If you can't quite pigeonhole Roz Bell's first single, "Yesterday Man," there's good reason. There's a hint of The Police's reggae-rock in Roz's vocal delivery and the breakdown also reveals someone well-versed in hip-hop. The upbeat guitar strumming evokes a back porch sing-along, and the sad strains of the line "I'm so-oh lonely... when you leave me couldve been plucked from a classic country song.
It's the sum total of a wildly diverse set of influences all come together on Roz's sweet debut album, The First Sunbeams. The album was produced almost entirely by James Robertson (Esthero, Skye Sweetnam), mixed by Neal Pogue (Outkast, Citizen Cope, Transplants) and features one song, "The Greatest Tragedy," shepherded by super-A&R man/producer Jeff Blue (he discovered Linkin Park and Macy Gray). It's an album made up of short, simple stories, the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl sort of timeless songs that are the foundation for contemporary music.
"Im a fan of really direct songwriting," Roz says, excitement clear in his voice when he discusses old-time hits. "I love that style of writing. Its very pop and its very simple, but done with the right angle it can be very smart can be very to the point."
Born Kevin Rosaire Bellemare and raised in Holland Landing, a small farming community an hour north of Toronto, Bell's parents schooled him on country classics. "My parents were obsessed with country music and played it constantly, almost 24 hours a day when I was a kid," Roz says. "George Jones, Alan Jackson, Hank Williams, Conway Twitty, Charlie Pride... I have one older brother and we grew up knowing the lyrics to every country song."
Still, like every good music-loving youngster, he had to find his own music. "As a kid I was into Rick Astley, Huey Lewis, Hall and Oates, '80s pop music and stuff like that, Roz says. "And once I found hip-hop in '87-'88 I just abandoned everything else." Hip-hop's hold on Roz went deep. He started writing rap songs at age 13 before discovering thoughtful rock in high school.
"I was actually getting into The Lemonheads, Counting Crows, Blind Melon, things like that that happened at that time," says Roz. "I got a guitar in grade nine and started writing pop songs. And everyone that I knew in high school played music and sang. If I went to a party there were always acoustic guitars around. Everyone was playing guitars, everyone was singing."
The First Sunbeams is definitely a singing and guitar playing album. But also a whole lot more. The groovy funk of "Papercut" is surefire dance floor sunshine from a bygone era. "Its definitely got that 80s pop-soul feel," says Roz. "I love Hall And Oates and I think 'Papercut' definitely has that kind of vibe. Its got a big chorus and its also got that 80s kind of experimenting with production, more than just guitar, bass, and drums. So its definitely got a call back to that time for sure."
Spicy track "In The Bathroom" doesn't so much recall an era as it does a naughty restroom adventure. "The song is actually about playing dress-up with your significant other," he explains a bit sheepishly, revealing not-quite-bad, but good boy...who-can-be-bad side. "[It's] not finding a random. Its 'lets pretend were strangers for the night.' Its playing naughty with your wife or your girlfriend."
"Feels Like Love" combines both that love of '80s pop with inter-personal entanglements. Id say its a modern day Jessies Girl. Lyrically its totally from that stance." That Roz could so effortlessly recreate various eras in song is unsurprising. On top of the musical influences of his youth, Roz moved to downtown Toronto in the 1998. It was the height of what was a vibrant evolutionary time in the city's music scene. He lived near Esthero. Nelly Furtado was in town working on her first album. And K-OS was still underground, not yet an international hip-pop star.
"Torontos such a diverse city," says Roz. "And I think a lot of the artists that come out of Toronto, or Canada as a whole, really do blend elements well. I think it just melts a little better here." Roz soaked up that T-dot nightlife, working, playing and taking in all the music it had to offer. "We dont separate things as much as people do in places like, say, America," he says. "Artists like Esthero and Nelly and Bedouin Soundclash and K-OS all have a fusion of different things and thats definitely the way I see my music."
When Bell takes the winsome slide guitar flourishes of "I Used To Love Her," nestles them comfortably beside the smooth and string-heavy ballad "A Girl Named Crush" and the straight-up buttery slow jam "She's So Excitable". Layer Bell's Sting-affected vocals on top and it creates something altogether new.
"I think in making the transition from hip-hop to singer-songwriter, you kind of cross into that transition of reggae vibe somewhere along the line, and I think thats where that influence on my singing style comes in," says Roz.
Fans of the classics will appreciate that transition though, as that's what makes Roz Bell truly one-of-a-kind. Few people can so effortlessly synthesize a youth full of country records, high school rap years and an emerging singer/songwriting streak into simple, genre-defying classic pop, but that's what Roz has done with The First Sunbeams.
"I think the idea of making music as a career is a wonderful thought," he says. "The idea that I can write songs and make a living off that just blows my mind.
For his part, Roz Bell is modest and genuinely excited to get his music out to the world. He's hoping it's the start of an amazing journey.