Between attending college and becoming a self-described “orchestral Tori Amos,” a girl can only do so much to change the world while cramming for finals.
Pianist and vocalist Katherine Schell will headline a benefit for Special Days, a summer and winter camp program in Brighton for kids with cancer or leukemia, at the Michigan Theater on Sunday night. The camp has helped thousands of kids and their families – including Schell’s, whose younger brother had leukemia – get away from hospital gloom.
“When my little brother had leukemia, he went to (Special Days),” Schell said. She took part in a “partners camp” that also includes patients’ siblings. “That’s how (my family) got involved. We’ve been donating money and benefiting the camps ever since.”
Sunday’s performance will formally introduce Ann Arbor to the classically trained Schell. Now a third-year music and philosophy major at Loyola University Chicago, Schell took piano lessons from the age of six until her early teens, developing a taste for the Beethoven-style dramaticism that undercuts her present work.
“My parents are not (in tune) with music at all – I never really started listening to the radio until high school,” Schell said. “We had a jukebox in our basement, so it was oldies and classical.”
Fortunately, she’s developed her own taste in music since her formative years. Besides a great deal of Tori Amos, Schell said, “Wilco is great – I’m into a lot of indie rock, actually really folk music lately, like Sufjan Stevens and Cat Power right now.”
Touring during school breaks and backed by a rhythm-and-strings outfit, Schell describes her sound as “chamber rock,” combining her childhood classical training with blues, jazz and modern rock. Her debut LP, Emptier Streets on Recessive Gene Records, opens with ascending, minor-key arpeggios that indicate years of Czerny A%tudes study. Vocals occasionally sound like a dulcet Fiona Apple in the lower register. Most of the time, Schell’s vocals are almost indistinguishable from Sarah McLachlan’s.
Occasionally, especially at competitions, organizers are quick to slot her under the “adult-contemporary” banner.
While that specific category could pigeonhole a younger artist, Schell’s genre-bending sound earned her a VH1 Save the Music Foundation’s 2005 Songwriter of the Year award for “Rest Assured.” Incidentally, the contest was judged by another award-winning pianist and vocalist, Norah Jones.
“Rest Assured” has grabbed more critical attention, but Schell values another song on Emptier Streets more.
“The first song that I wrote (“Come to Me”) – it’s probably the most important to me. That was the song I wrote for my little brother when my family was going through a lot of hard times with all that stuff, the leukemia,” Schell said.
Schell has performed “Come To Me” live on KISS 103.5 FM in Chicago and should be working it into her Special Days set as well.
After the benefit show, Schell heads back to school for a round of finals before holiday break. Then, she’ll be packing up again for her Colorado Mountain Tour.