Bella White
Photo by Bree Fish / Grandstand Media

Canada’s Bella White Is Making All the Right Moves These Days

As Bella White stays grounded, pursuing a career that should skyrocket any second now, the Canadian roots artist is set to release her stunning sophomore LP.

Among Other Things
Bella White
21 April 2023

Even if it meant having ladybugs crawl all over her face, Bella White always knew she was destined to become a singer-songwriter. While the 22-year-old roots artist born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, planned to take her musical mission seriously, she also wanted to have fun doing it. 

Falling for someone seemingly as carefree as a songbird who shares her feelings so openly at both ends of the spectrum should be an easy and enjoyable activity, especially upon hearing her sophomore full-length album, Among Other Things. Eager to expand her horizons after starting with a bluegrass base, White dips her toes into folk, Americana, traditional country, and western waters over the ten tracks she wrote entirely independently for this 21st April release on Rounder Records. 

Sadness and heartbreak are constant themes running through White’s songs. Yet during a 28 March call from Victoria, British Columbia, her residence for the past two years, she couldn’t be more cheerful and cordial while reflecting on life, influences, experiences, and the upcoming album. 

Seemingly on the move ever since leaving Calgary to try out places like Boston and Nashville, White goes into detail during this nearly hourlong conversation for PopMatters to explain how she arrived on the scene so quickly. If that was a smooth ride, credit the determined driver who decided at age 16 to put the metal to the pedal and make music her livelihood. 

“I never really thought of doing anything else,” she says. “I was very encouraged by my family just to do what I was inspired to do, and if I was keeping good grades and had my head on straight, they were kind of willing and open for me to follow my heart.”

Planting the Seeds of Bluegrass

That journey started at an early age for Isabel Farley White, born in Calgary on 15 July 2000, the second of two sisters (Sophie is two years older) raised by musically inclined parents. Taking on dancing, art, competitive ski racing, and other sports but feeling ice-cold about hockey, Canada’s national pastime, she eventually devoted most of her time to what became a more passionate pursuit. Bella’s father, William, still a practicing psychiatrist, gave her a proper introduction to bluegrass since he played guitar, fiddle, banjo, and National steel guitar in a now-defunct Jimmy Martin cover band. 

Hailing from the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and raised in North Carolina, he began writing original tunes with Widow Maker, the band named after a song by Martin, a Tennessean who died in 2005, leaving behind an International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame legacy and the title of “King of Bluegrass”. Will White was Widow Maker’s lead singer and one of their primary songwriters, joining fellow bandmate Craig Korth to create music inspired by what they called strong coffee with a shot of moonshine. 

“I think I came up with the coffee-and-moonshine image watching Craig pour Baileys into his coffee one morning,” Will White told Bluegrass Now in 2008, the year their debut album The Awful Truth was released. Added Korth about the description: “A lot of it is stark reality. I think the coffee wakes you up, and the moonshine sets you in the direction that a lot of the music goes.” 

Thanks to her dad, Bella became enamored with the bluegrass and country sounds of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Loretta Lynn, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs. Her mom Kelly, a counselor and artist who makes jewelry, paints, and loves the outdoors, leaned much more toward folk. “She’s always been a Joni [Mitchell] fan,” Bella offers. “As long as I can remember, I feel like we had Joni Mitchell going and John Prine and Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris. All the good stuff.” 

Bella White
Photo by Bree Fish

After living in the Southeast US for a while, Kelly eventually talked William into returning to Calgary, her birthplace. “Alberta has a rich history of Western music,” contends Bella White, who first began learning the banjo from her father before “really caring about playing guitar” when she turned 12. “It’s also flatland for cattle and all that. So there’s all the cowboys in Alberta. Growing up in Calgary was fascinating. Having half my roots in the southeastern states, then half in Canada, there’s a bit of a disconnect there.” (laughs) 

Her admiration for Canadian artists continues, though. After Mitchell, White rattles off a wide range of names, from Ian Tyson (inductee for two Canadian music halls of fame with his wife, including as the duo Ian & Sylvia before they formed Great Speckled Bird), Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, Shania Twain (praising with a laugh, “she’s a classic”) and Leonard Cohen. By listening to them, “I learned how to be an emotional being,” she continues. “Especially people like Joni Mitchell. The way that her songs were crafted together. So thoughtful and so emotionally intelligent, in my opinion.”  

