It may come as a surprise, but Nella did not come from a musical family.
“There was music on in the house almost constantly,” she says, “but no one performed or played an instrument except for me.”
Born in 1989 as Marianella Rojas in the tropical paradise of Margarita Island, Venezuela, Nella cites three major influences which fueled her teenage years. “When I was 13, my voice suddenly changed,” she says, “and around that same time I heard Christina Aguilera’s album Stripped for the first time. Shortly after that I heard Etta James do the song ‘At Last.’ Those three things completely blew my mind, and I knew then and there that I wanted to be a musical artist.”
The decision has worked out in a big way. Her debut album Voy (On My Way) that came out earlier this year garnered a nomination for a Latin Grammy as Best New Artist, along with an invitation to perform live on the show’s international broadcast Nov. 14. The album displays songs of forbidden, lost and requited love with swaying rhythmic passages beneath hook-laden, romantic Spanish lyrics together with haunting Andalusian and soul-gospel-infused melodies.
After a brief move to the capital city of Caracas to study, she moved to Boston to study at the famed Berklee School of Music, where her career exploded. “Berklee was all about rediscovering myself,” Nella says. “Once you leave your home country, your roots start knocking at your door.”
But by far the most significant thing to happen in Boston was her meeting acclaimed record producer Javier Limón, who was spellbound by Nella’s performance of “La Negra Atilia,” a merengue gem of a tune that chronicles the life of a Venezuelan street vendor.
“That song is like a talisman, a lucky charm to me,” Nella says. “It has opened so many doors and so many hearts for me. I do it at the beginning of each concert almost as a blessing.”
Nella, a songwriter in her own right, has temporarily shelved her own tunes in favor of those penned by Limón – who is generally recognized as a producer, but through Nella’s vocals his skill as a songwriter finds expression. “To have someone like Javier writing for me is such a luxury,” she says. “I feel very spoiled.”
She arrives in Monterey County with the thrill of a nominated album, but also with the heaviness of a Venezuela in turmoil. “This is not my country’s best moment,” she says. “What we are suffering now transcends politics. We artists should all raise our voices together to make things better.”
NELLA 8pm Thursday, Nov. 7. Studio 105 at Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. $35-$55. 620-2048, sunsetcenter.org