On first encounter, the voice actually sounds ageless, a supple, sensuous caress that quietly croons about romance and longing while evoking the feel of smoky cabarets. It would be easy to identify those vocals with a well-known diva or to imagine they came from a weathered soul who's faced too many disappointments. The music is full of tragic tales, and surely they must trace back to some pain nestled deep within the singer.
As a self-described 20-something, Cat Shell is far too young to be have been stung by the bitter circumstances that afflicted her torch-singing forebears like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. But she does profess that being frequently uprooted as a child to follow her father's radio career, and the accumulated scars of shattered relationships, continues to resonate in her own singing style. The experiences were, at the very least, enough to infuse her material with a soulfulness both credible and clearly heartfelt. As evidenced by live performances that have taken her from South Beach to Delray, and songs well-documented on her aptly-named debut disc, Cat's Outta the Bag, hers is a supple blend of barroom blues, smooth jazz, and mellow middle-of-the-road pop that reflects ageless musical traditions seemingly out of sync with today's trends and chart status.
"So many people come up to me after our live shows and tell me how refreshing it is to hear something other than your typical top-40 cover band," she confides. "I think if you really are true to who you are, people can see that right away, and I really believe that people still appreciate a genuine artist. To me it's like a big bowl of old-fashioned vanilla ice cream... it never gets old no matter how many times you try it."
Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Shell has lived in Florida off and on since the age of 7, eventually settling in Boca Raton. Her interest in music was spawned early on, thanks to the influence of a music-centric family. Her father was a singer, and both her mother and brother played guitar. Not surprisingly, her parents met while they were sharing the stage in an amateur theater production. "My dad introduced me to the greats early on — Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, plus a lot of cheesy 1950s pop," she recalls. "My mom was a big Beatles fan, and she used to bring me to those tribute band shows all the time as a kid. She was also into Patsy Cline and a lot of folk music. My older brother got me into a lot of classic '70s music — the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Bread — but he also introduced me to the world of jazz, stuff like Diana Krall, Miles Davis, and Michael Franks, and I really dug it. As I got older, I really fell into jazz, neo-soul, and blues, stuff like Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, India Arie, Ray Charles, and John Legend. I really like music that has a lot of soul."
Even so, when asked about her influences, Shell declines to cite specifics, saying instead that her musical fodder is mostly derived from firsthand experience. "The thing about Cat Shell is that she's not just a singer," says Renda Writer, a local poet. "She's an artist. A singer just sings, but an artist has a certain way of looking at life that's a little different — and that's how Cat sees life." That said, the songs contained on Cat's Outta the Bag — all of them originals save a seductive cover of Tom Waits' "Ice Cream Man" and a vintage-sounding remake of the enticing "Dream a Little Dream" — are filled with whimsical reflections unapologetically sexual and suggestive. From the playful duet "Peanut Butter & Jelly," with its references awash in innuendo, to the obvious indulgence of "After Midnight" and "Night at Noon," the emphasis on intimacy becomes a consistent theme. "I guess you'd say I'm a bit on the romantic side," she confesses with a somewhat embarrassed chuckle. "But these songs all come from the same person so it shouldn't be surprising that there's a somewhat similar theme."
Whatever the motivation, Shell's obsession with music proved compelling enough to convince her that she should abandon a health marketing job three years ago and shift her focus to music and modeling. "I was trying to do the nine-to-five thing, and I was miserable," she says. "After going out to open mic auditions and putting myself out there, I realized that people really liked what I was doing."
For the most part, Shell's opted to manage her career on her own, gaining her first national exposure by placing as a top five finalist in the 2006 VH1 Songwriting Contest after submitting "Night At Noon." Mostly, though, she's been focusing on gaining a name on the local club circuit and building a solid base of fans. She's also made her album available online at www.CDBaby.com/CatShell and on iTunes, in addition to setting up her own site on MySpace.
Ultimately though, it's been word of mouth that's served Shell well. Her dazzling good looks haven't hurt either, but it's the mix of music that she and her band — guitarist Kevin Byrnes, bassist Brent Williams, and drummer Jake Beal — purvey in their live sets, a combination that often includes originals, jazz and blues standards, and the occasional country classic from the likes of Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons, that's helped expand her following.
"We'll be playing and people will pass by and stop to listen because they see this young, fresh band with a young girl and a bunch of guys," Shell says. "And even though they may not be familiar with the music, they stick around to listen. On the other hand, we'll have snowbirds, older people that come by, and when they hear these familiar songs, they seem to think it's cool that these young people are bringing back these songs and styles that they remember and relate to. So that's really gratifying as well."
Shell says her goal is eventually to be able to gig three or four nights a week, securing enough steady work to avoid having to rely on a day job. For the time being, she's modeling, mostly at night, allowing her the flexibility to concentrate on writing, rehearsing, and marketing herself during the day. Mainly, she hopes to bring her music to the masses.
"I just want to make people feel good," she insists. "If I can provoke a smile, some finger snapping, a hand tapping on the steering wheel, then I've done my job. I really believe in the power of music to connect people, and it's my hope that the stories in my songs have that relatable quality that makes people feel welcome and understood."