Meet Bella White, Old-Time Music's Young Old Soul

Bella White
Bella White Photo by Morgan Mason, courtesy of Michael J. Media Group
Bella White may only be 21 but she’s a music veteran, in some respects. For one, she said, she began writing songs as a grade schooler, just seven years old when she penned her first original tune. She was sent home with warnings from grade-school teachers over her penchant for singing in class. And, she’s a next generation musician with family history in the roots music she favors.

White’s familiarity and comfort with music has given the young Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist a head start many upstarts would envy. The result of those advantages is Just Like Leaving, White’s exceptional 2020 debut album. She’ll be performing songs from the record this week in Houston when she opens for fellow soaring songbird Sierra Ferrell at White Oak Music Hall on Friday, October 22.

“I feel like a lot of songwriters that are maybe in their 30s or 40s now didn’t start writing until they were in their 20s, so I guess maybe because I started at such a young age I kind of just got ahead in a sense. Also, I grew up in a family that didn’t really shelter me from the world, so I feel like I saw a lot and had some struggles growing up that I think probably fed into growing up quickly and having to kind of be an adult at a younger age,” White told us by phone ahead of her cross-country tour with Ferrell.

“I feel like it’s a combination of starting writing and figuring out that that’s a way of processing feelings and emotions at such a young age combined with having a lot of feelings and emotions that needed to be processed. It’s kind of funneled out into this early maturing, I guess you could say.”

“Mature” is a good word to describe White as an artist. The album’s nine tracks are honest and sometimes delicate songs supported by her deft guitar work and assured, captivating vocals. White was born in Calgary, Alberta but her songs seem to have descended directly from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her father was a bluegrass musician and White learned about the music at his knee.

“I grew up in Canada but he grew up in Virginia playing bluegrass and old-time music. All throughout my childhood he was playing music and my mom, too, not quite as much, but they’re both very musical. I think having music, either recordings of music or him always playing music, I just kind of needed it around. It was so comforting to me. When I figured out that I could do it too I just didn’t really see another path for myself. I wasn’t that excited to do anything else besides play music.”

White said she was around 16 when she decided to fully commit to a career in music. She said it’s probably gratifying for her folks to see her follow her dream. Her dad is a psychiatrist “so music, he always really wanted to do it, but he also had this other really major passion that he needed to pursue, so I think it’s been exciting for him to see me take the other path that he was taking for a while.”

What’s made her proud of her own music career, we asked? Her name has been mentioned with the likes of Gillian Welch and Brandi Carlile. She’s touring to sold-out shows on this current run. She’s on the Rounder Records label, one of the world’s leading roots music purveyors. She’s been hailed by Rolling Stone, with the magazine calling “Hand of Your Raising,” a standout track from the album, “sublime Appalachian heartbreak.”

click to enlarge White's debut album, Just Like Leaving, released in late 2020. - PHOTO BY SHEENA ZILINSKI, COURTESY OF MICHAEL J. MEDIA GROUP
White's debut album, Just Like Leaving, released in late 2020.
Photo by Sheena Zilinski, courtesy of Michael J. Media Group
“Seeing my name in Rolling Stone was maybe the first time that I registered, like, oh my God, I did something really cool. I was proud of that,” she said. “You know, your career is taking off and you’re on this path and it’s really easy to just forget that you’re on this amazing path and all of these goals and dreams you’ve had are kind of actualizing. I think it’s really easy to forget that and just get caught up in the path and not really take a look at what you’ve accomplished. It was definitely a moment where I just stepped out of myself for a minute and was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’”

“It’s like my late teenage years diary,” White said of Just Like Leaving. “Now it’s been a couple of years since I wrote all the songs on it, but to me that album feels very much like my coming-of-age anthem. I’m continuing to grow a lot but I like people to know that is just a picture of growth, in my opinion. I hope that people can relate to it and look back on their early adulthood and have some sense of connection to that.”

While critics praise her work on the album, White credits her bandmates with helping her fulfill her vision for the record, a true music veteran move.

“They’re all wonderful. It’s kind of been like a slightly rotating cast. On the album Julian Pinelli plays the fiddle and he’s a great fiddle player. I met him at the IBMA, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s event they put on every year, and we got into a late night jam session and I just loved his playing and singing so much that I continued to want to play and sing with him,” she said. “Same with Reed Stutz who played mandolin. I met him a festival called Fiddle Tunes and we stayed up all night singing Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice songs one night. In that moment I just knew that I wanted him in the band.

“On the road with me it’s been Patrick M’Gonigle, who produced the album, playing the fiddle. I’ve known him forever, he’s also from Canada,” she continued, “and playing the bass is Alan Mackie and I’ve known him since I was like 13 and he also plays on the album. They’re both the most inspiring musicians to me and I feel so lucky to get to have them on the road.”

If she’s made better by her bandmates, as she insists, it’s undeniable that some of the most arresting Bella White work available is on YouTube in a series of songs she’s recorded solo, just her and her guitar in a bedroom performing covers of some of her favorite tunes. Her vocals are breathtaking in these quiet videos. Fans of distinct, expressive vocals are going to be in paradise wherever she and Ferrell share stages this fall. For White, her development as a singer was a case of literally finding her voice.

“I was always singing. I remember I would go to a friend’s house when I was a small child and they’d be like, ‘Could you stop singing?’ Or in class, in elementary school, my teachers would always put on the report cards, ‘Bella needs to stop singing when she’s writing her tests.’ I just couldn’t help myself. It definitely wasn’t always good, either,” she said with a laugh.

“Because I grew up in a bluegrass kind of family I was always going to music festivals and picking and singing and I loved singing harmony with people,” she continued. “I just think it was trial by fire. I wanted to sing with people so I kind of had to sing all the time to figure out what my voice sounded like. I definitely think there’s been different eras of what my voice has sounded like and maybe for the past handful of years now it’s kind of settled into what feels the most authentic.”

It’s perhaps unfair to ask most 21 year-old artists where they’d like to see their early efforts take them. But White’s maturity as a musician allows it. For instance, would she want to see her own someday children someday go into the family business of music?

“I think I definitely would want them to at least give it a try and hopefully fall in love with it but probably from a place where we could just play old-time tunes or something like that,” she said. “Then, if they took a liking to it and wanted to do it, I would fully support that. Of course I would want them to, but I don’t think I would ever want to push it on anyone in a way that felt uncomfortable because it is really hard.

“I feel like I lucked out in a lot of ways in kind of finding some success at an early age but also have experienced the less gratifying sides of it. You’ve definitely got to have a thick skin. I would never want to force that on anyone but of course I would be so thrilled if it continued to be a big part of my life in the future.”

For now, she’s looking forward to connecting with people and making new fans everywhere, including Houston, a city she’s never visited. She said her only boots-on-the-ground time in Texas was a layover at DFW Airport.

“I just want to continue to be able to play music with people that I love, play music that I love and be able to make a living and be recognized for that,” she said of her future. “I definitely just want to make sure I enjoy it the whole time. I don’t want to be in a place where I lose the love of it for the industry. I don’t want to have to fight the music in any way. I guess where I hope to see myself is continuing to be recognized and paying my bills and everything, but mostly just continuing to make music that I really love and feels really honest to me.”

Bella White, 8 p.m. Friday, October 22 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. White performs as support on the Sierra Ferrell Long Time Coming Tour. The show is sold out, join the wait list at the venue's website.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.