“We live in a place where things aren’t always so beautiful, and I think music and art are a way for us to jump into things and make it a prettier picture.”
“We live in a place where things aren’t always so beautiful, and I think music and art are a way for us to jump into things and make it a prettier picture.”
Marien Brandon: I read you are often compared to Patti Smith. That’s a tough legacy to live up to; how do you manage?
Stella Rose Gahan: I’m moving right now. That’s why waking up early today was not a big deal. I had to go get a truck in an hour. Funnily enough, the guy that owns the building I’m moving into is friends with Patti Smith. It’s in the West Village, above a funeral home, which sounds perfect for me. [laughs]
He’s been bringing her up a lot and, obviously, I love her, I look up to her, I read all her books. Patti definitely had a huge influence on me when I was first discovering what kind of artist I wanted to be. In the beginning stages – at least for me – I wanted to look the part, I wanted to live the part, I wanted to feel whatever I was romanticizing in my head as a kid. Then, as I got older, I started picking up stuff that worked for me rather than mimicking other people to find my direction. I learned how to sing by mimicking people. I think at first, it’s an apprenticeship that you’re working on on your own, to find these different things that can apply to your voice or apply to your artistry. Patti Smith is definitely a big one for me. She’s a lot of things. She’s not just a musician or just a writer. She embodies, for me, the possibilities in being a creative, evolving and not totally selling yourself to stuff the industry wants you to do in the full picture. Especially as a woman. I used to watch a lot of videos of her from when she was younger and super spunky, spitting on the floor, doing that type of thing. It was shocking as a kid to see something like that because I was thinking: “I need to do this. This is so cool; she doesn’t give a fuck.”
Now, I’m a little more grounded; but a couple of years ago, I definitely was more erratic, saying crazy stuff or just being more passionate about what I liked. If I had a certain belief at a certain time, I really went full for it.
Patti Smith is just an example in my growth, but I like a lot of strong females as musicians. PJ Harvey also is a huge influence on me. I just watched her documentary recently. I think it’s called A Dog Called Money. She and her producer basically set up this gallery space and they built a studio in the middle of it and put mirrored glass all around so that people can come and see the session. I thought that was cool because I have a little bit of obsession with documenting stuff. And it’s such a cool idea to sort of bring the art world with music.
You are so NY, both visually and sonically. Why does this city have such a hold on artists like you? Where do you find your daily inspiration?
[laughs] I grew up here. My whole family is here. I have a lot of roots in New York. My grandmother is from Greece; she immigrated to NY when she was young and started her own business, she’s almost 90 and still goes to work every single day. The grind is real here and my family is a big reflection, I think, of New York. I mean, my boyfriend is from LA, so I think he makes fun of that whole idea of we’re from New York, we smoke cigarettes, we drink coffee, and we never stop” kind of thing. But it is part of our pride, we keep going.
I get inspiration just from forgetting that I live in New York, walking around and getting those little weird gifts. It can be nothing, but maybe you see two people interact and you’re intrigued by it or you’re listening to music, and you get this feeling. Angel, on the record, really feels like NY to me. It feels like that feeling you have when you can’t explain why you stay; because it’s not always obvious. The fact that New York is such a moving city – there’s a lot of people coming in and out – you pick up on stuff. I’m a pretty sensitive person, so sometimes it can be overwhelming, but if you can tap into it and put it into your work, it becomes inspirational, I think.
I sit in parks a lot and I used to go to this one cafe every single day, that’s where I did a lot of my writing for this record. You have to be present in all the madness and maybe you can steal a bit of what’s going on that other people are looking past.
Speaking of iconic location in NY, you recently opened the Depeche Mode concert in Madison Square Garden. I’m not from NY, but I know the importance of this place. What did it feel like?
People keep asking me how I felt when I did it, and it’s hard to explain because my band and I were not nervous. We felt really ready, we practiced a lot. We knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we didn’t know when the next time we were going to play there is, whether it’s in a decade, or it’s in five years, I have no idea. So, we all mutually agreed to just have fun. Of course, we knew there’s going to be expectations, there’s going to be judgments, but didn’t get too in our heads about playing Madison Square Garden. It’s an opportunity and you might as well have fun doing it. I was really trying to breathe, look around, take the environment in.
My dad calls it “the Church of New York.” It is like that, you have to respect the space, I feel like. But yeah, it’s jarring. It’s jarring because so many things happened there, it hit me the most when I was walking in the hallways and there’s the pictures of David Bowie, Tina Turner and everyone. You’re like: “What the fuck? I just played there.” It’s a little weird, but obviously, it was super fun. The thing I was most nervous about was my whole family was there. (British family, Greek family, everyone.) Both of my grandmothers came. My mom’s mom isn’t a big fan of the outfits, the leather shorts, the bondage vibe. She sees me as this angel, this soft, natural beauty. [laughs]
I thought she’s going to hate the performance and the way I move because she hasn’t seen anything that I do. When we do club shows, I would walk into the audience, touching people’s faces and full-on dancing crazy. I felt like: “I just gotta do it because this is me. Whatever! If she understands it, she understands. If she doesn’t, it’s fine. She doesn’t have to get it.” So, that was kind of funny, but she loved it. After the show, she wanted to stay and party. My mom had to get her to go.
It was also really special that I could do that with my dad. [Depeche Mode front man Dave Gahan] We’re so close. He definitely has been a huge mentor for me. When I decided that I really wanted to do music, I sat my parents down and I told them I want to take this seriously. They knew that I’ve been writing and supported me in that decision. He’s been very instrumental but also hands off, which I think gave me the ability to be creative, make mistakes and go my own way. It’s a different industry now. The way that he did it when he was younger wouldn’t be possible anymore. With social media, you have to be a model and you also have to act, it’s a whole. I just felt really grateful at that moment. It’s something that doesn’t usually happen where your parent and you can share these crazy moments. Usually, my experience of it is being backstage and cringing because it’s my dad.
This time, he stayed on the side of the stage the whole show and was watching. It was cute.
I saw those clips of you kneeling on stage with your cabled microphone, what a momentum. You seem to be having the time of your life. Would you say you are a born performer?
Honestly, I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life. I think it’s one of the reasons why I felt so ready for the MSG show. Maybe that’s totally insane, but to be honest, I’ve been practicing in my room since I was a kid. In all of our home videos, I am putting on a show and performing. I also used to be a dancer for the majority of when I was younger and into all of middle school. I did it pretty intensely. I danced with the Alvin Ailey Company, in their school program. I loved it, I mean, that’s what I wanted to do. So, going on a stage and performing wasn’t totally foreign to me and once I started singing and putting a band together, it felt like this was the gift that I’m supposed to share with people. There are things that come naturally and there are things that don’t, there’s a trick in your head where you have to forget about being anxious or feeling judgment and just go for it because you have one shot at this. A lot of it is just trusting and experimenting; sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes you don’t feel it and you have to go with it, then, it might be someone else’s favorite show. That’s happened to us before, where we all thought the show was shit, and then everyone was like: “That’s the best show they’ve ever done.” It’s up to whoever’s watching. I guess that’s the beauty of music. It might not be working for you, but you might be reaching out to someone else.
Your vocal style is very unique and genderbending, how did you get to crafting this genre? Do you also reckon you take inspiration from grimmer spaces? Not all music needs to be joyful, after all, but I wonder if that’s a personal, stylistic choice or if you are maybe just more nihilistic?
That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about this recently because the music that I listen to doesn’t totally reflect what my album sounds like. I think if you listen to my album, you’re not going to be walking around listening to it and then go about your day. That’s how I listen to music, I don’t know if people listen to music like that. I want to feel something. If I’m feeling fucked up, I want to listen to a fucked up song. I’ve never been the type of person to listen to something really happy and joyful to change the vibe of my day. I just sink really deep into it. That’s probably reflected in my music. I mean, I take stuff I’m going through seriously and I treat it like a study for me to figure out what I’m going through.
The majority of the album was about a period of time two years ago. While I was writing it, I had no idea how I was going to get out of that situation or what I was feeling. Now, when I listened to the record – I was saying this to my friend the other day and I think other artists have said this before – sometimes, you almost predict your future in your music. I don’t know what that’s about, maybe you tap into something, or maybe you’re more in tune than you think if you’re putting attention on something that’s going on in your life. It feels kind of magical. There are certain songs where I literally say stuff that I don’t know how I knew that’s where I was going, or that it would be the answer to what I was trying to get through.
Music, I think, is successful if it can evolve with you and answer some questions for you. I definitely listen to music in a very obsessive way.
In term of style, I’m constantly experimenting with clothes. This album felt very masculine to me, especially vocally. I felt anger in a lot of these songs, and I was looking for this soft, femininity aspect, which some of the songs sort of tap into. It feels like I’m looking for something, like I’m trying to find some serenity. I’ve always been drawn to really characteristic sounding voices. Nick Cave is also a huge influence on me, and he is sort of biblically ranting. I’ve also always been drawn to women that aren’t afraid to have a masculine aspect to them. It can feel like a mask sometimes, if I’m feeling insecure or afraid. I’ve definitely had moments in my life where I’m afraid of being super feminine. It feels too full-on, for some reason. I just go intuitively with what I’m feeling. I don’t think I’m trying to explicitly go into one direction with this, but more with what I’m feeling in the moment and what makes sense and feels good. It’s fun to play around with expression – whether it’s vocally or with clothes. That’s what it’s there for. You might as well try different things.
While tapping into those masculine energies. Is there a man in particular that you look up to?
David Bowie. He is a big influence on me in terms of playing with character. He’s influenced a lot of people. I did an interview recently and the journalist told me that William S. Burroughs did it first, but Bowie would produce phrases using a bunch of random words, like: “Cats, rats and flowers and buckled up shoes” anything that you can think of. He would then cut them all up and put them in a hat, shake it and take out whatever pieces, placing them together. That could become a song. I definitely like to do stuff like that. I think it’s fun to pick up different words that intrigue you and then put them with unlikely other words. Muddled Man on the album definitely is like that. There’s a lot of stuff in it that you’d think are what the fuck, but they just sound good together. It also evokes an interpretation of what you think it is because it brings up rituals for you that you wouldn’t normally think of.
David Bowie probably is a big male influence for me, and he is interesting, too, because he had a certain fluidity at a time when that wasn’t trendy. Now, people our age are very open to experimenting with a lot of different looks or styles or anything like that, but back then, people would get hurt for doing stuff like that. So, people like him really paved the way for us to be able to experiment with different stuff. I am not saying that it’s easy now, many people still are super judgey and like things a certain way, but they did pave the way for us.
At the beginning of his record Diamond Dogs, he’s introducing it like he’s the head of a circus. Talking about New York City, he says “Rats as big as cats.” It’s just so dreamy and full of fantasy. It gives me goosebumps because I’m thinking: “What is this world that I can eject myself from and then plug into.” We live in a place where things aren’t always so beautiful, and I think music and art are a way for us to jump into things and make it a prettier picture. These iconic artists like David Bowie are the gods of doing those things. I always try and think: “How can I pick certain things from what they were trying to teach people? Or were they just being themselves and it was infectious to younger artists?”
“Do what feels good for you,” I think he said that in a lot of interviews. Once you start making work for other people, it’s over. People will relate to things that come from your heart or from your soul. It sounds so corny, but it’s true.
Marien Brandon: Can you tell me about your album, Eyes of Glass, and the reactions you got?
Stella Rose Gahan: With the release of the first three singles, we knew a record was coming out. This whole project was probably going to start out as an EP, which is quite common for a new artist, but I gave myself time before I put my music out there. So, I had a lot of material. I believe I did that because of the people I look up to. I really wanted to honor them. I was trying to experiment with myself before I sold it to other people. My parents have been really instrumental with protecting me from a young age, because it’s important to have a childhood and it’s important to not experience things with this other looking glass on you. That has given me intention with my work, and I realize that I have time, that I don’t have to rush to do all these different things. The album just made sense. I had so much work, my whole aesthetic and art (heart) is in telling a story.
Now that it’s out, I feel relief. It released whoever that was which was in that space, now I can move on. My band and I are hopefully going to come to Europe and tour the record. What I love is that music starts off as these things that you do on your own, and you’re really invested in it because it’s your own world and you don’t think other people might listen to it because you’re just making it for you. Once you start going into this process, you get intention in a different way. You think: “OK, how do I get the full picture, so this song applies to this?” You get to connect with people that you don’t even know because they’re listening to your music. It’s pretty special. Now, I just want to go on tour. I’m dying to go on tour!
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