The cover of Sean Desiree’s debut EP depicts a lion wearing a collar of tiny bells. Designed by her partner Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, it’s a visualization of Desiree’s stage name, Bell’s Roar, itself a kind of metaphor for the identity Desiree has begun crafting with the project. Handmade and printed on fabric made from melted plastic bags, the record, the name, and the project are all expressions of a vision that is at once personal and political. When the Bronx-raised/Albany-based musician releases the record tonight (Thursday) at the Low Beat, followed by a queer dance party in honor of Pride Week’s closing weekend, the project will become social.
“It’s $10,” she says, “but if you can’t afford to go, just let me know. I’ll put you on the list. It’s more important that people go.”
When she styles her stage name all-lowercase (bell’s roar), it’s a little easier to see where the project finds its philosophical roots. “It came from bell hooks,” she says of the author and social theorist celebrated for work addressing the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and capitalism. “I’ve read her stuff and like her ideas around race and gender. [Bell’s Roar] gives a sense of what I’m about. Some artists don’t express [their political identity] but I think it’s important.”
On Desiree’s debut, however, politics are more context than content, a broad framework for subtle, inward-looking lyricism. It’s easy to hear her musical roots on the record’s six tracks, voice and clean electric guitar tones figuring as the gravitational center for midtempo dance beats and electronics. If Bell’s Roar had a Pandora station, two names would cycle through on heavy rotation: Santigold and Blood Orange. “If I could ideally collaborate with someone it would be Devonte Hynes,” she says of the British R&B singer who performs as Blood Orange. “His guitar parts are similar to mine.” However, Desiree’s tracks are decidedly more downtempo, danceable but, as she says, equally suited to “the living room or headphones.” To these ears, the approach recalls King Krule’s synthesis of jazz guitar with rock and hip-hop.
The lead track “Slow” moves according to its namesake, building patiently from cyclical guitars before including syncopated bass and drums. It’s a sensibility that producer Cedar Apfell associated with post-rock but, unlike that orchestral genre, Bell’s Roar is largely a solo project, crafted on the digital workstation Logic. “I did a demo on Logic just teaching myself,” she says. “I was playing guitar and singing and could hear other things in my head but didn’t necessarily know how to do it. It took a couple years to figure out actually what I wanted to sound like and be able to do it.” Desiree has called the resolutely DIY record “an album about love and running away and resistance.” Although she has plans to collaborate more in the future and build a touring band, she also insists that keeping it simple helps keep personal vision clear. The only guest she used for the record was drummer Kiran Gandhi.
“I met her through Tom Tom magazine, a magazine about female drummers,” says Desiree. “We did a couple events with Mindy, my friend who runs the magazine. A couple months after that she got the job drumming for M.I.A.’s touring band.” Tonight, she’ll perform with live drums but ultimately wants to build a large enough live act to free her from guitar duties. “I like to be free to move around.”
It’s not a coincidence that Desiree chose this week to release her record. “I want the show to be about more than just me,” she says, using Pride Week to help carve out and catalyze a local music scene for LGBT audiences of color. “Generally, Pride is pretty commercialized. I’m not particularly into a lot of the artists they get for that. I think they could be better about getting artists that resonate with more age groups. So it’s nice to have an alternative one for people to go to.” Sikelianos-Carter (dancealisadance) and Wildecrist will DJ the Queer Dance Party to follow, while local beatmaker Palemen will open.
“I’m doing my own thing, what I think sounds good,” Desiree says, but as self-determined as the Bell’s Roar project is, she’s acutely aware of her art’s relationship to community. Last year, she helped launch Ladyfest Upstate, “A music and arts festival featuring women, trans and gender nonconforming artists.” She has another event in the works for this summer.
“It’s just not going to be a good experience if I’m not in a space where I feel safe or comfortable,” she says. “There are certain places where I’m not going to perform because it’s not inclusive or blatantly homophobic.” Fortunately, Desiree sees a shift happening in the music industry in the wake of R&B singer Frank Ocean’s rise to prominence and honesty regarding his bisexuality. “Any artist, athlete, actor, etc. being honest about their sexuality makes an impact,” she says. Ocean likely paved the way for artists like Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Azealia Banks and Big Freedia to make similar ascents. Ultimately, though, she says, “I think it’s more important for yourself to be open rather than other people. To live in fear is scarier to me than being out.”
“You’ve got to create your own scene,” she says, “because you can’t always find it or you’re not always going to be selected. It also gives me another way to be creative.”