Bell was always destined to be a singer. At four years old, she joined her brother and sister to sing country songs to audiences in her hometown of Waimate. Throughout her childhood, the family of five competed in country music competitions throughout the South Island. She began learning guitar at eight years old, her mother driving her to Timaru for lessons.
Kaylee Bell’s songwriting began at 14, when she was part of all-girl band My Aunty Avis at Craighead Diocesan School in Timaru. The band were runners-up in the smokefreerockquest regional finals, which led to a mentoring session with Flip Grater.
Country music remained her first love, but she seldom saw it on television or radio. Instead she relied on listening to her grandfather’s Reader’s Digest country compilation CDs and her grandmother’s cassettes of Jim Reeves and Glen Campbell. When her family visited Christchurch, the children were each allowed to buy a CD and she gradually built up her collection of contemporary hitmakers such as LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks.
“I grew up with such a strong connection to the history of country music and to the roots,” she says. “Despite heading off into a more country-pop sound now and finding my lane of where I want my music to sit, I believe a lot of that has come through understanding the history and being influenced by so many artists through the early years of country music. I grew up listening to a lot of American country and also the likes of Patsy Riggir, Suzanne Prentice, John Grenell – a lot of New Zealand artists who were considered front runners of the New Zealand country scene. I am lucky to have that knowledge and have huge respect for artists that paved the way.”
In 2007 at 18 years old, she rounded off years of country music competitions by winning the biggest of them all – the New Zealand Gold Guitar Award in Gore. The prize included a trip to Australia to play the legendary Tamworth Country Music Festival in New South Wales, the first of many appearances she has made there.
From 2010 Kaylee Bell made annual visits to Nashville
Her debut album, 2010’s Wayward, was recorded in Australia, though over this time she also visited Nashville, which led to contributions by top sessions players such as Tim Lauer (Taylor Swift, LeAnn Rimes) and Tammy Rogers. She made annual visits to Nashville from then on. Bell wrote or co-wrote half of the 12 tracks on the album, with her own ‘Love Was Just A Fairytale’ getting airplay on Australian country radio stations.
While studying at the Australian College of Country Music, she co-wrote (with Lance Coassin) another single, a ballad called ‘The Seed’. It was among a half dozen of her songs that won songwriting competitions in Australia, slowly building her reputation.
In 2011, she reached a new level when she made the top six of the influential Toyota Star Maker event at Tamworth and was top five in the “new songwriter” category.
It was inevitable that she would have to relocate across the Tasman but she had already moved to Christchurch to study at the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (NASDA), so she decided to finish that qualification first. NASDA’s curriculum was more focused on musical theatre, but it allowed Bell to develop her abilities as a live performer and get ready for her next big step.
In 2012, Bell moved to Sydney with two friends she’d met at the Australian College of Country Music. They struggled to settle in the big city, so sought cheaper rent and a more rural setting slightly further out, choosing the small town of Bathurst three hours further west.
The following year, in 2013, Bell won the Toyota Star Maker award at Tamworth. The recognition immediately opened doors. She was a huge fan of a previous winner, New Zealand-born Australian singer Keith Urban, and was delighted when he asked to meet her. On the Tuesday before his Friday show in Narrabri, New South Wales, his assistant asked Bell if she’d like to sing ‘We Were Us’ as a duet with him. She met with him for 10 minutes before the concert to run through the song acoustically, then performed it to a packed house.
The Star Maker prize also came with a trip to Nashville for songwriting sessions. She soon met some influential people, everyone from Taylor Swift’s co-writer Liz Rose, to Australian actress Clare Bowen from the TV series Nashville. She also played at the Global Artist Showcase along with Jared Porter, a singer who had won the Star Maker prize after her. Bell and Porter worked together on the song ‘Pieces’ which gained impressive airplay on country radio. What’s more, Australia still had its own country music TV channel where the video was shown.
Winning the Star Maker prize saw her writing songs with some talented names
Bell recorded her next album Heart First (2014) as part of the Star Maker prize and the songs saw her working with some talented names. Bell made light of her upbringing by co-writing ‘Little Bit Small Town’ with Australian country talent Mike Carr, and she co-wrote ‘Breathless’ with Brooke McClymont from Australian sister-trio The McClymonts (with Travis Toy from top-selling US group Rascal Flatts on pedal steel). The big song on the album turned out to be ‘Just A Little Crazy’, which she’d co-written with another former Star Maker winner, Kylie Sackley (along with Kelleigh Bannen and Billy Montana).
