Karen Bella is exceptionally talented and at least part of her audience at the Randy Tar (7043 Greenville Ave.) knows it. Others pay more attention to their Swedish meat balls than to Karen, but that’s their problem.
Karen’s major influence is Joni Mitchell, but she sounds satisfyingly individualistic. When she does familiar Ronstadt-Raitt-Baez material, she never does a stylistically barren copy but turns out an interesting interpretation. Performing in a restaurant-club demands a repertoire so diverse, many performers are simply not versatile enough to handle it. Karen, though, is at ease with songs as different as, say, Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Me Like A Man,” both of which are high points in her act. She also does less familiar material, such as compositions by Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet-author-songwriter whose lyrics can be beautiful or bleak, almost morbid. That Karen includes his music at all in a club like the Randy Tar. where the standard fare is sweetness and light, is another indication of her musical individuality.
Many female entertainers assume almost ornamental roles, and their ability or lack of it on an instrument is sometimes overlooked. But Karen is good with a guitar and plays comfortably in several styles. On “Love Me Like A Man,” Karen makes no attempt to duplicate the formidable Raitt’s guitar work, but she still plays some very passable blues licks.
But Karen’s most significant music is her own. Her song structures are good, her lyrics personal and perceptive. They may be heard on an album called Show and Tell, recorded here in Dallas at Harvest (now Criterion) Studios. It’s a good album, that shows that it’s not necessary to spend a fortune to make a quality recording. Talk is audible between several tracks, and there’s an informal quality to the record that detracts not at all from the professionalism of the music. Karen normally plays solo but worked with some other musicians – all of them good – for the album.
“My songs were getting as good a response as tunes I did by other people,” Karen told me. “This meant something to me because 1 knew audiences don’t applaud to be polite, they applaud because they like something. So, I knew my tunes sounded good to people, and I thought, “Hell, they ought to be out.” These thoughts were coming together when John Bowley and John Wilson asked me if I wanted to guinea pig Harvest Studios. They knew how to go about making an album and we began recording. Chris Smith (guitar, bass, pedal steel) played. He’d toured with Phoebe Snow and Jackson Brown and had just come off the road from a tour with Jennifer Warnes – he’s excellent. We became friends and he came down and recorded. Mike Collier, the drummer, and Danny Grogan (bass) are both from Pegasus, and Gary Pelfrey, the other drummer, has been with the Bingo Band and a lot of other bands. The only cut we didn’t do here in Dallas was “People Come And Go.’”
“People Come and Go” was recorded in Chautauqua, New York, in August of 1974. It was a “guitar song that grew” into a composition for which Karen had written arrangements for string instruments. Her father played bass, her mother played cello, and her younger sister Wendy played clarinet. Her musical family shows why Karen refers to her career as one of “pre-natal determination.” Her parents were classical musicians who had met at Julliard, and they had Karen taking her first piano lessons when she was eight.
Karen describes herself in adolescence as “painfully shy, introverted, sullen and moody” and (worse yet!) “spindly-armed.” Images flash of years during which there were many fragile, big-eyed female folk singers, peering out from behind Mary Travers bangs and looking spindly-armed behind big acoustic guitars. Along came Joni Mitchell, and changed all that.
“When I started listeningtoJoni Mitchell,” recalls Karen, “I was about eighteen years old, and I’d never heard anything like it in my life. I’d never heard music that hit me so directly it made me cry! It didn’t really matter if the song was supposed to be sad or happy, there was an intensity, an awareness that freaked me totally! And there was another thing – all the woman singers in those days were real shriekers like Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. I didn’t have a real strong voice and I couldn’t sing like them, so I felt very inadequate. Then, along came Mitchell – her strong points were much more like my own.”
Karen first began playing, almost to overcome her shyness, at a church coffee house, the Gate House, in downtown San Antonio. Everyone, from the waitresses to the entertainers, worked for no pay. It was a type of place seen infrequently in contemporary music, a room where, since no cash was on the line, the non-pro musicians weren’t expected to be terrific, but still attained their first experiences before an audience.
When the Gate House eventually folded, Karen endured musical inactivity during 1970. “stuck in college in Nowhere, Iowa.” A transfer to the University of Texas brought her to Austin, where she made the transition from amateur to pro musician. She began fortifying her Joan Baez songbook repertoire with Mitchell compositions, and worked regularly at the Renaissance (now the Old Vienna). She also played at the somewhat crusty Saxon Pub, a status gig that paid little money. When she heard an old high school acquaintance talking of contemplating Colorado mountains and cooling wine in babbling brooks, she split for Denver. She was a hostess-musician at a club there, but eventually returned to Texas.
Lyrical concepts had formed in her mind, influenced both by Mitchell and her own honesty. She began to write songs, and include them in her act. They became her strongest performing moments. Her lyrics are personal but easy to relate to, the essence of good songwriting. Some of her material deals quite specifically with Dallas (one wonders how a song about “That Bar On Oak Lawn” would go over in, say, Manhattan).
“I can’t even begin to write about something that hasn’t happened to me,” she says. ’”Every song I’ve ever written concerns someone I’ve known or some experience I’ve had. I’m kind of hard on myself when 1 write and I’ll reject something I think is mediocre, because most writing is mediocre … I mean, I could have no interest in playing “Margaritaville’ or ’Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.’ Yawn! That’s Yawn City! I have no intention of boring myself or anybody else.
“Dallas is a town that wants to be entertained. You’ll get a lot farther if you’re an excellent entertainer and a lousy musician than if you’re a lousy entertainer and a great musician. This isn’t a college town, audiences don’t want intellectual stimulation or meaningful music . . . they want beer-drinking, make-me-laugh music. And that’s cool, I can make that work for me. See. what this city has done for me is taught me how to be an entertainer.”
Karen obviously treats every gig as alearning experience, and rarely have Iseen a performer whose evolution is soevident. What works is improved upon,what doesn’t work is soon discarded. HerShow and Tell album is available locally,and the Randy Tar is easy to find. So, it’seasy to add Karen Bella to one’s musicalawareness.