Darwin Muso Series – Bella Maree
Having almost finished the initial batch of interviews following the Passport To Airlie heat in September, Bella Maree answered my callout for other musos to step up and have a chat, emailling to say, ‘What About Me?’
(She didn’t literally use those words, but since she was recently on a lineup with Shannon Noll, it seemed like a bit of wordplay too good to resist.)
Bella Maree has been in Darwin for less than a year, but she’s already a regular on the scene, bringing her mix of originals and covers to the eyes and ears of Darwin’s welcoming audiences.
On a hot but breezy Friday morning, we sat outside at the Nightcliff Foreshore Restaurant and Cafe by the Arafura Sea and chatted over coffee, as Bella Maree unfolded quite the amazing tale of a pretty full life for someone so young.
Bill Quinn: So, Bella Maree, you’re not originally from Darwin?
Bella Maree: No. Before coming to Darwin, I was in Coffs Harbour for a couple of months. And before that, I was between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast for a couple of years.
But before that I was in Thailand for three years, so there’s not really one place that I’m from. I’ve moved around my whole life.
BQ: You’re a global citizen!
BQ: So when did the interest in music start?
BM: My brother Keanu is two years older than me. When I was about eight or nine, and he was ten or eleven, he started learning guitar and singing at school, and he’d come home and show me what he’d learnt.
And basically, that’s how it went: everything he’d learn two years ahead of me, he’d come home and teach me. So, that’s what got me in to music to start with. We started singing together and we had a duo: Strange Angels.
BQ: And bands at school? Did you get together with others there?
BM: When I was younger, yeah. In primary school, I was in a school rock band, and in high school – Grade 8 – me and my brother did a bunch of performances together for the school.
But then in Grade 9, I went into home schooling, and then just towards the end of Year 9, my brother, my parents and I moved to Thailand when I was 14.
BQ: Wow, so how did that go, getting into music and then moving to another culture?
BM: It was… life-changing!
Because I was still doing this home-schooling thing, and I was doing music theory, learning all that kind of stuff, and BOOM! We’re in Thailand, a totally different culture and language, etiquette and everything.
So it was a big learning experience, a life-changing thing.
We continued to do singing when we got there, when we first got to Chaing Mai. We were there for six months and my brother and I sang in restaurants there, and had a bunch of Thai and Burmese friends. We learnt languages from our friends.
Then we moved down south, moved to the islands, and that’s where I got into some bands. My brother moved away to Bangkok, and we were still on the island. Koh Samui was where I was mostly, singing in bands.
So the band members consisted of guys from Europe, America, all different places. Older dudes, and they taught me so much. They showed me all those older songs, older eras, older music. It just really taught me the old school way, and how to lead a band.
I had a lot of experience with them, and a lot of cool shows with them too.
[Tape pauses for the arrival of Bella Maree’s chai latte. And we continue..]
BQ: And what prompted the move to Darwin?
BM: After a bad relationship that I needed to get far away from, and realising that all my family’s spread around Australia, I needed to be with my mum – she was in Darwin at the time – so I flew up here and I thought, I’m just gonna have a new life start and see how I go.
I really wanted to bring my music here as well, because I’d played so much up and down the east coast that I wanted to bring it somewhere I’d never been before as well.
BQ: When did you actually come here?
BM: November last year. Almost a year.
BQ: You get a lot of gigs here, don’t you? You’ve done really well. How did you get your toe in the water up here?
BM: Basically, when I first got here, I hadn’t been playing music for a while because of that bad relationship I was in.
And I thought, as soon as I got here, I needed to get out and meet people, so I went to a Darwin meet and greet with MusicNT and APRA people. I went there, and my goal was to have a conversation with everyone there, so I did that. Just introduced myself and said who I am, and just got to know other people as well: what are their roles in the music industry here?
It was a really good thing that I did because I bumped into those people again since that meet and greet.
