Nicholas Prakas

Olga Bell Gets Into The Groove

The classical musician turned electronic artist on the house influences of her new album, Tempo

Depending on what sort of music you listen to, Olga Bell may as well be two different artists. Devoted classical audiences know her as a Russian-born former teen piano prodigy from Anchorage, Alaska, but she’s also an icy electronic auteur who's toured with Dirty Projectors and Chairlift. For her latest album, Tempo, Bell has bounced in a new direction: dance music. It all happened, she says, because she watched Paris Is Burning, the classic 1990 documentary on New York’s underground ballroom scene, for the first time last year. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, I don’t know anything,’” Bell tells me over tea at a café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Coming from a classical background, when you try to express music with your body, you’re supposed to put everything into the instrument. But dancing, especially when I was younger, was the most physically free I’ve ever felt. I just thought, What if I tried to get that back?”

Tempo has plenty of the glitchy synth grooves, staccato beats, and existential musings that Bell has made her specialty. But it merges that signature sound with inklings of house tradition and Eurodance history, reworking and deconstructing the styles of artists she grew up on like Black Box and Robin S. in her own electro pop image. She echoes frantic La Bouche pop on “Randomness” and rolling, downbeat Crystal Waters house on “Zone,” but the music never sounds too closely referential to the past. “Out in the house with your hands up / Whether or not you feel like a dancer,” Bell sings in a cartoonish, high pitch–shifted voice on “Power User,” the album opener. She sounds like an alien who's decided to make a dance record. Everything's a little off-kilter.

Bell's formative experiences with dance music came in the mid-2000s, when she was in her early twenties. She had just moved from Alaska to New York City, and was getting by on her fees from teaching piano lessons, living in a one-bedroom apartment in "good ol' shitty Midtown" with her stepsister and stepbrother. "It felt like a very Russian thing to suffer for your life, not even for your art," she says of the scrappy setup, which had Bell working on her quiet music in the bathroom at night so as not to disturb her roommates. On weekends, she went to Meatpacking District clubs for a taste of Manhattan nightlife. "I was like, ‘There's no parents!’" she says. "I threw away my classical career. Anything goes! [The scene] was pretty banker-y, but I was so excited to be 22 and going to clubs."

Making Tempo gave Bell a chance to catch up on the dance music history that she didn't experience firsthand. She started digging into the catalogues of leaders like Detroit techno progenitors Belleville Three, kept Robert Hood’s Boiler Room sets on rotation, and looked to contemporaries like Jamie xx and Caribou. She took voguing classes with famed dancer Benny Ninja, who she says “terrified and uplifted” her at once. Bell tried to wave away the last traces of her classical disposition and just start making music that felt good to move to. “As a classical musician, [you're] making something and being the executor of someone else’s creation, [and] that’s a whole other side of your brain,” Bell says. “Being a classical pianist forces you to pay attention, for better or worse, to really small details.” On this album, Bell says, she tried to find a space mentally and physically where she was free to do “whatever.”

Even so, Tempo reflects her classical training. It's a record built on small details, and it feels just as mapped out as her work on 2014's meticulous Russian-language folk-rock composition Krai. “I would sit there and think, what sort of BPM do I feel like today?” she says of the new album's writing and recording process, which had her thinking a lot about the space between beats and the human pulse. “I would set the metronome, think about where I wanted the kick drum, where I wanted the high hat, and start constructing a room with the dimensions of the beat."

Throughout her career, Bell has developed a finely tuned ability to work with other artists' creations. She's like a chameleon, touching Russian folk music, ’90s house, or Mozart and immediately knowing how to recreate their textures. It's why she's had such a great career as a concert musician, but it also gives her own music an obsessive quality — when Bell gets excited about something, she pulls it apart like a surgeon. At one point during our conversation, we get stuck talking about Tinashe's perfect song "2 On" and how Bell diagrammed the whole thing on paper to get a feel for how it was made. "I wrote it all up, like, OK, there's two bars here, then there's this swish, then the kick drum comes in," she says, waving her hands to mimic the structure. "There's such a super vivid, sonic world in that song, the way each element comes at you."

One song on Tempo that Bell is particularly proud of is the fuzzy house track "Ritual," the only one with a guest vocalist (the New York–based singer Sara Lucas, of the band Callers). The song, Bell says, was a bit freeing. "On ‘Ritual,’ I pull the curtain over myself, and I think by doing that, it might bring the production of the music more to the forefront," she says. "Because I produced everything on my record." Bell, who put her face on the record's cover (imitating the wide-eyed look of a classic Kit-Cat clock), says she still struggles with the double-edged sword of putting herself in the spotlight under her own name and face. "You want to create compelling visual imagery, and a human face is arguably more compelling for some people than cool type design, which I'm pretty into," she says, laughing. But once you do it, especially as a woman, you can't ever escape it: "You don't want to be singled out as a female musician, you just want your music to exist. I don't want special treatment, but then when you perceive the field isn't level ... it can just be so hard for women."

"Ritual," like so many collaborations Bell has done, places her comfortably outside the spotlight. "I think there's something really beautiful and musically pure about serving someone else's vision, because your ego isn't a part of it," she says. "It allows you to draw on your own technique and imagination more, because you don't have the burden of it being a part of your next statement, of it being a part of you."