The album was named Best NZ Country Album at the Vodafone NZ Music Awards and saw her awarded Best Female Country Artist at the NZ Country Music Awards. Her song with Jared Porter, ‘Pieces’, was named as APRA NZ’s Best Country Song in 2015. It also hit No.1 on the Australian country charts and won the grand prize in the US Unsigned Only competition.
Despite these accolades, her real road to success came through endless gigs across the wide expanse of Australia. Her first show in Western Australia was with Morgan Evans, who became a key friend, touring partner, and collaborator in the years to come. She also appeared at the CMC Rocks music festival and supported popular acts such as Lee Kernaghan and The McClymonts. In December 2016, she had a second chance to sing with Keith Urban when he brought his Ripcord Tour to New Zealand and she sang at Auckland’s Christmas In The Park free event.
Bell took a new approach with her next single, ‘Getting Closer.’ The single was accompanied by a “pop version” of the song with some of the country instrumentation removed, including the prominent banjo line. Despite this, it was the original that became an important step for her.
“‘Getting Closer’ is a song I am really proud of for a lot of reasons. I wrote the song with my buddy Morgan Evans and it was the most honest song I have ever written. I feel it paid off as so many people sent messages saying how much they related to it.”
The song kicked off a run of million streaming singles, from the poppy ‘Next Somebody’ (2017) to the rock-edged ‘One More Shot’ (2018), co-written with Phil Barton, an Australian songwriter based in Nashville. She also wrote ‘Who I Am’ with her partner Nick Campbell, a former member of hitmaking New Zealand rock group Midnight Youth.
homesick, Bell isolated herself in a studio to write the nostalgic ‘Who I Am’
“Nick built me a track to write to that I loved and it gave me a sense of nostalgia. Then I was up in Auckland during Easter weekend. Throughout our childhood it was always a weekend when we had singing competitions down south, a time I feel like you want to be with your family. There’s a change in the air as it gets cooler heading into winter and time sort of stops as you get a proper break. So I was feeling really homesick and closed myself in the studio to write this song. It’s a song about missing my home, my family, my people – and reminiscing on some of the great memories I had growing up in a small town.”
Bell worked towards releasing an EP of the tracks she recorded with Nashville-based Australian writer-producer Lindsay Rimes. She was excited by the work they’d done together. “I feel like he helped me find my sound and I love working with him. He has an amazing energy and ability to take a song and make it sound radio ready.”
She was increasingly gaining impressive streams via official Spotify playlists, a trend which continued with her ode to Keith Urban, ‘Keith’, and follow-up ‘Wasted On You’. However, the travel restrictions brought on by Covid-19 meant it was best to put the EP on hold until she could back the release with an Australian tour. As a stop-gap measure, she released another song, ‘Home’, co-written with Nick Campbell, and produced by his old Midnight Youth bandmate Simon Oscroft, now a successful songwriter and producer in the US.
Bell filmed a beautiful music video in her favourite areas around the South Island during autumn. Waimate took pride of place, with shots of the White Horse monument and town clock, as well as Bell’s friends and family. In the distance were the snow-capped ranges and the unmistakable peak of Aoraki/ Mt Cook.
These stop-gap singles showed her continuing popularity online, as did other non-EP one-offs such as the upbeat ‘Be With You’ and (to a lesser degree) the ballad ‘Light On.’ As the Covid restrictions finally began to ease, Bell was able to make her big leap forward, with a little help from Keith Urban.
From the very beginning, Bell had acknowledged the huge influence of Keith Urban’s career on her own. “I feel like his level of persistence alone is admirable … let alone the fact he is one of the most talented people I have ever seen. He has continued to progress his sound, while staying true to his roots as an artist. That takes so much skill and knowing who you are. It inspires me to keep going and keep growing as an artist. He is also one of the most humble, down to earth people I have ever had the privilege of meeting.”
Bell’s song ‘Keith’ name-checked 11 of Keith Urban’s song titles in its lyrics
Her song ‘Keith’ not only spoke of the boost she received from hearing his songs on the radio, but also name-checked 11 of his song titles in its lyrics. The heartfelt enthusiasm seemed to connect with listeners and its streaming numbers were already in the millions when, in 2021, she finally released her Red EP of songs she had recorded with Lindsay Rimes.
