Laura Bell Bundy: Making Old School New Again

In this exclusive conversation with Roughstock, one of our Ones To Watch in 2010, Laura Bell Bundy discusses her previous career as an actress along with her desire to bring classic country and R&B influences into a modern context with her upcoming album.

Known to most people as a Tony Award-nominated actress on such Broadway fare like Hairspray and Legally Blonde,  Laura Bell Bundy has always had music, paritcularly traditional country music in her heart and after her run in Legally Blonde ended, Laura Bell Bundy made her way to Nashville, where she set to work recording her upcoming debut album Achin' & Shakin'.  In this exclusive interview with Roughstock, Laura Bell, who was chosen as one of our Ones To Watch in 2010, disusses her acting career along with her desire to bring out her classic country meets classic R&B style to the public. 

Matt Bjorke: With early roles in films like Jumanji and How did you get involved in acting at such a young age? 

Laura Bell Bundy: Well that is a long answer.  I guess I first started when I was about 6 years old.  I got a modeling contract with Ford Modeling Agency.  I was living in Kentucky and I would go to NY in the summers and model and do commercials and stuff. It was OK but when I was 9 I auditioned for the Christmas Spectacular that they do at Radio City Music Hall every year and I got the part.  So I started to do theatrical stuff and acting.  When I was younger in Kentucky, my mother got me in local plays and I did dance and competitions like that. I think one thing kind of lead to another thing.

After doing the Christmas Spectacular, I met the conductor and he was writing a new play and asked if I would star in this play. I started doing that and it’s where I really started acting at 10-11 years old.  The play was called Ruthless and my understudy in that show was Britney Spears and then after she left Natalie Portman.

Matt: Wow…

Laura Bell: Isn’t that funny?

Matt: Yeah, quite amazing actually.  When did you know you wanted to try your hand at singing?

Laura Bell: I’ve always been singing.  My grandfather, who was also a radio DJ, sang and my aunt sang. So we were always singing and music was always on in my house where I would try to sing like the people on the radio, so I always knew I liked singing.  When I really found my passion for pursuing a music career, I was 18.  Because that’s when I started writing music too. 

Matt: It seems as if going to Broadway was a natural step for you, somewhere where you could mix your love of music with your acting pedigree.  How fun was it, then, to play roles in Hairspray, and then Legally Blonde, where you originated the role of Elle Woods?

Laura Bell: Hairspray was my first official Broadway show because Ruthless was an off-Broadway show in the village and I got quite an education going down there every day.  I moved back to Kentucky at 14 and went to high school and had a ‘normal’ life and then came back to New York to pursue country music with another girl named Amber and we got gigs singing country music at clubs like CBGB’s and The Bitter End, all these places which were rock venues, and we weren’t old enough to get into.  I was also acting and got the audition in Hairspray and started developing it.  I had such blast doing that show, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  I started understanding what it took to put on a Broadway production and gained a community that I hadn’t done before.  Everything came from there and then Legally Blonde came along and it was a huge opportunity for me and a really, really wonderful experience.

Matt: What was it like for you to get nominated for a Tony Award?

Well, you know, the inner little girl kind of came out screaming in excitement.  But I never do what I do for an award, that’s like icing on a cake.  I feel lucky that I get to be creative and kind of make a living (laughs) doing what I do, this creative hobby and passion which I feel very blessed to have. So to get a nomination for an award is like the feeling of “I can’t believe that it can get better.”

Matt: Who are some of your country music influences? 

Laura Bell:  I’d say that Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton are my biggest influences.  But I get inspired by everything I listen to.  I’ve been influenced by Willie Nelson, even some ‘folk-country’ artists like Lucinda Williams as I’ve gotten older but when I was younger I listened to a lot of old country and while I went away from it, I came back to it as an adult, stuff like Johnny Cash.  I remember my mom listening to Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell and so I listened to that and a lot of the “Countrypolitan” style like Patsy Cline so I have more of a classic country background with stuff I like to listen to. 

Matt: How did you come to the attention of Mercury Records Nashville?

Laura Bell:  I’d done an indie, “Y’allternative” album that I’d recorded in 2006 right before the Legally Blonde show and it was sold on iTunes and at the show and it ended up getting bought by quite a few people because of the connection of Legally Blond so I felt that what I really wanted to do after Legally Blonde was to go to Nashville and pursue country music because I hadn’t done that yet.  In New York, I had got to the point where I had come to Nashville and spent more time here and caught the attention of Universal and Capital Records and my showcase actually was Legally Blonde.  They (the label) came up to New York to see me perform there because they already knew I could write and sing country music from the CD but they learned that I could put on a show. 

It’s interesting that if I had gone the route of moving to Nashville straight from Kentucky, I may still have been working it trying to get people to notice me but it took me doing a Broadway show for anybody to care, it was so weird.

Matt: Yeah it’s one other way for labels and A&R folks to discover new talent…

Yeah because you want multi-dimensional people, people who have different ways of attracting fans and audiences…

Matt: Not only that, you’ll have the ability to go promote an album by touring whereas if you didn’t have that experience the label would have a little more time to develop the artist…So it gives a label more incentive to want to sign people with experience.

Laura Bell: Yeah, that’s one thing I love to really do, which is go out and perform. Besides, writing the music, that’s my favorite thing.  By having all that theater experiences, I got over a lot of fears and I challenged myself to scare myself on stage.  I kind of live by the Eleanor Roosevelt quote “do something every day that scares you,” and I live by that in my work too.

