Dressing in men’s clothes, staying honest and our fucked up standards of beauty: we chat to Melbourne’s Bel

Bel is the musical moniker of Isabelle Rich, a fully-formed artistic ideal which has been projected upon the world with unflinching style, honesty and attention to detail.

Her debut EP Melancholia hit the airwaves on February 10th, and what we received was a performance from a seasoned artisan, not a 21 year-old making her sonic debut. Eager to find out more about Bel and the young woman behind the artist, we caught up for a chat.

Photos by Liam Cameron
Photos by Liam Cameron

Intertwine and enrich the spheres of music, art and fashion with Bel, Melbourne’s electronic producer exploding with creative potential.

HAPPY: Thanks for coming up to Sydney, how are you?

BEL: I’m good, you?

HAPPY: Very good. So. The obvious place to start is your EP Melancholia, which has just dropped. What has the initial response been?

BEL: It’s been really nice, it’s always quite surprising for me because I’m quite a new artist so any type of feedback that I get will surprise me. I’m not used to it. I wasn’t much of a Twitter user before two months ago when my band mate Hamish said “Look Bel, you have to get on Twitter, it’s where it’s at.” The response on Twitter was insane, I got all these tweets coming at me within an hour of it coming out so that was really nice. Just random people.

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HAPPY: It’s weird how one social media channel can just blow up sometimes.

BEL: It was insane! I’d never had experience with it.

HAPPY: And how long had you been writing the EP?

BEL: I wrote the songs pretty quickly. I’ll write a whole song in one sitting, in about 15-20 minutes, sometimes more sometimes less.

HAPPY: That is very quick.

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BEL: But then I’ll go back, arrange it and edit it and that will take longer. I wrote these songs in the space of about two months but the recording and production process took quite a bit longer because I tend to be a perfectionist in all it’s intricacies.

HAPPY: Obviously it’s quite a personal EP, were you nervous putting it out?

BEL: Not really, I have nothing to hide. I’m not embarrassed. The good thing about putting out something that means a lot to you is that other people see that you’re being really honest and that you’re doing what you love for yourself, not the wrong reasons. But no, it doesn’t worry me. My songs and my lyrics are like my diary. If I wasn’t writing honest lyrics, then what’s the point of being an artist?

HAPPY: The photo shoot you did to accompany Own Home – Collisions, it was actually men’s clothing you were wearing?

BEL: Yep.

HAPPY: Can you tell me about that decision a bit?

BEL: I wear a lot of male and female clothing, I’d say I’m quite an androgynous dresser. It wasn’t really a decision based on a political stance or anything like that. I felt really comfortable in the clothing, I really liked it. I believe that clothing should be for everyone, so while other people may see something and say ‘this is male clothing’ or ‘this is female clothing’,  for me it’s just clothing. I think fashion is very open.

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HAPPY: Like any other art form?

BEL: Yep. It’s for everyone and we shouldn’t label it.

HAPPY: There’s a real aesthetic to it all, we’ve tossed around the term ‘anti-pretty’…

BEL: Yeah I love that!

HAPPY: It seemed pretty bang-on.

BEL: Absolutely, it’s why I loved it so much.

HAPPY: Why did you want to make that the central theme of your EP’s aesthetic? Why did you want to hone in on that?

BEL: It didn’t initially start that way. I collaborated with Tré & Elmaz on those photos, they’re fashion photographers but they also happen to be best friends. We were talking about the idea of collage and ripping things together, it was kind of the theme to Melancholia. It was then I realised that as a visual, it was anti-pretty and for me that’s a really powerful statement. The way we view beauty as a society is really fucked up.

HAPPY: In what sense?

BEL: We have ideals of beauty that are very limiting and very non-progressive and it bothers me. Doing something anti-pretty, again it’s not a political statement but these types of issues are important to me and I feel like as I develop and grow as an artist it’s important for me to grown and develop things that matter, or I’m just a wasted voice.

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HAPPY: Well for some people your style might be confronting, or uncomfortable at least. Are you worried that you could be isolating yourself?

BEL: Not really. A lot of the things I do are guided by my team and the people who love me, but I’m definitely conscious of what other people have to say. At the same time, art is very subjective and what one person loves another will strongly dislike. I’ve said it before; if everyone likes what I’m doing, I’m doing it wrong, but I do write pop music, so it’s pretty mainstream. I’m not writing eight minute, orchestral, progressive bangers.

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HAPPY: You studied music formally in Melbourne, is that right?

BEL: Yeah, I was studying music in Melbourne at RMIT and… it’s a great school but for me personally I found the course very limiting, I felt like it was holding me back from making my own stuff so after about a year and a half I left. I actually started to study music, synthesis and sound engineering at a small, private school in Melbourne called School of Synthesis where I picked up subjects like advanced electronic music theory. There were whole subjects dedicated to mastering your Native Instruments Maschine, really specialised.

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HAPPY: There are still classically educated musicians around but a huge portion of the music world is self-taught now –

BEL: Well I didn’t grow up in that environment. I first played a couple of keys on the piano when I was 17, so I had to find ways to learn music fast as for me that was electronic because if you have a basic understanding of theory and structure, everything can be applied to your machine. It’s why I love tech so much.

HAPPY: Are you comfortable with that sound you’ve forged? Or do you want to bring in more from outside that sphere of learning?

BEL: I’m always learning. I can’t answer that properly because I don’t know. I’ve started working on another record and it already sounds different, still similar though. I am happy with it though, but I’m going to start learning guitar. We’ll see how we go.

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HAPPY: What do you play on stage? You have a band?

BEL: Yes.

HAPPY: And I couldn’t quite make out what you play.

BEL: That’s my baby. It’s a Native Instruments Maschine MKII and it works as a MIDI controller but also as it’s own console. When I’m in the studio I use it to make beats but onstage I use it as a controller. There’s 16 pads so I can play various vocal sounds, synth sounds, that kind of thing. Manipulate my voice live as well.

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HAPPY: Now you’re launching Melancholia next weekend and it’s looking pretty sweet. What’s your elevator pitch on the event?

BEL: The original idea stemmed from me not wanting it to be like any other gig. Then I started thinking, how can I support local Melbourne talent and make it about everyone? I’m obviously playing, and it’s centred around the music but I wanted to enlist a whole bunch of friends. Two of my friends Mayla and Jacinta have a fashion label called Texture, they’ll be selling some stuff. My other friend Nick made animations, that kind of thing. I wanted it to be a cohesive night about the arts.

HAPPY: Music, arts, fashion… very Melbourne. Can you come to Sydney?

BEL: Well I’m hoping to! A couple of people have asked me this and I’m hoping to in the near future. Fingers crossed.

HAPPY: You mentioned your new project briefly, how does that compare to what we’ve just heard?

BEL: I’ve pushed myself to a new extreme in terms of the intricacies in sound and what instruments I’m choosing to use. My first EP was obviously very electronic now I’m using more organic instruments, some oriental inspired sounds are in there. I’m really loving pentatonic scales, they’ll definitely be featured. I suppose I’m trying to be more worldly. In terms of melody and lyric it’s feeling more fast paced too, I’m excited. I’m pushing myself hard man, really hard.

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HAPPY: Was the initial writing process as quick as last time?

BEL: Even quicker. Last time I was in Sydney it was a Sunday afternoon, I wrote two songs on that same afternoon and I want to put both in the new record.

HAPPY: Looking forward to it! Thanks very much.

BEL: Thanks for having me.


Bel is launching Melancholia tomorrow at the Toff in Town in Melbourne. Find out all the details here.