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Breaking Through The Crystal Ceiling: An Exclusive Interview with BELLA D and CHARLIE ZELENY

By Curt Miller, Editor at Large
Tuesday, April 12, 2016 @ 3:44 PM

"We want this record to be for anyone who is struggling, whether itís with abuse, drugs, a bad relationship, anything"

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When Bella D (Christie Oakes) set out with drummer/producer Charlie Zeleny to create a concept album dealing with personal struggle, she had little idea how close to home the concept would ultimately hit. Her love of comic culture, particularly that of the Steampunk subgenre, led her to envision a whole world for her debut record, The Crystal Ceiling, and a comic book to go along with it.

The complexity of writing a concept album bundled with a comic book was redoubled by the inclusion of more than 20 contributing musicians all of whom submitted work to the project completely electronically. Though the album and production were progressing as hoped, its theme of struggle and survival became all too real when Bella D was diagnosed with BRCA positive aggressive breast cancer midway through its creation. Her story of survival and her dynamic attitude through her battle with cancer eventually made their way back into the project and her overall message.

I had a chance to chat with Bella D and Charlie ZELENY about the production of The Crystal Ceiling, the accompanying comic and the upcoming release of both. Hereís what they had to say.

KNAC.COM: Starting pretty much at the beginning, what first sparked your interest in music, particular bands or maybe a family member who was a musician?

D: Music has always been a big part of my life right from the beginning. I love all different styles of music. I had family members who listened to pretty much everything. Iím also classically trained, so I spent a lot of time with classical music, as well. Itís only recently that Iíve gotten into rock music in terms of performing, but Iíve always loved it, especially how it reaches right into your soul and how itís presented musically.

ZELENY: None of my family members played any instruments or were even very much into music. When my dad was a kid, he used to sing on the street corner with a few other guys kind of like THE FOUR SEASONS, but just for fun. My sister tried guitar for maybe a month, so there was a guitar that I grabbed from under her bed and tried to play, [laughing] but it hurt my fingers. Finally, when I was in the fourth grade we picked instruments in school, and I decided that Iíd choose between saxophone and drums. It came down to the fact that the songs on the radio all had drums in them, but few featured the sax. I went with the drums because I figured I could play everything that way. It turned out to be true and Iíve been very happy to play all over the world and pretty much every style of music.

KNAC.COM: Bella, you mentioned that you are classically trained. Please elaborate.

D: Vocally, Iím classically trained. I used to sing operettas and opera itself. I love that type of music, classical and classical singing. Itís what helped me build my round vocal framework, so Iím now able to incorporate it along with a mix of head and chest. I use both my opera and belting voices to work with the rock sound. One thing that makes rock so fun is the juxtaposition of the occasional high note backed by its really hard sound. So yeah, I got my start singing operettas and operas and now Iím incorporating that into the world of rock music.

ZELENY: On the final track of the record we did sneak a song in with Bella singing in Italian very much in the style of an opera soprano. Itís kind of like an intro/outro to one of the scenes that make up the albumís concept.

KNAC.COM: Charlie, in terms of your background, I think you may be being a bit modest.

ZELENY: [Laughing] I just feel really lucky to essentially bang things for a living. My full-time gig is being a musician, drummer, producer and music director, and solo artist. Iíve played heavy stuff in bands like BEHOLD... THE ARCTOPUS, BLOTTED SCIENCE, and with Jordan Rudess (DREAM THEATER). I went into a classic rock phase and worked with Joe Lynn Turner (DEEP PURPLE/RAINBOW), Steve Augeri (JOURNEY), and Derek St. Holmes (TED NUGENT). Iíve done Pop, played the Olympics (Russia 2014) and Giant Stadium. All told, Iíve toured 20 countries, 43 states and I think Iím on 135 records.

My solo stuff is really my focus, currently and coming up. Iíve done things like the DRMAGDN videos where Iíve drummed up an entire Brooklyn building through multiple scenes and multiple drums sets, or across Time Square. Both were done in one take. I have several more of those coming up. Iím also working really hardcore on a Cyborg Drummer/DJ project where I have a half-standing/half-seated drum set. I do real rock, EDM and other style remixes using trigger pads and pedals while still drumming. Iím jumping, screaming, pretty much going absolutely nuts. Iím taking the metal aesthetic and layering it onto modern music.

KNAC.COM: Stylistically speaking, some things really stand out about The Crystal Ceiling. First off, it has a very bright, clean sound. Was this done purposely to highlight Bella Dís vocal ability and the technical proficiencies of the contributing artists?

