Olga Bell both disrobed and dressed up for her latest music video, released Thursday from one of her experimental side projects, “nothankyou.” The Williamsburg (via Russia and Alaska) singer-songwriter appears first in the video as a bare-chested brunette, then as a demure version of herself in glasses, and finally in a blond wig. At the end, all three characters stand side by side, and it’s clear they’re all Bell.
In a way, it’s a pretty accurate portrait of the electronic composer, who has never been easy to categorize as doing that one thing. Before joining the Dirty Projectors in 2012 (replacing Angel Deeradorian on keys), Bell collaborated with the rap group Das Racist and Brooklyn-based synthpop duo Chairlift, recorded a semi-classical piece in Russian, worked with composer Philip Glass and started a side project with indie pop artist Tom Vek. She makes experimental pop songs on computers, but was classically trained as a pianist.
Tonight, Bell will go on stage solo at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she tells Bedford + Bowery she’ll unveil three new songs as well as play a number of songs from her debut album Diamonite. We sincerely hope she’ll also play “Chase No Face,” her homage song to the tragically disfigured cat who both charmed and horrified the Internet last year. In the music video for the song, light is projected onto Bell’s own face, mirroring her facial movements in real time.
Can you tell me a little more about the music video for “Chase No Face”?
That video was a collaboration between me and Zachary Lieberman, this amazing data computer artist. We’d been wanting to work together for a while. I had this song that was short, and these light masks turned out to be exactly the thing. The song is about this crazy cat that vets had rescued, and it didn’t have eyelids, it didn’t have a face. This cat that now I’ve subscribed to on Tumblr or whatever. People’s comments are perfectly divided between: “you’re so humane for taking this animal in,” or “this is cruel.” That’s how it started, and then the video grew into something more abstract.
Music is, as far back as I can remember, what I wanted to do. I was a very serious classical pianist, I played in competitions and constant festivals. Having grown up in Alaska, I never went snowboarding, because it was too much of a liability for my precious wrists. I was like the bubble kid. It was never a question of if I would do music over something else.
I guess I had this moment of reckoning, though, when I didn’t get into Juilliard [Music School] for grad school. It’s a many-tiered admission process, and then I wasn’t on the final list. I have this very vivid memory of calling my mother from Lincoln Center and blubbering on the phone and not knowing what I would do next. I didn’t have any tolerance or acceptance of any other path than this perfect trajectory I had plotted out. And this Russian tiger mom who had been planning my whole life suddenly in this moment asked: ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And suddenly it was this abyss of possibility that I had never even considered.
For the most part, I was really good as a classical pianist. And if you’re good, you don’t really think about: is it making you happy? For my whole life, I was listening to Radiohead and Bjork and Busta Rhymes and Tribe Called Quest in secret, because I never even considered that I would be part of a world that is so fun and removed — and making music. I never considered that I would be in a related sphere to these people I was listening to. It was just my CD collection. [But after the Juilliard rejection], suddenly I really wanted to be a VJ at MTV, or thought I would do some theater music, and then I just started messing around on Garage Band, and started putting up some demos on Myspace, did some open mics. I’ve been shuffling around New York ever since.
My Russian piano teacher growing up was very strict, but also very passionate about music itself. At the end of my time at NEC [New England Conservatory in Boston], she encouraged me — and this is so against type for a conservatory teacher — she said that everyone needs to have a period when they sort of examine their wiring, and you decide what your best contribution could be. What I’m doing right now, to me is really fun, and it just feels like it uses the greater part of what I’m able to do. Which I think if I were to be a classical pianist, I wouldn’t. I think I was wired to also sing and sort of act, and also make beats. I think that’s what I was wired to be.
With the Dirty Projectors, I had so loved and revered all their writing. Everybody with musical training, when they hear Radiohead or the Dirty Projectors, you think that you have this incredibly deep understanding – that you can hear everything that they’re doing. Basically I was hearing all those records, and I listened to them so much that I had by proxy memorized all the parts. I had considered for a long time, two or three years ago, getting in touch with [frontman] Dave [Longstreth] to tell them that if they would need a sub, I would be their man. I was such a huge fan. I was so intricately familiar with their records. But I never had the chutzpah to do that. [It happened because vocalist] Amber [Coffman] sent me an email asking if I was available for a few dates and then Amber and Dave and I had brunch.
In my estimation, I’ve become a stronger singer. I’m thinking more about melody, about songwriting, wishing I could play guitar. Sometimes after a Dirty Projectors show, I’ll think about the tools I’m using in my own music and I’ll rage a little, like, “Who needs all this clumsy gear? All you need is the song.”
But then two nights ago, seeing [Daniel Lopatin’s experimental act] Oneohtrix Point Never perform in a church, my mind and eardrums melting, I sort of found myself having the exact opposite reaction: “Hooray for machines!” It was a glorious show of what technology can empower a brain to make. That’s not to say that Daniel Lopatin’s music isn’t melodious or that Dirty Projectors don’t make use of technology, it’s just a snapshot of two very distinct impressions. And it feels good to be pulled around like that.