Bell then made a series of savvy moves to extend her audience. First, she released a run of collaborative singles that put her in front of new audiences. She once again used the tactic of releasing two versions of the same song for different markets. ‘That Summer’ was pushed to local radio using a version that featured Fijian-born New Zealand pop singer Lepani. The sheer catchiness of it finally broke through the scepticism of programmers and in May it became the most-added song on New Zealand’s biggest commercial radio stations (ZM, More FM, The Hits). Meanwhile, another version of the song with country singer Josh Mirenda racked up streams online.
She also collaborated with The McClymonts on ‘Before I Met You’, Canadian singer Lindsay Ell on ‘Living Free’, and Swiss singer Bastian Baker on ‘A Heart Don’t Break Like That’. The songs were compiled on the eight-song album Silver Linings (2021).
Bell’s biggest breakthrough came through totally different means. Keith Urban had become one of the judges on Australian talent show The Voice. The gimmick of the show was that judges listened to contestants with their backs turned, only facing them once they’d decided to vote in their favour. This led to the idea of Bell entering the show and playing her song ‘Keith’. It worked a treat. Urban turned first, a huge, surprised grin on his face. A friend had already played him the song and he liked it, but he never expected to hear it in this context.
Each of the judges turned their chairs to face Bell, ensuring she’d progress with one of them as her coach. Then came a curve ball – one of the other judges, Jess Mauboy, used her veto power to block Urban from being able to pick Bell for himself. In the end Bell didn’t get further in the show but the impact of that first performance was immediate. The clip went viral on TikTok, propelling Kaylee’s artist account from fewer than a 1000 followers to over 100,000.
Over the next couple of years, ‘Keith’ became Bell’s signature anthem, accumulating tens of millions of streams across the original version and the pop remix released to capitalise on her appearance on The Voice. Her growing online fanbase saw the Red EP do the unthinkable when it was certified gold in Australia two years after its original release. It was 20 years since the last time a female Australasian country artist (Kasey Chambers) had achieved this, and all the more impressive that Bell was an independent act without major label backing.
Bell was now being asked to add her star power to releases by newer artists. Australian country act James Johnston got her on board for ‘Same Songs’ and it became one of his biggest hits. The song saw the pair win Best Vocal Collaboration at the awards, held to coincide with the 2023 Tamworth Country Music Festival, where Bell also performed to a packed house. Such big shows are now second nature to her.
Bell feels like she has been welcomed into the Australian country music family
“I love playing festivals like Tamworth and CMC in Australia and feel like I have been welcomed into the country music family there really openly. Some of my best friends are Australian country artists and I love being a part of the industry there.”
Spotify recognised her unique place within Australasian country music and her potential within the US market, given her growing streams there. They included her in a campaign backing female acts and it led to a photograph of her being projected at massive scale above Times Square in New York. They also asked her to record a cover of ‘Christmas Tree Farm’ by Taylor Swift so that they had a new song for their annual festive playlists.
Throughout her career Bell has kept a connection with home, which inspired her next song, ‘Small Town Friday Nights’ (co-written with two of her former collaborators, Lindsay Rimes and Phil Barton). Of course, there were plenty of listeners who shared her nostalgia for the joys of living it up in a close knit community and the song became another fan favourite.
In 2022, Kaylee played some of her biggest shows in New Zealand. She was one of the acts on the bill of Six60’s “Saturdays” series of stadium tours, which included Eden Park. She later used footage from the show to create a music video for ‘When Summer Comes Around’. Then she got the chance to open for one of her favourite US country acts, Brad Paisley. In December, she was the main act for Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park in Auckland, before heading to Gisborne to play Rhythm and Vines. Somehow she also found time to return to Australia for an appearance on The Voice.
The following year, 2023, was even bigger. It started with support slots on Ed Sheeran’s six-date tour of New Zealand. Bell then undertook a nationwide tour of her own, sponsored by radio station More FM, which reiterated how successful she’d been in crossing over to the mainstream of New Zealand pop music. The Boots ’n All tour was named after her latest single and the song’s humorous, sassy lyrics were a nod to the Shania Twain songs she loved as a child.
The tour started at the same hall in Waimate where Bell had performed as a child. The hall sold out two nights in a row, so she booked two more nights there at the end of the tour. She had come a long way, but hadn’t forgotten where she started from. A small-town girl from Waimate, now one of Australasia’s biggest female country acts.