Rising stars in the awards spotlight
CLAREMONT, Ont. — With three nominations and a scheduled performance, husband-wife duo the Stellas will bask in a share of the spotlight at this year’s Canadian Country Music Association Awards. But you won’t catch Marylynne Stella sashaying down the red carpet in some tony designer number.
No, the 38-year-old points out — with some enthusiasm — that she’ll turn heads in a sparkling dress she picked up for just a few dollars at Goodwill. She knows she’ll turn heads, meanwhile, because she wore the same dress to the CCMAs last year.
With the Stellas, there has rarely been much incentive to stray from what they know works. A couple for 20 years, Marylynne and husband Brad meticulously developed their sound from within before finally issuing their debut album last year.
That self-titled record earned the group a trio of nominations including the rising star award. While it seems a misnomer for a duo that’s been singing together since the ’90s, neither Stella minds.
“We have been doing it a long time, but . . . it doesn’t feel like 17 years of struggling,” Marylynne said from a sprawling country estate that belongs to a friend of the band.
“I like the idea that it’s new to people,” added Brad, also 38. “Because then we can go back and play songs that we wrote 15 years ago or 10 years ago and be like: ‘It’s a new song to everybody else.”’
And of course, the pair will still be making introductions when they take the CCMAs stage this Sunday at Saskatoon’s Credit Union Centre, where leading nominees Johnny Reid, Dean Brody and Gord Bamford will perform alongside the likes of Miranda Lambert, Doc Walker and Emerson Drive.
When the Stellas visited the CCMAs before, they were parked in the “nosebleeds,” hardly a featured attraction. So in some ways it seems this has all happened quickly. But in reality, few bands build their success as gradually as the Stellas.
They met through mutual friends at a bar in Oshawa, Ont., back in the mid-’90s, when Marylynne was a self-described hippie and Brad was playing in a grunge-funk hybrid band, with a scraggly goatee and black hair so long he could tuck it into his belt.
“He was a full-on skid, I’m sorry,” Marylynne laughs.
Well, he was smitten, anyway. He tried to impress Marylynne by giving her a ride in his Firebird — “typical skid car,” she snorts — but it was what he had in the tape deck that really won her over: a Tracy Chapman cassette.
“I’m like, mortified,” Brad recalled. “I was totally exposed. It was the worst moment.
“Later, I found out that was the only thing that saved me, was this Tracy Chapman record.”
From more or less that point on, the Stellas were inseparable. No, really, they even went to work together, teaming up for a series of odd jobs while they developed their musical chops in whatever free time they could carve out.
They worked at spraying weeds, tending to lawns, clearing eavestroughs and working as janitors at the local high school. Meanwhile, they played supporting roles at gigs with their siblings — as if they weren’t close-knit enough already, Brad’s brother is married to Marylynne’s sister — and stayed up late at night writing songs together.
They didn’t play their first gig alone as a duo until after Brad’s 30th birthday. But soon, the pair landed a weekly gig playing an open-mike night at the Gryphon Pub in Whitby, Ont. They’d have up to four hours per night to fill and had to work quickly to round out their setlist for the task.
And they kept showing up, week after week, for more than five years.
“That’s definitely where we found ourselves musically,” Marylynne said. “That’s definitely where it clicked.”
And after years of flying entirely under the radar, the Stellas started to get noticed.
First, they competed on Country Music Television’s U.S.-based reality series Can You Duet, ultimately finishing fourth and at one point prompting judge Naomi Judd to enthusiastically shout, “Show’s over — give them the contract now!”
In the coming years, the Stellas would get the opportunity to open major tours for Terri Clark and Reid — but the Scottish-born crooner gave the pair something more valuable than a coveted opening slot.
Their low-key sound borrows from elements of folk, roots and pop (they’ve covered the likes of Paul McCartney and Cyndi Lauper), not adhering to the strictest definitions of country music. That’s occasionally been a problem for industry types, but Reid — himself something of a country anomaly — advised the couple to stay the course, to make their music their way and let a label figure out how to market it later.
Helmed by British producer Nick Trevisick (who has worked with such non-country acts as Paramore, Katy Perry and Sting), the group’s 10-song debut was thoroughly worked over and massaged by the duo before they ever handed it over to EMI. They did things on their schedule in their way — often recording, for instance, in their bathroom, with towels on the walls and candles on the toilet (for atmosphere, of course).
“It was one of those things we knew we had to keep it to what was special about us . . . not necessarily anybody else,” Brad said. “But we feel like we have a special blend.”
That iconoclastic spirit has worked in their favour, so far.
The question the Stellas are asked most often is: what’s it like working with your significant other?
“I don’t even know anything else — we’ve always worked together,” Marylynne said.
But it does cause practical issues elsewhere, particularly as the duo’s star has risen, given that they’re parents to two young daughters: Lennon, 13, and Maisy, 8.
The family lives in Nashville now, returning to Canada with increased frequency during the summer and fall. Sometimes the kids come along on tour, sometimes they stay at home with a storybook nanny (“she makes me look bad,” said Marylynne with a laugh).
It’s a tricky balancing act, but one that works well enough.
“We have a different life, but we’re home so much as well,” Brad said. “When we’re at home, we’re at home. When we go to their school functions, we’re the only (family with) both parents there. So there’s this really cool balance.”
The easy narrative for the Stellas would be that decades of toiling have finally paid off. That isn’t the case, if only because the Stellas don’t feel like they’ve really been toiling.
“It is sacrifices — it is a lot of sacrifices, and it’s a lot of struggle financially,” Marylynne said.
“It’s effort. It takes effort. (But) it’s not work.”