In many ways, 2019 was a remarkable year for country and country-adjacent performers who didn’t conform to traditions, in spite of a persistently tough radio environment for anyone not male, white, and straight. Lil Nas X, a gay black man, took over the world and confounded chart watchers with “Old Town Road,” a smash that worked just as well at CMA Fest as it did Coachella, while masked singer Orville Peck introduced the world to his queered spin on cowboy masculinity and sexuality. On a victory lap after a huge 2018, Brandi Carlile co-produced a classic Tanya Tucker album, helped launch the supergroup the Highwomen, and set a powerful example for inclusive leadership.
Singer-songwriter Mercy Bell also entered that shifting environment. Her self-titled second album arrived late in the year and centered her experiences as a queer woman of American and Filipino descent. Borrowing from Linda Ronstadt, the Dixie Chicks, Sia, and even the masters of chart-topping Swedish pop, Mercy Bell subscribes to a version of country music where the borders are fluid and where bubbly country-pop can coexist comfortably next to downcast honky-tonk waltzes.
For Bell, that was partially a function of trying to write songs that someone else might try to reinterpret later.
“A lot of these songs I was writing, thinking what if somebody wanted to buy it and do it this way, or do it this way?” says Bell, a Nashville resident who grew up in California and New England. “I don’t write [songs] to be androgynous I guess, but I do like when I’m writing to be like, ‘How would it sound if we tried it this way?’”
As co-producer with Trace Faulkner and Abby Hairston, Bell brings in a wealth of ideas for how to present these songs. “Home” is a swaying waltz with three-part harmonies that goes for grandeur with a lush string section. “No Prayer” bursts forth with funky electric piano, buzzing guitars, and Bell’s distorted voice unfurling a narrative about hopelessness and “that old time religion.” In “Skip to the Part,” she mines a new-wave groove to depict an intriguing flirtation. And with “Chocolate Milk & Whiskey,” she gives a detail-rich account of being broke and living in the moment with a trusted friend.
“I will sometimes cobble things together fictionally but autobiographically simultaneously,” says Bell. “A lot of it comes from my journaling process, things I learned in creative writing classes. That song came from a correspondence between me and a friend who lives in L.A. She was like, ‘I have chocolate milk and whiskey waiting for you when you come to visit.’ That’s why I credited her as a songwriter on that.”
Bell also exercises her strong sense of dynamics all over the album, building tracks big and breaking them down, recalibrating her voice from a soft whisper to a powerful belt as needed. The song “Bent” begins skeletal, like an outtake from Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, but it gradually morphs into a hurtling train of horns and electric guitars to match Bell’s multi-tracked wails of the song title.
“I was always like, ‘What can we add to this [song] that doesn’t sound kitschy?’” she says. “I love the big horn sections from Motown. I was worried [the producers] were gonna go full-on rock & roll big at the end, and I was like, ‘No, let’s make it big in a different way.’”
Bell developed this style when she was living in New York and busking at subway stops (“It really teaches you how to grab an audience,” she says), along with listening to the Dixie Chicks and their ability to interpret other songwriters like Patty Griffin and Darrell Scott.
“They do small and they do big. The songs they would do, I’d love listening to their version, then Patty’s version of it,” she says. “I definitely owe [that style] to those Nineties country divas, like Martina McBride, Reba, even Shania. People don’t know it, but they love a strong female singer.”
In the second half of “Everything Changes,” Bell switches away from a verse-chorus form to one steady refrain, singing “Everything, everything, everything changes, my love,” quietly and sadly at first, then more resilient with each repetition. Several of the songs on Mercy Bell employ this approach, repeating some of her most insistent lines in a way that gets them tattooed inside skull walls.
“I do love a mantra. I love an element of repetition,” she says. “I think that comes from old-school folk music, where it’s repetitive. There’s something ritualistic about it. An element of repetition can get people into a trance, without being trance music.”
There’s also a bit of pop science at work here, which Bell gleaned from the immaculately chiseled hooks of Max Martin. In taking a simple phrase or couplet and giving it the freedom to stand alone with its own melody, she amplifies each personal moment into something bigger and more universal. Which, she thinks, is kind of the goal for any songwriter, no matter their background.
“I love when I can hear a songwriter and I can hear [something] that came from the flow of their brain,” she says. “I’m always on the search for that being-in-the-flow moment. That’s going to keep me occupied until the day I die.”