By her early twenties, Kaylee Bell had achieved the top honours in local country music – Best Country Album in 2014 and APRA’s Best Country Song in 2015. Before that, she’d set her sights overseas where strong interest pushed her 2017 single ‘Getting Closer’ past 1.5 million streams. She’s just released two new songs and Gareth Shute caught up with her to find out about her foothold in the Australian scene and the musical stalwarts she’s been working with in Nashville.
Country music was once one of the biggest genres of music in New Zealand. Our first popular music singer to break overseas was Tex Morton, who had huge hits in Australia in the ’30s and later toured North America with Hank Williams. From the ’60s to the ’80s there were primetime television shows featuring live performances by our local country stars, starting with The Country Touch in 1968 and running through to That’s Country which ended in 1984. After that, local interest in country music didn’t so much die away as turn into a grassroots movement, often based in small towns rather than urban centres (for example our main country awards, The Golden Guitar Awards, are held in Gore).
No surprise then to find that our current leading light on the country scene, Kaylee Bell, hails from Waimate in the depths of the South Island. She grew up distinctly aware of both US and New Zealand country music. “I’ve been singing country music since I was four, and I feel like I have grown up with such a strong connection to the history of country music and its roots,” she says. Though she’s now moved towards a pop-county sound, she says her understanding of country music’s history – and the influence of classic stars from the genre’s early years – was a key influence on her sound.
“I grew up listening to a lot of American country and also the likes of Patsy Rigger, Suzanne Prentice, John Grennell – artists that were considered front-runners of the New Zealand country scene. I’m lucky to have that knowledge and I’ve a huge respect for artists that paved the way.”
Bell wrote her first song at 14 and proceeded to work her way to the top of the local country scene. Aged 22 she left for Australia, where she eventually placed ten songs in their country music Top 10. “I lived in Australia for five years and to me it feels like a second home now. Winning Toyota Star Maker in 2013 really launched me into the Australian scene and I love playing festivals like Tamworth and CMC in Australia. I feel like I have been welcomed into the country music family there really openly. Some of my best friends are Australian country artists and I love being a part of the industry there.”
The Toyota Star Maker award she won was also instrumental in launching the career of Keith Urban. This isn’t Bell’s only connection with Nicole Kidman’s husband: he was also born in New Zealand and has had her join him onstage to sing at shows on both sides of the Tasman. Bell says Urban has been a huge inspiration on her own career. “I feel like his level of persistence alone is admirable, let alone the fact he is one of the most talented people I have ever seen. He’s continued to progress his sound while staying true to his roots and who he is as an artist – that takes so much skill and knowing who you are.”
Her career overseas was given a second boost through her 2014 song ‘Pieces’, which she wrote with another previous winner of the Toyota Star Maker competition, Jared Porter. The song charged straight to No.1 on radio charts across Australia and won the Unsigned Only competition overall grand prize (the first time anyone outside the US has won the award), while back home it was named NZ APRA’s Best Country Song.
These accolades allowed Bell to grow her live following and gave her access to useful contacts overseas, building on the groundwork she’d already been doing in the US. “I’ve been going to Nashville for the past eight years now over the summer and I’ve been surrounding myself with amazing writers and friends that allow me to write some of the best songs I can.” Bell’s producer Lindsay Rimes, who’s worked with Kylie Minogue and Kelsea Ballerini and scored a Billboard Hot 100 No.1 single with Kane Brown’s ‘Heaven’, is based in Nashville. “I feel like [Rimes] has helped me find my sound and I love working with him. He has an amazing energy and ability to take a song and make it sound radio-ready.” She’s also been having some Spotify success on US country playlists. “It’s been really amazing to have songs that are resonating and being heard in the US, in a market that is heavily country.”
The first result of her work with Rimes was ‘Getting Closer’ which was released in two versions, one with the plucked banjo removed to make it more pop-radio friendly. The gambit didn’t do much to break local radio in NZ but the original version gained huge pick-up online, surpassing 1.5 million streams on Spotify alone. Bell says that wasn’t the only reason she was proud of the song.
“I wrote it with my buddy [Australian country artist] Morgan Evans and it was the most honest song I have ever written – and it paid off. So many people have sent messages saying how much they relate to it. It also really set up my sound, thanks to Lindsay. I feel like my new EP [set for release in 2019] comes off the back of what we created with ‘Getting Closer’. The song sounds like ‘me’, how I always wanted my music to sound.”
Rimes isn’t Bell’s only high-profile US connection – her recent single ‘One More Shot’ was co-written with successful Australian songwriter Phil Barton, who’s now based in Nashville. That track was immediately added to some big US Spotify playlists like Wild Country (734k listeners) and All About Country (344k listeners).
However for her latest song, ‘Who I Am’, she chose a Kiwi collaborator, Nick Campbell of Midnight Youth. “He built me a track to write to that I loved, it gave me a sense of nostalgia. During Easter weekend I was up in Auckland and it got me thinking that throughout my childhood that was always a time when we had singing competitions down south. So it was a weekend when I feel like you wanna be with your family. There’s a change in the air as it’s starting to get cooler and time sort of stops as you get a proper break.
“So I was feeling homesick and closed myself away in the studio and wrote this song which is really a song about missing my home, my family, my people and reminiscing on some of the great memories I had growing up in a small town.”
Before she embarks on a long international tour in 2019, Bell will be taking a slot at the Top Paddock Music Festival in Lake Hawea at the end of this year – just another example of the way she pushes forward internationally while retaining a strong connection with her home. Her career is proof positive that the NZ country scene, one that goes all the way back to Tex Morton in the 1930s, is still producing artists with the talent to take on the world.
This piece (and Kaylee Bell’s ‘Who I Am’) was made possible by NZ On Air.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.