Ever since Bella White discovered music as a viable career path at age 16, the breakthrough singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist talent has never looked back.
Raised in Calgary, the native Canadian credits her father, a transplanted Virginian with Bluegrass blood, for instilling a deep respect for Appalachian traditional music. White was indoctrinated from a young age while following her father along his festival circuit. At home, she heard the sweets sounds spinning from Bill Monroe’s records. White listened carefully to Flatts & Scruggs, upholding their work as the gold standard of the Bluegrass tradition. The artist began purveying the ritualized old-time music she first heard from Tommy Jarrell and Dwight Diller, who taught her father to play the banjo.
“Music is the biggest part of who I am, just like my physical body,” White tells American Songwriter over the phone. “Growing up, it was a constant. And since I was really little, I’ve been just a bag of emotions. I’m super sensitive all the time. And it’s not necessarily being sad all the time; I feel like I experience emotions intensely. I think that having that exposure to music was a gateway to feel things I couldn’t feel in other ways.”
She honed her songwriting while participating in summer workshops and camps integral to the folk festival culture. She returned year after year from age 12 until she was 19. White points to a particular moment at 14 when her peers forever changed her perception of playing this type of music. While jamming with two women, Anna and Elizabeth, who she looked up to as “hardcore” traditional musicians, one of them asked if they could play a Lana Del Ray song.
“I was like, ‘What? You guys don’t just listen to Bluegrass from the ‘50s?’” White laughs. “Because like, as much as I love Bluegrass and traditional music, I also listen to a lot of modern music and always have.”
After acquainting herself with such reverence, White finally took the liberty to explore other artists out there on her own. This chapter was critical for her artistic development. The mantle of these traditions is a heavy-weight to bear, and she does not take the responsibility lightly. However, to keep these traditions alive, generation after generation, it becomes critical to evolve. With respect for the deeply run roots from which her musical foundation blossomed, White looked up to the artists who seemed to interpret the antiquated art form in a contemporary style while upholding the integrity of the roots influence.
One of these was Molly Tuttle, who she ran into several times at these songwriting camps. The virtuosic guitarist and songwriter, acclaimed for her neo-traditional boundary-pushing playing, peeled back more layers for White as she translated the shape-shifting sonic contributions from the likes of Taylor Swift and other contemporaries on ancient instruments.
“I remember being like, ‘You like Taylor Swift? That’s so cool,’” says White. “There was a while where I thought to be in this world, I had to only listen to the most traditional music. So I think recognizing that everyone does more than that, and that’s how it feeds into their music, opened many doors for me. I was like, ‘Okay, I feel seen, more than in just the most traditional sense of music right now.’”
White approached the last decade of her music as an apprentice to anyone willing to let her listen. Observing while others created, the artist carved a unique space that intersects her earliest influences and most recent sonic influences. The result is a dynamic blend of roots music, that when aligned with her inimitable vocal expression, establishes White as a defining voice in the modern lineage of an heirloom musical tradition.
Produced by Patrick M’Gonigle of The Lonely Heartstring Band and mixed by Grammy Award-winning engineer Dave Sinko, Just Like Leaving comprises nine carefully selected tracks that felt like a fitting debut of her envisioned artistry.
White self-released this introductory record in the fall of 2020, with the help of an ensemble of musicians that had served as her touring band comprised of Reed Stutz (mandolin, vocals), Julian Pinelli (fiddle, vocals), and Robert Alan Mackie (bass). They gathered at Gilford Sound Studios in Vermont to record a proper album in March 2020. A week later, the pandemic brought the project to a screeching halt. But the determined artist completed the album by that September.
Upon release, Just Like Leaving caught the attention of Rounder Records, who swiftly signed the young artist under their wing and re-released the project in April 2021. Belonging to her new label home still thrills the artist beyond belief. “It’s such a special thing because like I mean Rounder is a label that I’ve kind of revered for my whole life, being someone that grew up on this tradition,” she says.
Occasionally White scans the Rounder roster, gawking as she reads the names of the legendary acts like Gregg Allman, The Stanley Brothers, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and Vince Gill’s Time Jumpers that live in perpetuity on the same list as her own. Founded in 1970, the roots-based record label has a long history of commitment to sacred music traditions.
Their first big break came in 1975 with J. D. Crowe & The New South’s self-titled LP, which featured Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Tony Rice. Sitting at the helm of defining era of progressive traditionalism, these “New Grass” icons would eventually usher in preceding generations of artists inspired by their pioneering approach to revitalizing Bluegrass music. Rounder’s own Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, and Robert Plant were among the first wave of followers.
White stands out as the youngest of her emerging class of Rounder acts defined by the likes of breakthrough virtuoso Billy Strings, the four-piece folk-pop outfit Mipso, and the acclaimed folk vocalist, Amythyst Kiah.
“It’s such a time capsule in a way, which I think is really cool,” she says.
The title track captures White’s emotional state at 18 after fleeing the captivity of her hometown, where she leaned heavily into the music community surrounding Berklee in Boston. Though she was not enrolled in the renowned performing arts conservatory, she eagerly sponged up the creative energy spewing from the student body and the overflow into the broader, bustling music scene.
A personal pride point, “Just Like Leaving,” is one of two instances on this album where White believes she was able to capture her feelings at the moment of inception. The other is the opening track, “Gutted.” Her lyrics are steeped in the melodramatic myriad of pubescent mood swings, wallowing back toward the visceral feeling enveloped in the song title. With veteran poise and prudence well beyond her 21 years, White articulates foreign feelings of alienation.
My name is something that my parents gave to me / but lately, I disassociate when it’s hollered out at me / And I’ve been tangled up in the dichotomy / In the notion of the disbelief that what will be will be, she sings with audible ache.
From where she sits now as a barely legal drinker, she feels light years removed from the romantic disillusionment she pored over in her late teens. “I wrote some songs when I was 17, and I know it’s not that many years, but I feel like it was such a formative period,” says White. “When I listen to that album now, I still love it so much. It feels like my diary entry. A lot of people comment on that mature for being young, which I agree with, but I also can hear this kind of unknowing.”
She sows seeds of self-doubt deep within “The Hand Your Raising.” The midway point on the project highlights her heedless, headfirst approach to a relationship that surmounted in catastrophe. “Broke (When I Realized)” evokes similar helplessness in the wake of a different type of heartache. In the vein of her favorite classic country songs, a driving fiddle steps in to share the story of her parent’s divorce.
With a few more notches of hard-earned wisdom on her belt, White listens in awe to a version of herself she describes as “keen” and “rearing to go.” She continues, “I had these existential thoughts.”
Just Like Leaving recounts the hypnosis of experiencing love for the first time with lyrical wonder. That same poetic poignancy conjures up the palpable devastation from a novice lover whose heart —one brimming with naïve ideas of romance—has shattered into a seemingly irreparable form. The songwriter, who has yet to put down her pen, points to a stark contrast between this introduction and her forthcoming pandemic-bred project.
Despite the chaos of the last year and a half, White describes the uncertain era as a “gentle time.”
In the stillness, she pushed her perspective onto paper. In the past, songwriting served her as a personal meditation or a means of reflecting inward. But the unprecedented vantage point led White to pause and observe the world around her. Still meditative, the artist feels her shift in approach expands her previous storytelling bounds tenfold. “The stuff that I’m writing now comes from a slightly more grounded voice,” she explains. “It’s less about my own feelings and more just like a collective feeling; less from myself and more just from absorbing.”
Photo Credit: Morgan Mason