Following her 2019 win at the Latin Grammys for Best New Artist, Nella is kicking off 2022 with a fresh tour and album. Ahead of her performance at The Barns at Wolf Trap on February 18, we caught up with Nella to discuss her musical influences, advice to aspiring musicians and what fans have to look forward to on this upcoming tour.
District Fray: What are you most looking forward to on tour?
Nella: I’m very excited about this one because there are so many places that I’ve never been before. I’m particularly excited about playing the SF Jazz Festival in San Francisco again. When I played in 2019, I was in the small room, and this year we’ll be in the bigger hall. I remembered that year when I played, I walked past the big hall and thought to myself, ‘One day I’ll be there.’ And then a year after it came true.
What will be different about your tour this time around?
Nella: I changed my set up for the band this time. I don’t usually have percussion, which will give you a more minimalistic sound. And this time because [my second album] “Doce Margaritas” involved a little bit more rhythms and electronic sounds, I think drums will bring that energy to a live show. It’ll be amazing, I have so much fun. It’s just a different energy.
I would also like to start learning cuatro, which is a traditional instrument from my country, Venezuela. I’ve actually been thinking about doing a few songs with cuatro live, so that may be a surprise to look out for on tour.
How do you incorporate your Venezuelan roots into your music?
Nella: Venezuela is always present in my music. It describes who I am and where I come from. So for me, it would be impossible not to have my roots present whenever I sing. It won’t necessarily be the full-on traditional or folkloric sounds from Venezuela, but it’s always present in some way. For example, my single “Solita” has a harp in the middle of the song, which is a traditional instrument in Venezuela. We always try to add a few elements to give you a taste of my roots, even if they’re a little hidden.
For people who are new to your music, how would you describe your sound?
I hate that I have to categorize my music. But I know in this world we need to do it in order to be nominated for awards. So we actually came up with our own category — in Spanish we call it “pop con raíces,” which is like pop based in roots. At the end of the day, my music has a lot of influence from soul and R&B because of my voice, but then the music is also very flamenco, always with elements from Venezuela. So it’s difficult for us to say exactly what it is.
Who would you cite as your influences as you’ve gotten into music?
Nella: I’ve always said I was going to be the second Christina Aguilera when I was growing up. That obviously changed, but I’d say my unknowing mentors were Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, all of these divas [and] amazing vocalists. Their styles were obviously tricky for me, but I loved having to challenge my voice in that way. And then I went into jazz, blues, R&B, and later got in touch with my roots with Venezuelan music. I’m not far from the flamenco world in terms of harmonies and melodies. But the one person that really changed my life and the way I sang is Concha Buika. She’s a Spanish African singer, and she sings flamenco, but in a more relatable way. I cannot sing flamenco, but with her I could relate because we have all the same influences. She inspired me to come up with my own sound with my Venezuelan roots.
Tell me how you got started with music. Were you always passionate about singing?
Nella: When I was in school, I was always part of every show, not necessarily singing, but I was always in the arts and the singing came after.
I really wasn’t a good singer. In the choir, they never gave me a freaking solo; I had to beg my teacher to give me one, and it never happened because I was not prepared. My throat and voice became a toy. I wanted to experience and play with it as much as I could to just see what I could do.
That’s when these artists like Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion came to my life — I just wanted to imitate them and try to do the same thing. And by doing that, it was like somebody opened my throat and put a new voice in because now I had my own sound and I was way more capable of doing things that were impressive.
And that’s when I noticed that there was something special in this. That’s when I talked to my parents and I told them that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And they are my biggest fans and a great support team. It’s because of them that I’m doing what I’m doing now.
What advice do you have for someone trying to make it in music?
Nella: I know it’s very cliche, but you really, really have to believe in what you’re doing, because if you don’t, nobody will. In the beginning and still today, it’s been really challenging to find my distinct sound. I went to Berkeley College of Music, and there’s talent everywhere. I have friends who came to school and they ended up becoming architects and doctors because music was too hard. For me, it actually reaffirmed that this is what I wanted to do. It’s very important to surround yourself with people that believe in what you’re doing because you cannot do this by yourself. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, and you have to have people around you who also believe in it, so they can help you to create your vision and bring it to life. It’s important to work very hard because nothing is guaranteed.
How do you see yourself and your sound changing as you continue to make music?
Nella: As human beings, we’re changing all the time, and I try to experiment with my music all the time. I’m not saying I’m going to sing in Japanese (but who knows). I love to innovate and experiment with different things that I’m feeling.
My first album was very minimalistic, it was [mostly] guitar. But with the second album, I wanted to experiment with sounds a bit more by adding electronic elements, while always keeping the essence of what we actually are.
And when I say we, I’m referring to Javier Limon, who’s an amazing producer and composer. He’s been putting lyrics to my voice and I’ve gotten so comfortable that I haven’t written in a while, but that’s going to change. It’s a beautiful team, he just has a beautiful vision and is emphasizing the importance of lyrics and messages.
As a singer, I have a beautiful responsibility. I’m not a saxophonist or a trumpet player who just plays notes. I can say words and transmit messages, and I don’t take that for granted. We both believe in what we’re singing, and as one of the main elements in our music, it’s very important to me. And I think it’s one of the reasons people connect to our music.
Is there a song from your discography that you’re particularly proud of?
Nella: Oh yeah, if I didn’t like what I’m singing, imagine. It is difficult to name a favorite, but from my last album, there’s one in particular that’s very different. It’s not the most commercial or radio formula one obviously. It’s called “Nada” and it’s in a rhythm unique to my country called the Venezuelan Merengue. I like the fact that even though it’s different and not the easiest to digest, people still connect with it and fall in love with it, so that makes me very happy.
You had the chance to work with Asghar Farhadi on his movie “Everybody Knows.” Are you looking into expanding your artistic skills into more film and acting?
Nella: That experience was crazy. I never imagined really acting, even though I know it’s part of the arts. As a performer, you’re also acting on stage, and actually for the movie I wasn’t really stepping into a role that was too different from what I actually do because I played a wedding singer, and believe me, I’ve done more than 200 weddings in my life. So that was very easy for me, and it was great and a beautiful experience. And of course, I’d love to act again.
What’s next for you?
Nella: We’re actually working on the third album now. I had the opportunity to sign with Sony after we got the Grammy in 2019, and it’s been a beautiful experience. We released our second album “Doce Margaritas” during 2021, which was obviously a very difficult time to do that, but we had all of this material that we had worked on and we wanted people to listen to it. So now we’re working on the third album and I think it’s going to come out soon. I’m pretty excited.
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