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Sasha Bell's path from Merge to Missoula

Before The Arcade Fire released 2004's Funeral on Merge Records and everyone lost their minds about it, there was The Essex Green. The baroque pop band had already been playing around Brooklyn since 1997, but it was their 2003 breakthrough on Merge, The Long Goodbye, that really brought them into the "indie rock" spotlight. (Their first record, Everything is Green, was released by Kindercore Records in 1999.)

The Long Goodbye is a bold mix of 1960s-style psych-pop, melancholy folk and threads of alt-country and garage, and it was an apt addition to a label famous for Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields and Superchunk. The Essex Green were also part of the Elephant 6 Collective that nurtured bands like NMH, Apples in Stereo and Elf Power. Members Jeff Baron, Chris Ziter and Sasha Bell rode the wave of their success—traveling to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe to play big shows—and in 2006 Merge Records released their third album, Cannibal Sea.

That same year, The Essex Green went on hiatus after Bell had a baby, but they still talked about touring and making records. Eventually, though, the members scattered to different corners of the country, and Bell ended up in Missoula. Bell, who plays keyboards and sings, flew back East a couple of times to do some studio sessions, but nothing came of it. It seemed like The Essex Green was done for good.

"I couldn't get a clear vision of why we weren't producing anything and I desperately wanted to," she says. "Every year I'd say to them 'Is this the year we're going to do something?' And it became a kind of joke after a while."

Bell first started playing music when she moved into an old Victorian home in Brooklyn with a band called The Ladybug Transistor, which also included Baron and frontman Gary Olson.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan

"We all lived together in a beautiful house with this recording studio in the basement, so we were all writing songs and making records," Bell says. "It was an odd setup in some ways. It was two couples who were dating and, in that foursome, a brother and sister ... When it was good, it was amazing. When it was bad, it was awful. Eventually it fell apart."

In a time when garage and grunge and guitar feedback were big, The Ladybug Transistor was waving the flag for wistful, folk-inspired rock. Bell recalls hearing Belle and Sebastian with her bandmates for the first time. They felt a camaraderie with the band, so when lead singer Stuart Murdoch sent them a handwritten invite to play at his 1999 Bowlie Weekender festival in Sussex, they were thrilled.

Bell's been living in Missoula with her family for two years and she's kind of a celebrity among fans who remember her with Merge and the Elephant 6 Collective. Over time she's connected with Missoula musicians, maintaining a mostly low-key, humble presence playing keyboards with The Shiveries. This week she debuts the Sasha Bell Band, with Bryan Ramirez (Ex-Cocaine), Ear Candy owner John Fleming (Secret Powers) and Matt Tipton (The Best Westerns).

Her older fans will be excited to hear The Essex Green decided to finally make an album—for real this time, with a release date of this year. Bell says songwriting has been split between that and writing for her own album. Her new surroundings provide a different sort of inspiration, but she says portions of her past still appear.

"I tend to write better when things are going badly," she says, laughing. "I think that's why most of the songs are melancholy. With The Essex Green we were just all channeling the same disenchantment. Now that I'm not living in a big city, there's still so much to write about."

The Sasha Bell Band plays the Palace Fri., Feb. 26, at 9 PM with Ancient Forest and Gerygone & Twig. $3.

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