Interview: Stella By Starlight

I’ve discovered new music in some pretty interesting ways but how American act Stella By Starlight came to be on my playlist is quite something. A little back story – we have a really great music night here called Live From The Console and I consider it one of the best events Mumbai has to offer. E and I check out the music of the acts on their bill even if we can’t always go to the event itself.

The acts scheduled for May were all tagged on the Facebook page and the link for Stella By Starlight took us to the MySpace page of a band from America. Console has had several foreign acts before so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. We played their song Julie, it was really cool and over the next few days the hook just wouldn’t get out of my head so I was looking forward to watching them live that weekend. That Saturday we were stuck at work and couldn’t make the gig in time but I was so curious about Stella By Starlight that I decided to check them out via a live stream of the gig.

The band began to set up. They didn’t look American but I hadn’t really researched their background in detail so I figured they were Indians who had some American connection and maybe the guy from the small MySpace photograph would join them on stage at some point. They began to play and after a few songs I really didn’t see how Julie, the only song I had listened to previously, would fit into the style of music streaming live from the event. Something was not right.

That’s when I investigated further and realized that there had been a tagging error – the Stella By Starlight link that featured on the Console event page was for an American band while the band at the gig was Indian and just happened to have the exact same name.

So let me introduce you to the act I was so curious about – Stella By Starlight, the project of singer/songwriter/producer Nate Fowler. I have now heard a lot of the music–three EPs worth actually–and found it to be a really fun experience. In the midst of moving house and recording a new album, Fowler took the time to answer our questions. Read our interview and listen to the music for sure (links at the end).

Tell us about the journey of Stella By Starlight so far.
I started in Durham, North Carolina while I was in college at Duke University, then I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and now I’m here in Los Angeles. I’ve played with a lot of great musicians since Stella’s inception back in 2007.  I write and produce the material on my own and find people to perform with me on stage and collaborate with me in the studio.  I’ve had highs and lows!  What keeps the music moving forward is my ability to write and record it on my own.  There was a period of time where I didn’t have a band at all, where I was just producing and releasing music online.  Right now I’ve been rehearsing with some great musicians, Ryan and Ezra, so we can play some shows in the Los Angeles area, coinciding with the release of my next EP, ‘Californiaphobic,’ July 17th.  We can’t wait!

Julie is one of our favourite songs by you – tell us about more about it.
Thanks! I decided to write a song with a girl’s name in it since I didn’t have one yet, and Julie was the result. I chose the name ‘Julie’ because I liked the way it sounded. I also like how it could sound like “Julia” when I sing the chorus.  Everyone asks about that! The real girl shall remain nameless.[Smiles] I’m a fan of God Only Knows by The Beach Boys so I wanted to incorporate that melodic motif into my song somehow.  Julie is always a favorite of mine to play live.  My lyrics draw from real experiences to be sure, but I also take creative liberty to tell a story that can connect with a lot of people.  My music reads like a personal diary, but I try to touch on larger issues to which other people can connect.

What is it like being a songwriter, producer and performer all in one? What are the challenges that each brings and how do you juggle those roles?
I started out playing gigs and have a piano performance background, so getting on stage came first.  I started to learn how to produce on my own since studio time is very expensive, and there were ideas I had for songs that we couldn’t pull off live—I was experimenting with synth sounds and electro pop elements on my computer before I had the synths. I have the most fun producing and composing, to be honest. It’s a challenge to juggle everything, you have to know how you want to spend your day well in advance.  It’s immensely rewarding to do it this way – the records and shows are as close to what’s in my head.

What is the music scene like in South Carolina?
It’s great!  I moved to Los Angeles last year to try to take my music to the next level, but South Carolina is still my home.  I grew up there. There are so many great well-known bands like Band of Horses and Hootie and the Blowfish, Darius Rucker—and the independent scene was amazing to me.  If you’re a musician, you’re a part of one big family down there. My sister Gwyn composes some wonderful folk-pop. If you are looking for the vibe of South Carolina, look no further!

How easy/hard is it to book gigs where you live, what is the process? What are the audiences like?
It’s easy to book a bad gig, and it’s hard to book a good gig – you have to know what venues suit your music, what type of crowd to expect, and what the other bands on the bill draw.  You also have to worry about making money.[Laughs] It was easier to book shows in South Carolina.  I’m in Los Angeles now, where everyone is in a band!  There’s a lot more competition for the good gigs.  If you book and play a good gig the audience will love you, if not, they won’t remember you the next day.

Has there been any one piece of gear that has had a big impact on the ability to translate your musical ideas into reality?
Garage Band.  I had no idea how to produce and started using Garage Band in college.  It was very easy to use and got me thinking more as a producer and less of a performer.  When my ideas grew to be more complex, I upgraded to Logic Pro.  Whenever I run into people who want to get into producing and composing music I always tell them to start using Garage Band first.  It’s actually very powerful software.


You released three albums for free via subscription – how did you decide on using that model and what has been the biggest learning from that?
By giving those albums away for free, I’m trying to gain fans that wouldn’t necessarily buy my music but could have an open mind– maybe fans that would come to a show if I played one.  When I release my new EP on July 17, ‘Californiaphobic’ will be my first foray into the digital music market.  The lead single will still be available for free, and my subscribers will have the opportunity to download my B-sides and other material for free too.  I’m going to sell this new EP.  I feel that for three free LPs, buying one EP isn’t too much to ask. [Laughs] So sign up and download my free albums while you still can!  They are here. I stay in touch with my subscribers via email and give them all sorts of cool Stella by Starlight stuff.
 
ESSENTIAL GEAR:
- Roland Fantom x7
- Alesis Ion
- Korg RK 100 Keytar
- My dad’s old Fender Rhodes (back from when he was gigging in the 70s!) on stage.
- Logic Pro to produce, and have a million soft synths and plugins and samples to get almost (hopefully!) any sound I can dream up.  Most times I actually stick to using my outboard synths for recording, I’ll record in the part as audio and start the editing process that way.   I only use the soft synths when I have an idea and need to get it down quickly.   I’ve never really liked working with MIDI.  It must be from my background playing the piano.   The most tedious part about producing for me is the drum programming! It’s all about MIDI editing and sample selection.
 
PRODUCTION TECHNIQUE:
Two things that improved my mixes overnight: Subtractive Mixing and Sidechain Compression.
Subtractive Mixing
Always start at 0db and subtract.  NEVER boost a track’s mix level.  (At least when you start to learn how to mix like this). Same for EQing.  Subtract, don’t boost.  Nothing should go over 0dbs.  If you do, it degrades the signal.
 
[OSW: Here's a good tutorial on subtractive mixing by How To Make Electronic Music]:
 

Sidechain Compression
For pop music, the drums have to really hit hard.  Sidechain your kick (and maybe the snare) to a bus, and connect that bus to the compressor on your other tracks.  If you set things properly you can really improve the clarity of the drums.  You can also get the “pumping dance music” effect this way.  110% of music on the radio today employs sidechain kick compression and subtractive mixing.
 
[OSW: A tutorial demonstrated in Logic Pro]:

 
More Stella By Starlight here:
Download the music here (free): www.pandapush.com/stellabystarlight
Facebook: www.facebook.com/stellabystarlightmusic
Twitter: www.twitter.com/stellatwitt
Official Site: www.stellabystarlightband.com

Photos: Nate Fowler

sonaluna

Musician / Sound Editor