She is the new voice of Beat Soul. Marinating silky vocals over a beat-dominating rhythm, Stella brings a higher pitch to the soothing tranquility than more traditional R&B-based singers. But her swing comes naturally, as the daughter of Carlos Santana, whose Latin-hued guitar playing has been the admiration of many a music lover.
But Stella wasn’t always a singer. Her path was going in another direction, studying Intercultural Communication and Personal Development at Pepperdine University. And although she began learning to play piano and guitar at a very early age, she didn’t start writing songs or performing till much, much later. She was shy and preferred life outside of all the bright-light attention. “I didn’t really want attention and I knew that I couldn’t do music and not have attention. That’s like impossible,” Stella told me during our interview recently. As a kid she loved the music, the beat, the melody. Around 2013, she finally took the hand of the siren and put herself out there, releasing two singles, both of which appear on her debut album, Selfish, which officially comes out later this month.
Her road to the songs on Selfish was not all paved with strawberries and cream. They came on the heels of heartbreak, eventually begetting strength, self-awareness, independence and self-love. Truth is a strong emotion that empowers her mini-stories. With inspiration and production help from Jared Evan, Frankie P and Caswell, the words came more vibrantly alive as Stella controlled her voice to a heartbeat instead of a caterwaul: “Go Alone,” “Watch Me,” “Outro” and the new “Burn,” of which the video is a storyboard of emotional suffocation. All these factor into a soliloquy of passion, love, tears and freedom.
Glide spoke with Stella about the songs of Selfish, growing up shy and the importance of following your heart.
You’ve released a few songs from the upcoming record already. What can you tell us about the songs we haven’t heard yet?
You know, the theme of this record is very much about focusing on yourself – what makes you feel good, what you want to pursue, those kinds of things and really discovering that. The process started with me being with someone and then me choosing not to be with someone and being with myself. So a lot of the songs have been about the separation part but you can expect more like how it is to be by yourself and how it can be a very empowering experience if you allow it to be.
You’ve talked about transparency in your music. What exactly does that involve?
I just try to write about what I’m feeling in the moment and just describing it as best I can from my own perspective. I tend to try to simplify things or put them into a metaphor so I am writing from the heart for sure but also usually I’m trying to get through something. I know that everyone thinks their stories are unique and it is in a lot of ways but there are also so many similarities that people experience; you know, same story, different details, all over the world and they’re relatable. So I try to keep it relatable but also very unique and meaningful. I think that is really important.
You just released the video for “Burn” and it’s very stark and emotional. How much input did you have with the storyboards?
The whole idea was mine. I had the idea to write the song at the end of 2013. That was when the relationship I was in was ending and I felt like I was in this house and it was burning; like, it was a small fire and now it’s a really big fire and we need to get out now. I felt like he wasn’t listening to me and I felt like I had to save myself from this situation. It was so dramatic and crazy and insane but you know, whatever (laughs). It felt erratic at the time and was very painful and I didn’t want to just write about a breakup. I wanted it to be a different perspective on a breakup. So that house fire metaphor just stayed with me a long time and the song came out of me when I was working with this guy Frankie P, who actually produced “Fumes.” I wrote “Burn” with him to another beat that I liked but I ended up being with Jared another time and he made this beat and I was like, you know what, “Burn” sounds so cool on this, and we just recorded on this and it ended up happening like a year and a half after I actually thought about it. And I thought about it as a video, a movie, a story first before I thought about it as a song.
That’s kind of backwards
Yeah, I was like, this is going to be the story. I just have to figure out how to write it as a song. But I knew the story so it was really cool to have it animated and see it come to life almost exactly like how I pictured it, which is kind of insane.
You have a good rapport with Jared. You did quite a few songs with him on this record.
Yes we did. Our first song was “Go Alone,” which hasn’t come out yet, and then that day he was like, “I want this to be like the worst thing that we make.” (laughs). It was so good and one of my favorite songs and from there we just kept going into the studio and every time we went in we made a song.
What else can you tell us about “Go Alone”?
That one is just about being alone (laughs). There is this quote that I don’t know who said it, which is terrible, but it’s something like, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I was like, fuck together (laughs) I’ll just use the go alone part and that was kind of like the theme. I was in a place where I was very focused on what I was doing and I wasn’t really trying to entertain anybody else that wasn’t like directly involved with the music I was making at the time, which made me be kind of closed but in a good way because I was very focused. So I think there’s things that require that amount of focus and it’s good to be able to know when to apply that to your life. I don’t think it’s only going to be one time, it kind of ebbs and flows.
What about the song “Fumes”?
I had like the first verse written down, “Picking up the pieces of the promises you broke, the words you said were only smoke, and I inhaled until I choked.” I had that written down in my phone, where I write down most of my stuff, for at least a month or something like that. Then I heard this beat that Frankie sent, and he just sent me the beat, which rarely happens cause I usually like to make the music that day. But he sent it to me and I just loved it so much and I wanted to keep going with the smoke metaphor and I was thinking about when you smoke too much weed or you drink too much and are beyond where you want to be and you’re aware that you’re beyond where you want to be and just kind of have to wait it out. But you know it’s going to be over and you’re like, “I’m never going to do this again ever!” And I was equating that also to the feeling I was feeling at the end of that relationship and how it was painful but that it wasn’t going to be happening forever and that it was going to be over. So I kind of like intertwined those two together to make that. The druggie thing, it just kind of felt like drippy and slow and like stumbling through the fog, still moving forward but stumbling and swaying, almost like I was intoxicated.
Your voice is so lovely and these are very emotional songs and you sing them without going over the top. How do you keep that in check and not go overboard with your voice?
