“We shifted to an isolated pine forest, central North Island, 16 miles from the nearest shop, the isolation meant I had a lot of time to dream and create.”
Bell was also inspired by seeing the travelling band BLERTA playing on the domain in Taupo. “I knew I was one of them,” says Bell. “I was the first person to ever busk in our small town,” she recalled. She “travelled around, joined a performance poetry collective in London” and returned to Auckland in the early 1980s. It was from this point on that she became more serious about music.
Sandra Bell’s recording debut began in 1984 with 2 Metallic Hearts, a collection of original songs performed live with Kim Blackburn at that year's Sweetwaters Festival.
Sandra Bell’s recording debut began in 1984 with 2 Metallic Hearts, a collection of original songs performed live with Kim Blackburn at that year's Sweetwaters Festival. This cassette release, on Industrial Tapes, was followed in 1986 by Blackbirds, Bell’s vinyl debut, and her first release under her name alone. Released on the Volcanic Productions label, the songs on Blackbirds used only women musicians. The record sleeves featured hand screened artwork on the cover. Blackbirds was centred, for the most part, around Bell’s vocals and guitar, and contained an early version of 'Industrial Night', a song she would revisit five years later.
“I lived in Auckland for 10 years before going to Dunedin. I played solo, and I’m a writer as well – I write poetry. I played in cafes and such,” explains Bell when asked about her background prior to her move to the southern extremities of New Zealand. There, in December 1988, she recorded four songs, assisted by Greg Fox on bass. He also engineered the recordings, with the two of them sharing keyboard duties. Underground, a cassette released by Whiplash Productions , was the result, and featured 'The Underground', 'Look No Hands', 'The Place Where Boats Are Born' and 'The Retreat'.
“Then I had a few years of not really doing much music. I looked up Peter (Jefferies), who I knew vaguely from Auckland.” Bell told Jefferies that she “had some songs that had never been recorded”, and 'Industrial Night', which she wanted to re-record, having become dissatisfied with the version on Blackbirds. “It was a very slow version,” she said. “I felt I could bring out the song’s potential by re-recording it.”
With Peter Jefferies on drums, David Mitchell on guitar, and Kathy Bull on bass, Sandra, who also played guitar and sang, re-cut 'Industrial Night' in 1990, and this song, along with a new piece, 'Lost Train', on which she played everything herself, were included on the Belgian released compilation Killing Capitalism With Kindness. The release was to prove pivotal to her development as a recording artist, and marked the beginning of her expansion into overseas markets. Issued by Turbulence Records, on both vinyl ( as a triple 12-inch boxed set), and CD in 1991, the songs went on to become the basis of a full-length album, the Xpressway released cassette Dreams of Falling. When Turbulence released the album on CD and LP the following year, it marked the first time a Sandra Bell collection had appeared in all three formats. Xpressway’s marketing of the cassette in the US had paved the way, and the Turbulence release sold well in both Europe and, as an import, in the US.
But the sales and exposure were not the only significant factors about Dreams of Falling. It was the album itself that heralded a major step forward. Taking the strongest of a growing stock pile of solo compositions, Sandra co-wrote four more, 'Subway Nihilism' and 'The Country Girls' with Peter Gutteridge (who played keyboards for both songs on the album); and 'Black into Blue' and “Crossing the Tide” with Peter Jefferies, who also engineered the sessions.
Bell extended her own range of instrumental performances to include not only vocals, guitar, and piano, but also didgeridoo, recorder, chimes and various forms of percussion.
“My input was to help on the arrangements of the songs and give Sandra the technical means to realise some of her more bizarre ideas by means of altering tape speeds and direction and through editing,” says Jefferies.
With Mitchell, Bull, Jefferies and Gutteridge already involved, Alastair Galbraith and Bruce Blucher added violin and guitar respectively, while Bell extended her own range of instrumental performances to include not only vocals, guitar, and piano, but also didgeridoo, recorder, chimes and various forms of percussion.
While gigs within New Zealand had been maintained at a fairly steady rate up to this point, the album’s success, and Bell’s increased profile meant that on September 13, 1993 she became the first Xpressway artist to play in the US. She opened for Peter Jefferies and Alastair Galbraith at the Lounge Ax in Chicago, as part of their first American tour. Departing from the tour, Sandra went on to Europe before returning to Dunedin with both her profile and list of contacts considerably increased.
