In two short weeks, Bella D is set to transcend her dystopian, steam/cyberpunk world with a performance at NYC’s Carroll Place alongside drummer, Charlie Zeleny (DRMAGN). The brainchild of Christie Oakes, The Crystal Ceiling (out May 13th) weaves Bella D’s story of perseverance in a hostile world. Once escaped from her “gilded cage,” Bella D must rise above the ashes to fulfill her true destiny.
While set in a fictional world, Bella D’s story is one most people are familiar with—including Oakes, who was diagnosed with BRCA positive breast cancer partway through recording the album, and as a result, underwent chemotherapy and surgery to remove both her breasts and ovaries. Taking it all in stride, Oakes’ story is one of strength, humor, and passion for her craft.
Music Existence was able to speak with Oakes last month about the evolution of Bella D, her upcoming album, receiving such a devastating diagnosis, and more.
ME: To start with: who is Bella D? And how did you and Charlie go about creating her?
Oakes: To start from the beginning, Charlie and I went to high school and college together. We worked in the theater off and on, became really good friends, and created a nice working relationship.
I wanted to write an album. I felt like I had it in me, I wanted to get it out there, so I went to Charlie. We sat down and decided to start with just one song. Charlie has amazing music-writing talents, and I worked on some of the lyrics. The story that emerged from the album itself just took on a life of its own. One song started, and we said, “Hey, let’s write another one.” “Oh, we’ve got another idea!” “How about we write another one?”
Bella D came from the idea of the concept album. We didn’t even sit down to say that we were going to write a concept album. Who does that? It’s insane! [Laughs] So it just happened right out the gate. As the album grew, we realized there was a story that was developing. We thought, “Let’s see if we can run with it.” So it turned into a concept album that you can actually sit down, listen to, and have a movie going on in your head.
ME: Was there a particular place that The Crystal Ceiling came from? Was it a personal experience or a book that you’d read?
Oakes: Not directly, although it’s got flavors of different types of stories like Blade Runner. There’s not too much steampunk reference out there.
ME: No, there’s not. [Laughs]
Oakes: It can have a little bit of Shadow Run. Shadow Run is a very Blade Runner type of world as well. Cyberpunk evolved from those themes and ideas, which are also very dystopian. These people are living off of almost nothing, trying to fight the big evils, and things of that nature.
ME: You mentioned that you almost see this movie play out through the lyrics. Could you describe the songwriting process?
Oakes: This album is unique in that each of these songs can stand on their own. Not everybody is big into concept albums. Some people are. Some people aren’t. So if you like to cherry-pick songs, the album works. That’s fine.
But if you do like to sit down and truly experience an album from beginning to end, we started writing with the idea of a woman breaking free of her own prison. She starts in a gilded cage and goes from the gilded cage into a very—it’s basically a going out of the frying pan into the fire sort of story. The story started to emerge from the first song we wrote, which moved into the second one. It’s hard to describe.
The lyrics really do tell a story, but if you aren’t familiar with what’s going on in my head or you can’t pick up on it, we also decided to create a comic book to go with it. People have the option to sit back, listen to the album, and make up their own story along with it or they can pick up the comic book.
ME: Will the comic book come packaged with the album?
Oakes: Yes, it is. It will come with the album at the release party. People can request it, and a [hard copy] will be sent along, and we also have a digital download available.
ME: Sounds interesting to include with the album.
Oakes: Some bands have done it, but most of the time, it’s more of a, “Hey, look at us. We’re comic book characters.” [Laughs] But this actually came from the beginning. I remember telling Charlie I was frustrated by this, because it’s a great story. It just hit me one day. I was like, “Oh my god, I love comic books. Why am I even thinking about this?”
So I wrote the story, and I got a wonderful artist involved. He really created a beautiful piece. The first issue is basically the first three songs of the album and then going forward, there’s going to be four that are released over time.
ME: Who was the artist?
Oakes: His name is Patrick Andruskiewicz. We’re hoping to show the comic book to a couple of people at Marvel. If we’re lucky, they’ll pick it up, but if not, we’re just keep on keeping on to make sure the other three get released.
Considering that there are not too many strong female characters in the comic book world, I want to bring this out as a female-written story about a woman who goes from being scared to do anything to a conqueror. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes over. We put a lot of humor in it as well.
ME: Back to the album itself, you have a decent amount of contributing artists. How were you able to hook them into the project, and what advice would you give to another artist hoping to do something similar?
Oakes: I’ve got to tell you that Charlie was in charge of all that. His little black book of musicians is huge. The reason why is that not only is Charlie talented, but he’s also one of the nicest drummers you’ll ever meet. He’s amazing and always in demand.
The advice I would give to other people is to take the gigs, be decent people, and work hard. Charlie works harder than anyone I have ever seen. If he needs to perform metal, he constantly rehearses metal. If he needs to perform jazz, he constantly rehearses jazz. He’s earned a massively wonderful reputation by not only being talented, but also by making sure that he is great at what he does. You won’t find one person that says they don’t like working with Charlie.
All of the guys that contributed to the album have massive reputations. We worked really hard from beginning to end to make this something that not only we could be proud of, but that every name on this album could be proud of, too.
