Sonia Hadj Said
And “ordinary” comes to mind the day I’m set to meet Stella. Its dullness makes me shiver as autumn sneaks up on London with a grey sky and the wind making vicious sounds. Overcrowded Holborn is like a labyrinth – trying to escape the flow of passengers making their way into the station reminds me of Harry Potter’s Maze in The Goblet of Fire. I make my way into the solitude of Somerset House, still without its famous ice rink, it is finally quiet and peaceful. Before I can even see her face, Stella’s beautiful curls catch my eye. I know it’s her, and what’s worse – she’s the first one to arrive.
Before we’re even sat down with our coffees, the conversation is already so interesting and friendly, I almost forget to start recording. And I want to know everything there is to know about Stella’s journey as a London based musician before her single ‘Girl’ ended up being featured on Spotify’s popular Sweet Soul Sunday playlist as well as BBC Radio 1.
As two young women from different countries would, we start by talking about our roots. Stella tells me that she loves Poland where I’m from, but “one thing though is that churches really scare me, because they’re huge and so oppressive.” Not being raised in a religious way by her Italian parents, she was hit with the hypocrisy of the church when “around the time I was 11 some stuff happened, my dad lost his job and my parents discovered Christ again. They started going to the Baptist church and they’d make me go every Sunday.” While in those years of living with her parents in Singapore she did go to youth group with many Americans, she then realized “that even the people who were doctrinated in it, like the pastor’s son, they were all rebelling like I was. We were all just pretending. I think everyone just needs something to believe in.”
It seems that Stella Talpo did always believe in one thing – music. Just like so many young girls at 12, she used to be a Britney Spears fan, until the star “had a downfall and she was my god… I was crying and then I was thinking, nobody respected her. No one liked her from the guys I liked. If I ever wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be respected.” From that point on, young Stella was already determined to make this dream a reality while learning quite a few lessons on the way, starting by moving to America at 16 for a year to study theatre. “I got there and reality was different. I was a proactive, naive teenager. I would travel to Boston on the weekends and have meetings with recording studios. I was so convinced about the fantasy in my head, it was a massive shock.” America wasn’t at all what she expected, but rather than giving up, Stella made another move to the UK to study Bachelors in Music (Vocal Performance) at the Academy of Contemporary Music: an experience that shaped her a lot as a musician.
When asked how much university helped, she admits to have “felt like I’d been robbed. But had I not had those three years of breaking down all of my ego, I wouldn’t have a foundation to re-begin from.” The hardest thing for her was trying not to being put in a box. “It made me hate myself. I didn’t fit in a box. I was a smoker, more of a ‘Lana Del Rey, not gonna rehearse three hours a day.’ Instead of not being harsh on myself and embracing it, I was punishing myself and I started believing all this stuff and it was taking all my confidence.”
She did learn the theoretical side of music, which made her feel more confident as an artist in terms of knowing instruments and being able to figure out the way to work them. She laughs: “Now when I have self-doubt I’m like, but I have degree in music, you know.” University also gave her a network of musician friends, which was important since “the music network anywhere is going to be a closed bubble and you always know somebody who knows somebody and it gives you a platform to start from. I think it was worth it.”
It was at university where she met Sabrina who is her manager now. Sabrina’s husband Jonny is also Stella’s guitarist and through the couple she met her now best friend, Jamie. It was a hard time for her, out of university and still thinking about Singapore where she grew up. There came the decision to go back and “steal the sounds that remind me of home: birds, the ocean.” It was a way for Stella to have closure, as she never wanted to go back there again. Upon coming back she and Jamie worked together which “was like a fusion of our minds and he completely got what I was saying. He was almost able to be like my interpreter.” The result of this work was the EP titled ‘Space’, a haunting soundtrack to Stella’s youth, “a grieving piece.”
What happened in and after that time is a journey that most aspiring artists have to take. Beating herself up over losing her boyfriend and best friends, she went through a four-year writer’s block. Her financial situation forced her to move out of her place and take on work that meant less time for music, which she doesn’t use as an excuse. Recalling her ex-boyfriend, she explains how he could work eight hours a day with no distractions. Isn’t it a part of today’s technology, I ask. “My ex said, if you really wanted to do it, you would do it. And I swear inside I really want to. When you’re in London, I feel like it takes away the time you need to learn who you are. And then before you do, you fall into another job, another relationship. So where is that self-discovery?”
Stella points out that she “asked the universe a few years ago for a humbling experience. If I’m going to become an artist, I want to deserve it and get to the moment when you literally eat a can of beans. So I asked for it and I got it. I got it really good,” she’s laughing at it now, showing that the way we handle everything life throws at us is completely up to us. For Stella, it was living on friends’ couches so that she would be able to work less and write her music. Once she was able to move in to her place, terrified of losing it again, she would work six days a week while making music. It was at Glastonbury Festival that an astrologer had foreseen her money trouble and promised it would be all over now. “I was like oh my God, an astrologer saved my life! We all think we’re going to end up homeless and you need any assurance you can to survive.”
Stella can catch a breath now, since her new single ‘Girl’, written at four in the morning with Jamie came out and ended up straight into the ‘Sweet Soul Sunday’ Spotify playlist as well as being on BBC 1 – something that was once her biggest dream and now is something she won’t be distracted by. “I was so excited about BBC Radio 1, but Sabrina was like ‘be excited, but it’s Sunday night at 11.30 pm and it was one play.’ It’s a good thing, you need to stay on the game. You flip from the sensation of relax and faith into a sensation of control and fear and I’ve been completely controlled by it for two weeks. And life is so ordinary so you constantly want that distraction.”
What’s next? Stella has many dreams that she shares cautiously. Playing on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage is at the top of the list, but by know she has become more patient and grateful, looking forward to the next step, which is “the video for ‘Girl’. Blessed in so many ways. Life is so ordinary.” But now, ordinary doesn’t seem bad after all.