Crossing paths with other artists at music camps, workshops, and festivals, White sampled a taste of pop, believing, “I don’t think [good music] can really be defined by a genre.” She even enjoyed Taylor Swift records (sharing that infatuation with Molly Tuttle), confessing, “I was definitely a Swiftie,” during “my pre-teen years and prior. Early Taylor Swift was my thing, but I would say maybe I’ve lost touch with Taylor Swift a little bit now.” (laughs)

Before her own pretty, distinctive voice developed (listen to that inner yodeler trying to get out), White was always singing, whether at home with the family or in grade school, sometimes interrupting class and annoying teachers. “In elementary school, my teachers would always put on the report cards, ‘Bella needs to stop singing when she’s writing her tests,'” White told the Houston Press in 2021. “I just couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t always good, either.”

Still, it laid the groundwork for a child who wrote her first song at age seven. She reminded herself of that in preparation for leaving the family home in Calgary after graduating from high school in 2018, then “purging some things in order to make room to move” to Boston. “I found some old journals. And I found one from when I was seven years old, and it had a song in it. Essentially, I just heard a song that I liked and kind of just changed the words a little bit,” admits White with a laugh, only remembering the song probably had a “goofy” title with “my crush” as its likely subject. “I’ll give myself credit that at seven, I was interested in creating music.” (laughs) 

Though her parents divorced when she was 11, White and her immediate family live (separately) in “cozy” Victoria on Vancouver Island. She and Sophie, who works in environmental science, stay in different units within the same apartment building, an arrangement “which is kind of cute,” according to Bella.

“It’s really nice to be close by to them,” asserts White; though she’s drawn to other US cities like New Orleans, she plans for an eventual return to Nashville. “It’s really lovely here, but there’s not a huge community of music makers in the same way that I am. So I miss that part of being in a bigger city with a bigger scene, but this is such a beautiful place to be when there’s less going on. It’s very peaceful.”

True Love in the Time of COVID

Perhaps alongside the stacks of journals filled with creative ideas and expressive lyrics after a 16-year-old realized a music career was in her future, White kept a blueprint for success, accentuating a few key elements that remain today — ambition, concentration, self-assurance, and effort. While her friends and classmates in Calgary focused on where/if they would go to college and what to study, White admits, “I was just having the hardest time thinking about doing anything else” besides her one true love. 

Fulfilling a teen dream by writing, playing, and performing music but not rushing to make an album, she maintains, “I was pretty sure of myself. I struggled with my confidence because it’s scary to take that kind of leap of faith.” Ruling out any other options, “I thought that I would just at least give it a try. … I think I was brave.” (laughs) 

By the time she was 19, having developed enough courage and plenty of her own material, White thought to herself, “Oh, I’ve got all these songs. Let’s see what they sound like together.” 

Living in Boston and collaborating with producer Patrick M’Gonigle of the Lonely Heartstring Band, they gathered session players such as Reed Stutz (mandolin, vocals), Julian Pinelli (fiddle, vocals), and Robert Alan Mackie (bass). On M’Gonigle’s recommendation, she agreed to record at Guilford Sound studios in southern Vermont. 

“It is just the most beautiful studio,” White exclaims. “It’s like off the grid, in the woods, it’s so sunny. It’s built into the side of a hill. He raved about that environment. I’m a big believer that your surroundings when you’re making music influence the music. So we decided to go there because he had only amazing things to say about it. He was right. It was a really beautiful space to make an album.” 

Only the timing couldn’t have been worse to record a debut LP she called “my coming-of-age anthem”. It was early March 2020 when the coronavirus arrived. “The news headlines were coming in, like, ‘Global pandemic! Everybody go home!'” White recalls. “And we were in the woods in Vermont making the album. So we were already pretty isolated from the world. It was a very stressful decision, but we just decided to stay and finish making the album because we weren’t at risk to anyone. We’d already been isolated in the studio for a week with each other, so we just decided to stick it out.”

Just Like Leaving was self-released on 25 September 2020, with nine original tunes written by White. Americana UK predicted, “Bella White will surely be a rising star of bluegrass” after previewing the lead single “Broke (When I Realized)”. Rolling Stone Country made “The Hand of Your Raising” a must-hear pick of the week that July, praising her songwriting as “sublime Appalachian heartbreak”. called her “a songwriting prodigy and emotional alchemist”.

Bella White
Photo: Tori Johnson

It didn’t take long for the word to spread. The record soon landed in the hands of Mark Williams, who at the time handled A&R at Concord (Rounder’s parent company). “Then he reached out, and we started talking,” White recollects. “It all just kind of had a lot of symbiosis or synergy. It all just kind of made sense to work together.” 

In early 2021, Rounder Records signed White to its fabled label with an impressive roots roster topped by shining stars of the past (Nanci Griffith, Dr. John, Gregg Allman, Professor Longhair), present (Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Indigo Girls) and future (Billy Strings, Sierra Ferrell, Samantha Fish). Just Like Leaving was re-released that April by the company, undoubtedly impressed by a mature honor student of her craft while still a few months short of the US legal drinking age of 21. 

