“We finished it just to finish an album,” said emerging Nashville elite Mercy Bell. She spoke humbly of her work but didn’t undercut what she’s managed to build or the emotional pain from which it was born.
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Her new self-titled album took three years to make and follows her debut, 2011’s All Good Cowboys. An eight-year gap can seem like an eternity in the music industry; trends move rapidly and independent musicians are always at the mercy of time.
Bell doesn’t sweat it too much. Since the album’s release, there has been a groundswell of attention around her music, and her identity as a proudly queer Filipino-American is vital to that story. Raised on both coasts (first in Massachusetts, then sunny California), she grew up on a healthy diet of Linda Ronstadt, whose influence is scattered throughout all 10 tracks.
“I have loved Linda Ronstadt since I was a tiny child. I would sit by my uncle’s record player and listen as an 8-year-old to ‘Long, Long Time,’ which is the most grownup song,” she told American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “I was obsessed. I remember watching her on ‘Pirates of Penzance’ when she decided to be an opera singer. Then, I loved her Mariachi music. I’m going to go home tonight and watch the documentary. I love Linda Ronstadt. That’s an understatement.”
When you listen to songs like “Chocolate Milk & Whiskey,” “Black Dress” and the heart-worn closer “Everything Changes,” the Ronstadt factor guides Bell’s hand with great delicacy. “As a kid, I saw in her this chameleon. She’s a Mexican-American. She had all this ancestry, and she could do any musical style,” she said. “She didn’t care or preoccupy herself with fitting in. She just was. I love her live videos. She’s a consummate singer. I’ve always been drawn to singers. Sometimes, I feel in the industry you’re asked to choose between one style or another. She just did it all. She sang opera!”
But she isn’t standing in Ronstadt’s shadow. Bell has a power and craft all her own. “When I first met you my heart was skin and bones / And I would go to parties and come home alone and find a black hole,” she observes aching loneliness on her song “Dynamite.” With “Pattern,” she clutches to the folds of new romance, wrestling with intimacy and fear. “We don’t have to mean it / No one will believe it / You’ll see,” she confesses. “No Prayer” smacks with a rock ‘n roll snarl, an irreverent charmer. “Ask for forgiveness that old time religion / But there’s no prayer for me,” she crows.
The album – produced by Bell, Trace Faulkner and Abby Hairston – boasts an impressive roster of musicians. Those include Larissa Maestro (string arrangements, cello), Kristin Weber (violin), Robert Gay (horn arrangements, trumpet), Andrew Hagen (saxophone), Diego Vasquez (trombone), guitar, mandolin and steel instrumentalists Megan Elizabeth McCormick, Michael Roberts, Benjamin Stranger, Nathan Caldwell and Tony Paoletta, and key players Matthew Collins Gordon and Paisley Fields.
“I recorded the album any spare weekend or day off that I had for a year and a half or so. It was bits and pieces,” noted Bell.
Her journey is an empowering one. She’s felt the highest of highs and the lowest of lows – everything life could possible throw her way. With Mercy Bell, she wears her heart on her sleeve and engages all parts of her past, from the unbearable pain to the thrill of love. Each component pushes her forward, and now she is finally making her mark.
Bell spoke with American Songwriter about arriving late, writing a Taylor Swift-worthy song and her mother’s passing.
Your mother passed away three years ago, and this album started around the same time. Were those journeys pretty intertwined for you?
Oh, absolutely. Before my mom died, I had been doing music, but my head wasn’t at the grindstone about it. When she died, I felt like I needed something to cope, and I needed a goal. I was very lost. My bandmates were like, “Why don’t we make an album?” I said, “I don’t have any money.” None of them had any money either. It’s expensive to make an album, but we just started. Three years later, we have an album. It was a goal for me to find some kind of sanity during that time.
Opening track “Home” contains the lyric: “Yeah, I might have been late, but at least I arrived.” Does that sum up your journey?
You just finish the adventure. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter where you are in your life. I’m 34. I don’t have a record label, and I work two jobs. You make it work no matter what. I showed up in a weird way. I don’t fit all the trappings of a lot of Music Row stories. But, hey, I showed up! Showing up is half the battle.
I started writing this song before my mom died. I half-finish a lot of songs and will put it away. Then, after she died, I started to play this song more, and the extra verses just showed up. I didn’t even think about it too much. I started to play it out more and with my band. It filled itself out – the lines about “waking up in strange beds, trying to outrun the call finding out that she’s dead.” It’s very literal moments of my life of just being listless, homeless and doing everything to not breathe properly.
It was a half-finished song, and it was waiting for its home. Weirdly, I remember putting it away before she died thinking, “This song isn’t hard hitting enough. It needs something that’s harder, something more serious.” After she died, I thought it was such a weird self-prophecy almost.
In songs like “Chocolate Milk and Whiskey,” you paint a clear, vivid picture of the scene. Across the board, you have such a specificity in your writing on the record. Has that always been your natural inclination?
