The 2013 Toyota Star Maker winner Kaylee Bell hails from the Land of the Long White Cloud and has just been named New Zealand's Best Female Country Artist, but she's firmly an Australian resident and making the most of it. I recently spoke to Kaylee about her duet with Keith Urban at his Narrabri show, as well as her new single from her album Heart First and her plans for the year ahead.
When did you move from New Zealand to Australia?
Three years ago I moved over by myself, and I’ve been here ever since.
And were you involved in much of a country music scene in New Zealand?
I’ve been singing country since I was four and doing all the awards shows and sort of competition circuit all round New Zealand. And then when I was 18 I won the New Zealand Gold Guitar and that kind of sent me off to Tamworth for the first time and I guess in that sense there’s a really good sort of grassroots level [scene] but then when you sort of want to pursue it there’s not a lot of outlets unfortunately or media interest. After I finished my degree at Christchurch Performing Arts I spent a year working and setting my new album up and sort of trying to get as much radio and anything I could get over there, but it was sort of hitting your head against a brick wall, so it was time to look further afield.
Did you grow up with country music? Are you from a musical family?
Yes. My brothers and sisters, we all – Mum put us in the car every week and we’d travel an hour and a half for lessons every week for guitar and singing. And then most weekends we’d be on our own doing the competition circuit. So we always sort of had the guitars and singing and things like that, and then I started songwriting when I was 14 and it kind of all went from there. Mum was very musical and she’s sort of the big force behind letting us have as many opportunities as we could.
Are your siblings still involved in music? Or are you the one who’s carried it through?
They sort of went off on different career paths. They obviously still have an interest and are not only supporters but, yeah, I’ve sort of been the one that’s tried to pursue it.
So when you started songwriting at 14, was it something that you just kind of felt like you wanted to do it or did you look around at other songwriters and think, I’ll give that a go?
No, it was kind of just something that came to me. I remember we got into a rock band and things at school for the rock quest that they used to have and that was very much sort of about writing your own stuff and I just remembered sitting down and it just sort of started happening. I’d never really put much thought into it and now it’s just a big part of what I do, which is really cool.
And in country music it’s very much what happens, that singer-songwriters seems to predominate. So it’s the right genre for that.
Yeah, it is. It’s such a country thing, I think. Because it holds you in a bit more kind of higher stead to be able to write your own stuff, because people really relate to country music generally and I think if you’ve written it that just helps it even more. So I’m largely sort of sort of influenced by people like Kacey Musgraves that are writing very real works. It’s cool.
I also read something on your website about you meeting Taylor Swift’s co-writer, Liz Rose.
Yeah, it was pretty cool. She was at a gig in Nashville last year just randomly and I’d recorded one of her songs and she came up into the bus where we were all getting ready after the show and made herself known, and said that she loved my stuff and wanted to do some things in the future together. So that was really exciting because she was a big part of Taylor Swift’s career in her early days. Pretty much all of her first two albums she co-wrote with Taylor, so that was a huge honour.
Now, you were the Star Maker winner last year and I know that there are quite a few opportunities that come up from being the Star Maker winner, but I was wondering what in particular has happened to you since then?
I guess profiles have been lifted hugely, you know. They’ve just put so much time and investment into committing me to country music and getting me into all the big festivals to be playing main stage and just get the chance to be heard. I think that’s a big thing because it’s so competitive these days. That they’ve really been a huge force behind all the sort of gigs and things that I’ve had and obviously the Keith thing was still very much part of the Star Maker history that we have there as well. So that’s just really allowed me to move forward with new music and build a profile.
And I was going to ask you about Keith a bit later but you’ve brought it up so … [laughs]
You recently performed a duet with Keith Urban in Narrabri. Now you live in Bathurst so you weren’t necessarily around the corner from Narrabri. How did that performance come about?
So I was going to be meeting him anyway, doing a meet and greet. Obviously the connection of both being born in New Zealand and Star Maker. And then his team told him that I was coming and he went and checked out my music, and I got a call from his personal assistant on Tuesday to say she’s getting in touch on his behalf asking me to sing with him. So, it was all very insane and that was Tuesday and the show was on Friday so there wasn’t a lot of time to get nervous or anything. So it was quite good in that sense. But it was the pretty real highlight of my life so far.
Laughs] And because it’s not like you’re singing the duet right at the start of his show, you obviously had to sit there and wait for your turn. Was that a big nerve wracking?
It was crazy, because it was like everything I’ve dreamed of all happened at once. You know, I’d never met him and I wanted to, and so I got to meet him just before we went on stage for about 10 minutes. So we had some time in the trailer to talk and we sang through the songs acoustically. That was it. Then we were up doing it. It just all happened at once so I was very, very lucky.
Fantastic, well, congratulations.
