Bella White’s Just Like Leaving is sophisticated hillbilly perfection, emotionally intricate and natural in its heartache. The debut from the Calgary, Alberta native features an array of stellar musicians that elevate White’s considerable songwriting– a talent that belies her 20 years while exposing a love and particular understanding of bluegrass and country music. White’s catechism has led from her Stampede City home to Boston’s roots scene surrounding the Berklee College of Music, ultimately landing her in Nashville where she currently resides. Produced by fiddler and fellow Canadian Patrick M’Gonigle (The Lonely Heartstring Band) and engineered by Dave Sinko (Bela Fleck, Molly Tuttle, Punch Brothers), Just Like Leaving sounds immediate as well as evocative. White’s voice is cultivated, believable, and ranges from playful honky tonk to barroom lament as she leads her band through each trial, tribulation, and tear. It is a remarkable album worth your time and money, and Bella White is quite possibly the best new artist of 2020.
AI- You grew up in Calgary, Alberta, right? And your father came from Virginia? Now, did he play music professionally or semi-professionally?
BW- He sure did! He was in a bluegrass band my whole childhood, and he still plays a lot. He’s been playing since he was a kid.
Did your mother sing too?
She sure did! Much more as a hobby, but she plays guitar and she sings and write songs. Yeah, I grew up with both of my parents always singin’ around the house and playin’ music often.
As I understand it, not a lot of bluegrass in Calgary, huh?
Not a ton. There’s definitely a little pocket of it, but I feel like it’s not as common as say Nashville or even some other cities in Canada. Toronto has a really great bluegrass scene. But Calgary, there’s definitely more of a country theme. But yeah, the bluegrass scene is not huge.
I’m somewhat familiar with a great deal the country or rather alt-ountry bands that come out of that area. But I’m talkin’ about those pockets– were you able to find some folks to fall in with to enhance your trade?
Yeah. When I was there, I had a little community of people that I liked to play with and it was always nice to get to do it, but no one… I don’t want to say no one cared about the bluegrass as much as I did, but I feel like, in a way, people were doing it more for fun, but they weren’t looking at it as much as a career as I was. So I always felt a slight disconnect. But the people were great!
You’ve spoken about the difference between the way you were raised versus the stories in the songs that your family sang– those old school style country and bluegrass songs. Give me a for instance on that. And what were your initial reactions and thoughts?
I just remember hearing all these songs about people working and doing so much manual labor and working to live. And I was like, “Well, I just grew up in the city!” Like inner city, live downtown, went to school, just lived a very regular life in Canada. And then I would hear these songs about Appalachian mountain culture and all of these songs that were just so mournful. I always felt this disconnect between my lifestyle and the kind of things I was singing about. It always was so intriguing to me that I could be so inspired by this music, but be living such a different lifestyle than what I was singing about.
Did you ask those questions then?
I sure did! I remember talking to my parents about it. But I feel like my dad, having grown up in Virginia, had a bit more of a connection to it, and he was able to tell me more about it. But I still feel like I didn’t really know what it was all about. I just liked to sing about it.
That brings me to my next question. Bluegrass is of course the vehicle, but the fuel in the tank is really your lyrics. When did you start writing? And who are your songwriting heroes?
I was always writing little bits and pieces when I was a kid, but they were very silly (laughs), like nothing profound! Just like had a pen and paper and was 10 and wrote about boys that I had crushes on and whatnot! But I would say I started actually trying to craft songs when I was in my early teenage years. I was always listening to John Prine as a kid. And a lot of these country songs, songwriters like Loretta Lynn and Dolly [Parton], and the Stanley Brothers. They would write these songs that were just so literal and so expressive, and they would use their songwriting as a vehicle to express their emotion.
I feel like I’ve always been a pretty emotional person. I harbor a lot of intense emotion– and sometimes you need an outlet for it. I just found from my early teen years that songwriting could do that for me and that I was always most drawn to really expressive songs. I would say a lot of the country greats actually really influenced my songwriting, like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and George Jones.
Did you write all the songs on this current album?
Yes, I did.
