“Armed” with the Flexibility of an Octopus, even Camouflage!

By Jingxuan Zhang

On Show 132 in Boston, Neara Russell wowed the From the Top audience with her amazing versatility. During the taping, she accompanied at the piano a piece she composed for voice, “Lemonade Pie.” At 17, Neara was already showing mastery over not only the infinite possibilities associated with the keyboard, but also the ethereal qualities of the human voice. Thus, it did not come as a shock when Christopher O’Riley interviewed her and found out that she also plays bass clarinet, xylophone, and sings… and that she has a penchant for popular music. From the Top cemented Neara’s conversion from classical to popular by setting her up to study with famous composer John Corigliano, who encouraged her to combine her classical and contemporary styles.

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Neara Russell

Now 25 and a rising pop artist in Los Angeles, Neara divulged to me her secret: “Having a diverse set of skills has made my success as a musician.” After I pondered upon the full implications of that statement, I realized that it’s not only her diverse set of skills that became the foundation of success, but the flexibility and adaptability that inevitably develops with it. Being a musician is hard, especially in LA, where everyone is competing tooth and nail for a piece of the market, the proverbial pie. And Neara has her foot in the door, drawing upon her eclectic background to improve her own music.

She started out as a session musician as a member of the Backliners. If you don’t know what session musicians do, they are the often-ignored musicians at the back of the stage, supporting the star at the front, except for recording sessions. The under-appreciated always reminds me of an insight by the acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman:

I have a friend who’s an artist. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘I can see how beautiful this is, and you as a scientist take it all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.’ Although I’m not quite as aesthetically refined as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also has a beauty. It’s not just beauty at one dimension; there’s also beauty at a smaller dimension…. Science and knowledge only adds to the excitement, mystery, and awe of a flower – it only adds! I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Humble yet neglected, Neara nevertheless internalized all the ensemble spontaneity required of session musicians. They need to be flexible to the demands of the main artist and attentive to the sound they produce, in order to blend or “camouflage” themselves to the unique style of the artist. This is a classic example of the product being greater than the sum of its parts. Many think that melody is king; however, Neara quickly learned that “No one is ahead or subservient to the other. The flower is truly breathtaking, even more so because of its cells and processes.”

Armed with diversity, Neara experimented with the holistic recording process by producing, engineering, composing, playing, and singing – by herself – an original album called Noise and Silence. One can hear a seamless amalgamation of different compositional techniques, from her strong background in piano to electronic elements. As her first album, one can definitely see that her style is not at full maturity; however, her potential and talent shine through tracks like “Look for Something” and the eponymous “Noise and Silence.”

Check out the tracks I mentioned on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/noise-and-silence/id432545894. Look forward to a second album, in the planning, with this teaser song, “Get Happy.”

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