“I feel like my songs that I was writing [then] were a lot more just kind of like writing in my journal, then getting inspired to write a song … but without really thinking about it in a big way. It was just kind of like writing for myself,” White explains. 

After graduating from the stripped-down sounds of Just Like Leaving to an expanded, outside-the-box opportunity to feel completely free to explore and experiment,” White takes comfort in considering how far she’s progressed. 

While others try to brand her with a specific genre, she settles on calling her music “folk/Americana/rootsy” when asked to provide an apt description. “In my heart of hearts, I love bluegrass and country music. You know, like the classic stuff,” White professes. “That’s what I was raised on. That’s what I learned to play before anything else. It’s informed my musicality so much. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that what I’m doing right now is being a bluegrass artist. I have the hardest time deciphering where it sits,” preferring to “check all the boxes”. 

Still, in the embryonic stage of her career and counting down the days until Among Other Things is released, she has more than natural talent, musical appreciation, and embedded roots on her side. Family members and a steady boyfriend provide constant support, along with longtime manager Abbie Duquette, her “go-to” whom she calls “my rock when it comes to questions and advice”. It also helps to have Williams at the label, running the show since September as president of Rounder and Concord Records.

Seriously Amusing Herself

Saying she hasn’t altered her songwriting method during two albums, White does concede that for Among Other Things, there was “a little voice in the back of my head being like, ‘Well, you have to make a new album soon. So let’s be sure that these are what we want these songs to sound like.’ It feels like a cop-out to say this, but I write when inspired. When I’m feeling my emotions,” she adds. “I like to say that I have two modes of songwriting: I story-tell and then I feeling-tell. This album is a lot of feelings. Writing about feelings, I can’t just turn that on. My method hasn’t changed because I’ve always just been one to pour my heart out. But for some of those other songs that are more like a story, I will sit down and craft those a little bit more thoughtfully than I maybe have in the past.”

Her delivery on tunes like fiddle-fueled “The Way I Oughta Go” (sample lyric: “Well dreaming never met me in Alberta / so I packed my things Tennessee I did go”) and the softer “Rhododendron” (“For this weight, I bare leaves me so damn scared / I guess we’ve all been hurting like a little bird I’m learning”) sounds like a series of exclusively confidential story-tell journal entries, so personal, descriptive, and authentic. 

Though she didn’t complete writing for the album “until the last minute” in the studio, White first recorded those two aforementioned songs (penned 12 to 18 months earlier) as sort of a chemistry test of her own with producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Margo Price, Dawes), as suggested by Williams. 

“Mark had thought that Jonathan and I would be a really good fit,” divulges White. So on a couple of Zoom calls, the two artists first shared thoughts about what they each hoped to accomplish on the project. Once they got together in December 2021 at his Topanga Canyon home and studio in California, “We cut those [two songs] just to see what the vibe would be like. It was just so seamless, and Jonathan is such an amazing musician and amazing artist. It worked really well.” 

It wasn’t until the following May that they were back to recording. The serious nature of her lyrics was offset by the jocular mood in Wilson’s Fivestar Studios. In the liner notes, White thanks him “for creating a safe space to get creative and goofy in”. So how goofy did they get? “Just being silly. I mean, we were drinking a lot of mezcal,” White says with a loud laugh, perhaps covering up whether she was telling the truth or just telling a joke since trading quips became commonplace at these sessions.

Bella White
Photo: Michael Bialas

Just call her Canada Wry. “You know, it wasn’t a very serious time. I feel like some people go into the studio, and they take themselves very seriously. Which no shade to that; I respect that. But I’m a very silly, goofy person. I like to laugh a lot. If I’m working with people who have this very serious, stoic energy, being like, ‘We’re making art right now. This isn’t the time for joking’; that doesn’t work for me. So I appreciate that Jonathan is also a guy who loves a good laugh. A big part of making this album was having a lot of fun. You can’t be super-depressed the whole time you’re in the studio.” (laughs)  

Playing acoustic guitar and recording with multi-instrumentalist Wilson and other gifted musicians such as M’Gonigle (fiddle, violin, tenor guitar), Big Thief‘s Buck Meek (electric and nylon guitar), Gabe Noel (bass and baritone guitar), Spencer Cullum (pedal steel), and backing vocalist Erin Rae, White wrapped up the sessions with two songs she considers were her most meaningful to write. They’re also the last two songs on the record — “The Best of Me” and “Among Other Things”.

