Mercy Bell
Photo: Emily April Allen / Courtesy of Sweetheart PR

The Big Sky Sound of Mercy Bell an Unlikely Outlaw

Country music’s Mercy Bell talks about finding a home in Nashville, the need for queer and nonwhite perspectives, and the transformative power of storytelling.

Golden Child
Mercy Bell
Independent
6 August 2021

“I really hope that they don’t realize I’m an impostor,” Mercy Bell jokes about her upcoming feature at Nashville Pride, alongside a variety of fellow LGBTQ+ country musicians that includes Brooke Eden and Orville Peck. In October, she also plans to perform at the inaugural year of ArtemisFest, an all-female festival that celebrates women in Americana.

However, with an album like Golden Child at her back, Bell would be hard-pressed to find someone making those sorts of accusations about her credentials. Across the album’s short seven-track run, she explores diverse mythology of small-town perspectives, all of which unfurl over classic country twangs. From the titular track’s “prom king [who] wants to be a drag queen” to the hidden lovers holding out for hope in “Big Sky, Wide Open”, Mercy Bell delves into the heads of her heartland characters with a Springsteen-esque flair. Her love of the Boss is well documented and even rounds out the album with a cover of “Atlantic City”.

Bell didn’t originally get her start in country. Self-effacingly, she even says that her music isn’t “steeped in a great tradition” of the genre. Rather, she came up in the 2000s scenes of Rilo Kiley and Weezer, an indie-rock grounding that she says has influenced the ideological framework from which she approaches her music.

“[With] that avant-garde nature of indie rock and indie pop, as long as it sounds cool from a non-lyrical perspective, it’s okay,” she recalls. “You could kind of throw anything in — you could say something that was just gibberish. As long as it sounds cool and catchy, that’s all they care about.”

This devil-may-care attitude has shaped her current work, making the bisexual, Filipino-American musician comfortable confronting country music’s historically conservative reputation. This she does artfully, through the simple act of telling her own stories. To that end, she cites a Sam Shepard quote: “Why not be more honest?” 

“We could all be more honest,” she insists, an idea that she believes is as intrinsically connected to good storytelling as it is to separating society from the boxes of gender and sexuality. “It shows the full breadth of who we are … nuance helps people find their truth.” 

Despite the ease with which she inhabits different characters in her music, Mercy Bell believes that every good story has this element of personal truth to it. For instance, in her 2019 song “Bent”, she draws from her own process of coming out and coming into herself. “I cut my hair / fell in love with girls / now I ain’t scared,” she declares, an in-your-face testament to being who you are regardless of what the world has to say about it.

“I like to bring that sort of punk rock ethos,” she smiles, explaining that she’s worked hard to keep her rough edges. Of course, there are plenty of country musicians who do the same. Among her favorite ’90s country tracks, for instance, Bell cites “Fancy” and “Independence Day” by Reba McEntire, two songs that deal in particularly dark themes of poverty and domestic violence. “That’s what I love about this era of music: it’s a mixture,” she notes. “It’s quirky, and it’s a little weird.”

Like the troubadours of 1970s outlaw country before her, though, Bell doesn’t vibe with the “board of directors” that she finds music has to pass through in the industry, and she shies away from the “packaged” elements of a typical Music Row sound. When it comes to queerness, she’s similarly defiant. “People like to say ‘we don’t have that here’ — yeah, you do. We’re just hiding. I happen to know that queer people exist everywhere.”

Nashville, however, has had its own merits when it comes to Bell’s creative evolution. With her storytelling-first approach, Bell has found a home in Music City’s heavy emphasis on songwriting. “When I moved to Nashville, I realized there was a whole world…that country music could teach me,” she says on finding her place in the genre. “There’s a long tradition of that kind of lyricism.”

Though she may not have grown up in country music culture, that lyrical tradition has acted as an entry point for her to access it. “There’s so many songwriters who have started off behind the scenes, working on the writing and production side, and then have just made it,” she notes, citing Tom T. Hall as one famous example.

Similarly, she’s also found that country and western music lends itself more easily to in-depth, specific narratives than other genres do. This is something that fills an urgent need in the pop culture landscape for nuanced LGBTQ+ and non-white perspectives — though in her words, “all representation helps”.

“I didn’t even realize there was a word for [my sexuality] until I watched The OC,” she says, remembering the image of Olivia Wilde fondly as a “tattooed femme bartender.” “I didn’t know that bisexuality was a thing.”

When it comes to this sort of representation, Bell has found film and television particularly inspiring lately. She’s been watching the most recent season of The L Word with her girlfriend and was particularly fond of Tessa Thompson’s androgynous look in the new Men in Black. “I ingest pop culture like a fiend,” she says.

Sometimes, she acknowledges, the search for queer narratives leads to slightly less overt stories, particularly when it comes to music. “I love dissecting Taylor Swift songs to pretend she’s gay,” she laughs.

Luckily, her own musical catalog is far more upfront than the fan theories circling about “Betty” and “Dorothea”. And Bell’s emphasis on speaking the truth is currently taking her to new heights.

In addition to her upcoming performances, she appears as an interview subject and musical feature in the recent Cannes premiere The Sound of Us, a documentary about the music industry’s attempts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The film features big-name artists like Patti Smith and Ben Folds among its subjects.

“I didn’t think I was gonna weep,” she says of watching it for the first time. Despite those best intentions, though, the documentary’s footage of music programs in hospices, prisons, and low-income communities forced a visceral emotional response.

In addition to the documentary, she teases new projects that she “can’t really talk about yet”, as well as a potential vinyl release for Golden Child, which has been complicated by a worldwide vinyl shortage.

Yet those that listen to her record know the potent power of her lyrics and her distinct brand of storytelling. She prefers the stories in which diversity isn’t “made into such a big deal”, valuing instances in which it’s “just part of the storyline” without overt tokenization or boiling a character down to one aspect of their identity. “I feel like Euphoria is doing that really well right now,” she comments. “The characters are so blatantly queer, but they don’t address it, it’s just shown.”

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