I kind of feel like I do it on accident because I was always really, really shy – and I know that’s like shocking (laughs) – but I was and so singing loud, like I was always trying to make sure I wasn’t being heard when I was singing. Now, I’ve been working with vocal coaches and stuff to really stretch my voice cause I’ve not really been using it to it’s full potential for so long and I’ve kind of trained myself to do that over time. Like, I’m learning how to do that but I think I’ll still be able to keep it under wraps cause I feel like too much of anything kind of makes something meaningless after a while. If everything becomes dramatic then it’s not dramatic anymore. But it’s when you put it on those certain notes or that certain phrase, that line and there’s some emotion there or different varieties of emotions instead of just one, it just makes it feel more, I don’t know, realistic.
You mentioned being shy, so when you first started singing in front of people, were you more on the quiet side onstage?
Yeah, it was definitely not something I was super confident doing. I’m still getting that down but the only way to learn something is to do it over and over again. So I just had to kind of throw myself out there. But it’s nerve-wracking to be in front of a bunch of people and I hadn’t really been trained vocally but I just kind of threw myself into it cause I knew that was the way you learned. I was like, “You’re doing it!” And then as I was doing it I started to get the training I needed to be able to be better. But I had to start somewhere.
You didn’t really start pursuing a career until a few years ago. Why?
I wasn’t doing this at all. I was just like shy and I didn’t really want attention and I knew that I couldn’t do music and not have attention. That’s like impossible. I mean, I guess I could just do it in my room and no one would know but what’s the point in that. So I just decided I wanted to do it more than I wanted to be private, I guess. I just decided one day, you know, I want this more because there’s nothing else I really want.
Has your confidence built up now?
Oh yeah, I feel great and am totally happy.
Were you writing songs when you were a young girl?
No, but I always loved writing and my mom is a writer and I have just always loved it. I liked reading growing up. I always had like journals and diaries and stuff. I never really wrote songs, or poems even. I just got my feelings out, which is basically what I am doing now. I’m just using this as therapy (laughs)
When did you finally write that first song?
The first song was called “Switch” and it’s on the album and it’s sort of about the day I decided not to go back anymore. We were kind of being sheepish with our decision and going back and forth and finally just ended it; and obviously it was me because that’s always me. Like, “That’s it!” But it was a painful moment so I just wrote about it. I wasn’t thinking about a melody or by a piano or anything. I was just sitting on my floor writing what I was feeling. I eventually cut some stuff out when I got into the studio but when I got in the studio and I heard what they were playing, I was like, this feels like that day and then I made that song.
Were lyrics important to you when you were growing up listening to music?
You know what, it’s going to sound kind of bad but I have to really, really focus to pay attention to lyrics because I just get so distracted by all the sounds in a song. I remember though I used to write down lyrics of songs that I liked so I could sing along with them. But I don’t remember being super conscious about what I was saying. But oh my God, the Janet Jackson album where she has the hands over her boobs? I must have been seven or eight when that album came out – I was young – and I was listening to the album and looking at some guy holding her boobs and the lyrics were actually in the booklet, if I remember correctly, which I was excited about. But some of the stuff was so raunchy (laughs). I didn’t really know what I was singing, I just liked what I was singing and I liked what I was hearing melodically and with the instrumentation and stuff. So as a writer that sounds crazy that I don’t read lyrics; now I do more cause I’m doing it. But I wasn’t doing it before cause I wasn’t really thinking about it. The music part was what really stuck with me. The notes, the tunes, the melodies, the hooks and other little accents, that was what really hooked me in growing up.
How do you feel about the young pop/soul singers in today’s music? Do you think that they are focusing more on the exterior and the showmanship of the music than the actual song?
I don’t know, there’s something out there for everybody and it’s hard for me to say that I feel something is missing from someone else’s work, just because I feel like, who am I to say that? There is just so much stuff out there now and you can find something for everyone, which is so cool, but I don’t listen to everything obviously. I’ve been listening to myself a lot cause I’ve been rehearsing for a show so I’ve been listening to my album over and over and over (laughs). But I’m more into the Urban, Hip Hop type stuff right now but I do love Tame Impala and that’s not Hip Hop or Urban (laughs). But I don’t know, I’m kind of all over the map but as far as the pop scene. It’s just like the machine is so big now you need to have all this stuff and I think the good stuff will stay and that’s just how it works. I’m not anyone to say what the good stuff is but you can tell when you see someone and you know they’re going to be around in five years and when they’re not. That’s just the truth of the matter.
Did your father have any advice for you about the music business?
As far as the industry is concerned, the only thing he said to me, to all of us, was to do everything from your heart. So I think that applies to anything – to the music you’re making, performing, whatever it is. Obviously the industry is so different now than it was when he was coming up so it’s an interesting conversation to have, if it’s ever had with him. But definitely, just to do everything from the heart. It’s what he’s always said.
Has anything surprised you yet since you’ve come into the business?
No, no, no (laughs). I’ve kept my expectations really low, if that makes sense.
But you’re off to a great start
Oh my God, I am so grateful. But it’s like any industry, you have to navigate, you have to find your people, you have to figure it out and that requires a strict, very disciplined eye.
How are you going to spend the rest of the year?
I’m going to Europe. I have a show in London at Somerset House on the 14th of July. Then I’m going to LA to work on an EP with Twice As Nice Productions and I’m excited about that. I have a show on July 26th at the Bowery Electric, three days before the album comes out, and there will be copies there, physical ones. And that’s it for now. There might be another one announced in the near future but I can’t say yet. Then I’m just going to kind of work with my band for the rest of the year and get us very, very tight.