In the time most people spend attending high school or college, Annie Stela got an education in just how chaotic the music business can be.
Signed to Capitol Records in 2003 when she was in her early 20s, Stela had the label’s support at first, touring and recording her debut album “all on their dime,” she says with a laugh. But by 2007, changes within the industry and within Capitol in particular resulted in Stela’s album being removed from the label’s release schedule.
Eventually, Stela parted ways with Capitol, but she was able to take the album with her. Looking back, the Los Angeles singer, songwriter and pianist is not bitter about what happened — or what didn’t happen — during that four-year experience.
“I had some opportunities at Capitol that I wouldn’t have had [at that age] being an independent artist,” says Stela. Probably the biggest thing, she adds, was getting hooked up with producer Bill Bottrell, whose credits include albums by Michael Jackson, Shelby Lynne and Sheryl Crow.
“Despite the fact that I had one of those quintessential major-label experiences, I got to do a lot, and I left with my record intact,” Stela says. “It could have gone a lot worse than it actually went.”
Her Capitol tenure, Stela adds, “crystalized what was important [to me] … writing the songs and performing them live and having people hear them and getting them out to people who wanted to listen. So what it did was provide me with this glimpse of what I had to hold on to for the rest of the ups and downs that came afterward.”
Stela released that Capitol-funded debut album, Fool, on her own in 2007. After issuing three subsequent EPs, she recently dropped her second album, Whiplash Blues.
This time around, the guitar plays an important role in her music. Previously, Stela says she had a difficult time trying to figure out how to combine her piano with guitar in a way that worked for her. Listening to Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen and The Killers while making Whiplash Blues, plus her desire to experiment, contributed to Stela finding “a new way to express what I wanted to express” instrumentally.
A wide range of performers contributed their time and skills to the nine tracks on Whiplash Blues, including bassist Jennifer Turner and drummer Simon Hancock, as well as some Stela friends who provided backing vocals.
“I just brought them in and paid them in whiskey and pizza,” Stela says of her pals. “As an indie artist, you have to piece that stuff together. It’s both beautiful and terrifying to be an indie artist because you have all the control, but at the same time, you have all the control.”
— By Chris M. Junior