Published March/April 2010
When I first arrive to the practice of the a cappella group Stella, the seven women sit around a graciously sized kitchen table at one of the member’s homes amid glasses of red wine.
“Do you have any ideas of what to work on?” asks Alison Jones, the petite brunette who helps write some of the group’s original songs.
Julie Woodmansee, pretty with her long hair, interjects. “I just got robbed today. And my kid discovered it. But I’m going to be cheery.” She smiles, but a furtive dart of the eyes lets on that it will be hard. Three hours earlier, one of her children called her with the bad news of a broken window and missing property.
Then, with little transition, the members break out into the most beautiful, angelic version of “Happy Birthday” I have ever heard. Woodmansee joins in, her brow gradually losing its furrow. The song swirls in the direction of one of the members who’s having a, ahem, BIG birthday – one that she prefers not be mentioned in print.
The Chapel Hill and Durham-based music group (ranging in age from mid-40s to early-50s) has been together for 10 years – and more amazingly, with no one person in charge.
They’re friends. 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 to Kerr Lake, near Townsville. They celebrate accomplishments. And they give a bit of leeway for life, through the years supporting each other through divorce, second marriages, the deaths of parents – you name it.
And they are gaining quite a following here. They’ve performed at The Mansion, The ArtsCenter and for the late Tim Kimrey, who was at one time a promoter of house concerts. Their albums are now available at Flyleaf Books. 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, when she was a teenager, a 15-year-old friend died in a hiking accident at a summer camp they both attended in Colorado.
“Periodically, when we are in a happy and reflective mood, we sit back and think this thing is really almost beyond belief,” says Mooney.
Members are hesitant to disclose many specifics on the disagreements they have overcome to get this far. And if they do, it’s whispered off the record.
But they do tell me this much. When a member has – shall we say – stepped out of line, she gets taken out to lunch. This tried-and-true method literally keeps the band together.
“It’s the modern day taking-you-out-to-the-woodshed,” says member Betsy Levitas.
Sometimes it’s about a particular recording session certain members don’t think went well. Woodmansee admits to walking out of a practice once, though she can’t recall why she was frustrated.
The intention of the lunches is to work through the inevitable conflicts without ganging up on one person.
“You have to bring stuff up or the group will die,” Levitas says. “The group will explode. Did you see Julie and Julia? They took someone out to lunch, and they back down.”
“And didn’t you think of Stella in that movie?” Mooney says. “Those wimps!”
“It was because she was going through a divorce,” Woodmansee responds. “Well sor-ry.
“In Stella, the point would’ve been made,” Mooney concludes.
Stella is like a seven-way marriage, Mooney says. And to make it work – to make that ethereal music come alive in such a gut-wrenching way – the members must be getting along.
I’ll just say this now – and members of Stella acknowledge as much – it’s two different experiences listening to them on recordings versus live. I prefer the latter.
They have two CDs, Gimme Stella (2003) and Different Skies (2009), and the sound is so stark. It’s just the women’s voices with little instrumental back up – and at times, it can be jarring.
Totally different sound in person. During a recent performance at a Genesis Home fundraiser in Durham, the room at Bay 7 at the American Tobacco District was crammed with 400 people who were socializing.
As the group’s occasional bass player, Roger Cook, tells it, when Stella performed, the whole room changed. “The entire room got quiet,” he recalls. “People were almost stunned by the beauty of what they were hearing.”
On a recording, listeners are more accustomed to hearing instruments, he explains. “It takes my ear a little adjustment to the recorded music when the … primary instrument is the human voice,” he says. “It’s simply because we’re bombarded with so many other types of sounds and overproduced musical works in our day-to-day life, the purity of what they do sort of asks me to take a deep breath.”
That purity is born from constant negotiations during practices.
Back to that recent rehearsal. The back-and-forth started also immediately after “Happy Birthday” was sung.
“Should we have cake now?” asks one member.
Another pipes up: “Maybe we should sing first.”
Instead, they agree to pick out the clothing to wear for the upcoming Chapel Hill Magazine photo shoot. They migrate to another room in Mooney’s home, where clothes are piled on chairs and sofas. One member holds a large clump of shirts, jeans and dresses. And Levitas, who is striking with her silvery white hair and angular features, clutches a vintage black dress with a pretty loop detail at the chest’s midline. The agreement is immediate. That dress is so perfect, so Betsy.
And just as seamlessly as they migrated to clothing discussions, the group starts to move toward the real business of practice: the singing.
They plunk their wine and water glasses on a coffee table and form in a half circle. The women start singing “Emoni Ennen” in an ancient Finnish dialect, a song with a slow and eerie start that begins to crescendo into a bouncing melody as it is alternately carried by different singers. As they perform, their eyebrows raise, they smile at each other and hips sway. A shiver ricochets down my right leg, and I put down my notebook to just listen.
“Emoni Ennen” ends, and they agree to tackle a tune they don’t know as well. Some say it goes on too long at parts. They discuss the rhythm and try counting it out. Jones lightly clutches her fists and presses them forward.
“Let’s try it,” she says, pleading. “Let’s try it.”
And Mooney looks up, momentarily remembering that they have a visitor, that they are being watched.
The din of the discussions raises another octave, and she starts to laugh.
“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. CHM