Champions: Karen Bella, Exploring Musical Expression

Make Music Day

In this interview, we talk with Karen Bella, a multifaceted singer, songwriter, and musician deeply rooted in the vibrant music scene of New York City. Karen shares her journey, from discovering Make Music Day to honing her craft. Join us as we explore Karen’s experiences, influences, and her unwavering dedication to music. 

How did you find out about Make Music Day?

I became part of it because of Cowgirl Seahorse. I performed there, and the girl behind the bar invited me to be part of this event that happens on the summer solstice, telling me I could perform in Brooklyn for an hour. I liked the idea and got into it. For the past couple of years, I’ve participated. I think the first time I did it was in 2021, then I believe I participated in the two following years. It’s nice because you get to be a part of a community of musicians. Even if you don’t see each other in the street, you know you’re all doing the same thing at the same time, celebrating a solstice, whether it’s winter or summer; for me, it was the summer solstice.

How did you start making music?

I started making music when I was a little girl. I’ve always been drawn to it; it was something that always made me feel good. Especially being a little girl, I had a lot of difficulty making friends. I remember being alone on the playground and just sitting with myself, singing to myself, and finding so much joy in it, making me feel happy. I went to my mom and told her that I could sing and that I wanted to do something with it. Both of my parents supported me in it. It hasn’t been a smooth journey. I went through years where I didn’t want to be a singer because I didn’t think I was worthy or good enough. I was afraid of being in front of people. It took me many years to come out of my shell. I think it wasn’t until my late teens that I started taking it more seriously and recording more. I got into it because it was the only source of happiness that I had that wasn’t from anything external but from something that was inside of me already. When you have a calling, when there’s something that’s meant to be in your life, you can’t run away from it; it’s always gonna find its way back. For me, that was music. When there are hard times in life, I can go back to music, and it makes me feel happy and passionate again, and I know I always have that to fall into. It also became a way for me to really express myself on what I was thinking and feeling. The only way for me to express myself and tell my story is through songs and lyrics.

What artists inspired you to start making music?

I love Barbra Streisand, John Mayer, Elton John, and Taylor Swift. Taylor is such an amazing songwriter and a huge inspiration to a lot of young people and aspiring musicians. I also really love the greats like Prince, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Queen. I love jazz music, instrumental music, and funk music, among other genres. I love a wide variety of artists, but I think it was Barbra Streisand who made me realize I wanted to do music for the rest of my life. My mom introduced me to her through Funny Girl. I know a lot of people may not know about who she is, but I think everybody should because she was such a revolutionary woman; she was one of the first women creators, writers, and singers to really gain respect.

What genres do you enjoy playing yourself?

When it comes to describing it, think of acoustic coffeehouse music. But my genre is mixed with a bunch of different things. I’d describe it as if John Mayer and Joni Mitchell had a baby, and Alanis Morissette raised the child as a nanny, with a little bit of R&B. I’m influenced by so many things, and I think that people have so many different sides to themselves, and because I’ve listened to such an extreme variety of music — everything from opera to hip hop, to folk music, and everything in between — my music’s got a little bit of everything.

How is the process of songwriting for you?

It’s like a fax machine, sometimes it’s on and sometimes it’s off. I used to get ideas for songs a lot more before, but it’s been less. I think it’s because I’ve been so busy gigging and performing; I’m just so tired to be an open channel. Lately, I’ve been trying to collaborate with others and to have them send me ideas, and then take them and make them my own, maybe changing some chords or lyrics around. I’m learning that songwriting is not just getting the idea as an inspiration, you also have to sit and work on it.

In your presentations, do you usually just play your original music? Or do you also play covers?

It’s a mixture. I’ll do gigs where I’m only doing covers and then I’ll do gigs where it’s only originals, and then I’ll do gigs where it’s covers and original music.

Could you tell me more about what you like doing in your presentations?

I’ve been playing for a looper for maybe three to four years. In my performances, I create a full production right on the spot. I have a bass pedal which changes the guitar to sound like a bass. And then I take the wood of the guitar and I play it as if it was like a conga or a kick drum, creating a percussive sound. I also play the chords and little elements. I also have other pedals that could give a delay or change the sound of the guitar, making it sound like different instruments. So, I create a live production right on the spot, and people seem to love it.

I believe you’re currently a full-time musician. Is that right? 

I’m a full-time musician. I’ve been making music since I was a kid, but I’ve been making a living through music since 2018. It’s been scary; there have been difficult times, but it teaches you how to hustle and get work; there is always a way. I’m really blessed. I hope that I can do what I love to do for the rest of my life.

How would you describe what music means to you?

Music saved me. It’s my essence. I don’t know who I am without singing or playing instruments. It defines me. There are other aspects of me, but also through the music I’ve made amazing friendships and a beautiful music family. Music is the answer to my soul, my heart, and my mind.

What would you say your goal in music is?

My goal is to make music forever. I’ve learned to stop putting an emphasis on exact plans and goals; you can only control so much. My goal is to make a living doing anything related to music for the rest of my life and to be happy doing it.