Matt: Your debut single has just been released to CMT and to iTunes.  What can you tell us about “Giddy On Up?” What makes that song the right one to introduce you to the country music world?

Laura Bell: Well, we went back and forth about what the single would be and “Giddy On Up” was the one song that inspired that whole side of the record.”  I don’t know, it had all those elements in it, my original vision for the project.  It’s very me.  While it sounds a little pop, it’s really not because it’s really traditional country in the melody in the beginning and the breakdown section was inspired by Jerry Reed and I also wanted to put in an old soul element.  I love old country music and I love old soul music and I love being able to entertain.  The lyrics have a tone to them that are hopefully entertaining to the listener with quick wit and strong girl themes.  One other reason for “Giddy On Up” is that I had the concept for the music video in my head.  I thought it would be really cool with dancing and could be really funny.   Another thing is that there are a couple of songs on the record that might have worked for another artist, but I don’t know if there were any other artists out there who could sing “Giddy On Up,” you know what I mean?

Matt:  To me I thought that if somebody else could sing the song, Dolly Parton might just be about the only one who could do it…

Laura Bell: Well she was a huge influence for me.  I think that Dolly and I have the same kind of humor or thoughts about a song, which can also be said about Loretta Lynn.  Loretta writes fearless songs like “Fist City” and “The Pill” and so does Dolly.  If she wants to write a song with wit and humor she really commits to it and if she writes the saddest of songs, she is fearless about it.  Those are the qualities about her that I really love. 

Some people say I sound like Dolly a little bit but I don’t think so, maybe Dolly after smoking a pack a day (laughs), but I don't smoke (laughs)...

Matt:  You just have a natural rasp to your voice...

Laura Bell: Exactly (laughing).  I do have a natural timbre or vibrato.

Matt: What can you tell me about your upcoming album Achin’ and Shakin’? It sounds like an album with two distinctly different characters?

Laura Bell: Yeah, it’s almost like two albums put together.  The “Shakin’” side is all up-tempo and fast. It has a sassiness to it, a quick-wittedness.   And It stars with getting over somebody and then on to somebody else and the Achin’ side really shows off my personality, which is undiagnosed bipolar… (laughs) I’m making a joke, but…

Matt: Well, you could say that about a lot of artists…

Laura Bell:  You really could…We’re all crazy…and I’m not afraid to say that I’m crazy, ok.  I’m not afraid to say that I have a lot going on up there (in her brain/head).    The Achin’ side is something that people don’t’ always see.  It’s almost like the depressed side of the album.  It’s sultry, sexy, it’s about the concepts of love and loss, remorse, & some vices.  It’s the process of self-discovery and that it’s ok with being sad. 

And Achin’ and Shakin’ seemed like the appropriate title.  I was on a flight trying to figure out what the album was going to be called, like “Inside Out,” “Black & White and Everything Between” and then the title popped into my head and I was very excited.  And while Achin’ & Shakin’ may sound cheesy, when you listen to the album it totally makes sense.

Matt: And it sounds kind of old school…

Laura Bell: It’s like a Side A and Side B of a record and it’s totally appropriate because I listened to a lot of records growing up with my mom and grandfather.   We also listened to the 8 track. 

Matt: the revolutionary 8 track…

Laura Bell…The revolutionary 8 track…(laughing)   One thing to let people know is that there are different producers on each side.  One producer for the Achin’ and two producers  for the Shakin’ side. 

Matt: Who did you work with?

Laura Bell:  For “Achin’” I worked with Nathan Chapman and for “Shakin," I worked with Mike Shimshack and Kyle Kelso, who are production partners. 

Matt: How would you describe your sound to somebody who may not know who you are before now?

Laura Bell: “Shakin’” was made completely differently as we write from tracks.  Three of them we wrote words for after the tracks and the others I wrote and we produced similarly.  On this side we mixed a little Motown with traditional classic country and you put it together and you get Dolly Parton meets Bonnie Raitt meets James Brown and on the other side you have the traditional country ballads like a Tammy Wynette or a Loretta Lynn mixed with a Norah Jones or Otis Redding.  

They were produced a different way with the “Achin’” side recorded live with the band over two days whereas we wrote and produced the “Shakin’” songs a song at a time.  So while two completely different types of sounds, they mix well together and I really wanted to create a mood for the album because that’s how I listen to albums, when I’m in a certain mood I listen to certain music.

Matt: How has social media like Facebook and Twitter helped you get or keep in contact with your fans?

Laura Bell:  Well, your friends are your best allies in getting the music out and our best way of getting the music out is not radio but viral.  We’re relying on the blogs, and twitter and Facebook and digital news to get the word out. I actually think you can sell a record this way.  I like the challenge of it, without using radio.  While I can’t wait to get out to radio as well, this has been a fun experience.  I know that Facebook and Twitter have helped.  It’s interesting because if you look at the mentions thing (on twitter) and I saw how people have re-tweeted my lyrics. Nothing made me happier than seeing people, tweeting my lyrics.

You can support Laura Bell Bundy by purchasing the "Giddy On Up" audio and video single at iTunes for only $1.29 by clicking here.  The single also includes the stunning ballad "Cigarette."

You can follow Laura Bell Bundy on Twitter and Facebook or by visiting her website.  You can also follow Roughstock on Twitter

Click here to watch the music video for "Giddy On Up."