Jennah Bell is on an upswing. Just a few years out of Berklee College of Music, the Oakland-born singer-songwriter has already made an appearance at the BET Awards and opened for the Grammy-nominated R&B singer Emily King. Bell is preparing to launch a Pledge Music Campaign to fund her debut album, which will kick off with a Concert Window performance on March 24. Audience members are encouraged to tip generously during the “Pre-Pledge Party,” as the funds will go directly towards funding Bell’s new project.
It has been three years since the release of the young singer’s “Early Bird EP,” and in that time Bell has both expanded artistically and honed her focus. “Early Bird” revealed a musician with considerable vocal prowess and an ear for nuanced, soul-inflected melodies, but was, in essence, a grab-bag of ideas. A bass-heavy opener aimed for epic transcendence with splashy cymbal hits and intricate backup vocals, while a playful R&B ditty muted Bell’s warm croon with an unexpected auto-tuned treatment. The material was strong, as was Bell’s delivery, but it felt experimental, an engaging but uneven dry-run for an artist still tinkering with her sound.
In concert, though, Bell puts her voice first, and on her 2012 live album, her full powers are on display. Accompanied by electric guitar and keyboard—and, as usual, wielding her own guitar—she brings to mind Nora Jones or Alicia Keys: soulful, a touch sad, and impeccably tasteful. Bell certainly has the vocal chops for melisma-ridden showmanship, but she invariably opts for simplicity, which makes those rare moments when her voice breaks, or trembles, or climbs effortlessly into the higher registers, all the more affecting. Her songs seep in slowly, but her characteristic subtlety should not be mistaken for complacency. With her upcoming Pledge Music campaign and album, Bell is gunning for the big leagues. It should be as pleasant to watch her get there as it is to hear her sing.