You’re in Nashville now, right? What’s going on there? I mean, obviously, with COVID-19, I know that there are some places that are tryin’ to get back open and play. Are you branching out and writing with other people?
I haven’t been doing a ton of that since I’ve been here just because of COVID. We’re trying to stay at home as much as possible until things settle down a bit. But I live with musicians, and so, me and one of my housemates– her name’s Libby Weitnauer, and she’s a great fiddle player and singer and songwriter– we’ve been writing a lot together over the course of COVID and playing live stream shows and whatnot. But unfortunately, I haven’t been hitting the town per se.
How did you come to the decision to go to Boston? You went there to check out that roots scene?
Yeah, I did. I decided to go to Boston because I’d been going to IBMA– the International Bluegrass Music Association— workshop and awards for the past few years, and I noticed that there was this stream of young people that were my age that were such great musicians, such virtuosic musicians, and they were all going to Berklee! I knew that Boston had this scene going on, but I didn’t really understand how big it was and how great it was. I would go to IBMA, coming from Calgary where there wasn’t a huge bluegrass scene, and I was just so taken aback by all the amazing musicians that all lived in Boston! I was shocked by the fact that there was other young people playing bluegrass– and playing it well! I just felt like I needed to go spend some time there and steep myself in that scene a little bit.
Did you actually attend Berklee?
I didn’t, no. I joke that I just reaped a lot of the benefits of Berklee (laughs) without attending Berklee! Because I lived in a house with a bunch of Berklee students and professors.
I would think– having listened to it– “Do You Think About Me At All” almost seems like a chronicle of that journey from Calgary to Boston and now ultimately to Nashville.
Yeah, definitely. I wrote it after having been on tour– or I guess it was actually after leaving IBMA one year– and I was driving back to Boston and I wanted to be living in Nashville. That song was very much me trying to pay homage to those kinds of mournful, really explicit country songs that are bluegrass songs that are just like, “I’m sad! This is why I’m sad! You made me sad!” Not too much fluff or anything.
In addition to the bluegrass, which of course is predominantly what it is, “Not to Blame” has a very Texas honky tonk swing to it. “Just Unwanted” has a western prairie feel that I associate with your part of the world up there in Alberta. I guess bluegrass is as good a thing to call it as anything, but I do think the audience is potentially greater.
I would hope so! I feel like country music is also something that I grew up on– and that is what there is a lot of in the prairies like you said. “Just Unwanted” has that energy. And those songs, I wrote those in Canada and I wrote them on the prairies, I guess you could say. I was feeling that energy when I wrote them. I used to play in a honky tonk band called the Red Hot Hayseeds in Calgary. That band still exists, I’m just not there anymore, obviously. But, yeah, I wanted to make sure that I got a little bit of that on the record too because it’s been so formative for me in my musical experience.
I recently spoke to Brennen Leigh, and she had mentioned that when she first started playin’ professionally, which was, I think, about your age, maybe a little bit earlier, all her fans were older than her. I think that’s fairly typical of any type of roots music. But you’ve been vocal about the fact that you’re hoping to appeal directly to a younger audience. Is it enough just to have good songs? ‘Cause you got great songs on this album. How do you plan to accomplish expanding that musical footprint?
I think that having good songs is obviously an important factor, but I think it’s trying to make those songs accessible and relatable to a younger audience. ‘Cause I do think that there’s this stereotype that country music and bluegrass music are for old people. People are always like, “Oh, it’s just twang!” I remember when I was in high school, I would tell people that I play that kind of music and they would just shrug their shoulders and be like, “Okay, I want to go listen to pop music…” Or like hip hop, which is also great music, but I feel like people just don’t give [bluegrass] a chance because it’s not relatable for them.
I think trying to write songs that take a modern young person’s experience and then fits it into the genre is just what young people need to hear to appreciate the music. And then once they hear something that’s accessible or relatable to them, I often notice that people are like, “Oh, it’s actually pretty good! I kinda like country music!” Or, “I kinda like bluegrass music!” And then they actually give it a chance.
