Why Kiwi country music star Kaylee Bell had to go abroad to get big in New Zealand

Country pop singer Kaylee Bell smiling
Country pop singer Kaylee Bell is about to head out on a nationwide tour. Photo credit: Supplied

South Island country pop star Kaylee Bell reckons it's time for a change in attitudes over country music in Aotearoa.

She should know too. 

The Waimate-born singer may have had to add more dates in the South Island into her recently announced 'Boots'n'All tour of New Zealand, but after 14 years in the game, it's only the first time she's done a national one.

After winning the Golden Guitar award in Aotearoa aged 18, she went overseas to make a name for herself, crossing the Tasman and gaining success there rather than at home. Accolades followed in the years after, from taking out 40 million streams for her music to appearing on The Voice Australia.

She says it was disappointing having to go to Australia to make it big there first before she could entertain the "bucket list" possibility of touring her own backyard.

"Honestly I haven't had the support until now. It might sound cliche, but radio have a lot of power in this country to break artists and I have had such minimal support in New Zealand in the last 10 years that it has made it a hard road to navigate in my own country, but I think going on The Voice Australia showed people what country can sound like and it has translated back to New Zealand,"  Bell told Newshub.

"I hope it makes people proud that I am out in the world repping country music. My band and I have been working hard for the last couple of years together and I am so lucky now to have Brent Eccles and his incredible team at Eccles Entertainment giving me the support and confidence now to take my show on the road."

She's optimistic the rest of Aotearoa is slowly starting to wake up to the power of the genre - and its cross-family accessibility.

The Boots'N All tour has quickly proven popular, selling out its South Island shows as soon as they were announced and allowing her to add a second date in her home town of Waimate.

However, she reckons it's time commercial radio in New Zealand caught up to the love and devotion of the fans.

"It is disappointing the way country music has been ignored in New Zealand over the last 20 years and I believe it will be accepted here very quickly when people start to hear it more frequently," she said.

"It suits our lifestyle here and I think we have had a stigma due to country music being such a broad umbrella, but the type of country I love and play is country with pop and rock intertwined. It is mainstream and doesn't sound out of place on radio, but for a long time we had an idea that it had to be only one type of thing - banjos and sad etc - but it has evolved so much and I think New Zealand is starting to catch on to that."

It's clearly a passion coursing deeply through Bell's veins - and one she's had in her for decades.

"I started singing at four years of age with my older siblings in Talent Quests, the first time I stood on stage was at the Waimate Country Music Awards when I was four years old. I loved country music from the get-go, I remember feeling it very deeply and being really affected by music from a young age. I feel like I was lucky to have gotten into it so young as I basically became a student of the genre."

Kaylee Bell, smiling
Kaylee Bell reckons now is the time for country pop to break through. Photo credit: Supplied

However, when asked if country music's popularity here is "our dirty little secret", she's diplomatic in her response.

"I think there has always been an underground love of the genre," Bell said.

"With streaming services people have had the choice to listen to it and have discovered they like it and I think there are a lot more US artists touring now over this side of the world that people are getting the chance to see the scale of shows that are 'normal' to the US, but we are starting to see over here and in Australia. People are realising they love it. 

"For whatever reason radio hasn't played country music for the last 20 years and I think you can't like something you don't hear. I think we will see the genre continue to explode over the next few years as it starts to get played more. It is a genre that fits anytime of day and is child friendly and I can see why it is growing so quickly globally as there is a song for every moment of your life."

Yet she knows the life blood of this music genre is the live experience.

"I have always known the 'live' thing with country is huge in the US and the US artists play stadiums every weekend. I think the more we start to see that over here, it will allow local artists like myself to put on bigger scale shows."

Kaylee Bell has wanted to tour NZ for years - but has lacked the local support until now.
Kaylee Bell has wanted to tour NZ for years - but has lacked the local support until now. Photo credit: Supplied

Although this is Bell's debut headline tour of New Zealand, she's recently played a number of shows around the country in front of big crowds. She opened for Brad Paisley at Spark Arena and for Six60 on part of their stadium tour. 

She was also a part of Ed Sheeran's Mathematics tour, which ended at Auckland's Eden Park in February. Performing to those crowds undoubtedly earned her new fans, but for Bell herself, it gave her a glimpse into what the pinnacle of a music career could offer.

"Ed was incredible, from the shows, to the learnings we took away, to the crew and the team he has around him. It was life-changing and showed me how I would want to run my career in the best way.  He was so generous and genuine. 

"I actually loved the experience so much, there are always nerves but I also feel like I am where  I am meant to be in my life and there is a confidence that comes from that."

Bell's ambitious too, and already has her eye on the top prize.

"One day I would love to headline Eden Park and stadiums around New Zealand, Shania styles," she giggles.

As ever though she still has one eye on the international scene, saying she'd love to play the hallowed fields of Glastonbury ("you know you've done something right to be playing there") and looking at collaborations with the likes of Ed Sheeran ("the best pop writer in the world, in my opinion"), Keith Urban ("always been my favourite live performer and biggest inspiration given that he was born in NZ and struggled so long to get where he has got to") and of course, her "queen" Shania Twain.

For now though, Bell is determined to enjoy every second of her rising star.

"I am naturally very shy and reserved but I also love people, so I find it a real push and pull within myself. I had a near death operation when I was 16 that has made me try to push out of my shyness and comfort zone and has made me live my life to the fullest with no regrets."

Kaylee Bell tours New Zealand in May with shows in Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton, Palmerston North, New Plymouth and Waimate.