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Photo Christian Tjandrawanata

The twanging guitars and breakup lyrics as a dark-haired girl wipes tears from her eyes would fit in high rotation on any top country music station in heartland USA. Yet the rural backdrop to the ‘Getting Closer’ video feels less American. With snow-dusted mountains encircling ice-blue lakes, a gold Chrysler Valiant Charger drives on the left-hand side of the road. The red dress billowing behind Kaylee Bell as she struts down a gravel road was designed and made by her music-loving mother in South Canterbury. Kaylee may have moved overseas to pursue her country music dreams, but she’s still a Kiwi gal at heart. She’s won major awards in Australia and the United States, opened for and performed onstage with country music legends like Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and the Dixie Chicks, and spends part of each year in Nashville; but her latest music videos were shot just down the road from her hometown, in the Mackenzie Basin.

‘Growing up in Waimate was great,’ says Kaylee, who’s chatting during a short break in her hectic Nashville schedule (she’s writing songs and recording with a top producer on her upcoming third album). ‘I started singing onstage when I was four, largely because I had an older brother and sister who sang and played guitar and drums and we would travel to compete in music competitions. We played a lot of sport as well. I played netball, basketball, tennis, touch and athletics. As kids we were always doing sports or music.’

Looking back, Kaylee feels like growing up in a small town encouraged her to look further afield, and opened her up to the world a little more. She found broader connection via music. ‘I learned a lot through country songs, about other people’s life experiences. I guess when you grow up somewhere a little more isolated, it’s a way to feel more connected to the world, through stories and songs. I feel like there’s a song for every moment in your life.’

Songs and songwriting have given Kaylee great moments and helped her deal with tough ones. When she was a teen she processed her grandmother’s death by sitting down and writing a song called ‘Roses’. Since then she’s had a need to write songs. Kaylee’s single ‘Getting Closer’, played over a million times on Spotify, resulted from the end of a toxic relationship. ‘Next Somebody’ was about not settling for less than you deserve. The impressive videos for both songs were shot around Twizel, Tekapo and Queenstown.

‘Writing is really important to me,’ says Kaylee. ‘The last single I wrote came from a real-life experience, it got a great reaction, and it was the most honest, raw song I’d ever written. I think I learned a lot from that process, just how important it is to write my own songs as people are going to relate more to honest, raw content. So that’s been a big focus of mine here this time, to take my time and write.’

After she wrote ‘Roses’ for her grandmother, Kaylee penned songs for her Smokefree Rockquest band while at Craighead Diocesan in Timaru, before winning the prestigious NZ Gold Guitar Award aged just 18. ‘That was something I’d wanted to achieve since I was four, it was like a massive life goal,’ she recalls. Then Australia was calling: it offered more chances to play live, to collaborate with others, and to get radio play with country music.

But Kaylee chose to finish her studies first. ‘It was hard, because I wanted to go and do all these things, so it was like just learning to be patient. I finished my degree, then I was off to Australia. I knew that was where I needed to be, to be a singer in the country world.’

She didn’t really know anyone over there but felt immediately embraced by the Australian country music community. ‘They treated me like part of the family. There were a lot of festival invites, and opportunities to write with people. Moving to Australia also allowed me to enter StarMaker, which helped me have a career and be taken seriously over there.’

Held each year at the Tamworth Country Music Festival before tens of thousands of country music fans, StarMaker is Australia’s long-running search for new stars. It has launched the careers of some huge artists. Kaylee was featured in the 2013 edition – not only becoming a finalist, but winning. She was the first Kiwi musician to do so since a young Keith Urban in 1990.

Kaylee says she’s learned plenty since moving to Australia. ‘I realised that country music could be a career, but for it to be a career there were things I needed to do. I needed better time management, and to sacrifice things. I had to make music the number one, putting all my time and effort into it.

‘On this side of the world it’s possible to self-manage a career in country music. I learned lots by watching other artists, playing at festivals, and just understanding what I needed to do and doing it, learning as I go rather than relying on other people to do it for me. I’ve tried to take a lot of responsibility myself.’

At the same time, country music is about collaboration and relationships. For Kaylee, one such relationship was forming her own band, rather than using backing bands. ‘That was a big thing, finding guys that were “my people”, having them come with me and play at all these festivals.’

Her trips to Nashville underlined the importance of songwriting and building relationships. ‘This town really teaches you that you’re nothing without the song,’ says Kaylee. ‘The song rules everything, whether you wrote it or not. Writing songs can be a career in itself. In Nashville it’s just as important and common as being a performer, which is amazing.’

Kaylee has already had more than ten Top 10 singles on the Australian Country Music charts, and she’s written two number one tracks: ‘Pieces’, co-written with 2014 StarMaker winner Jared Porter; and ‘Firefly Summer’, performed by band Kaylens Rain, friends of Kaylee.

‘It’s the best thing to hear someone else record your song, and then to go and see them play it live, it’s incredible,’ says Kaylee. ‘We saw them play at CMC Rocks, a huge festival. It was just the coolest buzz, knowing where the song came from, seeing it performed onstage and the crowd’s reaction. It just shows the beauty and simplicity of where a song comes from and where it can go.’

[ WORDS Craig Sisterson ]