D: Itís a nice marriage between the two of us, merging Charlieís skill with complex music with my vocal skills and training. It all came together into a really great album.

ZELENY: Spending time as a New York City session drummer has helped me put together a network of some of the top session musicians and I was able to include a bunch of them on the record. All told, I think there are 22 artists using different rigs at their own places. Regardless of whether they were able to come to my place, I wanted all of them to send me their contributions to the album online. Every person who tracked on the record did so virtually, so the album is very much a product of the future. Christie overdubbed vocals at my place. I tracked the drums at my place. It was mixed in L.A. virtually, online. Everything was done in an effort to maintain the futuristic aesthetic, very Steampunk/Cyberpunk.

Thatís part of the reason why we decided to have the album mixed/mastered by Rich Skibinsky from the power-prog band SUSPYRE. Heís a killer musician and an amazing mixer. I had him do the whole record because of the problem created by using so many musicians each having their own studio with its own unique sound. The songs on the record started sounding different from one another. Having him mix the whole thing brought it all together.

Iím a fan of a very clean production, as well, where you can hear everything. The drums need to be punchy, vocals should be very present, and the music needs to be big and smooth sounding, especially if itís intense rock like in this case. We did that on purpose to tie it all together because it is a concept record. After all, it does tell a story and have a comic book that goes along with it.

KNAC.COM: The songs on the record also tend to have complex rhythms and melodies, and the lyrics are decidedly more about storytelling than being rants or anthems. As such, would you classify yourself as a progressive artist?

D: It could definitely continue on beyond this album. We created this record as a concept, which arenít often done nowadays. Theyíre a massive amount of work. Oftentimes listeners like to cherry pick songs that they like. You can still do that with this record, but if you really want an experience, Charlie and I wanted to bring back the idea of a concept album where you put it on and listen to it from beginning to end. By the time youíre done with it, youíll feel as though youíve taken a journey and gone through an experience with the music.

ZELENY: We essentially took Christieís life story and stuck it on the album, but the progressive aspect comes from me because I wrote all of the music. My background growing up listening to Dream Theater and playing all sorts of progressive music can really be heard in the guitar writing, my lyrical style, and even the way the melodies work with the music. Itís definitely more complex than a normal rock record. I tried to make it musically diverse enough such that other musicians would want to listen to it. I included a lot of guitar solos while maintaining some Pop sensibilities in the hooks and choruses. The lyrics are pretty heady and tell a story, but you know, itís not a rock opera. Itís more of a loose concept record.

That said; Bella D is definitely a progressive artist. I donít think sheíll go Pop or further into Metal. This album is a great representation of who she is and where sheís headed.

KNAC.COM: So, this album strikes a nice balance. Itís a concept record without going into the realm of being overly progressive?

ZELENY: [Laughing] Yeah. We had everything with all of the prog stuff I used to do. Some of the stuff was so out there. Weíd take sometimes six months to learn a tune. Afterwards, we played it perfectly for a live recording and then Iíd listen to it thinking, ĎWow! That still sounds like a bunch of craziness.í Itís obviously good exercise and very intense, but thereís also something to be said for having a catchy part to a song or a riff that listeners can grab onto. There has to be something to keep people engaged so they donít have to work the whole time while listening. So yeah, balance.

D: There is one song that was definitely a challenge, probably the most progressive. Itís the title track of the record. It had a crazy meter that Iíve never sung in before. Charlie, what was the meter for "The Crystal Ceiling"?

ZELENY: [Laughing] It was everything. No, really. It was 4/4 to 7/8 and then there were a couple sections that were 4/4, 5/8. We just had to be very mechanical with the vocals and we practiced a lot. Itís a song that was written about the characterís life inside the matrix and the allusion of the world around her. It gets right at the albumís concept and how she connects with others. Thatís why that song is way left of center.

D: The name for the song and the album, The Crystal Ceiling, came from an experience I had scuba diving. I looked up and the water at the top appeared to be made of crystal. It was beautiful, but appeared to create a ceiling separating two very different worlds. That idea later became a metaphor for me and for the record. Sometimes you need to break through some type of ceiling to pass into another world, to reach beyond your current situation. The concept fit the imagery we were creating for the album, so Charlie was on board for using it as a title.

