Music

Raquel Bell's Long Road to 'Swandala' (album stream + interview)

Photo: David Marshall / Courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media

Raquel Bell's new album Swandala explores the strange, wonderful world of the internal made external.

Raquel Bell's new release, Swandala arrives July 27. The record is the culmination of a decade's worth of exploration and experimentation. The resulting music is rife with imaginative, almost childlike passages that are both charming and alarming. One moment one feels calmed and bathed in warmth, the next they might find themselves bolting forth with widened eyes, altered to crack, crash, or boom that upsets what they thought they felt or thought they knew. That can be said of many pieces on the record, but "Wizard Liar" and "Vibration Carnation" best exemplify this. Meanwhile, Bell accomplishes the seemingly unthinkable by melding the strange, ethereal vocal style of Kate Bush with something that sounds like honky tonk music on "Who Gets to Name the Name". (Fans of Carla Bozulich's country-minded records will rejoice.)

Bell is an undeniably remarkable vocalist but perhaps what shines brightest on this collection is her imagination and ability to lead listeners into uncharted territory with a charisma that glistens more brightly with repeated listens. Joining Bell on the LP are Lisa Cameron (ST37/Roky Ericson/Suspirians), Jonathan Horne (White Denim/Young Mothers) and Adam Jones (Bill Callahan). Thor Harris added vibraphone and percussion, and Bob Hoffnar lent pedal steel work. Zac Traeger acted as music director and performed piano accompaniment on the final track, "Swan".

Bell, who is also a visual artist, has created video content to accompany the album, including "Lose", which was issued ahead of the record's release.

How did the material for this album come together?

I have been trying to make this particular record for 10 years. It's always been difficult for me to be inside a genre. I really wanted it to be a cohesive record while still being able to explore music in a vast way. It took me a long time to have the maturity to articulate it. There were so many failed attempts. I wanted the album to be perfect and I think that ultimately I realized that it didn't need to be perfect. But it did need to be very particular. It required me selling my apartment in New York and moving to the middle of nowhere to have enough perspective and time and space to execute what I wanted to do.

I also had to find musicians who I thought could play this stuff. I was listening to musicians around Austin and beyond for over a year, going to shows, looking for the most amazing people I could find. It was so thrilling.

Do you write by creating demos or are you trying to assemble a group of players, get them in a room and then trying to find the music from there?

This was a combination of those approaches. For me, it was an experiment in just that. I did a lot of demos when I moved out to Texas. I recorded them myself and did a lot of deep exploration. I was also getting a lot of shows down in Austin. One of them happened to be a tribute to Klaus Nomi. I was asked to compose a set of music that was inspired by him. I took that challenge to push my composition in a more non-traditional way. I really liked what I got out of it. I wound up including some of the music that I composed for that show on the record. That was me really looking for orchestration. That's when I added strings and Theremin and vibraphone and percussion and flute and clarinet.

There were others where I did want to work with other musicians so I got a core group together, people I thought were mind-blowing. We went into the rehearsal space and worked on those songs. You don't have a ton of time with professional musicians to do that. It's not like a band. I had these huge pieces of paper and I would draw a map of the song. I work in some rather unusual time signatures and complex arrangements, so these were big charts. I would show that to the musicians and say, "This is kind of what I'm after."

Sometimes I feel that in music the verbal communication is actually behind musical play between people. It's always been a struggle for me to get my ideas across. I was using visuals to show everyone what I was thinking and then tried to figure out where we could go. That's where I really let go of some of the music. It definitely wasn't what I envisioned, but I just let it go and let it be what it was going to be on those really long tracks where we were exploring.

You mentioned living out in a desolate area and I can hear that in something like "Wizard Liar".

That song was definitely post New York City, post touring, post having the identity of being in bands, being on the East Coast. There's a lot of security in that way of life. Then, all of a sudden, I was by myself in the middle of nowhere and for the first time I could just play music all the time. What do you do with that? All of a sudden you don't have a single excuse, you don't anyone telling you not to do something and then it's all on you. What are you going to do in that silence?

That's when I really found out what I was capable of and I think that just giving yourself enough time to be alone with nothing means that all sorts of weird shit starts to happen. For me, "Wizard Liar" was the weirdest of the weird. I would just start playing my organ and singing, and then lyrics would come. I'd say, "How would I normally do this?" And then I'd do the opposite.

I was actually working on going into interstellar realms with that music. I wasn't judging it. For me, this record is really about allowing my inner reality to emerge.

When I listen to these songs I don't know how they're going to evolve.

That's what I want. I'm a performer. That's when I'm myself. I want to create music that, when I perform it on stage, is so immediate that I'm trying to keep up with it versus having to push it. I never want to have to create the emotion or force the emotion. I just want the music itself to be like a ride at Disneyland.

Where did this trust in the subconscious come in?

No two people see anything the same way. Communication, to me, is the most incredible thing between humans. We really don't know, in our minds, what the other person is seeing or thinking. But we all feel <i>something</i>. It's taken me all this time to be able to articulate those feelings in the form of art. My whole life has been in this dream realm. I am very connected to the subconscious. I am able to immediately create. I don't need prep. That's my gift. But that gift comes with a big problem, which is figuring out how to work in the material world. You can be a dreamer and not have any way to get that into the physical. That can feel like torture. Abstraction into form and the balance of those two is everything.

You made some videos to accompany the album.

That was the most thrilling experience of my life. I had no idea what was going to happen. I just opened it up to the greatest potential and now people I didn't even know before that shoot are now some of my favorite collaborators in life. That's the good thing about releasing some of these control/fear things. You get payoff beyond your wildest dreams. Every day something happens beyond my wildest dreams that reinforces all the courageous steps that I have to keep taking.

A long time ago I was learning how to play guitar and found myself surrounded by players who were much more accomplished than me. I asked one of them, "How do I know when I'm good?" He said, "Don't even think about it." The trick, I guess, is to create something that's authentic even if it's not technically perfect.

The people who really inspire me are walking versions of art. You can't separate the person from the art. I think it's really about the art inside your body from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep at night. How are you perceiving yourself? How much are you interacting? And how much fucking fun can you have in a single day? If you're as interested in the sheets that you sleep on as the chords that you're going to play, the chords are going to be better!

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