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Jennah Bell Carves the Courage In Her Work

June 3, 2019
Written by
Ashawnta Jackson
Photos by:
Mallory Talty

Long before the conversation moved to country music and how to reclaim your space in it, or our shared love (not nearly a strong enough word) of Stevie Wonder, I’d planned on asking singer-songwriter Jennah Bell about place. Not where she was from, or where she lived, but how her music evokes a sense of belonging somewhere, and alternatively, of being pushed away from somewhere. When I finally remembered to ask how she roots her music to place, “I lived in a lot of places. Who I am and who I’ve met in those places naturally seeped in there,” she tells me. Bell’s life has brought her from Oakland, to Boston, to New York, to L.A. and beyond, each finding room in Anchors & Elephants, her first full-length album. 

The album is a blend of rock, R&B, country, and folk. It is a place on the map, a node on a timeline, and a personal history. “This album is just one understanding of myself,” says Bell over the phone from one of the stops on her recent tour. “One understanding of what it’s like to be in your 20s, trying to survive on your art, falling in love left and right. [It’s about] understanding who you are and what your background means, and how that’s going to apply to the world.” Bell’s understanding of her musical background came early. The child of a musicologist mother and a musician father, her life was always filled with music and words. “My mom is a really big reader, and encouraged me to read,” Bell says, which fuelled her love of writing. “Poetry turned into song form, and when I was 13, I asked my dad for a guitar.”

Those early days were also filled with collecting a diverse range of musical influences, from showtunes to jazz, that would all eventually find their way into her newest release; from the paranoid electric funk-blues of “Can’t Be Too Careful,” to the classic soul of “Everybody Likes to Party” to the languid country-folk of “John Forbid.” It doesn’t take long before we talk about one of the issues—at least musically—of the day; who, exactly, can claim which music. 

Country music, Americana, and its influences are woven throughout the album, and Bell is unapologetic about asserting her claim to it. “I think exclusion comes from a lack of information, a lack of seeking information” Bell says. “Because country is gospel is Americana. It’s all roots music. I feel like genre is just a way to segregate your ears. People of color made country albums, and the gatekeepers just kept them out of it because they were not framed in the way that country is framed. I don’t subscribe to it. I just like good songs.” 

Shattering conventions is always something that Bell keeps in mind. The presence of a Black woman, guitar in hand, singing about her truth (“Walk[ing] in the world as if I deserve to be here,” as Bell explains), is always going to shatter some expectations. “If you’ve only ever seen white people play country music,” Bell says. “Then it’s going to be a very stark contrast when a Black woman does it. You’re going to instinctually not call it country music. Americana is as much a right and an origin story for Black people as it is for [anyone else].”

Bell sees her work as “having the courage to make space for yourself,” and that bravery is evident throughout the album. Full of songs that speak to the duelling qualities of strength and vulnerability—qualities she feels live in the same space—Anchors & Elephants is Bell’s personal statement. But she recognizes that the album also represents a communal understanding of growth and change—a feeling that she puts into her live performances. She tells me about the exchange, that moment when she and her audience are working together, each taking and giving as they need. “Performance is kind of a hindsight emotional understanding of what you’re doing,” she says. “When songs get in front of people, you have a moment to actually experience it through someone else’s eyes.”

Reflecting on her work, on the exchange, on its value, Bell is confident about what this album represents. “On every level in every way I think I have grown,” she says. It is a lesson for me about who I am and who I’ve been.” The album, its reception, and its fans (Robert Glasper and Questlove among them) are all layers in her growth process. “My heart lies in storytelling,” Bell says. “Because I want people to know how beautiful life is—in its duality, in its multiplicity, in its nuance.”

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