Olga Bell: From Russian Classical Pianist To Brooklynite Dance Musician

Jun 4, 2016
Originally published on June 4, 2016 11:31 am

Olga Bell is a classically trained pianist who has ventured deeply into the world of electronica — and now, on her new album, Tempo, into dance music.

Bell was born in Moscow, grew up in Anchorage and now lives in Brooklyn. She joined NPR's Scott Simon from a studio in London to talk about her childhood memories of Russia and the double life she led as a classical musician and hip-hop fan. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read on for an edited version.

Scott Simon: How did you begin work on Tempo?

Olga Bell: I guess I felt a compulsion to dance, to do something physical. My previous record was sort of intellectually motivated, and this one was just much more about dancing!

You graduated from The New England Conservatory — and you've been playing music, I gather, from a pretty young age.

I have been. I started piano when I was 7, and I was a very serious classical pianist until was about 21.

And then what happened? I mean, you're still a serious pianist, but, then what happened?

Well, I'll tell you what happened: I didn't get into Julliard's graduate program. Isn't that such a first-world problem to have? [Laughs.] And then everything changed after that: I moved to New York, got a laptop, started with GarageBand and gradually kind of made my way into songwriting and production.

What do you love about electronic music that maybe didn't connect with you in classical music?

Well I sort of led a double life when I was strictly a classical musician. I would do what I considered my job, which I loved, and which was to honor the wishes of my Russian mother and my Russian piano teacher. And I practiced, and I did my competitions and recitals and really loved it, and really flourished. But then, when nobody was looking or paying attention, I would listen in my spare time to Radiohead and Bjork and lots of hip-hop, lots and lots of A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan. And I would play those beats and sort of frolic in the sound-world.

And because of the way I was trained in very serious piano study, I guess as a Russian — or maybe as anybody — it's like gymnastics or ballet, and I wasn't really encouraged to dabble in anything else or explore any other interests. So I had this double life, where I was listening to all this music for fun that I was never allowed to make.

Did you parents know?

Yeah, they knew. But as long as I practiced my sonatas and everything, it wasn't really a problem. It wasn't really until I ran into this, what at the time seemed like a pretty catastrophic failure, that I let myself try my hand at this other music world.

Where do you hope this music brings you? What do you want to say? What do you want to do?

I hope that it enables me to continue to travel, to share with people, and get people moving. It's that kind of record, I guess.


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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Olga Bell is a classically trained pianist who's ventured deeply into the world of electronica and now into dance music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RITUAL")

OLGA BELL: (Singing) Bring it, bring it, bring it back. I have got another ritual since we got on that...

SIMON: Olga Bell was born in Moscow. She grew up in Anchorage and now lives in Brooklyn. So of course, she joins us from London to talk about her new album "Tempo." Thanks so much for being with us.

BELL: Thank you. Hi.

SIMON: How did you begin work on "Tempo"?

BELL: I guess I felt a compulsion to dance (laughter) - to do something physical. My previous record was sort of intellectually motivated. And this one was just much more about dancing.

SIMON: You graduated from the New England Conservatory?

BELL: I did.

SIMON: And you've been playing music, I gather, from a pretty young age.

BELL: I have been. I started piano when I was 7. And yeah, I was a very serious classical pianist until I was about 21.

SIMON: And then what happened?

BELL: Well...

SIMON: I mean, you're still a serious pianist. But then what happened?

BELL: Well, I'll tell you what happened. I didn't get into Juilliard's graduate program. Isn't that such a First-World problem to have?

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: And then everything changed after that. So yeah - and I moved to New York, got a laptop, started with GarageBand and gradually kind of made my way into songwriting, production.

SIMON: So if - I mean, who knows, but if you'd gotten into Juilliard, you might be on a very different track?

BELL: I might be, absolutely.

SIMON: Well, you'll make them regret that decision, won't you?

BELL: (Laughter) I'll show them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATA")

BELL: (Singing) Hey, sun at Fire Island, can you tell me - how do I keep from getting in my own way? And don't sugarcoat at all. Be brutal. Running around without fire while too many minutes tick, tick, tick by, oh. Hey, sun at Fire Island, can you tell me - how do I keep from getting in my own way?

SIMON: What do you love about this music that maybe didn't connect with you in classical music?

BELL: Well, I sort of, like, led a double life when I was - when I was strictly a classical musician. I would do what I considered my job, which I loved and which, you know, was sort of to honor the wishes of my Russian mother and my Russian piano teacher. And I practiced. And I did my competitions and recitals and really loved it and really flourished. But then, when nobody was was looking or paying attention, I would sort of listen, in my spare time, to Radiohead and Bjork and lots of hip-hop, lots and lots of Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang. And I would play those beats and just sort of frolic in the sound world.

And because of the way that I was trained - piano - very serious piano study, I guess, as a Russian, or maybe as anybody, it's like gymnastics or ballet. And I wasn't really encouraged to dabble in anything else or explore any other interests. So I had this double life where I would - where I was listening to all this music for fun that I wasn't ever allowed to to make.

SIMON: Did your parents know?

BELL: Yeah, they knew. But as long as I'd practiced my sonatas and everything, it wasn't really a problem. But again, yeah, it wasn't until I ran into this, which at the time seemed like a pretty catastrophic failure, that I let myself try my hand at this other music world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POWER USER")

BELL: (Singing) I saw a bird with a painted face. It looked exactly like you want me to look. I recognize it from a mile away. And I knew just what to do.

SIMON: Where do hope this music brings you? What do you want to say? What do you want to do?

BELL: I hope that it enables me to continue to travel, to share with people and get people moving. It's that kind of record, I guess.

SIMON: Get people moving.

BELL: I wish so much that I was there in person. I think it's so funny to be doing an interview with NPR from London from the BBC. But it's exciting.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, you're in a very historic place

BELL: Yeah. Well, you know, my mother was a broadcaster for Radio Moscow. And I have these deeply embedded memories because we only lived there till I was about 7. And I think when I was, like, 3, 4, 5...

SIMON: Yeah.

BELL: ...She would bring me into the station with her. And so I'm very, like, comforted by this environment.

SIMON: Oh, gosh, were those the days at Radio Moscow where they were saying - and now we'll hear from the Vladivostok Oil Refinery Choir singing...

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: No, I - she was a news broadcaster, I think. And she also - she had a show on there called "Folk Box," where she would do stories about folk music from all over the former Soviet Union. And she would do a broadcast in special English. So I think that means, like, slow.

SIMON: Yes.

BELL: Like - broadcasting in special English.

SIMON: (Laughter) That's beautiful. And I learned a lot of English.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANDOMNESS")

BELL: (Singing) It's hard. I mean, you're lucky. You got that cold in your veins, living every day the same. It's dumb.

SIMON: Olga Bell - her new album "Tempo" - thanks so much for speaking with us.

BELL: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANDOMNESS")

BELL: (Singing) ...That randomness, randomness. I made it up. And now you want it.

SIMON: And of course, we're remembering Mohamed Ali today. He died last night at the age of 74. We'll have more in the hour of our show to come. Thank you very much for joining us. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANDOMNESS")

BELL: (Singing) ...Is a sequence of flashes in your face, colorful and commonplace. I guess - I guess we're that randomness, randomness... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.