“I’d been coming out of a songwriting dry spell for a while,” she states. “That’s always pretty scary when you know you have to go into the studio and make an album, and people depend on you. Not just fans but also the people investing in your career … like your record label, Jonathan, and all these people who have set aside this time to make a record with me. 

“Then I’m feeling like I’m having a hard time writing music that I’m connecting with. It’s like there’s a lot of pressure. But writing those two songs, I feel like I could break out of that feeling of fear, and that was really beautiful to have that happen. I felt like I was breaking through something when I was writing them.”

The album’s name and title track appear in the sorrowful song’s first line. “Green is a color I’ve seen my mama wear among other things /  And lately I’ve felt the world so bleak; there’s not a lot here for me.”

“It’s funny because I always assumed before I was making records that the album title had this huge meaning, and it had all this depth. In this case, there’s a little bit of that, too,” White declares. “But I just really liked the name of that song for an album. There’s other things going on, and it’s kind of like this whole album, I don’t think there’s like a genre that I would use to describe this album. …

“It’s very free-form in the sense that it’s not sitting in any box. So I thought the name Among Other Things was in some ways — not necessarily tongue in cheek — but there’s a little bit of humor in that to me that it’s just like this album is very different than anything I’ve done before.” 

That thought carries through to the unorthodox yet artistic album cover, chosen from an all-day shoot at Sacred Dog Ranch animal sanctuary 30 minutes outside downtown Nashville. Stylist/musician Liza Anne selected a “beautiful orange dress” for her cover subject, matching it with flowers in bloom and the lawn chair that propped up White’s legs as she stretched out, eyes closed, on the ground. 

“But there’s something about that photo, the kind of serenity that I feel is embodied in that photo; also, it’s like a summery photo. It’s got this warmth to it,” comments White. “It looked like it already was an album cover.” 

While she certainly appeared glamorously at peace striking that pose, White isn’t shy about experimenting with different looks in front of the camera, either. In her music video for the rambunctious “Break My Heart”, a catchy tune she’s previously revealed is “probably the one that’s most explicitly about getting dumped,” White endures a few close-ups of her face decorated by a couple of crawling ladybugs. She doesn’t flinch either, likely embracing the fact that the insect is known worldwide as a good-luck charm.

Apparently, the adventurous artist is also willing to make sacrifices in the name of art. “That was pretty fun,” she calmly claims. “It felt pretty weird. They were trying to go in my nose and my mouth. But luckily none of them made it in.” (laughs) 

Planning to Go Places

That go-for-broke mentality will serve White well on future projects. No major modifications in her writing process are on the agenda, though she’s open-minded enough to welcome suggestions. 

“I feel good about where I’m at right now,” White surmises. “I’m sure I will change things at some point. [With the] natural evolution of being human, we’re growing and changing. And as I experience new things and live in different places, I can guarantee that will all influence the things that I’m doing. … I don’t really have a vision for changing things right now. But I’m sure they will.” 

For example, working with co-writing partners is possible, though she has yet to arrange for one. “I’m not totally against the idea. I do think it’s an amazing thing. If two people have a lot of simpatico and then come together, they can make amazing stuff,” she acknowledges — conditionally. “… But I think for my albums as Bella White, part of what I should feel like I’m trying to do is share my thoughts and feelings with people, and it feels very intimate. So co-writing is something I would do, but maybe not at this moment.” 

As a solo artist who has shared the stage with Sierra Ferrell, a label mate who brings a modern approach to her old-timey roots sound, White “would love” to collaborate on a project with the Americana Music Association’s most recent Emerging Artist of the Year, calling her a “powerhouse”. 

“She’s a friend, and I really like her, and her music is super-amazing,” discloses White, who might be in the running for 2023’s emerging artist honor when the nominations are announced in May. “We’ve gotten to play a fair bit together, which is really nice. She’s so herself in her music, and I find that really inspiring. I don’t think she’s trying to please anyone. And I don’t think she’s doing anything for anyone but herself, which is special. So we’ve bonded over that. You have to be doing what you’re doing for you, and you can hear that in her music.” 

The same could be said of White, who’s likely to benefit from a career boost much earlier than the 34-year-old Ferrell did.

Performing the past two years at AmericanaFest showcases in Nashville (and listed among Rolling Stone’s “Best Things We Saw” in 2022), White also co-headlined a tour with Signature Sounds’ Taylor Ashton last fall. In October, they stopped at the intimate 80-seat Chautauqua Community House in Boulder, Colorado, where I saw them both deliver easygoing but tantalizing sets. She complimented her audience early on for being so attentive, saying, “We’ve been playing to some rowdy crowds the past few nights, so this is pretty good. A nice change of pace.” White, who performed four numbers from the upcoming album, concluded an 11-song set (that included a brazen cover of Guy Clark‘s “Dublin Blues”) by adding lovely harmonies with Ashton on his “If You Can Hear Me”. 

