Upon first look and listen, the magnetic Chrysta Bell appears to have been born in a magical place between a dream and reality. After speaking with the singer, these origins seems to be etched in stone.
Even still, as she shares during our conversation about her career, like every other-worldly human in history, Bell has endured a journey, one that has left her at times feeling uncertain of her own musical path.
Bell’s love for music began at home, through her mother, who is also a singer. “I loved the way she lit up when she sang,” recalls Bell of her early childhood years. Music was the family business, and she credits being brought up in a household that happened to run a recording studio in Texas, for her early exposure to different genres, eras and styles of music. “My mind was blown open,” she gushes. “Growing up in the studio was different than how some people start out…it was total immersion. I discovered my passion for music and performance in that environment.”
Since those early years in her hometown of San Antonio, pitching in as a session singer at the studio, Bell’s sound has traveled great lengths. Her experimentation with different genres and styles over the years has been a way of honing her creative vision and finding her niche. “I’ve performed many genres, and now I’ve figured out exactly what it is that I want to do.” And what it is she does is exist as an ethereal presence in music.
Bell’s musical family is likely the bass line for the less than typical path toward creative confidence and success that Bell has come to embody. Surrounded by music since she was a child, Bell’s path to discovering her musical identity has, admittedly, been rather an enchanted one, particularly since that fateful day when the stars aligned and brought her innate talent face-to-face with a man that fuels the zeitgeist. The result of this meeting has been the fascinating friendship and musical collaboration with one of the most admired and revered creative minds of the 20th century, filmmaker David Lynch.
With Lynch by Bell’s side, creatively collaborating and producing her music, the singer has taken her natural talent and rendered it spellbinding. Of the duo’s song writing process, she says, “I just kind of go to my happy place, and take in all the words that David has shared, and kind of just feel him and get into the zone. Then I look at the lyrics, start singing and let the melodies flow.”
Mystic and evocative, Bell’s music is fittingly cinematic, given her creative partner. Since Lynch takes charge of penning lyrics, it is Bell left with the responsibility of empowering his words with her deep and commanding vocals and melodies. Together the pair create songs that observe the ebb and flow of passions, and transform experience into a haunting portrait for listeners to mark over with their own stories. “I think that two people’s chemistry can be really powerful in the songwriting process,” she says. “Even though I can write a song myself, even if I can do a great job myself, there is something that comes from alchemizing with other writers that I personally have found very valuable.”
While her partnership with Lynch has been ongoing for years, as a musician, Bell is only now gradually easing into her role as a creative powerhouse, one capable of proudly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with even the larger-than-life Lynch himself. Where once the idea of equal collaboration was an intimidating idea nursed by Lynch’s guidance and encouragement, today it is an integral component of Bell’s creative process.
Below, Chrysta Bell walks us through the creative awakening that has given way to her singular sound, and discusses the evolution of her friendship and creative partnership with David Lynch.
Just to start, I’d love to talk a bit about your creative vision as an artist. You’re one of that rare breed of musicians who isn’t preoccupied with satisfying commercial tastes. How do you resist it?
Pop stardom was never really on the map for me. It didn’t really fit or make sense. Not because I was adverse to it, I was kind of drawn to things that were a bit more out there, and not necessarily mainstream material.
You mention your path, take me down it. How did your career unfold?
Right, well I always wanted to make music, and I always wanted to have that be my main squeeze in life. I was finding my voice for quite some time. I started out as a session singer. My parents recording studio was largely about doing commercials and jingles and that kind of thing, but they did have creative projects as well, and I wanted to make myself available for as many creative projects as possible. I got to join all these wonderful, seasoned musicians, who were playing music that was unlike anything I ever heard before. I was truly influenced by that.
Sounds like it was always about singing for you, right from the start.
My passion was to sing and I just wanted to figure out a way to do it. So I made myself available for the projects that were interesting to me, and I would give my best to fulfill the vocal aspect to whatever that project needed. And so I went from, you know, continental swing to electronica to world music, and I toured internationally with this band called Mass Ensemble that transformed every venue that we played into a giant instrument. I was their lead vocalist, and I wrote songs for all these projects as well, because I was also a passionate songwriter. And then, of course, I met David Lynch.
And the creative collaboration started…
We have our very special brand of collaboration.
It’s interesting, it seems like music projects sort of just find you.
It was like the music was always just there, and these great projects would just…present themselves, and I would kind of step into that role. I just love to be on stage and to sing and to perform, and to emote…that’s my jam.
Where did all these projects and collaborations take you? Where are you with your music today?
Now, I’m writing a lot of music, and all these past elements are finding their way in, but also what is coming out is something that I had never heard from myself before. It’s like, “Oh! Wow! Really? Ok!” It’s an accumulation of all my experiences—everything just kind of worked its way inside; all the excitements and triumphs and horrors…everything is just all mixed up and comes out in this expression, that is the most intimate and most familiar thing.
Take me through your song writing process. Do you write from experience? Your lyrics are very evocative.
At this point, I’d say I have been attempting to write songs for twenty years, and I have approached…it’s almost like it’s this exotic, wild animal, and all you have to do is catch a glimpse, and the if you were to touch this animal…you would just be beside yourself.
