I have been a fan of Lennon Stella and her younger sister, Maisy, since their cover of “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Cups” went viral in 2012. It turns out it was a cover of Swedish group Erato’s a capella version of Robyn’s original, but it was also the first time I heard the song, which is epic in and of itself. Later that same year, the Stella sisters signed on to star in Nashville and we, the fans, were blessed with six seasons of ah-mazing music, including lots of originals, several of which Lennon co-wrote along with her musical mother, MaryLynne Stella, who is one half of country music duo The Stella with the girls’ father, Brad.
For the past seven years, this Canadian girl has come to be known for the covers she performs with her sister, and for her raspy high notes, which verge on diva heights. Lennon’s currently headlining this tour for the launch of her first – can you believe it? – first EP, Love, Me. She’ll have a mini-break before Lollapalooza in Chicago and Osheaga (here, obviously) in the same weekend, then a quick six week break before she goes on tour with Chainsmokers and 5 Seconds of Summer until the end of the year.
What I’m getting at is: I had a lot of Lennon Stella knowledge already, and after a little research and watching her interview with Tom Power on q on cbc, I have a lot more.
The venue, L’Astral, is sold out, and packed as I enter to hear the opening band, Toronto natives, Valley. You’ll know them from their 2016 hit “Drive” and the well-licensed “Swim.” The group is “forged from two bands who were accidentally double-booked for studio time,” and made up of Rob Laska on vocals, Michael Brandolino on guitar, Alex Dimauro on bass, and Karah James on drums.
“Closer to the Picture” is playing as I enter, and reminds me of MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” Their next song, “There’s Still A Light In The House,” is catchy. Their website mentioned a gritty, Brooklyn influence, so I’m listening for it, and it sounds to me like California electro-pop, perhaps played in a subway instead of on the beach.
They do an A+ job of warming up the crowd, getting them clapping, and the happy music is incredibly danceable. It’s a little bit Chainsmokers, more Ocean Park Standoff – uplifting party anthems. Even “Push For Yellow” is somehow sunny despite the lyric “Why is something dead not killing me?”
For the last few songs, I head upstairs to continue watching from the balcony. From here, I have a better view of drummer Karah James. I guess it’s stating the obvious but it’s very cool to see a woman drumming. When I was fifteen, I wanted to be a DJ because my dad had been one, and I was told I could be a dancer, that girls didn’t DJ and run the show. Obviously, that’s patently false, but I will forever get a little heart rush when I see a woman behind the turntables, and this has the same effect on me. A group of men, and she’s the one setting the rhythm. And then I wonder if there are young girls in the audience, and whether it’s making their hearts jump too.
You’ll hear Karah on vocals as well – in fact they all contribute to the harmony. It’s a short set, five songs or so, but if you like pop, or if you enjoyed the soundtrack from The O.C., you’ll love Valley. They’re just a couple of kids out of Toronto who are aces.
Outside, I chat up Martin, who scalps tickets outside the venue. He asks me what it’s like inside, saying he saw lots of young girls arrive super early for the show, and has already seen some brought outside after fainting or “overheating” inside the venue. We talk about young drinkers not knowing their tolerance, and laugh, and I head back inside for Lennon Stella.
The lights go down and I glance at the time and watch 8:29 turn to 8:30. The crowd is chanting “Lennon, Lennon, Lennon”. She comes out and opens up with “Like Everybody Else,” but with the chorus, so everyone can sing along, and do they ever. The crowd started out singling along, and managed to keep it up for the entire show. They know every. Damn. Word. At times, she talks a little to the crowd but it’s impossible to hear what she’s saying over her fans shouting their adulation. There are no quiet moments – given the opportunity, a brave girl will inevitably yell out, “I love you, Lennon!” or, “OMG Lennon, you’re so good!” with the familiarity of a friend from school who like, totally didn’t know she has such a good voice.
In spite of that, the music is a vibe. I’m hearing all kinds of styles and sounds, like on “Much Too Much,” there’s a feel similar to John Mayer’s latest, “New Light.” On “Bad,” she raps (and yes, it’s personal – check out that CBC interview!). She’s so original, which seems natural for a singer-songwriter whose natural musicality was fostered at home and nurtured further by being surrounded by creative people in Music City. She’s got tons of experience collaborating, and it seems like she could sing just about anything. She gets a stool and a guitar for an acoustic version of “Polaroid,” slides over to her keyboard for a cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and serves up an eighteen-song set like a pro. This is a person who went, I’m just gonna go sing and do what I do. I love to do it, so why would I not take up all the time I’m allowed?
I’m looking at the setlist from a few days earlier in Toronto, so I’m disappointed when her sister Maisy doesn’t join her on stage for a cover of MGMT’s “Kids.” She, too, admits she feels weird performing this one without her sister. The four years between them used to seem like a lot, but Daphne Conrad, I mean Maisy… is 14 now! Talk about growing up on TV – Maisy has been in the public eye from a much younger age than her sister. It’ll be interesting to see the path she chooses; Lennon’s solo career launch coincided with the show ending.
She ends the show with “Bitch,” and she doesn’t make the crowd wait long for the encore, another pro move. Within a minute, she’s back on stage, and she takes a seat to sing us “Goodbye,” a sultry lullaby. I hear the influences of some of her favourites here – Fleetwood Mac, Bread. Last of the night, La Di Da is the perfect concert-closer, the song you’ll be singing all the way home.
Throughout the show, I have to remind myself that I’m seeing Lennon Stella and not Maddie Conrad-Claybourne-Jaymes. Having watched her grow up on TV, it’s hard to remember she’s someone else entirely, but maybe not too far from it. Her character was veering from country into pop, whereas Lennon is confidently alternative pop, with a very current sound. You won’t be surprised when you learn she loves Bazzi, and The 1975. It’s not that they sound the same, it’s more that each of them – Lennon Stella, Bazzi, The 1975 – sounds like two or three of your favourite bands creating a new sound. It’s what you’d expect from someone who grew up in a farmhouse with no internet or cable, and only movies and music for entertainment (only?! If only!). Yes, Lennon grew up. But the singer-songwriter and folk roots are intact, and the hits, to bastardize the expression, just keep on coming.
- Like Everybody Else
- Much Too Much
- Not Missing You
- Polaroid (Acoustic)
- Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (Robert Hazard cover)
- Save Us
- You Would
- Kids (MGMT cover)
- Leave Me Alone
- Black Light
- La Di Da
- Boys And Girls Of 2018 And Everything In Between
- Closer To The Picture
- There’s Still A Light In The House
- Push For Yellow
- A Phone Call In Amsterdam
- Park Bench
Review – Carrie-Ann Kloda
Photos – Arianne Bergeron