But the main thing that really got my foot in the door to all the gigs here, I think, is I made it my goal to meet everyone face to face, rather than just cold-calling, sending emails, and just waiting and waiting and waiting – which I’ve done in the past.
But I just thought, OK, new place, new town; let’s experiment, let’s just meet face to face.
And that worked really well, because I dressed up as my stage ‘Bella Maree’ thing, and I rocked up with my guitar, and I said who I am. Face to face, shook their hand, and even played them a song on the spot, and said, “I’m here now!”
From there, I got bookings.
BQ: And I’ve noticed that you go out to places like Berry Springs, and… Howard Springs? Maybe not.
BM: Not yet, but I’m looking into it.
When I was on the east coast, I was living on Tambourine Mountain on the Gold Coast, and I used to drive all the way down to Byron Bay just to play two hours, then all the way back.
But the drive was two and a half hours! Five hours of driving for two hours of playing.
BQ: Song-writing was something you always did?
BM: Yeah, I remember, I think when I was about ten, writing a song about a Billabong t-shirt! And then writing songs about wanting new shoes.
But then it gradually changed and grew, and I guess when I was in Thailand having those experiences, I wrote a lot when I was 15, 16. A lot, a lot of songs then. Yeah, I’ve just been writing songs since I started singing. Singing and writing has always been something of a similar journey.
BQ: The thing that I’ve noticed in my short time here is that Darwin audiences seem to be really receptive to original music.
BM: Yeah, which I’ve been surprised by too. When I first got here – actually, at that meet and greet – I was speaking to someone and they were saying, “Aw, if you do originals, you’re probably only going to be able to play them at the original venues. People just aren’t going to want to hear your original music; you’re going to have to play covers.”
And I remember thinking, OK. But my thing is I always play half/half, and I’ve seen good things come from it; people seem to like it and even request for more originals.
I’ve seen people really getting into it to the point where they start picking up a few of the words and start trying to mime to it, which is really cool.
BQ: Is there a difference between the dry and the wet seasons? Do you find more opportunities in the dry?
BM: For sure. Because there’s more events going on in the dry season, there’s markets, people are getting married. There’s just more opportunity because there’s good weather for everything and there are just more events on.
I find that I am struggling a little bit now that it is coming into the end of the year around the wet season. I find that I am just chasing for the gigs whereas in the dry, they were coming to me. There’s definitely a big difference, yeah. It’s just about keeping on top of it and not forgetting that there is that difference.
BQ: Have you recorded any?
BM: Yeah. So, when I was 11, my brother and I won a talent contest in Hervey Bay – The Fraser Coast Has Got Talent. And from that, our prize was to get a recording. From there, we met Robert Mackay of Pacific International Music.
And when he got us in, I was 11, my brother was 13, he wanted to do a whole album for us. He just wanted to help us. If it wasn’t for Rob, I don’t know where I’d be, because he’s helped my career from the start.
So we got a seven track EP recorded with Rob, and that was my first one. When I came back from Thailand, I was about 17, just about to turn 17. I actually came back because I’d visited Australia on a holiday while I was still living in Thailand, and I’d auditioned for The X Factor while I was on holiday. And they wrote back to me while I was in Thailand and they said, “We really want you to come back and do the TV auditions.”
And I was really just sitting on it for a while, not sure what to do, and I decided I’ll just get a one-way ticket because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t actually want to move back to Australia, but I was like, I’ll just see what happens. So I got a one-way ticket, and I came by myself, and I did the auditions.
And I actually got four ‘yes’-es, and I was going to go through to the next stage, something really interesting about those shows: even if you get four ‘yes’-es, it’s not guaranteed that you go through to the next stage.
So, two weeks before the next stage, a producer called me up and they said, “Aw, they’ve booked too many people through, and we have to cut a bunch out. And I’m really sorry, but you’re one of the ones that we’re gonna cut out.”