And I also think as part of Star Maker recently you travelled to Nashville and I saw on your Twitter feed that you met quite a few people, including Clare Bowen from the TV series Nashville. So were you there to meet writers or to work with writers? What was the main thrust of the trip?
It was to songwrite. I spent two weeks songwriting. With some really, really cool writers and then I performed at the Global Artist Showcase that they hold each year with Jared Porter, the new Star Maker winner. We’ve written a new song called ‘Pieces’ on his new album. And so we sang that over there as well. I can’t wait to get that song released over here because we’re both really stoked with it.
So you played with Keith and now you’re recording with Jared, so there’s obviously quite a connection with other Star Maker winners regardless of when they won.
Pretty much, yeah. It’s like a big family, I guess you could probably label it as. They just continue to look after all their previous winners and finalists and it’s like everyone sort of really enjoys working together, a big part of that big family. We’re all part of that history for the rest of our lives now so that’s something pretty special and it’s awesome to continue being supported by them.
Your new single is called ‘Just a Little Crazy’ off your album, Heart First. And so I was wondering what are you just a little crazy about or for?
[Laughs] Ooh, that’s hard. Just a little crazy ... I am just a little crazy for meeting new people, going new places, travelling. Because I love getting out and about. I hate being stuck in one place and I love meeting just awesome, genuine, down-to-earth people. Like Keith was a prime example of that, someone that I’ve admired for so long and still so genuine and down-to-earth. I think there’s something really cool about that.
And what makes you crazy in a bad way, like in an annoyed way?
Probably the opposite of that. I hate being stuck and feel like I’m not moving anywhere. That whole claustrophobic feeling. I think that’s sort of part of the reason I had to make the move from New Zealand. I was finding I was getting nowhere and just needed to broaden my horizons. So I guess the contrast of what makes me happy.
You live in Bathurst at the moment, which I’m curious about because a lot of country music performers live on the NSW Central Coast or they’re in Tamworth. How did you end up in Bathurst?
Just two friends that I’d met at the [country music] college up in Tamworth lived up here. So we tried to do the Sydney thing and it didn’t work out so – then they wanted to come home where a bit more rural and not too far from Sydney but just a better lifestyle for me to sort of still make a living and try and support my music. So … it just kind of happened. Where now I’ve been here three years which was never the plan, but it’s sort of how it happened.
And do you find there is support in town for local musicians?
Yes. I play a lot locally and then obviously do a lot of travel so it’s just a good place to base myself at the moment.
Yeah, Australia’s not the easiest country to travel around because it’s so huge.
No way, it doesn’t matter where you live, I’ve decided, and so you’re going to have to travel anyway. So as long as you are near an airport, you’re all right.
Do you drive to a lot of your gigs or are you mainly flying?
I do [drive] because Toyota sponsor me, I’m really, really lucky, and they provide me with wheels and a fuel card so I’m sort of encouraged to get in the car, which I prefer anyway, so it does me a lot of hours on the road.
I always think it’s good singing practice if you’re in the car.
It’s so good and, you know, crank up the new music and new album and it’s awesome. It’s a nice sort of time to have to yourself to think about things. It’s great.
And what are your plans for the rest of the year and for Tamworth next year?
The rest of the year I’ll be travelling a lot, we’re going to Darwin tomorrow, Mt Isa Rodeo, Gympie Muster, back to New Zealand for the Country Music Awards – a whole lot of travel, a whole lot of support acts and then heading into Tamworth, hopefully we’re just going to have one big paid show with some of my friends and some other artists. So that’s the go at the moment.
When you do your support slots, as you said, is it you and your guitar or do you have a band with you?
Most of the support spots are me and a guitarist. But then when I’m part of the festivals I have my own band there, which is really fun.
Do you like performing solo?
I love it. I guess I’ve done a lot of it over the years so. I started pub gigging and things when I was just 16 and so I’m used to it, so it’s not really something that I don’t like. It’s just nicer when you’ve got your band and others around you as well.
It sounds like you’ve actually reached a point relatively early in your career of finding a balance between things you love to do and being able to be self-sufficient but also able to work with others, which is terrific.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve sort of really taken everything in my own hands. I’ve never relied on my family or anyone like that to do it. You know, it’s my goals and my dreams so I’ve really sort of tried to keep as much control myself as I can, so that I can learn what I’m doing as I go, too, which I’m benefiting from now because I’m not running blind, I know people because I’ve built the relationships myself and things like that, which I think is really, really quite important.
The one thing you didn’t mention about the rest of the year is actually doing any writing. And I guess that’s often the challenge when you have a lot of shows, finding that time to write. So do you have plans towards a new album next year that you need to write for?
It’s sort of in the back of my mind. I’m writing towards a new EP but I’m not rushing it. I really want to have some really good-quality songs that I’ve written myself and just trying to get out write with as many Aussies as I can and just start working towards that for sure.