Touch of home . . . New Zealand country pop artist Kaylee Bell used Omarama's Clay Cliffs as the backdrop for her Living Free music video. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/KATE WILSON

For Kaylee Bell, not being able to travel the world and perform over the past two years has been tough. The country singer talks to Rebecca Ryan about adapting to the challenges created by a global pandemic, and the premiere of her latest music video, Living Free.

Recording a music video with someone on the other side of the world during a global pandemic might sound impossible.

But New Zealand country artist Kaylee Bell continues to rise to the challenges Covid-19 presents her with, and — collaborating with Canadian singer Lindsay Ell — has made it happen.

Bell and Ell worked together online from opposite sides of the world, and their new music video for Living Free, recorded at at Omarama’s Clay Cliffs and in Nashville, was premiered by Country Music Television (CMT) last week.

The exposure on CMT was a huge coup for Bell, and for the Waitaki district, the music channel reaching more than 92 million households in America.

Bell, who grew up in Waimate, wrote Living Free in Nashville about five years ago, with Grammy-nominated writer and producer Sam Sumser and Michael Lotten. The three writers were strangers at the time, and relatively unknown in the industry.

The song sat around in demo form until New Zealand went into lockdown, and Bell, who is now based in Auckland, started looking back through her old work with producer Simon Oscroft.

‘‘During lockdown, obviously, songwriting was really difficult. So I was going back through a lot of old demos to see what I actually had in the pile,’’ she said.

‘‘We found [Living Free], and I was like, ‘I really want to do something with this’.’’
Bell had pictured it as a collaboration, and reached out to Ell to see if she would like to be part of it.

‘‘I’ve always been a big fan of hers, so I just reached out to her, because it made sense to me, and she was really cool about it and loved the song and wanted to be on it.’’

From opposite sides of the world — Bell in Auckland and Ell in Nashville — the two women started working together to record the song.

‘‘Then we decided we’d have a crack at making a video from two sides of the world, which was pretty crazy.’’

Bell loved any opportunity to showcase New Zealand scenery in her music videos, and chose the Clay Cliffs as her backdrop, while Ell shot her scenes against the ‘‘epic’’ Nashville skyline.

The New Zealand scenes were shot over three days in the middle of winter last year, and were directed by Bell’s good friend Kate Wilson, who grew up in Omarama. She was thrilled with how it had all come together.

Music videos were getting harder and harder to justify, but this one was special, she said.

‘‘When you do one that you really love, it’s like, it all kind of makes it worth it. This one just feels really different and special, because of all the different circumstances, and it just kind of like reminded me, like, when something feels right, it’s good to follow it and to put the time and the effort into it.’’

Bell has been making waves in the international country music scene in recent years, and with more than 30 million streams of her songs, she is the most streamed female country artist in Australasia.

Bell said her success on an international stage was ‘‘largely’’ thanks to streaming platforms.

Last year, she featured on a giant billboard screen in New York’s Times Square, representing New Zealand and Australian artists as the face of new Spotify playlist, Equal, as part of the audio streaming service’s commitment to fostering equity for women in music.

‘‘For all that’s wrong with streaming — and I still . . .100% don’t think that musicians are paid enough, writers, songwriters, particularly — it’s also allowing my music to be heard in countries that I’ve never been to, and for example, America, when I can’t get there at the moment, you know, it’s still allowing me to be heard there, which is really important.’’

Despite her success internationally, Bell is not yet a household name in New Zealand, but she is optimistic country music is making a comeback in her home country.

‘‘I’ve always wanted to kind of change the game a little bit in New Zealand and bring some country back, because I do believe it has been missing in our mainstream for the last, like, 20 years — and I say that because I have grown up in the last 20 years in New Zealand, and it’s really been missing, it hasn’t been on the radio, and it just doesn’t get talked about much.’’

Because of that, Bell felt like her music had always ‘‘just naturally fitted’’ in America a lot more easily than it did in New Zealand, but she would love to have a career in both countries.

‘‘Ideally, I’d love to be able to tour, particularly Nashville, Australia and still have a career in New Zealand, that’s obviously always going to be important to me as well.’’
Pre-Covid, Bell spent a lot of time travelling between New Zealand, Australia and Nashville — and not being able to travel and perform over the past two years had been ‘‘really tough’’.

‘‘I mean, for everybody in the music industry, it’s pretty heartbreaking,’’ she said.
It had been important for her to have projects to focus on, and recording and shooting the music video for Living Free had been a ‘‘life-saver’’.

‘‘Also, I just feel like it’s been such a nice way to still be connected to people, because it’s been . . . avery lonely, isolating time as a musician, with our lives really put on hold in lots of ways.’’

Living Free features on Bell’s album Silver Linings, which she released last year. She has more new music being released next month, including a collaboration with a Swiss artist.

This year, Bell plans to continue to work on new music, and is set to travel to America again in June.

‘‘Then we’re going be playing a lot of shows next summer in Australia and here in New Zealand.’’