Name: Mercy Bell
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Mercy Bell's new full-length album Golden Child is out now.
Recommendations: “Moments”, a poem by Mary Oliver; “I Imagine the Gods”, a poem by Jack Gilbert
If you enjoyed this Mercy Bell interview, visit her official website for more information. Or follow her socials on Instagram, Facebook and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I grew up in a very artistic family. Music, art, literature, all the arts were always around me. I started singing in choirs and musical theater at age 7 and transitioned to bands and songwriting when I was in college/university.
All the adults in my family, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, had different musical taste so I was exposed to every genre of music from a young age. From classical to mariachi, to disco to Lilith Fair. I loved it!
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I started writing songs for bands or musical theater projects, or my friend’s student films, so I learned how to write with a genre in mind. As a singer, I sang in theater, choir, Jazz, and indie bands. So it was a big mix of influences. Then I transitioned into more personal and confessional songwriting, for myself.
When I started to learn about the craft of songwriting I started to mix together all the genres I had been drawn to in my life. Sometimes my songs are pop, sometimes folk, sometimes country, sometimes rock. Sometimes all of them! I don’t censor myself.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t try to censor myself when I write and sing, so my audience gets to see me as me. It’s truly liberating. I am a queer Filipino-American who has lived all over the United States, loves travel, had a colorful childhood, and I openly talk about my adventures with mental health.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It took a long time to learn how to ask for what I wanted in the recording and rehearsing process. The purest part of my process was writing and playing solo. But 12 years in, and I am much better at asking for what I want and getting it, and for collaborating effectively.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I’m much more of a vocal songwriter, I tend to create riffs and songs vocally. I have studied the craft of songwriting a lot, and that is where my biggest breakthroughs have been.
Moving to Nashville and being surrounded by songwriters, and studying my favorite songwriters, like Max Martin, Sia, Jenny Lewis, Patty Griffin, Kacey Musgraves (the list goes on) has been my best tool.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
This is gonna sound funny, but when the pandemic started, I was so burned out from working 2 jobs and making music, I had lost my love for it. But when we were all quarantined, and I started playing Livestreams for people, just me and my guitar from my bedroom and them, all across the world, it made me truly fall in love with music again. It made me realize why I do this, to connect with other humans and create art!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’m definitely the lyrics and hooks person. I will write down lyrics or prose and use my iPhone to remember a hook. And usually that’s how songs get created.
If I’m in a co-write, I tend to just improvise in the corner with lyrics and hooks until everyone likes something.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It can be pretty stressful. Right now I’m a bartender, and my schedule changes a lot. I do not have a fixed schedule because of that. But each day I try to fit in exercise, meditation, and music. So far it’s working!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Honestly, every time I sing and the room goes from being noisy and loud to dead silencd, just because I’m singing, that is magical. Or when someone tells me my song is stuck in their head. Or when someone tells me my song helped them through a hard time in their life. That feels magical every single time. It seems mundane but it’s where the magic is.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I work really well with a prompt or a time limit. Some of my best work has come from someone who needs a song for something and needs it YESTERDAY. And they’ll have a subject matter and I just go from there. It’s the best. A theme and a deadline.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music has helped me discover myself, my sexuality, it has gotten me through grief and mental illness. Music, creativity, and art will always be healing to me, and even if I’m all alone on a deserted island and nobody will ever hear me again, I will still sing.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
That’s a good thoughtful question and I don’t know enough about it to give an answer.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Photography, dance, and literature inspire a lot of my music. If I am feeling creatively blocked, I seek out other artists. By consuming art, my own creativity is inspired.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I am VERY passionate about mental health. I talk about it in my music and my social media platforms. I have worked on my mental health for years and understand how many people don’t know a lot about it, so I don’t censor myself with my own struggles when I sing, write, or talk about myself.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I don’t know if I can put that into words, but maybe I can sing about it.