ZELENY: Part of this project is the inclusion of a comic book, so another of the reasons I liked Christieís idea of crossing between two worlds has to do with her and my interests in two different areas of the comic scene. She loves all things Steampunk and Iím very much into Cyberpunk. The heroes in the album and comic follow a storyline that travels between both of those worlds.

KNAC.COM: The Crystal Ceiling is a concept album set in a dystopian New York City. Sticking just with the storyline, what tale is told through the lyrics?

D: It follows the story of Bella D, who originates in a very Steampunk, Victorian world. Sheís somewhat of a captive to a very powerful person who also happens to be an inventor. She attempts to escape from him by using one of his inventions, a portal between worlds. This results in her ending up in a very dystopian, Cyberpunk city with which she is completely unfamiliar.

The story involves her surviving and, in a way, trying to save the people of the city at the same time. The people here are under constant attack; so once she gets her bearings, she meets a group of freedom fighters and begins to learn how to fight back against the oppressive forces attacking the city.

KNAC.COM: The album has a powerful message of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds that is palpable in both the music and lyrics. How did your battle with BRCA positive aggressive breast cancer, which began midway through the albumís production, make its way into the musicís underlying theme?

D: Well, it didnít start out that way. Charlie and I began writing the record in 2012 and we both wanted it to be about survival and struggle. We wanted to create something that people could listen to that would bring them hope. Then, along came my breast cancer diagnosis last year. I went though all of my treatments, the chemo, the surgery. Finally, I was cancer free and I had a moment to sit down with Charlie and listen to the album, and it meant even more. It was very much a reflection of what Iíd recently gone through.

We want this record to be for anyone who is struggling, whether itís with abuse, drugs, a bad relationship, anything. We know these struggles are dark times, they suck, and theyíre terrible. But if you battle, pick yourself up, and keep going, youíll eventually make it out on top. Thatís the idea that led into one of the final songs, ďInvincibleĒ, where you see the battle that youíve just fought and won, and take a moment to take it all in.

Iíve lost people to cancer. I lost my sister to a different type of cancer. I know the struggle that people go through and it was important for me to be open about it. One thing that kills people faster with cancer is a mindset of secrecy. After my diagnosis, family members came to me and told me they, too, had cancer. I was like, ĎWhy didnít you tell me that? If I had known, I could have gotten tested.í Cancer is not something that you have to be terrified of. Itís scary, yes, but I went through it and you can survive it. It takes a lot of work and dedication, and a lot of positivity, too. I really want that message to get out.

KNAC.COM: Something very unique about this project is it being wrapped around a comic book series, the first installment of which will come with the record. What was the inspiration for this idea?

D: That developed while Charlie and I were writing the album. About three songs in, every time I heard a song I envisioned the whole story happening in my head. I told Charlie it was frustrating to have these songs with stories behind them, but listeners wouldnít be able to see exactly that which I had been thinking when they were written. As a lover of comic books, I thought, ĎLetís tell the story.í For those who really want to experience the whole concept of the album we can make a comic book available, or they donít have to read it. People can listen to the record and make up their own story. If they want something, though, itís there. Charlie thought the idea was fantastic, so I started writing stories. The first of the comic books is set to come out with the first three songs on the record. In subsequent months further editions will be issued.

KNAC.COM: After the recordís May 13th digital release, what are your plans for taking it on the road?

ZELENY: Weíre gearing up for the physical CD release show on May 19th at New York Cityís Carroll Place. Itís an awesome venue with a very Steampunk vibe, which works perfectly for Bella D. Itíll start out with me doing a DRMAGDN set, then Christie doing her Bella D show with the whole band. We put the tickets up a few days ago and weíre already half sold out for the seated seats. Weíll be filming everything that night and are expecting the event to sell out. Itís a really powerful start. Weíll probably wind up doing some East Coast touring in the Summer and in the Fall weíd love to play Comic-Con. Itís a great place to showcase bands, especially ones like Bella D with a strong ties to the comic scene.

D/ZELENY: Weíd also like to send a big shout out to the team at Adrenaline PR (Maria Ferrero, Natalie Camillo, and Arielle Rosselli) for taking such great care of us and for hooking us up with KNAC.COM today! Itís been terrific! They are kick ass women!

Bella D is a talented and inspirational artist with a great sound and a wonderfully triumphant message backed by personal experience. She and Charlie ZELENY have compiled an inventive concept album, the story of which may be left to the listenerís imagination or followed via comic book installments. There seems to be so much to this story, one is left wondering what might be if only to break through The Crystal Ceiling.

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