Okay, so you’re searching for this animal…
I wish it was more a specific answer I had for you, but really, it’s like, whatever I can do to approach that exotic creature, I will do. Writing a beautiful song is the most satisfying kind of otherworldly experience that I have ever had. It’s so special. It’s kind of like you would try any way possible to get a glimpse of this animal. And I have tried every possible way to write a song.
How does a song usually start for you? Do you have the lyrics or the melody first?
My personal songwriting process is that a melody comes to me, and I kind of hold it, and do my best to facilitate how this melody can be cradled by music, whether it’s asking someone else to help me cradle or by playing the guitar or the piano.
There’s that mention of collaboration again…
I am a collaborator and love to collaborate. The songwriting process is pretty specific for each person that I collaborate with in my life.
Who are you collaborating with now? We already know about David Lynch?
My two main collaborators are David Lynch and my songwriting partner for the new record, Christopher Smart.
How do the two collaborations differ?
With Chris, we share; we both write melodies and we both write lyrics. With David, he has the music and he has the lyrics and my job is to bring together these worlds, so that we have this complete vision. And that is how we do it.
You really transcend when performing live. Is it emotional to bring those songs to the stage?
I would say, short answer: yes. Absolutely! But not in a way that is taxing or something that I don’t look forward to. I am so grateful for the opportunity, so much happens in a day…so many things that pull our attention away from the moment. But when you are singing a song, at least for me, you are totally present in that moment. There is really nowhere else you can be. You have to fully embody the experience—that’s why you are performing, that is why people are there. It’s this exchange. It’s very emotional, and that’s why it is so beautiful. I love to experience heightened awareness and extremes.
It’s been a while since “This Train” was released, and anticipation is high for your next album. Why the long break between albums? Do you have something big in the works?
The most significant motif in my career has been patience. I can give you a lot of reasons why a record hasn’t come out yet…I made some poor decisions on who to collaborate with, and those decisions cost me a lot of time, so I can kick myself for that, and think I should have known better and all of that, but I’m choosing to be okay. A full album was written for the new project and unfortunately I was not able to use any of that material because of a conflict with one of the collaborators.
It is all in order, as emotional as this once was for me, its okay. I have written you know, twelve new songs with my great writing partner Christopher Smart, and I have this phenomenal producer, John Parish, on board for the record. So, yeah, part of my life is patience and knowing that things happen at the right time. Records take time, and music has its own destiny. I am a steward for this music, and I am doing everything I can to make it as wonderful as possible. There have been some bumps along the road, but it is all happening. I have every faith that the timing is perfect.
I’d love to know a bit more about your collaboration with David Lynch. How did that come about?
David and I met about 15 years ago now, which is crazy to think that it has been that long, but it has. I will never forget it. David opened the door, he had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, in his white button-down shirt, with half of his shirt out of his khaki pants, and a big smile on his face. He said, “Chrysta Bell!” and gave me this big hug.
That’s a nice hello!
Instantly, I just melted. He’s such a lovely human being, and was so concerned for my well-being and wanting to make sure that I was cared for, and happy and comfortable. He played my demo and we listened to it all together, and then he said he would love to work together, can we start today? And I’m like, “yeah that sounds great.” And so, we wrote our first song together the day that we met.
That’s an incredible first encounter. Why do you think your partnership has lasted so long? What’s the creative bond there?
We kind of listened to the little voices. We had this connection instantly. It was always this kind of understanding that we would connect when it was appropriate, and that it would be exactly what it was supposed to be. There is this really nice creative spark and this ease of togetherness. Somehow it was just like, I felt it was good to be in his life, and I was able to be present for him whenever it made sense for me to be there.
I imagine it’s difficult to find that sort of creative partner, someone who fits so well with your own music.
When you find someone that you really connect with, it is better than gold. With David, we established a way of working together that happened from day one, and it has been pretty much the same throughout the fifteen years of our collaboration. And David is a musician, not a lot of people know that. He has this wonderful recording studio in his home in the Hollywood Hills. When we first got together, he was looking for a voice, and so that’s really how our collaboration works, it’s that I come into the studio, he plays a bit of music for me that he feels is appropriate for a Chrysta Bell/David Lynch collaboration, and then he asks me how I feel about the music. The music that he makes really resonates with me; I can feel it.
And now you’re not just creative partners, but also friends.
Through the various projects we had going, we kind of just became pals. It’s a friendship and relationship where I feel very nurtured and considered, there is so much faith and beauty. It’s just a love…there is just a mutual love, and it feels really good for both of us, I think. And then, the creative part is super satisfying.
How has your relationship with David evolved?
It’s a little personal, but I kind of want to share because it’s so beautiful. For many years with my relationship with David, I was just pretty much just in awe, and that hasn’t changed. David was always encouraging. He was always a great friend. He gave great guidance, and you know, I guess on some level, I looked up to him. I kind of started to see him almost as my guru. Honestly, it took fifteen years of my life for me to be like, “ok David, I am now fully able to step into this friendship with you.” I needed to get and trust that friendship to fully acknowledge myself and my reflection in this wonderful person. I think it’s kind of a coming of age for me, definitely an evolution of self.
Anything new you two are working on together right now?
There’s a new EP coming out and it’s going to be out in January. Right now I’m working on the music videos and the strategy of the whole release and all that kind of stuff.
That’s exciting, and when do you start recording your new record with John Parish?
I’ll be traveling to Bristol to do that also in January. There’s so much going on. I’m about to make some other announcements for my career as well, but all of it requires patience. Not surprisingly!