Of course The Stellas can duet! The married couple has been together for 16 years, playing in bands and writing country-pop that highlights their strong lead vocals and complimentary harmonies. On their self-titled album for EMI Music, Marylynne and Brad Stella serve up personality-driven songs that range from the sprightly pop single, “Perfect,” to gun-toting attitude of “The Game,” oh-so-low “Woe Is Me” and true childhood tale “Life of Riley.”
The pair, whose 2009 audition for Country Music Television’s Can You Duet?, prompted judge Naomi Judd to yell “Shows over! Give them the contract now!” performed weekly for millions of American viewers and earned fourth place as well as a reputation as ‘the ones to watch’.
Back at home, The Stellas caught the attention of multi-platinum artist Johnny Reid who offered the pair the opening slot on his sold-out cross Canada tour and eventually helped guide Brad & Marylynne towards their deal with EMI.
Produced by Britain’s Nick Trevisick (Paramore, Katy Perry, Sting), Brad and Marylynne wrote most of the songs on their 10-track debut, except for “Perfect,” a cover of the 80s hit by UK band Fairground Attraction, and a live version of “Love Hurts,” the song popularized by everyone from Nazareth to The Everly Brothers, that The Stellas played at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 2010 while on tour with Reid.
In the country world, writing your debut album is an enormous validation. On Music Row, in Nashville, seasoned songwriters usually crank out material for new artists. There are also outside collaborations on the album from Nick on “Take It Slow,” Pistol Annies’ Angaleena Presley on “I Can’t Listen To Love Songs” and Nashville legend John Scott Sherrill (Kris Kristopherson, Willie Nelson) on “Wished For You,” the latter of whom apparently rarely collaborates.
“He saw us playing around and he took us under his wing; brought us to his house and we started writing all the time,” Brad recounts. “Everyone was like, ‘What the heck?’ because he’s so remote and he doesn’t do that. People who have known him for 20 years don’t even know where he lives. Our street credibility in Nashville went though the roof!”
Brad and Marylynne have honed their partnership for years. They met when they were age 20 and have two daughters, Lennon, 11, and Maisy, 7. Brad had been playing bass in rock bands for years, but when he sat down to write songs they would always end up sounding more country. Marylynne never wrote songs until she met Brad. She grew up one of eight kids, which her late father supported as a musician (he was a once a member of The Platters).
Marylynne and Brad did the same, performing in cover bands and hosting a weekly open mic. “It was there that we found ourselves musically as a duo,” she explains. “We started writing together and developing ourselves. I had never sung lead until then.” The couple also opened a 1000-square-foot music school complete with a stage and auditorium. “We both worked as custodians and played music at night,” says Marylynne.
In 2009, The Stellas tried out for the U.S. show Can You Duet?, performing songs by Paul McCartney and Cyndi Lauper. “Everyone else was very country. Not in a million years did we think we were going to get a call back,” says Marylynne. But they did and each week they moved ahead in the competition.
As fate would have it, they went home at the right time — Marylynne’s father was gravely ill. “It was definitely an intervention of the gods because if we stayed one week longer I wouldn’t have seen him again,” she says.
The song “In This House” is a tribute to Marylynne’s father, while “Life of Riley” is about growing up in the family. “Woe Is Me” is more put on, says Marylynne. It’s about a fun character I adopted for the lyric. It started as me making fun of myself. I was sitting by myself and feeling down and I started singing really low, being Johnny Cash in my living room,” she laughs. “I wrote the verse like that but joking with myself.”
“I like how she’ll take one line and then use the second line to emphasize the third line and then take the third line,” Brad says of the lyric.
He then starts musing on just what makes their musical partnership work. “A lot of times, especially in country land, it’s more about a story, like ‘I walked into the kitchen; I opened the fridge, I took out the milk.’ With Marylynne’s lyrics, she takes a whole verse, there will be one poignant line and she’ll use other little words or images and feelings to explain it.”
Marylynne accepts the compliment and throws one back at Brad. “I think he’s a master of saying things poetically but literally. He can be direct enough that you don’t have to use your brains to figure it out — but it’s poetic.”
Together, Brad explains: “Both of us know if we’re going to finish the songs by ourselves or bring the other in to help. What’s interesting is when we’re writing – if it’s with an outside writer and he or she comes up with an idea, we’ll either both not like it or both run with it. We have the exact same filter.”
The Stellas self titled major label debut is a country record with the hallmark sound of classic records, an authentic record comprised of the duo’s many influences.
“We have a love of all music. There’s very little music out there that we don’t appreciate. Our entire motivation is the love of what we do and we will continue to make music for audiences big and small – from the kitchen to the stage.”