There is a story here — the phrase reads like a writer’s note to self after a journal entry and, in fact, that is how Annie Stela’s first EP came to be named. Flipping through her journal one day, Stela came across the phrase and thought it aptly conveyed the essence of her introductory work. Thus the EP was christened.
"I always wrote," says the young singer/songwriter/pianist/poet. "I wrote stories even when I was five years old. I could never just draw a picture. I always had to write something about it underneath."
There is a story here is a sentient rumination on innocence and innocence betrayed, love and lust, home and leaving home. It was produced by Bill Bottrell (Shelby Lynne, Madonna, Sheryl Crow), who also produced Stela’s upcoming full-length album. He and Stela agreed the instrumentation should be sparse, allowing the songs to shine. The Sonus Quartet, a string quartet whose young musicians intuitively mirrored Stela’s command of classical and rock styles, played on some tracks, as did Bottrell and his friends Brian MacLeod (drums) and Dan Schwartz (bass), but there is a story here is primarily a piano-driven record from an artist who, remarkably enough, despised piano lessons as a child.
"By the time I got to high school [an arts-oriented alternative school], I finally understood that the reason I couldn't stand the lessons was because I didn't want to play other people's music; I wanted to write my own," says Stela. "So I started to write songs; secretly at first, breathed into a tape recorder in a corner of my bedroom so no one would hear."
Eventually Stela developed the confidence to play shows and forged plans to move to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. So after college, she crammed her possessions into her car and drove out to L.A.
"I had spent all this time trying to get away," recalls Stela, adding ruefully, "and then, once I had gotten away, all I did for probably about a year was write songs about home."
Home is Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, an idyllic suburb of rolling hills and tranquil lakes that’s about 45 minutes from Detroit. A look at the inside of Annie’s EP shows just how different Bloomfield is from her adopted home. It’s a photo of her childhood backyard, which, with its veritable forest of maple trees, is a far cry from the tiny, pool-dotted yards of suburban L.A.
Stela grew up steeped in the standards of two generations. Her father loved to play Gershwin and Irving Berlin. "He’s actually a lawyer in reality but in his daydreaming life, he’s a piano player," she explains. Stela’s mother, an artist, exposed Annie and her older brother to the great storytellers of her generation — Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Carole King, Elton John, Billy Joel — as well classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
On the bittersweet Breathe Through, Stela evokes the comforting routines of family life — a mother setting the dinner table, a car pulling into the driveway — while wondering wistfully Can I hope for something more?
Living in some crappy apartment in L.A., she at times wondered if she’d traded home for something less. With equal parts humor and angst, she details the transition in the rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness lines that come tripping out of her mouth on Fool:
I am sure this place is ruining me/
all missed opportunities and looks across crowded rooms and I never eat/
the right thing I have silent nights with the T.V./
and conversations with my future as it looms
But she continued to work, writing each day and playing gigs at intimate venues like the Hotel Café at night. Often her poetry inspired her music, as in the case of It’s You, the soaring, exuberant first track on there is a story here:
so when we all took our first breath/
we lined up in a row outside and passed around the cigarette/
just babies squinting up at the streetlight/
whispering about what’s coming next
"It’s You came from a poem that started with that line and the idea of being at that age where you’re young and you don’t really know anything but you feel like you do," says Stela, "but you’re playing with these ideas of love and lust, you know, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes."
Hands in the Grass, the EP’s closing track, is a diamond in the rough demo recorded exclusively for the EP. (The other three songs will appear on her full-length album.) With just Stela’s vocal and piano, it’s a fragile, haunting tale of heroes deposed.
There is a story here provides a tantalizing introduction to Stela, a few telling glimpses of the promise and unique point of view she brings to her music. Yes, there is definitely a story here.