Yes. In college, I took a short story writing class. I remember my professor saying, “If you can use specifics to show something, please do that, as opposed to using too many adjectives.” Then, I really gravitated toward songwriters like John Prine. In his song “Angel Montgomery,” he sings, “There’s flies in the kitchen / I can hear ‘em there buzzing.” That’s way better than saying the kitchen is dirty. I’ve always been fascinated by that sort of thing in all kinds of writing. It’s always been my challenge to myself – can I paint a picture? That’s more interesting for myself.
I had been talking with one of my friends who lived in LA. She’s credited on the album [Stefanie Suss Cowan]. I’ll always credit somebody if I took a line from them. She said, “Whenever you come to visit, I have chocolate milk and whiskey waiting for you.” It reminded me of all the times in my life that my friends have come through for me even when I’m not somebody they should be hanging out with. It’s the small things, like listening to pop music for six hours and not getting off the couch. Then, when you’re finally hungry, it’s like, “Want to get some food? Let’s go!”
It’s all stuff I’ve done with different friends, but I suffer from pretty bad depression a lot of the time. To get myself out of it, I sometimes have to cling to those people. It’s the small, daily life things. It’s also playing some Dolly, playing some pop music that’ll get you up and functioning.
“Dynamite” has a timeless resonance with the melody. How did this one come together musically for you?
I wrote this song about the girl I was dating at the time. I had been in the closet and really struggling with a lot of things. She showed up out of the blue. The whole way I always think about this song is… I believe it’s a Charles Bukowski quote: “The gods will offer you chances / Know them / Take them” [from “The Laughing Heart”]. I feel this whole song was about how the gods give you chances, and you have to take them. They’ll filter out of the blue for you.
I almost think of it as a chorus of muses that are watching you when you’re in your misery. That’s why I wanted to have a momentum to it. We went through many ways of recording and producing it. Finally, we ended on a Sufjan Stevens kind of vibe, almost, or a Dixie Chicks’ ‘Home’ album acoustic-y vibe. There are a lot of different elements coming in and out. The narrator is very alone, but they’re not alone. The girl showed up and pulled me out into my actual life.
“Skip to the Part” is the poppiest of the bunch. What led you in that direction on this song?
There’s a Tom Waits quote: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” I had been going through this… I was basically in love with a girl who was not ready to deal with her sexuality. I was always the side chick whether I knew it or not. It was very painful. I remember one day I was just heartbroken and sitting on my bed. Instead of fighting her again, I thought, “I’m going to write a Taylor Swift song about having this kind of an affair.” I didn’t know I was a side chick a lot of the time. It was weird and very messy and dysfunctional.
I was so sad. I had to make it an upbeat song as a challenge to myself. It was out of necessity, self therapy on one level. I gave my co-writers a lumpy mass of a pop song. I said, “Here, take care of this.” They helped hone it down a little bit. I think there were some much angrier lyrics, and they helped make it a bit more mainstream – less Alanis, more T-Swift, I think. [laughs]
You originally recorded “Black Dress” for your first album, 2011’s All Good Cowboys. How do you compare and contrast its original meaning and what it represents now?
When I first wrote it, I was still in the closet and struggling with my sexuality. It was a very raw song. I was so confused. It’s almost a journal of my sexuality. After 10 years of playing it, and I’m out now, it’s taken on this shape of heartaches I’ve had. It’s still my most personal song. Even though I’m out and proud, it’s now a chronicle of pain. I still feel it and feel all the loss and heartbreak. I ask myself, “Can I just not be heartbroken?”
I was a much more guitar-centric singer-songwriter 10 years ago. Coming to Nashville, I’ve learned so much as a musician. I feel this version is a much more mature version. I thought that when I came out that I would lose some of the meaning of the song, but when I sing it, I don’t even think about being in the closet. I think about heartbreak – and that doesn’t matter who you are. You’re still going to be heartbroken at some point. How come I can’t get love right?
Hopefully, knock on wood, I’m reversing that curse now. [laughs] Whenever I’m singing it, and someone’s just broken up with me, people always say, “I loved that performance!” That’s because I got broken up with…
You have an extensive theatre background – you even mounted musicals with your cousins. What was its importance in your life, and what musicals have stuck with you most?
My two favorite musicals are “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Westside Story.” I love “Jesus Christ Superstar” because when you listen to it, it’s a rock-opera but it’s also just a capsule of the ‘70s. For “Westside Story,” I just love Leonard Bernstein. If I could have dinner with one dead person that wasn’t somebody I was related to, it’d be Leonard Bernstein.
You can just tell how tortured he was. He was a gay man living in the closet during the McCarthy hearings. It’s wild. It’s a story about forbidden love and immigration – and it’s also written by a gay man. I didn’t know that when I first heard it. All I heard was the longing and the soaring melodies. I remember hearing “Maria,” and I should have known I was gay back then. I remember thinking, “That’s how I feel about girls, too.”
My parents put me in choir and musical theatre as a kid. It taught me how to be a team player, harmonies, how to layer things in and how to work with orchestras. I still yearn for that kind of orchestration on things. On the album, we have a string section. My friend and I are working on a musical, actually. He’s living in New York, but musicals can take many years. That’s all I’ll say about that. [laughs]