Prizm News / December 1, 2018 / By Daniel Myers
Music has taken the Ohioan all over the world. And it helped her embrace her true self.
By Daniel Myers
Walking into a room with Lisa Bella Donna is perhaps the best way to begin a conversation with her.
The whispered recognition from pockets of the room reveals the celebrity she carries as a goddess in the pantheon of rock and roll (and jazz, and ambient music, and…). Her focus on everything but that recognition speaks of her awareness and humility.
She is serious. She is engaging. She is warm and welcoming. She is a woman who has carved an identity for herself that is all her own, forged over the years in a sonic furnace of her own design. She is Lisa Bella Donna.
“I’m known for shredding,” she says with a disarming laugh. She’s known for her work as a solo recording artist and as a member of the Columbus-based progressive-rock band, EYE. Bella Donna also is a representative for the Akron-based guitar effects manufacturer Earthquaker Devices, and she’s a consultant and programmer for three major synthesizer manufacturers.
She has two albums coming out in December: “Live USA/Europe,” a full-length record of live recordings from this year’s travels, and “Destinations,” a collection of modular synthesizer compositions that includes some live performances. Another new album, “The Haunting of October Dreams,” a tone poem for early 20th century acetates and Mellotron orchestrations, was released in October.
Born in Cleveland, she moved to West Virginia with her mother at age 10 and spent her teen years in Marietta. At the age of 3, she began to sense a chasm between who she knew herself to be and the role the world was beginning to force her into. Music became a refuge and an expression and, eventually, a career.
“When I was 15, I was making music full-time as a profession, eventually touring up and down the East Coast.” She moved from coast to coast, living in L.A. and Boston while working in recording studios. In 1999 she moved back to Ohio and began her own studio in Columbus, delving more deeply into the craft of modular synthesis that has become her trademark.
It wasn’t until five years ago that she began her transition. Up until then, she grappled with the substance of her identity by going into her basement, where she could express herself in the clothing she wore and in the compositions that came from the honesty of that expression.
In the basement, she was free to rest in whom she was, and her creativity came from that place of safety.
But then it would come time to leave. And depression, headaches, nausea and other illnesses would bombard her, she says, even though she would emerge from her basement onto a world stage.
“I’ve played in every state in the continental United States, all over Europe, Germany, Austria, Switzerland… Japan, Tokyo…” She begins to drift off trying to recount all the borders she’s crossed when the conversation turns to her staggering talent as a multi- instrumentalist.
Aside from her work with synthesizers, she also has honed her abilities in organ, piano, keyboards, acoustic guitar, classical guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, upright bass, French horn, flute, and drums and percussion. She also has mastered “musique concréte,” which is a beastly instrument in itself. She explains it as an artistic form
of tape-editing in which sections of recorded tape are painstakingly spliced together to create atmospheric soundscapes that shattered musical barriers of the 1940s and ’50s. It’s the progenitor of what later became known as electronic music.
“When I first got to Columbus, I didn’t immediately start getting into bands or working in the jazz scene. I basically got a couple of grants and spent the first four years doing nothing but studying physics and incorporating that with modular synthesis and musique concréte.”
In her studio, she only used equipment that was available in the 1950s. It’s an approach she hasn’t strayed far from to this day.
“Instead of just writing something in (4/4 time signature), I’ll have four to six different synthesizers connected, and they’ll all be sequencing in different time signatures, and it creates a sort of thatch work, a sort of texture that changes for the listener,” she says.
Her goal is twofold: to train listeners to make a home for themselves in her music, and to train them how to listen to her music and the way that she moves within it. “It’s a matter of rotating that rhythm,” she says.
“Everyone already looked at me as a multi- dimensional human,” she says of the intersection of her gender identity and career. “I didn’t really lose many gigs. Some, but not many.”
Since transitioning, she has found herself the target of sexual exploitation and various types of abuse. She also has faced scenarios where even after decades of proven expertise, she encounters colleagues who try to talk over her or don’t take her opinions seriously.
To that, she replies: “You’d better come to my gig prepared. I’m not easily intimidated.”
Bella Donna has some unapologetic views on the music industry. It should lose autotune, she says, and bad music in general, although her tastes reflect an ability to appreciate the best of any genre, from death metal to pop. She’s also over the inflated egos, although she’s quick to praise her contemporaries, saying “it’s amazing how many detail-oriented people are out there making great music.”
While well-aware of the problems that plague communities in which we all operate, Bella Donna says she’s encouraged by the growth she has seen. She’s also happy to encourage those who are coming up behind her.
Her advice: “Go to bed later, get up earlier. How bad do you want it? How bad do you want to be you? How much gratitude do you have for what you’re doing?”
Gratitude seems to be a core theme of her approach to work and life.
“If the frequency of your gratitude can match your work ethic, then I think that allows us to have a calibrated system to work from.”
Daniel Myers is a musician and writer who lives in Columbus. He’s a member of the band, Guilded Sun.
FIND OUT MORE
To learn more about Lisa Bella Donna and hear some of her music, visit lisabelladonna.bandcamp.com.
Every Wednesday in December, Lisa Bella Donna will perform from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. at Dick’s Den, 2417 N. High St., Columbus, 43202. She says the shows will feature entirely different musical themes and feature Columbus jazz, rock, Brazilian and soul musicians. There will be a $5 cover.