Self-Portrait: Comfy Bella

Leeds-based producer Comfy Bella’s musical beginnings are deeply rooted in singing and songwriting. Spending the early part of her childhood growing up in Zambia, it was trips to the local church that first exposed her to powerful choruses of song. These early influences stayed with her, and eventually evolved into a full time vocation that saw her work with artists like Flood, Youth, Chris Martin, MJCole and spend eight years touring and writing with Nightmares On Wax. DJing followed her singing and songwriting pursuits, after she felt she’d reached a point where she had run out of things to say.

She immersed herself in other artist’s music, and began to decipher the traits and characteristics that she loved in their productions. This helped reignite the fire and encourage her to start working on her own tracks. She’d found her musical identity and she knew exactly what she wanted to say again. Her organic journey to becoming a producer is somewhat mirrored in her approach to production; soft, natural layers, each element carefully considered.

In this 100% original material mix she cruises through soulful rhythms, downtempo jazz-flecked beats and field recordings, alongside an interview about her path to production.

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

It’s hard to pinpoint, but I think the first time I remember being struck by a musical sound was when I must have been about three or four. Me and my family lived in Lusaka, Zambia from when I was two till eight years old. I remember going to a local church with my mum, and being mesmerised by the singing. It was mainly, if not all, women, or sounded like it, and everyone was singing in a kind of off key unison. It was really powerful. I’ve always been fascinated by music though, as a kid I would always be taping bits of tunes I’d heard and playing them over and over and over.

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

I can’t say that I did in the traditional sense. I didn’t study music etc but music has been a huge part of my growing up. I lived in a dual heritage household; my Dad was English with Irish and German roots and my Mum was Ugandan. My dad always had music playing and was a bit of a purist, only classical or some really abstract jazz, which at the time I didn’t appreciate at all. Then my mum was a combination of African jazz funk, folk, traditional artists, and all kinds of modern western music. I remember rinsing a Simon & Garfunkel album of hers – she was the absolute opposite of a purist. When we moved to Leeds, I was introduced to West Indian culture, sound systems, reggae, lovers rock, dancehall etc. My teens were filled with funk, rare grooves, jazz fusion, house, hip hop. Just a huge spectrum of music.

What led you into music production?

I would say becoming a DJ led me to actually take producing seriously. I started out as a singer and then a songwriter, so I was really fortunate to have been involved in some amazing records and projects and got to tour quite a lot. I had a small studio set up for songwriting, and I’d make beats and experiment with sounds that I was really into that usually no one else was, but it still didn’t occur to me to produce as an artist. I think a part of it too was, as a female vocalist, it wasn’t expected of me, or encouraged. I’m not blaming that for me not doing it because it certainly wasn’t actively discouraged, but that’s how it was I guess. I was always really interested in that side of things though and always had ideas.

I eventually got bored of only singing, I ran out of things to say and thought that maybe I was done with music. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t making it, so I started enjoying what other people were doing and spending hours listening to, and finding, music which led me to want to DJ. Just for fun, I never actually thought I’d DJ professionally, but one thing led to another and all of a sudden I was out there, on my own, solo, playing music that I’d chosen. It blew my mind that I could actually get paid for playing other people’s music. Through that I really honed in on what I liked and didn’t like, and developed a real musical identity I guess and then all of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to say again, probably for the first time, and I knew I wanted to make music, all of it, not just the vocal parts, so I did.

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

Sooooo many! If I started to name everyone I’d be here forever. I’m a music fan first and foremost. I appreciate experimental artists. A big catalyst for me was stumbling across Rhythm Section records in 2015. That whole south London musical explosion. Road jazz I call it lol. Among loads of others, those artist’s music really resonated with me; it had an edge to it and influences from so many types of music without subscribing to anything, just being itself. I’m massively inspired by any artist that manages to do that. I’m also really into artists like Four Tet who manipulate sounds and create these soundscapes. 

On a technical side, Quincy Jones is the man. I love his productions and I’m just in awe at how much space his mixes have. To me the way he crafts organic sounds is like looking through the Hubble telescope at the galaxy, but with your ears, it feels limitlessness. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours listening to every position of every guitar lick, high hat, sound. It fascinates me.

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio? Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

I like to give the studio a quick hoover when I get in. Then I light a couple of candles and make it smell nice and it also warms it up a bit. Gets me in the room ya know.

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

As a writer I’m very impulsive; a head top type of person, I don’t like to have a plan unless I’m recording someone else. I also like to write in bed – my second studio – so there are times I go to the studio with things I’ve already started. I generally work on two or three things at the same time, flitting back and forth every couple of hours.

