“Give it up, or lose it completely,” sings Annie Stela on “Clean It Up,” my favorite track off Hard City, one of two EPs that Stela is releasing this year. For most of Stela’s career as a musician, she’s chosen to give up plenty of things, but not what she was born to do: write songs. It’s this Annie Stela that makes me smile—the independent champion who refuses to quit.
When she was only 22, Stela was signed to Capitol Records, and her first album, Fool, was eventually given a release date: January 23rd, 2007. It was shaping up to be quite a story—lone musician moves from Michigan to Los Angeles, gets signed to a major label, and takes the country by storm with her songs. Except, when Capitol folded into Virgin, and her allies at the label started losing their jobs, Stela decided to go her own way. She took her finished record and was again on her own.
“It happened in sort of an odd way for me,” Stela tells me by phone from L.A. “Capitol was so many things. It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me, and it was very creative. It was also horrible and stressful. But, in the end, after six months of tearing my hair out and crying and cursing the day I ever signed—after all of that—I realized that it was a pretty lucky thing that happened to me. I got to make a record I never would have made, and I got to tour. And I got to do it all on their dime. And now with being an independent artist, and an unsigned artist, I’m so thankful for everything they did for me. Would it have been nice if they would have put the record out? Yeah, absolutely. But, they still did a lot. I try to look at it like that most days.”
These days, Stela has certainly grown up, and you can hear her confidence on a song like Hard City’s “Clean It Up.” Inside the song is a character who is “sick of this fast pace, sick of these clean breaks.” There is a battle going on—one where the score is far from settled.
“‘Clean It Up’ is really about adult woes,” Stela explains. “You know, shit sucks sometimes. And that’s just sort of where it came from. And as you get older, you have to take responsibility for yourself, and I think that’s what the chorus is—‘Who’s going to help me do this?’ Well, no one is going to help me do this.”
And many keep asking Stela when she’ll begin to do something else with her life. On her blog, Stela recounts a conversation where she was asked “how long was I going to give this pipe dream? How long before I gave this up and settled down, had kids? How long before I went and got a real job?”
So, I ask her, too. How long?
“I understand that it’s all part of growing up—that you need to make money to survive,” she says. “But, in the end, none of that matters. What matters is that when I picture my life, this is what I picture doing. And when I picture what I’m supposed to do, this is it. I can explain and explain, but that’s the bottom line.”
Give it up, or lose it completely.
Or, choose to be like Annie Stela.
She said it: “For the first record that I recorded, I moved to Los Angeles from Michigan, I was in my early 20s, I was living in this apartment where, I swear, my downstairs neighbor had killed someone and left them there to stink up the apartment. And so, I was terrified! And I think a lot of that first record was me working through that fear and growing up. And now, I’ve been in L.A. for about seven years, and I would never call it home, but I’m certainly more settled here. So, this collection of songs (Hard City) is more about who I am now.”