The Bella Kalolo Interview
Wellington-based singer/songwriter Bella Kalolo is about to release her debut album, Without the Paper. It's been a long time coming. It's a step down the path of a new journey. I caught up with Bella to talk through her story and the transition from hired help to leading lady.
"I can remember being made to listen to music - and then understanding it later," Kalolo tells me. The influence of church was strong in her upbringing; a form of church music still finds its way into Bella's sound now. She's the leader of The Soul Symphony, an R'n'B and soul group that pays lip-service (of one kind or another) to the gospel roots that this music comes from.
"The next step was dad teaching me chords on a guitar when I was eight. And mum bought a piano. When I wasn't at school that's where I was. So yeah, music was huge - it was big for us growing up. Mum and dad pushed it and I was thankful for that."
From there it was an even bigger step. "I went to Paraguay when I was 17; won a scholarship to study there and I joined a choir in Paraguay. I sang in a band that was well known in Paraguay, Two Tribes; they had Top 10 songs in the South American charts - and so while I was taking this time to discover where my voice was at I was also out there doing it. This was me learning to perform and getting to tour. It was an amazing experience."
At the age of 19 Kalolo turned professional.
"This was when I came back to Auckland and moved into the world of musical theatre." She was spotted by Mark Hadlow and worked across a series of shows as part of the chorus line, gaining valuable experience. There was TV work, theatre work, gigging ("it was all work; all invaluable") still, as Bella puts it "the dream, always, was to sing lead, or perform as a solo artist. To be a lead singer. And that dream felt unobtainable for a long time."
The "light bulb moment" as Bella calls it, arrived around Christmas 2005.
"I was dating a man," twinkle in Kalolo's eye here, "who is now my husband" - the twinkle becomes a full sparkle. "I showed him songs I had written, played a few to him. He was surprised that I hadn't performed them. He was the one that," there's a pause here as if waiting for the right phrase, "lit my bonfire," and then the crackle of laughter.
In 2006 Bella moved to Wellington. In 2007 she had her first gig. She says she owes a lot of the drive to Alistair Isdale, her then-boyfriend and now-husband. Isdale is still a member of Bella's Soul Symphony band but he was, in the early days, also the manager.
"That was interesting," she says with a laugh. "There were times, as any couple who also worked together will know, where we had words". The laughter doubles. "There were definitely times where I felt like packing it in. And there were times when I wanted to chuck it in because it was hard work and it felt like we weren't getting anywhere. So I have Ali to thank for that - he carried it through; it's because of him. He definitely is such a big part of what has made this happen."
The other main driver as obvious as it might seem (and as you would hope) is Bella's passion for music. "I'll listen to Sharon Jones and be blown away by how tight it all is; that band is just phenomenal. And then I'll hear a singer like Dave Dobbyn and just love how laid-back he is - and how he's still able to really deliver, to connect, to bring it. So for me it's about finding a middle ground. If I can be somewhere between them then I'm happy," and this thought trails off with some laughter.
But I'm struck with how passionate Kalolo is about music, how important it is to her, and what a breath of fresh air it is to speak to someone who has worked hard and has so far they still want to go. She's no overnight story: there's a trail of groundwork and the focus is very real - a refreshing form of earnestness.
"I love music with substance," Bella continues. "That's my drug of choice. Soul: I can't get away from it; it's not something I switch on and off for the stage. It's so important to the music, or else it would not feel complete."
"That was hard," Kalolo says. "But it's all good now. Somewhere there's a tape of it still - my version and I know that Don has said he liked my version the best," but Toa Fraser, the playwright/screenwriter, wanted "an older voice". The hit version was by Hollie Smith. "She did a good version of it," Bella concedes graciously. "She really did." Well, Kalolo would know. She took the knock and turned up to work, the epitome of a total pro - that's her singing backing vocals; the goal-scoring centre-forward sent to defend as left fullback.
You need those experiences to learn from, to grow from. It's false if you release one album, win a bunch of New Zealand music awards and then never deliver. You need those experiences but you also need the positive ones. And there have been plenty of roses lately.
The build-up to Bella's album being released included a performance at Glastonbury - something only a handful of Kiwi acts have managed - and shows in Boston and New York. How did that all come about then?
"One of the Glastonbury bookers saw us on the bill as part of a showcase in Melbourne. We were offered a spot at the festival. I felt kinda cool. I didn't have a video. I didn't have jack-s**t," here Bella breaks off in to laughter. Returning, "there's no way you can say no to that. So we didn't."
It required a lot of hard work again - fundraising shows, band savings, some funding and a commitment from the musicians. The expense of getting to Glastonbury falls on the artist ("we were given a fee for the performance - but it doesn't cover your travel") and so the decision was made to take in America as well.
Glastonbury was "a high you can't really explain" and Kalolo says it hit her, "pretty much as soon as I got there, even on the road to the venue. But definitely as I started the first song, it was pretty surreal."
And then to shows in America, the home of hip-hop and of so much of the music that has inspired Bella and The Soul Symphony.
"We did two shows in New York, one where we were opening and we got a standing ovation. That was definitely a buzz, it was pretty cool. But at the same time you have to take these things with a grain of salt. I was just amazed that people listened to our songs and seemed to like them - the fact they listened, that meant the most to me."
Without the Paper, the debut album by Bella Kalolo and The Soul Symphony will be released with an album launch gig in Wellington this Sunday, as part of Downstage Theatre's Soundstage Series.
From there the band goes on the road with a series of NZ shows to wet the album's head.
Bella tells me she's pleased with the record - "but at the same time, I don't want to be up my bum about it". I laugh, thinking for a minute we've crossed wires and I'm now talking to Anika Moa. She repeats, "I'm really happy for this moment but I don't want to be up my bum about it. I just want the album to go and find a home, if people like it that's great. I'm proud of the songs and people won't know this but I recorded all of the vocals sitting down, with a broken leg. Just parked up with my moon-boot on."
And I felt inspired by this conversation. I've seen Bella sing live - she can belt it out. But to hear her story, to know of the work that has gone in to this album, it's not at all just sitting with a broken leg singing. It's the years spent in support, the choir, the church, school singing, the years spent as a singing tutor, supporting the dreams of others while you chase your own. It's all of that. And more. It's all been poured into the album and it all comes flooding out on stage.
If you are Wellington-based and would like to win a double-pass to this Sunday's show - and a signed copy of the album - please write a comment below telling me why you'd like to win.
Now are there any fans of Bella Kalolo out there? Have you heard her perform live? Are you interested in checking out the album and/or the tour?
And yes, yes, click here to hear a song.