Mercy Bell Delivers Powerful Autobiographical Ballad With "Black Dress" (premiere + interview)
Penned during a difficult summer, Mercy Bell's "Black Dress" has proven one of her most enduring. First released a decade ago, it gets a new lease on life.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mercy Bell released her self-titled album in 2019. Featuring direct, confessional songs that feature doses of Americana melded seamlessly with rock and soul flourishes, the LP finds Bell exploring heartbreak and doubt with uncommon bravery. The latest single from the record is "Black Dress", a deeply autobiographical tune she wrote while living in New York.
"A friend of mine needed a song for their off-off-off Broadway play," she says, "so I wrote it. I was going through a lot of emotional stuff the summer I wrote that and coming out. I was just channeling what I was living. Every time I experience a new heartbreak, it takes on more and more layers." Like each of her tracks, "Black Dress" explores the distance between resignation and resolve while demonstrating Bell's prowess as a vocalist and writer. It's confessional songwriting at its finest and most fulfilling.
Bell recently spoke with PopMatters about the album and her experiences in the Nashville singer-songwriter scene.
Tell me a little bit about how the album came together. Were these songs that you had around for a while or did you write this all in one particular frame of time?
I've been playing these songs live for a while, a couple of years. I realized which songs people liked the most. The fan favorites.
It's been said that everyone's a songwriter in Nashville. Tell me about being in that microcosm.
Good songwriting is on everybody's mind. I was really focused on honing my songwriting craft and learning from my peers. It's nerve-wracking. I came from New York, where it's more indie rock/indie pop. When I moved here, I thought, "Wow, this is above and beyond." I got my foot in the door and started trying things out. It's very welcoming here as long as you're willing to work hard on things. That sifts out the people who are hoping to get discovered versus the people who view this as a discipline.
I've heard that it's very welcoming there and that seems like it's very conducive to learning.
I was at a meeting recently, and somebody asked me if I wanted them to set me up on a co-write. I said, yes. I said, "Please and make sure it's somebody I can learn from." I want to grow constantly. I've never wondered about who's younger and who's more popular.
I love the song "Chocolate Milk and Whiskey". Especially the part about "busted up my give a damn".
I've always suffered from depression and anxiety. I put that in my songs because, to me, my songs are like journaling almost. But with more structure. A friend of mine, who lives in Los Angeles, texted me one day and said, "When are you coming to visit? I have chocolate milk and whiskey waiting for you." I credit her as a co-writer for that line because it's so good. It reminds me of every time I wake up depressed, and some friend comes over and wants to buy me breakfast. After my mom died, that's what got me through. It's really about having friends who say, "You can come be the Eeyore in the corner."
"Bent" also has strong, relatable lyrics.
I was doing a project here in Nashville, and they needed a song in 24 hours. They gave me this line from Isabella Jones, "I saw Mount Everest when I was three." That was all. I decided to write about being closeted and being yourself. I stuffed it with autobiographical anecdotes. I remember being at my desk at my job and kind of writing it in my head. I went home, tried it on the guitar, and said, "That'll work." We decided to do it as a rock song, but at the last minute, I said, "I want a horn section on this."
I was working at a disco bar, and they were playing something that was kind of Motown-y, and I heard a horn section. I texted my friend, who has a horn section. I said, "Are you free on Monday to record this song?"
I think those timed challenges are great for sparking creativity.
I come from a creative writing background. I took a lot of creative writing classes. I didn't think I'd be a songwriter. There's so much in that world where you have daily prompts. It's like doing push-ups and squats for your artistry.