. Raised in musical theater, tutored by seasoned R&B stars and degreed in rock, Bell is that rare performer who pours energy and passion all over the stage and makes it look effortless.
On her debut album, In Technicolor, Bell corrals her Debbie Harry sass, Mick Jagger sizzle and Diana Ross prowess into nine cuts that cross tracks laid through Delta blues, '60s rock, girl-group glam and Motown power and whatever else strikes her considerable fancy. With John Evans, her producer, co-writer, guitarist and partner, Bell has crafted the "here I am" statement she's been working toward for years. She likes to call it "technicolor rock 'n' soul."
"When I listen to a song, colors and scenery flood through my head," Bell explains. "Music and imagery and visualization are so tied together. That's why music is so powerful. I hope that when people listen to my music, they get an intense, visceral experience."
She doesn't have to merely hope; the evidence is already in. After she opened for Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, he declared, "She'll knock you down, then lick your wounds, burn up the stage and leave you begging for more."
"The Voice" Top 8 semifinalist/*Cee-Lo* protg Nakia called her one of Austin's best new talents, raving, "She must be possessed by a raw, electric demon singing with the voice of a heartbroken, fallen angel."
Interrobang.com ranked Bell No. 1 on its list of the top five artists to watch at SXSW 2013 after listening to 1,210 tracks from showcasing acts. Bell's February showcase before industry decision-makers at record executive Michelle Clark's renowned Sunset Sessions sparked immediate buzz and AAA radio adds for her hot pop-soul single, "Back to the Way I Was." Another single, the campy "Hey Baby," is getting nationwide distribution on the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau compilation, Austin Music, Volume 12.
Bell began performing in musicals at age 7, finding a nurturing home in community theater. She won a coveted musical-theater slot at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, but offstage, high school was tough. So she decided to graduate early, and was still finishing senior-year course work when she enrolled at Marymount Manhattan College.
Higher education also proved daunting, but New York gave Bell her first recording experience and that led to her decision to focus on her main passion: music. Or, as she puts it, "To be a chick who wrote and sang my own music and created my own world." Bell returned to Houston at 18 and got a job at Helios, a live music venue, where she got to study musicians nightly and pick up tricks of the trade.
"It was this really special place, just artists all the time, and insane music," she recalls. "It was this old house where the Bohemians, the artists, the musicians all went. That's where I fell in love with songwriting and dirty rock 'n' roll. I would sit in with different bands and cover songs from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Blondie and Nirvana."
With a powerful, sultry voice that evokes comparisons to artists as diverse as K.T. Tunstall, Girl in a Coma's Nina Diaz and Ronnie Spector, and a stage presence that evokes both Jagger and Tina Turner, she quickly got noticed. One supporter helped her move to L.A. and record in Raphael Saadiq's Burbank studio with former members of Tony! Toni! Ton! Those west-coast years produced some valuable friendships and songwriting skills, and strengthened her work ethic and determination, but also helped her realize that she needed to make her own art, her own way. The album's first single, the upbeat "Back to The Way I Was," expresses her need for authenticity and her efforts to get back to where she once belonged, so to speak that innocent, purer place we all knew before we started carrying life's scarred baggage.
"When something painful happens, there's a moment when you want to return to who you were just before all of it," Bell explains. "The only way we can heal that desire is to push forward. I wanted the song to be a great driving song, because that sense of forward motion is what I want it to feel like. Getting back to a place you love, back to your core, who you really are, by moving ahead."
For Bell, that meant returning to Houston to build new connections, re-establish old ones and work her way toward Austin. One of those old connections was Texas roots-rocker John Evans. He'd moved to Austin, but when he hit Houston for a gig, she stopped in, and the next thing she knew, they were writing together and falling in love. In short order, she moved to Austin, and they started planning In Technicolor.
When it was time to record, she asked Evans to produce. But not in a studio.
"I wanted to live and breathe the experience and just have a really great time and make a record that we were in love with," Bell says. They spent two months in a remote lake house her aunt and uncle owned without TV, cell service or Internet access with Grammy-winner Steve Christensen (Steve Earle's Townes) engineering. The result is a set of winning tracks that convey Bell's formidable vocal chops and the yin-yang balance of Bell and Evans as a songwriting team.
That balance shines through in "Hey Baby," which Bell admits she was dubious about when Evans first sang her its "why you walking away" hook. But when he fleshed out this rockabilly-pop raveup with some guitar, she realized he was singing about making love stay. They penned the rest of this delicious, sexy commitment anthem together.