Originally from Calgary, Bella White was steeped in bluegrass music and tradition growing up. Her father played in numerous bluegrass bands around the area, which led White to pick up the guitar when she was just eight years old, and soon after the banjo.
Arriving in 2020 with her debut full-length Just Like Leaving, across the set she demonstrated great handling of style and composition in a way that cemented her place as one of the genre’s most promising upstarts.
Now, with her second album Among Other Things, White pulls upon life’s melancholy as if plucking petals from a once-blossoming lilac. It’s an ethereal, deeply probing set that witnesses the singer-songwriter veering away from the strict boundaries of bluegrass for something more widely appealing, yet still striking and magnificently written. ‘Flowers on My Bedside’ trickles with the stillness of life, while ‘The Best of Me’ seeks a richer understanding of self and one’s rotation in the world. “It feels like I’m losing but in a different way,” she mourns on the latter.
Such is the way of Among Other Things, produced by Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty). The 10-song collection captures the thorny side of life, often feeling sorrowful and always introspective. Sometimes, that’s where the greatest beauty lies.
To celebrate the record, here are 10 things to know about Bella White.
An essential track titled ‘Rhododendron’ finds White waxing existential about the roles of mothers and daughters. “All this time, I spent inside my head / Well, I’ve been hurting as the world is still turning,” she sings with a prickly heaviness. It’s not that she is an existentialist, per se, but she does wander through her head quite often. “I like the melancholy in life,” she says.
“I don't think I've always quite been existential, but I find myself having these big questions coming up. I've got a busy mind, and I'm wondering about things a lot of the time. It’s a good thing when you have the capacity to contain all of it, but I think when you're just dumbfounded all the time, it can hinder you.”
Growing up, White was drawn to bluegrass standards like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Bury Me Beneath the Willow,’ both tracks recorded by The Carter Family. Those cuts became the backbone of her musical knowledge, alongside songs by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.
Around the same time, she sought out the work of folk ringleaders like Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, as well as blues-rocker Bonnie Raitt. “I kind of just learned whatever I thought sounded good,” she admits. All in all, White desired to learn how to sing, particularly how to harmonize with other people.
“I just thought that she had the most punchy, sassy voice,” says White about Loretta Lynn, one of her greatest influences. She also names Patsy Cline as an important touchstone for her own honeyed vocal tone. “I remember as a little kid trying to learn how to sing ‘Crazy’ and absolutely butchering it,” she quips.
“Nevertheless, I was trying to learn all these really hard songs. And I didn't really understand that they were really complicated to sing, so I would just scream them, and it just didn't sound very good. But those people taught me to sing in some way.”
As far as songwriting goes, Joni Mitchell and John Prine are the creams of the crop. “Joni is a wizard. Her songs are so thoughtful, and she’s singing about the world from her perspective. That's something that I’ve thought more about songwriting and want to embody - how I'm perceiving the things that are happening around me.” Her favorite Mitchell record? For the Roses, of course.
In her youth, White also found herself spinning early albums from Alison Krauss and Union Station and being absolutely mesmerized by Krauss’ high-spun vocals and detailed songwriting.
White was surrounded by music from birth. It was simply a part of her everyday upbringing. Her father, an accomplished bluegrass musician, often invited friends over and would play. “We would have a fire going in the backyard. People would just be sitting around it,” White remembers. “Sometimes, he would even be holding me or my sister while he was playing. I also remember going to lots of festivals and watching him on stage.”
Many artists draw inspiration from other records while they’re busy making their own. For White, she was on a huge Emmylou Harris kick as she plugged away on Among Other Things. “I've always been Emmylou gal,” she says. In the months leading into the record, from writing to recording, she put Luxury Liner on a loop whenever she needed an extra charge. It was one track in particular that she found most inspired by: ‘Tulsa Queen.’
“I don't know if [the song] necessarily would show through on the album, but we were listening to it a lot in the studio,” she says. White also names the work of Buck Meek (a guitarist on the album) and Erin Rae’s Putting on Airs as being in constant rotation and sources of great inspiration.
On the day White released 2020’s Just Like Leaving, she wrote ‘Numbers,’ a deep cut from the new LP. “I was feeling a little lost,” she says. But when she wrote the song on September 25, 2020, everything cataclysmically shifted. “I was kind of stream-of-consciousness writing and it felt really natural, but it didn't feel like I was inside of myself. And there was something about it that felt new. It just felt bigger than what I had been thinking, in terms of my songwriting and where I was headed in this next chapter”.
White threads such themes as finding purpose, resilience and restlessness-vs.-inertia into the album. While it was never her intention at the start, they became the album’s axis on which she then adorns her signature twang-soaked vocals. She owes the pandemic for a lot of that inner exploration, she admits. The world was in a “very uncertain” place, yet she was witnessing growing momentum in her own sphere.
“I didn't really know what to do with that. It led to this feeling of wondering what my purpose is and what I'm doing in this world. I was spending a lot of time observing the things around me and trying to understand them. I don't know if I ever came to any conclusions, but I got to write about all those thoughts along the way.”
Among Other Things is a collection of unrelated ideas strung together. Let White explain. The title track, written the last two days in the studio, represents the album in its patchwork sensibility while dotting together lines about her dead dog, her mother, and where she’s from. “I hate to say it’s a bunch of nonsense because it's not. But it’s a bunch of incomplete thoughts,” she says. “I feel like it sometimes when I'm talking to people. I can't finish my sentences before I jump on to the next one. I'm constantly buzzing.”
Bluegrass is a very community-focused tradition. “You play this music with your community, with your peers and your loved ones,” she says. But she itched to do something different this time around. Due to the pandemic, she veered away from collaboration and wrote the album alone in her house. “I didn't have that access to playing with people,” she adds.
As a result, White began branching out in style and approach. “I didn't want to try and write a bluegrass song if that's not what was coming out naturally. So I allowed it to flow out the way that it did.”
Among Other Things is out now via Rounder Records.