When did you meet Patrick M’Gonigal? How’d you get involved with him?
Patrick grew up really close to me. He’s also from Canada. He’s from Vancouver Island, but I met him in Raleigh [NC] at IBMA a few years ago. So it was kind of funny ’cause we knew of each other. I knew of him for most of my early formative years in the scene, and then we met at IBMA and just totally realized that we had so many mutual friends outside of the music scene, even just from growing up close to each other.
Tell me about the rest of the players you have on the album. ‘Cause I was going through, checking out the liner notes and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I really wasn’t familiar with them. But they are all amazing players!
Yeah, they sure are! I’ll start with Reed who plays mandolin. Reed Stutz. He sings on a lot of the record too. Anytime there’s any kind of duet, it’s Reed and I singing. I met him, I guess, just over a year ago now, which is kind of hard to believe. It feels like longer, but I met him at a festival called Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. We were picking some tunes and we just realized that we had a lot of musical chemistry and really like teaming together. And then we ended up staying up until like five in the morning singing old bluegrass and gospel songs. He was living in Boston at the time going to Berklee, and I was like, “Ohmygod, I’m moving to Boston!” Then I realized that I was actually moving into the house that he lived in at the time, which was just kind of hilarious! And then being in the same house, we just got to play so much music together. He came on tour with me and it was just a very fast friendship and a fast musical relationship.
I met Julian Pinelli, who plays fiddle… Actually, the first time I saw him play, he was playing at Calgary Folk Fest with Front Country. I thought he sounded so good! A couple months later I saw him at IBMA and we played some music together and again, it was just fast musical chemistry. I really liked his style, and I think he has a beautiful singing voice. He’s just a great energy to have around.
And then Alan Mackie, who plays bass on the record, I’ve known the longest. He’s from Canada, he’s from Toronto, but I met him at a festival called NimbleFingers in Sorento, British Columbia. He was playing bass with a country singer named Sarah Jane Scouten, who’s great. She’s also Canadian. And again, it was just part of the same deal where I like really liked his music and we got to play together. Over the next couple of years, I just kept bumping into him and it always a good time. I just wanted to bring together a group of people that are not only great musicians, but also just good energy and fun to be around. I feel like you can always hear that in the record.
Tell me about the studio in Vermont that you guys recorded the album at. How’d that come together? Was that the first time you had done any studio recording?
It wasn’t the first time. I recorded a smaller EP of songs in Toronto with David Travers-Smith, who’s a producer and engineer. He’s great. That was in 2016, but I never ended up releasing those just because… I don’t know. I felt like by the time they were ready to go, I had grown a lot and I just didn’t feel like those were what I wanted to put out into the world as my first release. Maybe eventually I will.
But it wasn’t my first time recording in the studio. Getting to that studio, Patrick M’Gonigle was who advocated for Guilford Sound and it was honestly the best decision. It is just the most beautiful place! You’re in the woods in Vermont, the house that we were staying in was built into the side of the hill… It was just very picturesque and surreal to be there.
Were you able to just set up and play live for the songs?
Yeah, we played pretty much everything live, which was amazing. And we had Dave Sinko engineering and mixing and he’s just an absolute– in my eyes– absolute legend. He’s worked with so many of my heroes and having him there in the control room, making sure everything sounded good, listening, it was so comfortable for us to be able to just play through everything.
Conspicuous by its absence… There is no banjo on this record.
(Laughs) No, there is not!
How’d that come about? Was that calculated?
It wasn’t necessarily calculated. I’ve often played with a banjo in my band, but I love a quartet. I love four people playing together. There’s something very pleasing about that to me. I feel like maybe as much as I love the banjo– do not get me wrong, I LOVE the banjo– it definitely is a little bit more accessible with no banjo.
I didn’t even notice it until probably my third time listening through. And then I was on your Kickstarter page and saw the picture of your father as a kid with a banjo and thought, “Wait a minute– there’s no banjo on this album!”
Well, it’s also funny ’cause I’m also a banjo player! I play claw hammer banjo. So I don’t know? Maybe I was just rebelling or something!