It’s no exaggeration to say that one song changed the course of Venezuelan singer Nella’s life.
The dark-horse winner of the 2019 Latin Grammy for best new artist, she grew up as Marianella Rojas on the southern Caribbean island of Margarita and spent her childhood emulating the melismatic flights of Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, “trying to imitate every riff and run,” she said.
Her passion for North American pop brought the singer to Berklee College of Music in 2011, and before long she started to question her musical direction. “I’d hear students from Cuba, or people singing blues who grew up in church, and they had a connection to their music that I didn’t have,” says Nella, who plays two shows at Stanford on Feb. 5 and then returns to the Bay Area for a March 12 show at SFJazz. “I wasn’t singing in my language. I wasn’t open to discover my roots.”
The song that firmly planted Nella in her native musical soil was a graceful merengue “La Negra Atilia” by the beloved composer Pablo Camacaro. An American-born mandolin player asked her to sing the Venezuelan standard at his Berklee recital, and she reluctantly agreed.
“He said, ‘I’m sure you know this song,’ and I didn’t have any idea but I didn’t want to look stupid, so I said yes,” she recalled. “It was a revelation. The lyrics were so beautiful and attractive, talking about my island. After that recital I added it to my shows at Berklee.”
It was at one of those recitals that Spanish producer and songwriter Javier Limón, who serves as artistic director of the Berklee’s Mediterranean Music Institute in Valencia and Boston, heard her sing “La Negra Atilia.” With producer credits that include albums by flamenco stars like Diego El Cigala, Paco de Lucía, and Enrique Morente, he was immediately intrigued by the song’s delicate beauty.
“After the performance he came up to me and said, ‘Where do you come from? What song is this?’” Nella said. “I’m sure he felt a relationship to an Andalusian influence.”
Around the same time, a fellow student turned her on to the music of Buika, the powerhouse vocalist, songwriter and poet from the Canary Islands who parlayed her mastery of flamenco and American soul music into a wide-ranging Latin American repertoire and international stardom.
“I went crazy,” Nella said. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She was doing everything that Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion do but in Spanish. I started listening to her every day and I posted a video singing one of her songs a cappela, ‘Árboles de Agua’” (Tree of Water).
The song was from Buika’s Javier Limón-produced 2008 album “Niña de Fuego,” and he took notice. He started writing songs he thought would fit Nella’s voice, and doors started to open. Even before the release of her debut album she made a striking appearance as a singer and actress in the 2018 Spanish-language film “Everybody Knows” by the Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, joining a heavyweight cast with Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín and Penelope Cruz.
The following year her first album, “Voy” (IMG/Javier Limón Records), introduced her sensuous amalgam of Venezuelan roots music and Andalusian cadences. In a banner night, she performed at the 20th Latin Grammy Award ceremony in Las Vegas with Spanish superstar Alejandro Sanz and fellow “best new artist” nominees Greeicy and Aitana, and later returned to the stage to accept the award.
“I wasn’t going to go because I had a concert booked,” she said. “We were so sure we weren’t going to win with an album that’s only guitar, percussion and voice based on roots and lyrics. To be recognized, I’m not going to lie, it’s life changing. I was an independent artist and that kind of exposure is very difficult to get.”
Signed to Sony Music Latin, she released her second album last May, “Doce Margaritas,” another collaboration with Limón. After the stripped down production of “Voy” they followed up with more elaborate arrangements. The album garnered three Latin Grammy nominations, and included the swooning hit duet with Puerto Rican star Pedro Capó, “Volaré.”
Based in Brooklyn since 2018, Nella continues to evolve. Hunkered down at home through the first half of the pandemic, she started writing her own songs, accompanying herself on the piano, while adding the four-string national instrument of Venezuela, the cuatro, into the mix,
“For my third album at least one of the songs is going to be mine,” she said, “my little baby.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected]
When: 7 pm Feb. 5
Where: Bing Studio, Stanford University
Safety precautions: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test within 48 hours is required, masks must be worn in the theater
Tickets: $35; live.stanford.edu
also: 7:30 p.m. March 12, SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco; $25-$85; www.sfjazz.org