1994 was devoted largely to songwriting, and this increase in focus was to lead to an increase in recorded output the following year. Bell continued to experiment. “I like working with unusual sounds,” she says. “I like the texture and atmosphere they create, and not always being able to identify an instrument means you have to work in a more intuitive way when you are listening to the music, evoking responses on an emotional or symbolic level rather than breaking down the individual sounds.”
There were occasional gigs in Dunedin as well as a June tour (again with Peter Jefferies and Alastair Galbraith), that took in New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington and Nelson. The tour was organised by Paul Toohey, who was involved with the Central Regional Arts Council, and all four shows were well received.
In 1995 three 7-inch records were released: Chord, (a double 7” on Turbulence), Sandra Bell/ John Davis – Instress Vol. 1 (on Roadcone), and Angel (Zabriskie Point). All of these were for American or European labels. Interest inside New Zealand was also increasing, and Net, her next full-length album, was issued on CD by a New Zealand label, Dunedin’s IMD.
Engineered by Brendan Hoffman, Net featured return appearances by David Mitchell, Alastair Galbraith, and Greg Fox. Denise Roughan played bass on one song, but for the most part bass duties were held down by Kathy Bull, with Shaun Broadley contributing the bulk of the drumming. The instrumentation was expanded still further to include cello, irish pipes, and bodhran, which were played by Kate Jenson, Greg Waite and Barry Corkery,(respectively), on the track 'Caitlan'.
Net was well received, but by the end of 1995 IMD had more or less dissolved as a label, and in 1996 Sandra relocated to Berlin.
She had been invited by US label VHF to release an album, and began to look for musicians to play with.
“It was a tough time, I knew one person in Berlin, it was winter, and I was eking out a living as a cleaner, doing my music at night. It was a wonderful historical time in the city however – the underground scene was wild, amazing and vibrant, there were still many squatted houses with great communities of creative people that the police were trying to close down, which led to many confrontations. The political activism was inspiring and exciting, having pretty much petered out in NZ after the  Springbok tour. There was also a lot of grief, as the city transformed and rebuilt after the fall of the wall – grief because of the lost years under communism and the futility of a political system crumbling that had oppressed its citizens for decades.”
In 1997 she recorded City Of Sorrows with musicians she met in Berlin. When sourcing a cello player for a live performance, she met Nicholas Young, a modern-classical cello player from Heidelberg, and he became a solid music partner. He recorded and played guitar, cello, bass and did arrangement, as well as his friends contributing: Eki Solms and Lars Reinhart on drums, and the “Notwist” inspired brass instruments played by Uli Glosauer. Bill Direen was one of a few other New Zealanders in Berlin at the time, and he and Bell played a number of live gigs together. He contributed accordion and guitar on one song on the album.
Bell returned back to Dunedin where her son Florian was born in 1998. During this time she was part of Fomentations, a sound/ noise band with Dianne Civil, Francisca Griffin and Emma Milburn.
Bell returned to Berlin in 2001 for five years. She started working on another album, White Nights, as well as playing solo gigs and with “The Modern Pants” – a Kiwi band with Daphne Owers, Alan (Ozie -B) Thompson, and Johannes Contag (both of Cloudboy). White Nights was a mix of Dunedin and Berlin recordings, and self-recorded except for two tracks recorded by Russian musician Alexander Ryabokon and one recorded by Dunedinite Ian Henderson. Bell was spending time in a lot of Russian clubs in Berlin following her love of Eastern European music, and hooked up with St Petersburg accordion player Dr Bayan (Nikolai Fomin), who also played live with her. His friend Sergei Selinun played balalaika on two songs. Two of the songs were recorded in Dunedin with Heath Te Au on drums, backing vocals by Jay Clarkson and violin by John White. This was released by Powertool Records, New Zealand in 2008.
Bell has remained with Powertool Records for her latest release, the CD EP, Ampelman (2014) – a homage to East German Traffic lights and ‘The Miners’, a song to the Pike River Miners. She has also released two songs on Powertool Records compilations and two songs for other compilations, recorded by and with Dianne Civil, who plays drums and cello.
In December 2014 Dreams of Falling was re-released in Naples, Italy, on tape by arthouse label Korper/ Leib.
In 2015, Dreams of Falling will be re-released on vinyl by US label Straight to Video and a collection of early tape, vinyl and compilation songs, Aureole, will be released on Thokei tapes, based in Hamburg, Germany. Bell is currently recording with The Maitlands, a rotating group of musicians that includes her son Florian Bell, from Berlin-based band Flat.