Published April 2010
Here is the mystery of Stella.
The a capella group is composed of seven women – seven strong women – and they have stayed together for 10 years with no one in charge. There’s no one person to enforce a mandatory weekly practice schedule, no final arbiter of song selection, no one who governs how the women will dress during performances. How, then, has not one of them thrown up her hands and called it quits? In a word: lunch. Members are hesitant to disclose many specifics on the disagreements they have overcome to get this far. But they will tell me this: When a member has, shall we say, stepped out of line, they get Taken Out to Lunch.
“It’s the modern day taking-you-out-to-the-woodshed,” says member Betsy Levitas.
“I had to call somebody and say, ‘Let’s get together and talk about this,’” Julie Woodmansee says. “And I hear, ‘Am I being taken out to lunch?’ The answer was ‘yes.’”
The idea is to avoid ganging up on one person. Six on one doesn’t sound like that much fun, although the one-on-one lunches don’t sound like a walk in the park, either. “You have to bring stuff up or the group will die,” Levitas says.
Stella is a seven-way marriage, Julie Mooney says. To make it work, to make that beautiful, ethereal music come alive – well, it can only be done if everyone’s getting along. By in large, they do get along, through good times and bad. They tell each other personal details about their lives, sometimes in the time when they eat a meal together before practice, sometimes during an annual retreat they take to Kerr Lake. They celebrate accomplishments. And they give a bit of leeway for life, supporting each other through divorce, second marriages, the deaths of parents – you name it. Stella’s a labor of love, not a money-making venture. Squeezing in weekly practices between families and full-time jobs, the group only performs about once a month.
But when they do, it’s something special. They’ve performed at The Carolina Theatre, Bay 7 at American Tobacco and at The Broad Street Café, the latter being a CD release party so packed, people had to be turned away.
The group adopts and modifies songs in a myriad of styles, ranging from folk, to gospel to R & B. They do some original works too, notably tackling a song called Teenage Girls, which member Marya McNeish wrote about how, as a teenager, a 15-year-old friend of hers died in a hiking accident at a summer camp they were both attending in Colorado. “Periodically when we are in a happy and reflective mood, we sit back and think this thing is really almost beyond belief,” Mooney says.
Stella members acknowledge their recordings sound different than live performances. The sound on the group’s two CDs doesn’t always blend as well.
By contrast, during a performance at American Tobacco, the room was bustling with 400 chatting guests, occassional Stella bassist Roger Cook recalls. But when Stella started, “The entire room got quiet. People were almost stunned by the beauty of what they were hearing.”
Perhaps the simplest way
to figure out how Stella really works is to watch how they negotiate what to do during practices. No one takes the lead. Instead, questions flutter through the air.
“Should we go sing?”
“Should we do a little warm up and singing?”
“Can we do Sweet Jane and Emoni Ennen? Emoni Ennen is so wacky.”
And just like that, they plunk their wine and water glasses on a coffee table and form in a half circle. The women start with Emoni Ennen in an ancient Finnish dialect. The song starts slowly, building into a bouncing melody alternately carried by different singers. Their eyebrows raise, they smile at each other. Their hips sway.
Next, they agree to tackle a tune they don’t know as well. Alison Jones clutches her fists and presses them forward. “Let’s try it,” she says, pleading. “Let’s try it.”
And Mooney looks up, remembering that they have a visitor. The din of the discussions raises another octave, and she laughs. “It’s so funny to be the same way we always are,” she says.
And just as her laughter dies down, they start to sing again. DM