ME: Will you have a supporting band for live performances then?
Oakes: Oh, for the performance in New York? Yes. Charlie will be playing drums, and we have a few other people who are going to be playing in the band itself. Carroll Place is not huge, but it fits what we’re trying to do. It’s got a steampunk kind of feel to it—very Victorian—but it’s in the heart of Greenwich. Charlie knows the man who runs the sound there, and he’s been involving in the music business forever as well. We decided this is the perfect place for the release itself. It’s intimate, and it fits the album’s theme.
ME: Then, too, I read that you came from a classically trained soprano background.
Oakes: I do!
ME: What prompted the switch to rock?
Oakes: Thematically, it touched how theatrical I was. I’m a very emotional person, and I love the passion in rock. I could have gone down different roads like pop, but it felt fake for me to do so. It was a big adjustment, and I think I’m making every voice teacher I had in my life pass out and die from what I’m doing—but I love it. [Laughs]
I use my soprano a little bit in the album, but I really had to dig deep. I wanted to try something new, which is kind of what the album is about—putting yourself into something you’re uncomfortable with and running with it. It took a lot of work, because I had to unlearn everything to do rock. Now I’ve got the best of both worlds, and I can switch on a dime. If someone needs me to sing a soprano song, I can do that or I can rock out. I have both in my arsenal.
ME: What’s the story behind your single, “End of the World?”
Oakes: “End of the World” is centered on feeling like your world is falling apart. Everything feels like the end of the world, but then having a connection with someone—whether it’s somebody you truly love or a person in passing that manages to touch your soul in one way or another—guides you out of the madness. The lyrics are about finding that love or light in your life. It was one of my favorite songs.
ME: It seems like there are a lot of layers within the track and your music as a whole.
Oakes: I’m with you on that. [The tracks are] huge. The whole album is enormous. [Laughs] Even I’m still peeling back layers and going, “Wow. I can’t believe that’s in there.” There’s something new to hear on every listen, and I recorded it. That’s crazy! There’s always a melody going on the background that tells an interesting story as well. You can listen to it so many times, and it’s a whole different album.
ME: It was mentioned in your press release that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer while creating The Crystal Ceiling.
Oakes: That’s correct.
ME: Did that influence the record or even your outlook on music?
Oakes: It did both. We had written the lyrics and done my recording prior to my diagnosis, thank goodness, because chemo wreaks havoc on your vocal chords. Things slowed down during all of my surgeries and my chemo, but they never stopped. I remember sitting in Charlie’s studio. We listened to the album, and it had a new meaning to me. I had written it specifically for anybody going through any kind of drama in their life, whether it’s a bad relationship, a drug addiction, or something that’s trying to destroy them in its own way. It’s about fighting and coming out of the battle on top of everything.
There is a song called “Invincible” that is like the crowning achievement on the album. Having the diagnosis certainly made the album much closer to my heart. It was already close to my heart, but it put a very strong underline on it. I helped. And I’m cancer-free. Knock on wood. [Laughs]
ME: I can’t even imagine going through something like that.
Oakes: That’s the thing with the album. It’s about putting on your battle armor. That’s what happened once I got over the shock of being 36-years-old and getting this diagnosis. All of a sudden you have the surgeries and chemo. You’re losing your hair—and I had such long hair, too. That was one of those things where I was like, “Cut it. Let’s do it.” War was declared on me, and I was going to fight it. It wasn’t even a question.
I used humor a lot, too. I find that I prefer to laugh if I can. I had lots of doctors and nurses laughing all the time. They were like, “Who are you? Do you understand what you’re diagnosed with?” “Yes, I know, and I’m still going to laugh.” It truly is the best medicine in life.
Going back to the album, The Crystal Ceiling helped me get through it all, because I could listen to it. Like, “Yeah. This is my battle song right here, and I get to win. Yay.” [Laughs]
ME: Do you have any words of advice for other women?
Oakes: I do talk to other women that have been recently diagnosed. I try to help them through it as much as I possibly can. The best advice I can give is: Cry when you need to cry. Laugh when you need to laugh. But don’t ever, ever stay sad for too long. It’s hard to say, because it’s a big deal. But constantly feeling the weight of it…basically, don’t give cancer the time of day.
You know, I took the time off that I needed during the chemo, but when I started feeling remotely decent, I was back up and doing whatever I needed to do. That helped keep my eye on the goal and made what I had to go through so much easier to bear. It was like, “Oh, I’m going through chemo again. I’m going to feel like crap, but I’m going to feel good again as soon as it starts to wear off. Yes, I’m going to get knocked down, but I feel good right now.”
Don’t give up hope. Cry when you need to cry, but don’t stay there. Keep moving.
ME: Any last words?
Oakes: For anybody who wants to come see the live performance, give Carroll Place a call. It’s May 19th. Charlie Z DRMAGDN is going to be there with me. The pre-show starts around 7:30, but it’ll be about a two-and-a-half hour performance. It’ll be a fun evening!
If anybody wants to follow me on any of the social media, you can always find everything on my website, www.belladmusic.com. It’s got all the links!