Kaylee Bell might be New Zealand's greatest unsung musical hero.
Self-managed and independent, the Waimate-born country pop artist has been the most streamed female artist in Australasia for the last four years; in September she was chosen as the face of Spotify's Equal Global Music Programme playlist – representing female artists in New Zealand and Australia – which involved her image being featured on a billboard smack bang in the middle of New York City's Times Square.
It's a boon to her profile that hasn't come out of nowhere – Bell's been putting in the mahi for a long time. Having started singing when she was 4, the vocalist and guitarist grew up performing at talent quests and weekend gigs with her siblings, winning at the 2007 NZ Gold Guitar Award as a solo act when she was 18.
This led her to participate in Australia's Tamworth Country Music Festival, which was the first time she'd crossed paths with artists who were actually making a living from performing country music, something she hadn't considered possible in Aotearoa.
Bell took a leap and relocated to Australia for five years, touring and building a name for herself there. She won Star Maker, "the big comp in Tamworth" in 2013, the first time a Kiwi had scooped the title since Keith Urban in 1990.
Her 2019 The Red EP has received over 10 million plays and generated hits in the shape of Getting Closer, Keith and Wasted on You. And yet, despite her success internationally, Kaylee Bell is far from a household name in her home country. Country music is a seemingly dormant genre in New Zealand – although Bell is hopeful it may be making a comeback.
"Country music [coverage] has been lacking in the mainstream media for a good 20 years, but ... because of things like Spotify this next generation are starting to hear the American stuff, which is what I grew up on as well and what I loved. People are starting to have this appreciation for it again, it's really nice to be able to actually do it in my own country."
Covid may prove a blessing in disguise; Bell has spent the last 10 years going back and forth between New Zealand and Nashville, spending the southern hemisphere winters stateside, getting to know the industry there and building a team of co-writers and peers that she loves to work with.
"It's a 9-5 job in Nashville to be a songwriter, and you make really good money. I just jump in, write every day when I'm over there. Sometimes for other people but mostly for my own projects – it's where a lot of my music is produced. Country is the number one genre in America, so I'm always going and making those connections."
While frequent visits to the US have done much to help Bell hone her craft, being grounded in Auckland due to the pandemic has given her a chance to focus on building her profile locally, resulting in interest from both radio programmers and summer festival bookers – although, due to Covid, most of her live performance plans are on hold for now.
Speculating that she's probably the first local country artist to receive significant commercial airplay in NZ in the last couple of decades, Bell's recent single That Summer became the most added song in mainstream radio for the month of May 2021, and has had over one million streams. That, along with new single Living Free tease the release of her second full-length album Silver Linings at the end of this month.
"My goal and dream has always been to turn on the radio in this country and hear some country music," she admits.
"So it's been huge, it has been massive. I just want to break down some walls, I feel like it's been missing in our culture for a really long time."
Through her commitment to her craft and genre, not to mention Silver Linings, Bell may be en route to achieving her dream of repopularising country music in Aotearoa – much like her ultimate hero Shania Twain did in her heyday, and rounding out the thriving Americana and folk scenes that have borne, and been borne by, the likes of Tami Neilson, Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, and Nadia Reid.
Produced by Bell's longtime collaborator Simon Oscroft (Disney USA, Midnight Youth), the LP cites an impressive cast of collaborators, including Lindsay Ell – who features on 'Living Free' – The McClymonts, Josh Mirenda, Lepani, Lindsay Rimes, and Sam Sumser.
But while she's excited to have the release out there, Bell can't wait to bring the album to life onstage. She's been working hard with her band to make their live show "really strong and accessible so people can see how much it's evolved from what their perception of country music might be."
Let's hope audiences are able to enjoy the experience in person soon enough.
Listen to the Locals Only podcast below. Made with funding from NZ On Air.