Sending Us the Words: A Portrait of Emily Bell

Words and Photos by Laura Roberts

Emily Bell

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land of Austin, Texas, there lived a girl with rust-colored hair and skin the hue of an antique store doll’s.

And when anyone saw her, they would stop and stare, and wonder how anyone could be so beautiful.

In that same town lived another girl with wheat-blonde hair.

And when anyone saw her, they, too, would stop and stare, and wonder how anyone could be so beautiful.

But her skin was different.

“Abbie [Evans] had a very rare skin disease called Epidermolysis Bullosa,” Emily Bell explains, her porcelain elbows leaning into the splintering picnic table. “And it’s basically, it’s very complicated, very rare. But basically, what it does…”

Emily’s voice is strong. And steady. Her right hand brushes a glass of ice cubes mixed with whiskey water.

“You’re missing the gene that bonds your skin to your body.”

She pauses a moment.

“It’s very, very easy for her skin to blister, tear,” she continues slowly, explaining in a motherly/nurse way. “It causes internal blistering and tearing as well…Your skin…”

She stops short.

Gathers her thoughts.

Her eyes are quiet as they face straight ahead.

“Even the [most] minor touch, after awhile, will cause a blister.”

Emily Bell

Emily wasn’t planning on falling in love.

She certainly wasn’t looking for it.

But that’s usually how it happens.

When you’re not planning on it.

And taking a long look at yourself.

It was 2010.

And singer-songwriter Emily Bell was back in her home state of Texas after a stint in California that involved the words “album” and “contract”, but ended with “I have to find my own voice.”

And so there she was in Houston.

“…picking the pieces back up and laying everything out on the table,” Emily gestures, her hands hovering over the picnic bench. “And looking at where I had been and where I wanted to go and just kind of living with that…”

She breathes.

“John just kind of fell into my life.”

John Evans was tall and wore Buddy-Holly glasses and had a mop of curls on his head that fell into the bottom part of his forehead.

John was also a musician and songwriter.

And so John and Emily found themselves doing what musicians and songwriters do when they find one another:

They wrote together.

“It became this kind of naturally enlightening relationship,” Emily says, surprise still lingering in her voice four years later.

An Austin native, John moved back to his hometown shortly after their meeting.

Emily Bell

Emily was also drawn to the music town.

“I knew that’s kind of where I needed to be to move forward in the right direction,” she says, eyelashes wide, looking straight ahead.

So she packed up her things and headed up I-10.

Emily got her own lease in the central part of the Live Music Capitol—“a little lime-green house with a pink door”, worked a couple of odd jobs—“my first job I cleaned a church”—and kept writing with John.

“In the time that I fell in love with John,” Emily’s eyes blink and slide to the left.

“I fell in love with her as well.”




John the musician with the Buddy Holly glasses and the knack for songwriting and falling for Emily Bell had a daughter.

And her name was Abigail—Abbie to those close to her.

And Abbie had long, California-sun hair, and a skin condition that made it hard for her to shake hands with people she met. Because her skin condition had taken parts of her hands, leaving her with ends that were round and a red patchwork quilt for skin.

But it didn’t.

And couldn’t.

Do a damn thing to Abbie’s spirit.

“Abbie thrived,” Emily’s voice rises. She leans her body into the table.

“She was given two weeks to live when she was born…She dealt with many, many surgeries throughout her life, she couldn’t swallow properly, her hands got fused together from all the scaring…”

Emily’s eyes stretch for a minute; drifting to other words.

Emily Bell

“She sold merch for John, ever since she was fourteen,” Emily continues. “He would take her on the road.”


“She would sell merch for me.”

In 2012, Emily and John and Abbie went to live in a small lake house in Northeast Texas.

John and Emily spent hours in the home by the water crafting lyrics about love breath-holding contests and the aftermath of mixing train tracks with tunnel vision.

And days blending 60’s doo-wap beats—think The Ronette’s “Be My Little Baby” –with hues of Carl Perkins’ “That’s-Alright-Mama” rockabilly.

And Abbie was right there. Everyday. Listening.

“She’s the one that would always give the honest answer,” Emily gestures. “She’s the one that John and I would always bounce all our ideas off of.”

Her voice goes up—

“—Because she’s the cool young girl.”

Her chin moves forward.

“She always had such amazing taste in music, and supported…Was so proud of her dad…Loved being at his shows.”

Emily’s voice stays steady, her eyes soften.

“She was beautiful.”

Abbie’s beauty caught the eye of someone else, too.

Emily’s sister, Cary Bell, was a filmmaker who liked to capture stories, and asked if she could capture Abbie’s.

Abbie agreed.

Cary and her film crew logged hours of footage of Abbie:

Abbie walking the tip jar at her dad’s gig at Hole in the Wall.

Abbie experiencing the smell of her first gutted fish hitting her nose.

And Abbie dancing.

Always dancing.

The documentary was titled Butterfly Girl.



“They call kids with Epidermolysis Bullosa– butterfly children,” Emily explains, nodding. “Because their skin’s so delicate.”

Like the wings of a butterfly.

“In the end,” Emily’s eyes go quiet. “It was sudden, it was unexpected. And she just didn’t wake up one day.”

The one day was December of 2013.

Abbie was twenty.

“Three weeks after Abigail died, “ Emily’s eyes veer to the left. “We got the call that [Butterfly Girl] got accepted into SXSW.”

Butterfly Girl premiered in the SXSW Film Festival at Austin’s ZACH Topfer Theatre on March 10, 2014.

Two days later, on March 12, Emily stepped onstage at the Austin Music Awards.

She was there to accept the Best New Artist Award following the 2013 release of her first full-length album.

Entitled In Technicolor.

Better known to a select few as the best days ever spent at a lake house.


Ever after


“I schmoozed a guy at the front…like, the hippiest dude, that looked…you know.”

She smiles.

We’re talking about sneaking into Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival—or how you used to be able to, way back when.

“And I went up to him,” Emily leans in, her merlot-hair hanging into her shoulders.

“And I was like ‘My brother’s just in there and he has my wristbands and I gotta go get the wristband from him and his cellphone isn’t working and can you please just let me go in?? I promise I’ll come back.’ And he was like ‘It’s cool, girl’.”

“And I just went in.”

Amusement rims her irises.

“And then I went around and asked people if I could cut the ends of their wristbands off—you know, like the tail end they didn’t need—and I taped….”

She grins sheepishly.

“I feel bad about that now because I know you need to pay for music.”

She smiles again.

“But at that time I just wanted to go see the music.”

Emily Bell

It’s starting to get dusky at the outside bar off Rainey. The outside lights are throwing shadows up on the walls and sidewalk.

I ask Emily about gigging festivals—“Ohmygod I would die to play Bonnaroo!”—about upcoming things in her works—“I’m thinking something more along the lines of an EP”—and I ask her about songwriting.

And Abbie.

“I’m waiting to see,” she starts slowly. “Where it’s going to take my writing to.”

She cuts herself off quickly.

“And not to make it about it me, because it’s so much more about John.”

Slight pause.

“And it’s so much more about Abigail.”

Another pause.

“John and I are both kind of waiting for her to send us the words. You know.”

She fumbles for half a moment.

Then says it again. Decidedly.

“To send us the words.”

The red-haired beauty with her fair skin continues talking and swirling the ice cubes in her drink. George Harrison and his words about guitars weeping pour out of the outdoor overhead speakers.

The night is settling in on September 17.

The eve of a certain sun-kissed butterfly’s birthday. Who didn’t get the happily ever after words that some stories come with.

But that would mean there was an ending.

And butterflies.

Butterflies are known for beginnings.

New beginnings.