Marianella Rojas, better known as Nella, in Isla Margarita, an island in the Caribbean Sea, off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. Nella spent hours as a child singing over recordings by pop stars like Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey. “I took singing lessons and was a bit embarrassed about my singing, so to hide it, I played the music very loud.” The plot worked well until her voice teacher asked Nella’s father to listen “to the student in the next room” and he was surprised to find it was his daughter.
“I was 11, and from then on they were really supportive,” reveals Nella. “I was involved in anything that would come up: singing, acting, dancing, you name it. At 13, my voice started to change and without realizing, by singing to the records, imitating these divas, I was studying a lot. They were incredible teachers. I loved it. I was also into the challenges of how high I could go vocally or how well I could do certain vocal turns, and I believe that helped me develop a vocal flexibility that perhaps I wouldn’t have by just listening to Venezuelan music. Now, even when singing Venezuelan songs I don’t sound like a typical traditional singer.”
Nella moved to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in 2007, at age 17. And in 2011 she enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in performance, composition and production.
She started singing in a trio that played folk music from Latin America with jazz and pop influences. “It was part of the process of rediscovering myself,” says Nella. “Once you leave your country, your roots start knocking at your door”. At that time, Nella also discovered the work of Afro-Spanish singer Buika, rooted in copla and flamenco.
“After all the vocal acrobatics I had learned, I found the importance of interpretation, of how to say a lyric,” says Nella. “I fell in love with flamenco and with that honesty between cantaor and audience. It is something I had not found in any other genre.”
It was also in Boston that an a cappella performance by Nella of a Venezuelan song, “La Negra Atilia” caught Javier Limón´s ear. “I had heard her before and thought she was really good and very versatile, but that night I heard an original way of phrasing,” recalls Limón, who is a well-known Spanish musician and producer. “She has something special, and it’s all hers.”
Limón, who has worked with several top singers including flamenco star Estrella Morente and fado diva Mariza, says “Nella has an Andalusian way of phrasing that is beautiful and very natural. In fact, many people assume she is from Andalusia. When she sang the title track in Everybody Knows, the Asghar Farhadi movie with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, many people thought she was from Córdoba or Granada.”
Her fans now include Latin pop superstars such as Alejandro Sanz and flamenco celebrities such as Miguel Poveda.
In her album Voy, produced by Limón, Nella sings love stories such as “Fin de Fiesta” (Party’s End), an early choice and a song Limón “got from a dusty notebook and sang to me accompanying himself on the guitar,” remembers Nella. “As soon as I heard it, I said ‘This one! This one! That’s a song we must do together’.”
Other favorites include “Los Nacidos” (The Born Ones) and “Me Llaman Nella” (They Call Me Nella), her autobiographical song — written by Limón.
“We were in Colombia and I remember we needed one more track,” recalls Nella. “So we have breakfast, we talk, he goes to his room, I go to mine, and a few minutes later I get a message: ‘I got it’ And he reads me the refrain ‘I am Nella, the one with the broken voice’ And I say ‘Excuse me?!’ We get together and he sings “Above the Margarita Sea, the moon almost full …’ and I tell him ‘Javier you’ve never been to Margarita!’ And he says ‘I know, but you talk so much about Margarita, you even carry it literally under your skin, so you helped me create a story.’”
Meanwhile, the emotional “Volveré A Mi Tierra” (I Will Go Back To My Country) was written by Limón as a response to news from Venezuela. “He sent me a text and I burst into tears and told him we need to put music to it,” she says. “And as soon as I had it, I sent the mockup of the song to friends around the world and that’s how we ended up with the video, with images of Venezuelans all over the world, lip-syncing the lyrics.”
“I try to not get into politics,” articulates Nella. “Because what we are suffering now transcends politics. I don’t care which side you are on, we are all affected by the situation. One of the things that moves me the most is when after a concert people come up to me and say things like ‘Nella, I felt I was in La Guaira, at the beach, with my grandmother, having a coffee while she read me a story.’ There is no better response than that.”
Regarding her songwriter side, Nella says: “Yes, I have a lot of songs in a drawer, but right now I am very comfortable with Javier’s writing and to have someone like him writing for you is a luxury. Most important, I feel them as my own.”
The recording includes guest appearances by Spanish flamenco singer Alba Molina (the daughter of the fabled flamenco duo Lola y Manuel); string player Santiago Prieto, from Latin Grammy-winning Colombian band Monsieur Periné; and two outstanding Venezuelan musicians, cuatro wizard Jorge Glem, and singer and composer Ilan Chester, a Latin Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
“I feel these songs as if I had written them myself,” says Nella about their partnership. “They often reflect exactly what was happening in my life at the time. The music is a mix of many sources and the lyrics tell stories. I want to reach people, I want to give them more than just something to dance to.”
Voy (Casalimón America Records, 2019)