Venezuelan singer Nella’s performance at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center this Saturday is a major crossover event in a couple different ways.
For starters, the exciting Mainstage show is co-presented by WHBPAC and OLA (Organización Latino Americana) of Eastern Long Island, a recent partnership that has yielded a Spanish-language screening of Disney’s Encanto as part of OLA’s 19th annual Latino Film Festival. WHBPAC Executive Director Julienne Penza-Boone describes Nella’s upcoming performance as the “thrilling next step in the collaboration.”
OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez adds, “Through partnerships like this one we want to try to ensure that all community members feel welcome in our local arts spaces and that they feel a sense of belonging. Showcasing music, film, and other artistic productions in Spanish is key to embracing our entire community.”
As for Nella, her music is quite the crossover in its own right. From learning to whistle as a baby born on Venezuela’s Margarita Island to discovering Motown, classical, folk and Cuban music through her family and eventually joining her school choir, Marianella Rojas has always felt that music was integral to her upbringing, though she admits, “My voice wasn’t good, to be honest. I wasn’t a singer.”
This mindset would begin to change at age 11 when she “fell in love” with Christina Aguilera’s Stripped album and started to study and imitate the Latin pop icon’s voice. From there, she took on Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston as makeshift vocal coaches. Perhaps a result of all her practice or simply growing up, “one day, it was like somebody opened my throat and put another person’s vocal cords in there, because my voice just changed,” Nella recalls.
After graduating high school, Nella briefly moved to the Venezuelan capital with plans to attend a college music program there, but she knew that if she could overcome her fears, she’d be attending her dream school: the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass.
“I knew that it was very difficult, and I was even thinking that it was just for geniuses,” she says, adding that it took a friend’s promise to help with the audition to give her the confidence boost she needed. Berklee opened many doors for Nella, the biggest of all was through her introduction to Spanish singer-songwriter-producer Javier Limón. The pair discovered a mutual passion for the music of Andalusia, Spain and a fruitful collaborative chemistry that would produce Nella’s first single “Me Llaman Nella” in 2018. Her debut album, Voy, followed in May 2019, released by the Casa Limón America record label.
“My first album was almost a naked album; it was just my heart, you could say, and very simple production,” Nella says, later noting, “The goal was just to introduce my voice from Venezuela coming to the U.S. and doing this crossover because my music is a mix between Andalusian music, my roots from Venezuela and the influences of contemporary music. You can hear all of that in my voice.”
At the 2019 Latin Grammy Awards, she was presented with an honor most musical artists only dream of: the award for Best New Artist. While grateful for the recognition and exposure, Nella felt that her dream had already been fulfilled; the Grammy was like the cherry on top.
“To be honest — and I’m not saying this to sound corny — I never dreamt about having an award; for me, it was having an album, that was the dream, to be able to have something that would represent me and to finally get into the studio to record these songs,” she explains. “But having this recognition was obviously one of the best things that has happened in my life. … It was a beautiful surprise to know that an album that wasn’t going for a commercial sound was able to be recognized this way.”
With the boost in notoriety came Sony Music Latin to sign her to their record label in 2020. Through them, Nella released a pair of singles,”Solita” and “Ahí,” that would be featured on her second album, Doce Margaritas.
“If you hear it, you can immediately see the production has evolved to be a little more dancey and bit more Latin pop,” she says. “I love dancing, so for me, that was very important, and also to have my Latin roots very present in the rhythm, which is the richest thing we have.”
For her third album, Nella is excited to continue evolving and developing her sound. She hints that the album will feature “a little bit more of my contemporary influences (and be) more folksy.” Looking forward to the Westhampton Beach stop on her tour, Nella promises that one song is guaranteed to be performed.
“There is, of course, one that I love singing — I think it’s because it was the first one, the one that started this whole thing and the one that everybody gets most excited for because it talks about the island where I come from and my journey — which is “Me Llaman Nella,” she explains. “It’s actually the last one in my concerts, and people know that I can’t leave the stage without singing it. … I love when the people sing it with me; it’s a very special moment. Even though it’s the song that I’ve been singing the most, I still get goosebumps every time I do it.”
Above all, Nella is happy that her songs resonate with people and connect them through the universal language of music.
“I believe this is one of the main goals of many artists: to write something that you feel is so personal and then to see that so many people can relate to that common feeling,” she says. “For me, the most exciting thing about my career is going onstage and having real live feedback — to see people who sometimes don’t even understand what I’m saying, because I get to tour in the U.S. singing in Spanish but still have a lot of English-speaking people in the audience — I’ll see them cry, laugh or feel the music. That, for me, is the most beautiful gift you can have, to be able transmit and connect through music.”
For tickets to Nella’s show at WHBPAC at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, visit whbpac.org.