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When New Times first caught up with Cat Shell last year, the Boca-based singer/songwriter was trying to accomplish that age-old dream: making enough money from music to quit her day job. But as any South Florida musician will affirm, that's no easy task here. So it's pretty impressive that a year and a half later, Shell's succeeded at becoming as close to a full-time chanteuse as these parts will allow.
A cursory glance at her website (catshellmusic.com) shows a healthy slate of dates scheduled throughout the summer, proof that she's made good on her vow to play live as much as possible. Of course, maintaining a dual career in modeling has helped as well. Various promotional stints around town have allowed her to flaunt her exceptional good looks and, in the process, get her band in the door.
"I've been out and about and doing a lot of networking," Shell says proudly. "By doing my research, I've learned there are actually a lot of places that offer live entertainment. Not having a full-time day job helps too. I spend 9 to 5 every day contacting club owners and booking our shows. I'm still getting my feet wet in terms of booking, but I'm getting a better handle on performing live. I think I'm finally finding my audience."
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Despite the fact that she's still only in her 20s, Shell displays a musical maturity unusual for her age. Her influences are plucked from an earlier era, when torch-bearing divas were the order of the day. And with her bluescentric croon and sultry, sensuous image, she's a natural when it comes to channeling the raw, emotive expression of tattered troubadours such as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone.
Fortunately, Shell's backstory isn't nearly as tragic or turbulent as that of her idols. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she was raised in Florida from age 7, with her interest in music fed by her home life. Her father was a singer and radio personality, and her mother and brother played guitar. Consequently, all sorts of sounds would waft through the household — Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, folk music, classic rock, and contemporary jazz.
She continued her musical explorations as she grew older, eventually distilling those divergent styles into her own approach. The disparate influences are reflected in performance as well as on record. Her 2008 debut record, Cat's Outta the Bag, displayed her confidence as a singer equally adept in a wide range of genres, from Americana and barroom blues to smooth jazz and mellow, middle-of-the-road pop.
Shell says her follow-up album will likely be recorded this summer, and this time, she'd like to change a few things. "I see it as being more intimate," she says. "The first album was really all about seeing what I could do. But it was a freshman effort. My new stuff is more moody. The focus is far more melancholy. The songs are about the heartbreak of breaking up and the difficulty of building new relationships. As things in my life transpire and evolve, so does the music."
Naturally, that begs the question of just how well things are going for her in the romance department. In our first encounter, Shell was reticent about her personal life, and this time around, she's equally coy. Still, while deflecting any inquiries about the more intimate sources of her material, she does allow that the pursuit of her muse has been accompanied by challenges. "There are the financial factors," she says. "The cost of traveling can be exorbitant, even if you consider the price of gas alone. Then, of course, it's always a challenge to book new venues because so many clubs are only interested in booking bands that only do cover tunes. And when you have a band, you also have to be concerned with keeping everyone together. That in itself can be difficult."
In fact, these days, Shell is backed by a new group, consisting of guitarist Travis Adams, drummer Darren Scott, and longtime bassist Brent Williams. And although she hasn't exactly worn out her welcome in these parts, she is looking to expand her geographical parameters. "I think I may have reached the point where we've tapped out the local market," Shell concedes. "I'm aware of what's available in other places, and I do think it's time to branch out, to Asheville, North Carolina, the Washington, D.C., area, maybe Nashville and Memphis. They all seem like places that might be worth exploring."
Ultimately, though, Shell says she's satisfied with her results so far. "It's all about staying motivated, just staying on that road and moving ahead," she says. Without an agent or a manager, her career is entirely in her own hands, and whatever she hopes to achieve is ultimately up to her alone.
But she relishes the challenge. "I feel like I've made progress musically — and personally too, for that matter. There are some things you've got to let go of and some things you try to do better. Inevitably, you just do the best you can."