Bella Whitt finds comfort with the piano

Andy Downing
Bella Whitt

Bella Whitt started playing piano at age 3, but it wasn’t until two years ago, after her family purchased a new upright, that something really clicked with it. In the months since, the musician has spent hours a day seated at the instrument, songs pouring from her in a way that defies explanation.

“There’s just something about the sound of [this piano] where it’s not too dull and it doesn’t have that sharp, whiny quality to it. It’s just perfect,” said Whitt, 17, of the pull she feels toward the instrument. “People thought I was channeling somebody through the piano, like a ghost, or a spirit.”

“I heard her playing one day [from upstairs] and I was like, ‘Bella, who’s with you?’” said Whitt’s mom, Kelly Bowman. “And I was shocked. I was like, what’s coming out of her?”

Whitt's songs generally started as instrumental pieces, though she soon began adding lyrics, many centered on the concept of trauma. Some are autobiographical — the musician penned one tune about an attack she said she experienced at the hands of a police officer two years ago — while others are fictional accounts pulled from news reports, literature and her own imagination.

“I started looking at different things that were going on around the world, where the victims were young girls … and I just started writing these stories,” said Whitt, who collects the songs on her new self-titled album, which she’ll celebrate with a release show at Fenders in Westerville at 7:30 p.m. today (Friday, June 19). “There are [songs about] alcoholism, abuse, suicide. It's also about Stockholm Syndrome. It's about child trafficking.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, the album never feels weighed down. “Jester” breaks off into an instrumental passage that mirrors a twirl through a buzzing carnival, while “Runnin’ from the Law” steps lightly, patient piano notes offering a soothing counter to Whitt’s desperate words. The musician said her comfort level with the piano, cultivated from early childhood, helped make it a safe space in which to explore these subjects. “Starting at 3 years old, that much experience makes me comfortable moving around the piano,” she said. “And so I use it for coping, well, not really coping. It’s more like my best friend that will never lie or talk behind my back. It just says, ‘OK, I know what you're trying to say. I’m going to put it in notes for you.’” 

Initially Whitt envisioned the songs existing as more stripped-down affairs, centered on piano and her voice, but, with a nudge from Bowman, the musician recorded alongside a band including guitarist David Ramsey, bass guitarist Rob Hendricks and drummer Al Folk, who will also accompany Whitt in concert.

“In the beginning, I was stubborn, and I was resistant to the idea of having a band. … I would play the songs for [my mom] and she would say, ‘Yeah, that sounds great. I can already picture the drums and this whole orchestra behind you,’ and I was like, ‘What?’” Whitt said. “But once I started playing with people I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ … And now, when I write, I can hear that orchestra behind me, too.”