Having witnessed Melissa Bel's performance at the Festiblues fundraiser "Bluesons Sans La Pluie" a month earlier, I could not pass up the chance to see her perform a full show of her own songs. Wednesday Dec 12th was the date and Le Petit Campus was the venue. Backed by guitarist Mike Todd, drummer Benjamin Rollo, and keyboardist Scott Galloway, Toronto-based Bel wasted no time on proving she has a voice that we will be becoming more familiar with in the future. At only 23, Bel performs as if she's been honing her craft for double that time. Bel plays guitar on most songs as well, but does hang it up for a couple of songs and is just as at ease with only the microphone.
The two sets comprised of mainly original material which the songster either wrote or co-wrote, unlike many of today's young acts. Most of the material from Bel's 2011 release "Distance" was offered up and done in fine fashion. It is an EP worth picking up.
From the Bill Withers blues cover "Ain't no Sunshine" to the more pop sounding self penned "Joy Ride" Bel covers a lot of ground. She delivers an astonishingly strong vocal performance that gives you the shivers especially when she digs deep and gives you that little growl in a couple of syllables every now and then. There were no vocal gimmicks or add-ons, just a raw performance. The band was tight, from Todd's subtle leads, to Galloway's keyboard bass lines (a la Doors), all underpinned by timekeeper Rollo. A talent worth hearing live and your opportunity to experience this performance comes August 11th during the 2013 edition of the FestiBlues International de Montreal.
Before the show, Bel was gracious enough to grant photographer Phil Brisse and myself an interview. Here are some of the items that we discussed:
SW: Thank you for doing this. Are there any questions that I shouldn't ask before we get going?
MB: No it's all good. I have nothing to hide!
SW: How did you get involved in the FestiBlues fundraiser show in November? It was mostly comprised of Quebec artists...
MB: Last time I played in Montreal at Le Petit Campus, someone from the Festiblues organization came to see the show, and after that they asked me to play the fundraiser show. And now I'm booked to play the Festival next August.
I felt really lucky to be included in that evening. There were some pretty big names.
(See Bluesons Sans La Pluie review here).
SW: I read that you will be releasing a new album in Europe soon. What stage is that at? Is it in post-production now?
MB: It will include all the songs on the Distance EP, plus a few more that have been recorded. And I'm hoping to release an EP here; the second half that hasn't come out here, in early 2013.
SW: The additional songs that will make it onto the European CD...in other words the non-Distance songs...how are they different?
MB:: We recorded a bunch of songs when we made the Distance EP. These are the other songs that weren't on it, so they are in the same vein because it was around the same time period. But there are a couple of new ones, and tonight we'll be playing one of them, which we've never played live before. It's called "All The Wrong Things". That one just needs to be mixed and mastered for the CD at this point.
SW: A lot of the songs on the Distance EP deal with broken hearts, love lost, being mistreated, and so on...what was his name? Are your songs based off personal experience?
MB: Well it wasn't just one guy (jokingly). Actually it's all good now! But it's true that a lot of songs pour out of songwriters when they're upset. Most of my songs are based off personal experience, but usually it's just a little snippet of a feeling or an idea, and then I'll expand on it, and try to make it into something more interesting than it actually may have been. A few of the songs are about the gut wrenching feelings that I've actually felt. But I'm writing happier songs now. But it's hard to write happy sounds songs without sounding corny. But "All The Wrong Things" may sound like a sad song but it isn't, it's really all the wrong things, but in the right way. You've got to be a story teller when not every word you write is a feeling you have.
SW: How do you write your songs? Is it lyrics first, then put some music to it? Are you locked into a room for 48 hours until you come up with something?
MB: I'm not good at sitting there and working through it for hours and hours. The best is when sometimes, a song, just literally comes from the universe into my head and out of my hands and mouth. That's the best. But that doesn't happen all the time. And if you sit around waiting for that to happen you aren't going to have so much of a career!
I've been co-writing a lot lately, which has been really cool to kind of go in with a concept and then just sit down for 2 hours and get it done, which isn't something I would do if I was at home. It changes when I'm at home. I actually think of a lot stuff in the car, driving around. Thinking of a lot of lyrics and melodies. I remember for Distance, for one of the songs I wrote the first verse in my head in the car. So that's one of my sources of inspiration I suppose. But with Joy Ride, I think I had the chorus for that first, and then I left it for 6 months, and then I came back to it figuring it had some potential. That was one of those songs were I just made up a story about it. Originally it was about a little bit of a real situation but I expanded on it.
SW: Who have you been co-writing with?
MB: Mike (guitarist Mike Todd) and I have been co-writing and we wrote a really great song that we're not going to play tonight because we haven't practised it with the band. I've also been writing with a Toronto songwriter named Andrea England. This is my first real co-writing experience. I was nervous at first, you're worried, are my ideas stupid? But then you get there and you're just honest with each other, you never feel stupid, but you learn. You can get perspective right then and there.
SW: We don't need to ask about playing guitar or singing, but how accomplished are you on other instruments? Our research shows that you took drum lessons.
MB: Well I first took piano lessons when I was 6 or 7. Conservatory stuff, but I wasn't really disciplined enough to practice all the time or follow through with it. So I probably stopped when I was 12 or 13. Then I picked up the guitar at 14. I took the drum lessons when I was 16 or 17. Mostly because I was recording my first album at the time, and I wanted to be able to have some more input into what the drums should sound like. It's something I'd like to pursue a bit more.
SW: Compare your studio recordings versus your live performance? Are they note for note album version or is there some improvisation.
MB: With the band we do stick pretty close to the album version for the Distance material. But for the songs that aren't on an album yet, there is some improvisation. The band has done a great job of building those songs into more of a production version. But when you're on stage you can improvise, you can add, you can extend. So it's always fun. Sometimes I get bored of singing the same thing so I like to change it up.
SW: what's the mix tonight? Originals or covers?
MB: All originals except 3 covers including a Stevie Wonder Christmas song cover.
SW: How long have you been playing with this band? (Mike Todd, Benjamin Rollo, Scott Galloway)
MB: Our first show was actually here (Petit Campus, Montreal) back in July. I've been playing with Mike for about a year and a half. Then he introduced me to these guys.
SW: Do you do solo shows as well?
MB: Yeah, back at home, I do quite a few more solo shows, or sometimes it's duos with Mike. We recorded my Christmas song together (referring to "This Christmas Spend Your Time on Me").
SW: Is playing in Montreal really any different than playing elsewhere? We always hear that, but is that something that just gets repeated in every different city?
MB: Well for me, yes, definitely. My CDs have more success here. I could not play this show in Toronto and get the same number of people out to see me. Also the crowd here is quiet when you sing and they clap at the right moments. Playing bars pays the bills, but this is better.
SW: Here's a rather irrelevant question. If you were at home, sitting on the sofa by the fire place, what concert DVD would you be watching? (the actual word used was "stupid" question, where Melissa looked at me point blank and said "That is a stupid question" and then started to laugh).
MB: I always love watching Beatles live footage. I am obsessed with them and never get tired of watching them.
SW: What would be playing on our iPod?
MB: I like the new John Mayer album, I think it's fabulous. Also Gavin Degraw. I'm also listening to French CDs, to learn the language.
SW: Thank you for sparing some time to do this before the show. It is much appreciated.
MB: You are more than welcome. Enjoy the show!