Bella White
Photo: Michael Bialas

Patrick M’Gonigle (fiddle) and Robert Alan Mackie (upright bass), White’s backing musicians, will remain in her act throughout the upcoming tour. The trio will grow to a six-piece band (with pedal steel, electric guitar, and drums) for bigger events, “so that’s like more representing the album’s sound,” she notes.  

After already appearing at SXSW in Austin and Willie Nelson‘s Luck Reunion event in March, she is scheduled for a whirlwind of activity this spring and summer. Her Grand Ole Opry debut on 25 April will be followed by stops at prominent festivals like Stagecoach in Indio, California; MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina; Telluride Bluegrass in Colorado; and Under the Big Sky in White Fish, Montana. She’ll also cross the pond for shows in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Today, that sounds more intriguing and appealing than any backup plan White could have ever imagined. Doing “classic sister stuff” like studying environmental science in college was briefly considered, then dismissed. As she hearkens back to those formative years when “I was so obsessed with playing music … and I was just so fascinated by the idea,” she reiterates. “I was kind of like, ‘I’m just gonna see if this is something that has some momentum for me.’ You know, it seemed to work out.” (laughs)

With that commitment to write songs that soon became a way of life, “I couldn’t really think of anything that made more sense for me,” she adds. Meanwhile, searching for a job unrelated to music was pure nonsense. She was working on a date with destiny. 

In downtown Calgary, “I busked a lot,” White proclaims. “As a young girl, I had what my bandmates refer to as the ‘Tee-Hee Factor.’ Just being, you know, sweet and charming or whatever. So I was able to make a lot of money by busking. On top of that, I was playing shows around town for tips and sometimes for more than tips.” 

Finding merriment in owning the “Tee-Hee Factor”, White certainly seems like she’ll always be able to grin and bear it while persevering in this industry by successfully turning a few melancholy moments into an endless supply of sad, sad songs. “I was able to save up a lot of money just doing music,” she adds. “So I never really had to work a day job. I feel like I cheated life somehow.” With another unmistakable Bella laugh, a vibrant, dedicated White proves she sees the bright light at the end of her tunnel vision.

Encore: Bella White Answers Five Random Questions

Which song, album, or concert made you want to be a musician?

Oh, man. (laughs) That’s such a hard one. There are so many different answers to that question. Some of the really early bluegrass stuff that I got into really made me want to be a musician because it showed me how the culture of bluegrass music is for people to come together and play together. That community, that aspect of it, really inspires me. But then also I think that Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, that record just like cracked me up as a young girl and made me want to write songs and process my feelings. 

Where’s your dream place to perform? 

Oooh! I love the idea of playing Red Rocks [the amphitheater west of Denver]. Just like that view while you play music seems pretty unreal. I’ve been in the area before, driving through, but I’ve never actually been to Red Rocks. 

Worst recurring nightmare? 

(Laughs) I get the one where my teeth all fall out. That’s pretty scary. And I always wake up and have to check that they’re all still there. 

What TV show or streaming series would be a perfect fit for a Bella White song? 

Oh my gosh! That’s a hard one. I don’t even know. I’m trying to think. I feel like I’m not much of a good TV person. (Reminded that season one of HBO’s hit series The Last of Us had a Calgary/Alberta connection, she perks up.) Oh, yes! I saw the first episode. I have to finish it. See, that’s what I always do. I watch the first episode, and then I get distracted by my life (laughs), and then I forget to keep watching. Maybe that would be the one because it has a Calgary connection. (Told that she shares the same first name with Bella Ramsey, the young female lead playing Ellie, clinches her decision.) Oh, well, there you go. There’s my answer! The Last of Us! (laughs) 

Finally, to offset the fact that you’re getting known as a serious singer-songwriter, what’s the craziest thing about yourself that you’re well-adjusted enough to reveal now? 

Oh, man. That’s a tough question to answer. Humor is one of my biggest coping mechanisms. (laughs) And that really doesn’t come through in my music. (pauses) I’ve got a lot of impulsive tattoos. Usually, I’ll get an impulsive tattoo every now and then. I’ve got this one tattoo that I really love that’s like a moon, and it has big heron wings on it. Like a blue heron. But maybe my favorite tattoo is this tiny little smiley face [saying it’s on her upper thigh] that my friend gave me one night after a little bit of drinking. (laughs) It reminds me to be happy.