So, my whole audition didn’t get shown, but I’d come back from Thailand for it, so I was like, Oh, what do I do now? So, I decided to call up Robert Mackay and I said, How about I come up and catch up with you and do an EP, a solo EP?
So we did that!
I went up to Hervey Bay and recorded my solo EP, Keeping Busy, and that was the last one that I’ve had recorded and released. Since then, I went on The Voice as well when I was 18. I didn’t turn a chair, but I actually got shown on TV so that was a bonus. That was cool.
BQ: Do you think those shows… I’m 50/50 on them. I don’t watch them myself. Do you think it’s a positive thing? Do you think if people go through that they come out with a positive experience, generally?
It depends. I think that they’re all different. I think that at The X Factor, they definitely try to mold the contestant to be who they want them to be. So that, for example, if I were to go on The X Factor again now, they might not know what to do with me because I’m already presented as who I want to be.
BQ: They can’t put their own stamp on you.
BM: Yeah. But say with The Voice, I think they’re more respectful to the contestants, they’re more about the experience, there’s workshops. We got to meet Darren Percival and the winner from the kids’ The Voice. We got to do some stuff like that leading up to the TV auditions.
It was a really fun experience, so no matter what your outcome was, it was like, Sweet; that was really fun.
But The X Factor, I’ve heard from people who’ve been further through stages, and I don’t know that they were really that happy because they were told what to do so much.
BQ: Just before I forget, have you put your stuff in to my* radio station, 104.1 Territory FM? Thursday nights from 10pm to midnight, we have a show called ‘Fresh MINT’ – the boss (Matt Bern) runs it. I think it’s got something to do with MusicNT as well, and it’s all local stuff. So if you’ve got recorded stuff, drop it into the station – it’s at the (Charles Darwin) uni, Building Six – Orange.
* No ownership denoted there; I’m a presenter
BM: Yeah. Nice!
I’ll be recording again soon. I’m in the middle of setting up my home studio, because my aim now is to self-produce from home – audio, video, everything. I just want to be able to do it all on my own.
BQ: Which you can do these days. You can do your voice-tracking in the bedroom and the drums in the kitchen – it can be done.
BM: Yeah, because I’ve had my experience with the recording studio and it was fun, but I just want to have freedom to do it on my own. To do it any time, to do it weekly, that’s my aim. So I’ll be recording again very soon and I’ll have some new tracks laid down and new stuff to bring to the radio station at some point.
BQ: So do you think you’ll stick around in Darwin?
BM: Yeah, for a couple of years.
BQ: Which leads to what used to be my signature question; I haven’t asked it at all up here.
When we’re sitting here in five years’ time, or in a cafe somewhere in five years’ time, and I’m asking about your career, what are you going to be able to tell me?
BM: Well, I can tell you what my long term goals are and where I hope to be in five years.
Like I said, I want to be able to self-produce, so I want to have my own album out – two, or three, and EPs.
But I want to have a regular online presence. I want to be part of – I want to… How do I say this?
When it comes to online influencers, for example, it’s really, really run by the US right now. It’s really run by American vloggers, Youtube channels, etc. And I sort of feel if at the moment there’s not many Australians doing it, that’s where I want to jump in and create that sort of scene for Australians. And that inspiration for Australians to do that more. We can do it too.
BQ: So we [Australians] can be leaders rather than followers?
BM: Yeah. I want to be able to create the community here for Australia, that online community. It’s like the public entertaining the public, if that makes sense. People who have a Youtube channel, we’re the ones that are entertaining each other, not the big media outlets.
So I want to be doing my music all the time and videos all the time, and to just be this really regular content-creator.
That’s my goal.
BQ: And location to be advised!
BM: Yeah. Exactly. My life has always been moving around, but I think I’m going to be in Darwin for a few years because I need that; I need to be settled for a couple of years, and get my shit together and my goals on the road.
You can keep tabs on what Bella Maree’s up to, where she’s playing, and her latest content creations: