Interview

Σtella: putting Athens on the indie map through sheer persistence

The Sub Pop-signed psych-pop songwriter who has emailed everyone in the world

Everything that Σtella has, she has earned the hard way. For years, she spent every spare moment firing out messages to faceless addresses on the other side of the world, striving for the breakthrough that common sense might have led her to believe was impossible.

“I think I’ve emailed everyone in this world. Apart from God, I couldn’t find God’s email,” she says. “I would schedule them so I was sending them while I was sleeping. I really wanted to get outside of Greece.”

Σtella, born Stella Chronopoulou, could not be prouder to be Greek, she hastens to add, but she recognised from day one that in order for her ambitions as a musician to be fulfilled, she was going to need to break free from the bubble that exists around not just Athens, but the great majority of non-English-speaking cities in the world.

“My songs were in English,” she explains, “And I knew what that meant for Greece. You see the ceiling really fast here if you’re doing the kind of music I do.”

She says these words now with the advantage of hindsight. The incessant, optimistic determination that kept her flickering dream alive for several years in the early 2010s, when progress was glacial at best, eventually bore spectacular fruit in late 2018 when her phone pinged with the email reply that she had been waiting for. Now, a beaming grin of triumphant satisfaction crosses her face as she discusses it: her fourth album Up and Away is set for release on the great Sub Pop Records, the first record by a Greek artist in the label’s history.

Words like ‘dream’ and ‘insane’ fall from her mouth as she reflects on her teenage years when she would listen to Nirvana’s Sub Pop releases, but it is not hard to see why the American label saw fit to sign her up. There is an enchantingly vintage pop sparkle to Σtella’s music, epitomised by the new album’s superlative title track, its spritely, 1960s chanson airiness evoking the spirit of France Gall or Francoise Hardy, while the bouzouki-led backing arrangement lends the unmistakable flavour of Σtella’s home country.

There was a time when even allowing this much Greek identity into her music made her baulk. “Coming from my country, I love the sound of the bouzouki,” she says. “But on previous albums, I was maybe recording guitars to make them sound like bouzoukis. Coming from Greece, I would not dare, in a way, to record a bouzouki on one of my songs – I would find it too tacky.”

Her conversion came after the producer Redinho (best known for his work with Riz Ahmed-led hip hop project Swet Shop Boys) approached her after one of her shows in Athens in 2017. He immediately saw beauty in the collision of the pop and folk elements in her music and by the end of the night they had resolved to make an album together, even if it took two more years for the two to find the time and space to make it become real. In the meantime, they honed the parameters of what the project would be, sharing musical recommendations back and forth, from obscure Iranian traditional singers to Khruangbin, via Christophe and Ata Kak. By the time they were in the studio together, the tracks came together remarkably quickly, so aligned were their musical star charts. They enlisted Christos Skondras to play bouzouki and Sofia Labropoulou on the kunun, a type of zither that one tunes while playing, and the formula was complete.

“I used to tell [Redinho] that it’s really funny that someone British came here and made me record these instruments on my songs,” says Σtella. “In a way, he was making me more Greek. But I think it was something that I was craving for.”

It’s a craving that Σtella has felt all her life. Growing up in the suburbs of Athens in the 1980s between the mountains and the sea, her earliest memories are of being woken by the bells on the sheep and goats that would pass her window every morning. The split in the music she was brought up on mirrors the duality of her records now: one the one hand, there were the 1940s Greek pop singles that her grandfather would play on his burgundy gramophone (her favourite was Nikos Gounaris’ ‘Sousourada’, an impossibly classy song); on the other, it was the more modern and less Hellenic choices of her parents, which ranged from Ohio Players to Julio Iglesias. She was captivated.

“My parents used to tell me that I didn’t ask for toys, I asked for instruments,” she remembers. “We would go by a little kiosk and I would be pointing at the little guitars that they had. I always loved music from when I was very young.”

Her first attempts at creating her own music began when she was 16, but it remained a closely guarded secret. “I was very, very shy, extremely shy, I could not play in front of people, so that’s when I decided I should go to the Athens School of Fine Arts, because that was less exposure. You draw something, you put it on a wall, people stare at it, and you don’t have to do anything else.”

While at art school, she started to play in bands, although when the inevitable prospect of live shows arrived, she would always find a way out. After her work editing magazines was curtailed by the financial crisis of 2008, however, she turned to songwriting as an alternative career plan, and by 2010, aged 30, she eventually relented and agreed to sing in front of an audience for the first time.

“I was literally pushed on stage. I had so much stress about that show, I was counting for days, like I was going to be executed or something. I remember a half hour before the show, I couldn’t feel my body. And then, an amazing thing happened: I remember stepping my foot onto the stage and everything went away. It was the weirdest feeling. It was like I was on fire and somebody poured a bucket of water on me. It was great.”

Σtella’s career was finally up and running. After uploading her first songs to Soundcloud in 2012, she caught the attention of Inner Ear Records, one of Greece’s biggest independent labels, who released her first two albums, 2015’s self-titled debut and Works for You in 2017. The 80s synthpop inflections of those records quickly made her one of the stars of the Athens indie scene, but Σtella wanted more and her email outbox could prove it. When her near-constant hustling finally prompted a response from Sub Pop, it was initially hesitant, and she ended up with a one-album deal with Canadian label Arbutus Records (Grimes, Majical Cloudz) for The Break in 2020. By the time of that album’s wide acclaim, however, Sub Pop could not wait any longer.

Up and Away celebrates Σtella’s love of the pop song (“A song is two and a half minutes, it’s insane how many things it has inside it”, she enthuses), whether it is the cool prowl of ‘Charmed’, the dusty soul of ‘The Truth Is’ or the manic, M.I.A.0-like energy of ‘Another Nation’, the song she describes as her calling card. Running throughout the album is a faltering love story, one that starts with the breezy hope of the title track, but ends with a track titled ‘Is It Over?’

“I was going through a really hard time at the time,” she says. “I was going through a breakup and a lot of things were happening. I was confused, but as I was writing the album, I was understanding what was happening to me. I was coming to a realisation, but it was too late.”

Every song is sung in English, a language Σtella learned when a Canadian family friend named Jackie lived with them when she was young. She firmly believes that without it, such international success would have been inconceivable. “80% of the music that people in Greece listen to is in Greek. In Greece, you’ll fill a stadium with an artist who sings in Greek, but you won’t fill a stadium with a Greek artist singing in English. If you sing in English, you’re going to want an international label. And in the rest of the world, they only care about you if you sing in English.”

Every city has a bustling music scene of its own and Athens is no exception. A tight-knit, diverse cohort of musicians forms the core of the scene in venues like Romantso and Six Dogs, with current standout artists including the off-kilter, glitchy synthpop of Sillyboy’s Ghost Relatives, the Syd Barrett-tinged psych of Post Lovers, the rowdy folk traditionalism of Evritiki Zygia or the beautiful, stately, bedroom ambient compositions of Saber Rider. “All the musicians that I know work really hard,” says Σtella. “They’re really trying to make something better for themselves. Even if there are obstacles in their way, they don’t give up.”

The primary obstacle, of course, is the short-sightedness of the music industry itself. Too often attention is focused on finding the new artist that can regurgitate what has already been shown to work, preferably based in one of the key U.S. or U.K. metropolitan hubs, rather than seeking out new voices from divergent backgrounds that might surprise an audience or break new ground. For young Greek musicians, there are too few templates to follow: Larry Gus has released a string of albums on DFA Records, Acid Baby Jesus have toured with Ty Segall and Mac DeMarco and Keep Shelly in Athens were considered a key part of the chillwave movement, but to this day if you ask most Western music fans to name a Greek musician, you will be met with either a blank expression or names from the past like Vangelis and Demis Roussos.

“We’re not on the map, we’re just not. I’m not sure why – of course, it’s because of the economy and a lot of other things, and the centres are in London, Berlin, New York, L.A. and Paris – but at some point, what are you going to do? If you’re working all your life for something and nothing is happening, what are you going to do? You will give up. It’s a problem. You can find talent anywhere, but no-one is searching for them.”

Is there anything by way of support for artists at a government level in Greece? “ZERO!” snaps Σtella before the question is finished. “No, nothing at all. Nobody gives any money to the arts here. I have had to cancel tours in the past because there was nothing available.”

Speaking to Σtella, it quickly becomes clear why her drive from the beginning was to establish herself internationally, and her current success is living testament to the fact that when initiative is matched with true creativity, the obstacles can still be obliterated, and a new clear path blazed in their place. She is too modest to agree, but it seems inevitable that her example will inspire others. That said, she is quick to point out that not everybody’s goals need to be the same. 

“It’s great if you play in front of a big audience, it’s a great feeling, but I think great talents that live in cities that we might not know, even if we’ll never get to see them and they’ll never get to play for us, if they keep doing what they’re doing, that is success. Some of the biggest talents in the world are playing for fifty people and it’s just our loss that we cannot see them.”

She concludes:“For me, success is to have found what you love to do and to keep doing it.”

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