Mercy Bell spent quarantine making a stone-cold ‘90s country album. Golden Child finds itself stitched with traces of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s pulsing lyrical heartbeat, the lonesome cry of Pam Tillis, and the spittin’ grit of Terri Clark. While these influences were perhaps unintended, the openly queer Filipino-American did find herself calling to the voices of Shania Twain, Gillian Welch, Alan Jackson, and Lucinda Williams.
In working with producer John Bohannon ─ remotely, of course ─ Bell revisited a batch of country songs she’d co-written pre-pandemic and never had the intention of performing herself. “I thought other artists would,” she says, noting she soon “realized they were really fun.” She ran the idea of recording them by Bohannon, who she met through a mutual friend, Aileen Quigley Coe.
“When I was going through a mental health crisis during the pandemic, John reached out and helped me find the right kind of therapy and medication,” Bell recalls. “We bonded over cats, coffee, mental health, and our mutual love of pop and ‘90s country.”
Their new-found kinship propelled them forward, barreling ahead into a seven-track record that reads as not only an homage to the ‘90s but gives Bell a vehicle to explore and play. With Bohannon recording with his band in Brooklyn at Baby’s All Right, Bell laid down her vocals at Nashville’s Bomb Shelter, bringing together donations to fund the record. It’s such a DIY spirit that gives the recordings, from the vintage sparkle of “The Hustle” and the dusty western appeal ingrained within “Big Sky, Wide Open,” a certain irresistible charm.
A concept album by nature, Golden Child dons perspectives from a slew of fictional characters, a contrasting point from her previous work. “But the experiences are personal and lived,” she attests. That’s probably why many of the songs, including the gloriously poignant title track, ooze with raw emotional tenderness. “During the pandemic, as I quarantined, the thing I missed the most were the stories I would hear on tour and while I was bartending,” she says. “Every song on this album feels like someone I’d have at my bar or at the merch table after a show, spilling their soul to me, and me feeling like I could relate to them.”
With a band of musicians ─ Sam Kogon (rhythm guitar), Jeff Berrall (bass), Brandon Collins (drums) Larissa Maestro (cello), as well as Bohannon on lead guitar, pedal steel, dobro, and keys (with Bell playing guitar, too) ─ Golden Child transports and transcends her audience.
Having endured a laundry list of pain this last year ─ immense heartbreak, a nervous breakdown, losing her job, getting Covid ─ Bell turns anguish into art, delivering some of the best performances of her career. “The only thing I ever took from you is some Valium and codeine / I know you have some things to say about it / But I got to ease the pain,” she sings, barely keeping things together with “Codeine.” Later, the musician knocks the listener to their knees with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” particularly in how she wields such thorny imagery as: “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
Golden Child is the unexpected follow-up to Bell’s widely acclaimed, and rightfully so, 2019 self-titled studio record. It had been eight years since her debut, 2011’s All Good Cowboys, and you could say she bet her entire life on a comeback. And it worked. Mercy Bell marked the singer-songwriter as one of this generation’s most powerful and important storytellers.
Growing up, splitting time between Massachusetts and California, her mother passed down an appreciation for Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez music, and it was those artists who impressed upon Bell that popular music could be greatly influenced by folk or Americana traditions. Despite her parents being quite strict, with no access to even basic cable for a while, she explored music her own way ─ staging self-written musicals with her cousins. Theatre defined, and continues to influence, her work, style, and vocal phrasing. When she was able to watch TV, a performance from The Chicks of “Travelin’ Soldier” blew her mind in such a way that it became crystal clear music was her destiny, as well.
In 2008, Bell graduated from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with a Bachelor of Arts in History. Her debut, All Good Cowboys, arrived three years later, coming around the time Bell came out to her family and friends. It was a tumultuous time, to say the least, a defining turning point for her life and career. Yet it wasn’t until a self-titled release, which she began writing in 2016 when her mother died, that she uncovered new layers to her songwriting capabilities. Her voice, too, seemed to have ripened, as she now carries the ability to cut deep like a serrated knife. Personally, she acknowledged how truly fleeting life really is, so she stopped caring about misguided perceptions of herself and lived fully and unapologetically.
Golden Child arrives as an extension of Mercy Bell, further showcasing the beauty of her songwriting and vocal prowess. “One Night Stand” takes cues from Miranda Lambert, whereas “Whose Said We Were Friends” echoes with the stunning glow of ‘90s honky tonks right when the night has just gotten started. By the end, Seven songs demonstrate Mercy Bell really can do it all.
“Mercy Bell’s inspiring ballad affirms that little pleasures and big love make it possible ‘to remember to myself be true.” — NPR Music
“Bell’s new self-titled album spanned fetching folk-rock melodrama and indie pop and also included expressive, orchestrated renditions of songs she’d recorded in more rough-hewn form a decade back”- World Cafe: NPR
“A distinct voice with a potent, progressive take on emotive, modern folk.” – Rolling Stone Country
Mercy Bell Bares Her Heart On Impressive, Self-Titled Album” – American Songwriter
“The range of Bell’s vocal tone is impressive- she croons, she growls, she swaggers and twangs, she shouts and yet each song gets the styling it deserves and the album feels cohesive.”- Country Queer