ome guitarists form in the womb and emerge ready to push their instrument’s limits and in turn be pushed by them, using their childhoods as a proving ground for the brilliance to follow. That is not Cincinnati’s Natalie Wells.
Wells wasn’t particularly musical and didn’t touch a guitar until she was 18. In fact, R. Crumb may have had the biggest impact on her career path.
“I was intrigued by the cover of Cheap Thrills,” Wells says over tea and cookies at producer Erwin Musper’s Bamboo Room studio, where she recorded her debut album, Mind the Gap, with the Natalie Wells Band. “I got into Janis Joplin, but I really liked (Big Brother and the Holding Company); I thought they were so nasty and cool. Then I looked into what they were into and discovered Blues.”
Wells’ parents weren’t convinced she’d follow through, but they relented and bought her a cheap starter guitar. The Independence, Ky., native learned quickly, absorbing even more influences.
“The first were (Big Brother’s) Sam Andrew and James Gurley, then it was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter,” Wells says of her early guitar heroes. “Mississippi John Hurt is probably my favorite old Blues guy, and Skip James, some of the really nasty sounding stuff. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten eclectic. Someone asked me what I’ve been listening to and I said, ‘Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Manson.’ I like Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, Frank Zappa — it goes all over the place. I’ve been getting into the Beatles and King Crimson, I love Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Carole King, too. I could go on for a while.”
Within months, the naturally gifted Wells had acquired enough skill to allow her to sit in with bands, eventually leading to a gig offer.
“I was going to the jams at Sonny’s (All Blues) Lounge (in Paddock Hills) and the owner said, ‘Do you have a band? I want to book you,’ ” Wells says. “I knew two or three songs so, like an idiot, I said, ‘Yeah!’ I worked to get an hour of material together and all the songs were 15 minutes long because I barely knew any of them. I got some people together and we played a gig and I got $20 or $30, and I thought that was so cool.”
Wells was barely 21 when she and her band were nominated for a 2003 Cincinnati Entertainment Award. She was so certain she would lose that she wasn’t even paying attention when her name was announced.
“(Veteran local Blues favorite) Ricky Nye and his wife were sitting beside me and they tapped me and said, ‘They just said your name,’ and I was like, ‘No they didn’t,’ ” Wells says. “That’s how much I wasn’t expecting it.”
For the next few years, Wells fronted a rotating cast of rhythm sections, few measuring up to her skill level. She received CEA nominations in 2004 and 2007 but didn’t win. At that point, she hadn’t fully explored her songwriting voice, preferring to rely on covers by her influences.
During this period, Musper heard Wells for the first time. As he and his wife strolled down a Covington street, Wells’ astonishing guitar sound poured out of an open bar door. The producer was transfixed. He listened, dutifully amazed, but he didn’t speak to Wells.
“It was surreal — you hear this great guitar and walk around a corner, and there’s a guy with long hair … no, it’s a girl!” Musper says with a smile. “Her talent is not manufactured, it’s so natural. She was amazing, but I wasn’t sure about the rest of the band. If I had approached her and (thought) we might end up working together, I’d have to spill the news and I don’t want to do it — ‘Hi, I’m Erwin, your drummer sucks.’
“That was part of my hesitance, but I thought, ‘She’s that good so she’ll figure it out.’ Now she’s got a great drummer (Michael Hodges). She’s another pearl in the Cincinnati scene, one that needs to be recognized.”
About a year ago, things shifted quickly for Wells. Musper was recording a Dutch artist and invited Wells to provide guitar on a song. Around the same time, Wells had dedicated more time to songwriting and, sensing a great level of comfort with Musper at the controls, she committed to working on the Natalie Wells Band’s studio debut.
“That was my first time in a studio and I thought, ‘This isn’t that scary,’ ” Wells says. “That’s what precipitated it.”
Mind the Gap — featuring contributions from Nye and veteran bassist Bob Nyswonger — shows Wells to be a fluid and mature guitarist, one who easily reflects the Blues/Rock influences she has absorbed but is equally adept at shaping them into her own unique interpretations.
“Some people like to learn something exactly like it is on the record, note for note,” Wells says. “I’ve never liked that and I wouldn’t have fun doing that. I like doing things my own way. We’ve been gradually working in more original stuff (in the live set) because we’ve been having a lot of fun doing that.”
Mind the Gap’s sole cover is a scorching take on The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog,” a song Wells wasn’t even familiar with before Musper suggested amping up a Fab Four tune and offered the Yellow Submarine soundtrack cut as a possibility.
“I wanted our cover to be (King Crimson’s) ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ but Erwin was like, ‘Maybe go home and check out ‘Hey Bulldog,’ ” says Wells. “I liked the song and we had a lot of fun recording it.”
Musper is currently mastering tracks that Wells and the band recorded at a West Side bar last summer for a live album tentatively slated for release (without overdubs) later this year. And given the success she experienced making Mind the Gap, she’s already seriously considering another studio album this year, especially since her debut is becoming something of a global sensation.
“We’ve gotten a fanbase in some weird places,” Wells says with a laugh. “I’ve sent (CDs) to Denmark, half a dozen to Sweden, some to the U.K. Some Rory Gallagher people posted us playing ‘Bad Penny’ on a forum and before I knew it, all these Rory Gallagher fans liked us, too. And I’ve sent (CDs) to Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands. It’s kind of funny.”
The Natalie Wells Band plays Legends Nightclub in Cheviot
Feb. 18. For more dates and info, visit www.nataliewells.net.