As an arranger and mixer I am a huge perfectionist, but I’ve learnt to pick my battles with that. I’m learning to let things go that may not be perfect to me but are close enough, mainly because you can get lost in perfection, and a lot of the time the magic is in the imperfections. I try to ground myself in how it makes me feel.

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track? How much of your material is sample based and how much is original? 

There’s no hard and fast way for me. But more often than not, I approach it the same way that I would writing a song, which would be to find some chords or melody or a sample, anything that sparks something in me, then follow that. Sometimes I like to mess around layering up sounds and manipulating bits of audio, piecing together the sounds like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to get the basis of something and then go from there.

As I come from a live background I like to play stuff, and to have my friends come in and play stuff. Nearly everything I make is from original material mainly out of a way of working, but I think sampling is cool too, one of the tracks in the mix is based around a sample.

What’s the most important bits of kit that makes a Comfy Bella track?

I feel like I’m very much in the process of developing my sound. For sure it’s a combination of synths, live and programmed, drum machines and live instruments. I love experimenting with different synths but at the moment I’d say, every day, I use a Korg Minilogue and an old Korg X50. I share a vintage Juno 106 with a friend, so that’s definitely another favourite. I really love the sound of the Nord Lead, so I borrow a rack mount sometimes from a friend. I’m currently sharing a studio with a mate who’s an amazing minimal producer who brought an array of synths with him that no doubt will be played with.

Between us our studio is pretty much full of everything from bass guitars and guitars to keyboards, synths and drum machines. It’s gonna take a while to get through it all. But I guess the big thing for me is working with other musicians, I feel like live musicians breathe life into projects. For example, a drummer called Isaac Heywood who I’ve grown up with and been in so many bands with did the high hats on Konkahs, which is incidentally why it’s called Konkers. I was low on funds so he kindly said I could pay him in conkers, which I still owe him. Kenny Higgins Jnr, who is an absolute hooligan on the bass, but the most gentle person, is the man behind the Konkahs bass line. Also Chris Dawkins, who’s just released his debut album on Released Records, I’ve been in bands with for the longest and this man is pure soul vibes! He played bass and moog on my ‘Be Side’ track. I may know roughly what I want in a session but it’s guys like these that are masters in their fields, bringing their flavours that take it to that next level. Oh and I love my sound effects and field recordings. My phone is full of bits of recordings of nights out, street sounds, weird conversations – basically everything going on around me. I love putting these into my pieces, it’s kind of like immortalising these moments that have meant something to me in time.

Your debut release came out via Released Records last year. How did that relationship come about?

Tony Green, who set up the label is an old friend, really well known in Leeds as a promotor and ran a few venues. Anyway Tony tells me he wants to start a label and Chris Dawkins, another good friend is part of it plus another artist Wulls, and he’d like me to come on board. No pressure, no gimmicks, just good people helping each other out.

I was resistant at first because I knew I wanted to make a record and I wanted to keep my options open as to where the record would be best placed. Anyway, I agreed to join in and do some vocals etc, and then I made my record. I wanted it be a vinyl-only release, I wanted to design the artwork, I wanted to have full creative control and that’s exactly what Tony offered me. Him and his team really got behind my ideas. We all worked really well together and were friends, so it actually totally made sense for it to come out on Released, in hindsight it really couldn’t have been a better scenario for me and my debut record. 

This mix is comprised of 100% original Comfy Bella material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

I’d say this is a snapshot really at some bits I’m messing around with at the moment or journeys I’ve been through experimenting.  It’s actually been quite difficult to put together an hour of material without going nuts and basically writing an entire concept album in a week (which the perfectionist in me really wanted to do) I decided to just be honest and let pieces out that I’m attached to but haven’t quite finished so still in their raw form.

Probably all the tracks are special to me just because they’ll all have  some link to how the idea came about, what was going on for me a that time and so on. The 1st track in the mix is especially special to me and something I will definitely release once it’s done. I was gonna put it on the b side of my record last year but in the end I didn’t think it was the right time.

It’s working title is Knights which is a title I’ve been carrying around for a while.

Anything on the horizon for you? Any bookings or releases we should know about?

I’m currently writing with the plan to do an album, hopefully by the end of this year. I’ve got a collab coming out in November, my first collab as a producer which is exciting for me. I do quite a lot of DJing which I really love. I do a club night called Moon Unit, plus I run a summer terrace party from May to August, so summer is always pretty full on. For me it’s the balance between having a good time DJing and writing. I really would like to get out to some festivals this year, I don’t have an agent at the moment, so if you wanna book me holla at me haha. In general, I’m feeling very grateful and lucky for the support I’ve had so far and just being able to make music and be around some very best blessed people.

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