Interview by Erica Tello
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite bands (Duncan Fellows) from Austin play at the Mercury Lounge in New York City. After listening to the opening band, Stello, there was a magnetic attraction that I felt to their soulful, unique blend of sounds. The Brooklyn-based band consists of Kit Conway, Will Corona, Ollie Bomann, Sam Revaz, and Isaiah Hazzard. Stello is unconventional musically, but also in the way that they release their music. Instead of dropping an ordinary album, Stello released two of their three-song sets called Triplets earlier this year. Triplet No. 3 is set to release later in the year. I had the chance to interview Kit Conway, singer and guitarist in Stello, about their roots, musical influences and what’s coming soon for the band.
At a show I attended earlier this year in New York, I asked Kit Conway (band member) what ‘Stello’ meant? He mentioned it’s the masculine version of ‘Stella.’ Can you tell me more about this title and what it means to the band?
To be completely honest, I think the core reasoning behind most band names is “it sounded cool.” Totally the case with us. But I’ve always loved the jazz standard “Stella By Starlight,” especially the lyrics about the girl standing under the night sky. Stello came out of that, it just felt like a nice twist on the girl’s name.
Your sound is for ‘nighthawks at the diner and quiet walks in the city.’ What inspired that very vivid and specific imagery of the sound?
New York has this reputation as a noisy, inescapable metropolis. That’s true enough in some ways, but I think the parts of the city I love are the little nooks of peace you find after long enough. Most of the music comes together in the quiet hours, in the negative space. In the back of my mind I’d like to be soundtracking the crickets in the park, the cat slinking under the streetlight.
What inspired the jazz-soul, punk sound you’ve continue to cultivate?
Way back when I first conceptualized Stello (originally birthed from this tune called Pretty Thing), I had this sort of sleazy, 4pm lounge-lizard, Frank Sinatra-past-his-prime imagery in my mind. I think that still comes out in the sound in some ways, but our initial tunes had a lot more foux-jazz gaudiness. I think recently, I’ve just appreciated sheer prettiness as a musical quality much more. Sincerity is where it’s at.
Were there any artists in particular that made you want to pursue music, or inspire you?
I don’t want to say the obvious answer (you know, the four lads from Liverpool). That’s kind of a given. The first record I bought with my own money was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as recommended by a camp counselor. I think I was about 13. It ended up also being the first time I got into an album that felt legitimately challenging. It’s such a catchy, bubbly sound at times but lyrics are quite cryptic and often the songs just sort of fall apart into abrasive noise. I became obsessed with it, in that adolescent way adults just don’t really have time for. To this day I still think I know that album note-for-note better than any other, and it opened my eyes to how the world of a record can swallow you up.
I heard you all went to Firefly this year. Any artists you really enjoyed? Any other festivals or shows you’re stoked for?
Getting to see Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar in one day was unbelievable. For completely different reasons too - Kendrick is such a compelling onstage presence and he’s rolling through hit after hit, while Kamasi’s set is the sort of thing you just watch slack-jawed. I’m excited to see my friend Scott James playing in New York again, he’s set to return from a stint in Nashville.
What things help fuel a creative headspace for your music?
It’s hard to start from nothing. I keep an ongoing lyric page on my phone and in all my notebooks, marking down some clever line in a conversation or stray observation through the day. Looking at the page now - “I see old friends in strangers” is one that I keep trying to write on. Same goes with the sonics, I am constantly recording things on my phone and trying to fold them into something musical. For example, the transitional moment in the middle of “Even If I Don’t” overlays the sound of a subway pulling into the station, and I think we pitch shifted it so that the screech was in key.
Tell me about the Triplets? What makes the series immersive and experiential?
I kicked everything off with an EP called Five Nite in 2014, but honestly, it took a long time to get the gears of Stello in motion. I’d been sitting on about 8 songs of a full-length album for years. Every time I’d write a new song, I’d drop out one of the original tunes because it didn’t seem to fit anymore, stylistically.
So I came up with this idea to start putting out three song unit, in waves every couple months. They’d be stylistically aligned and congruent with one another, and then each Triplet would tell the story of Stello over time. We put out Triplet No. 1: Apollo last December to a ton of positive feedback, and Triplet No. 2: Desire came in March. The thing though is that I’ve never really been one for writers’ block, so now that we have this cadence, we just have so much material we’re sitting on. It’s just a matter of telling exactly the story we’re trying to tell in that moment.
So we’ve released a couple singles on the side like Versions and Megalith which I think wanted to stand on their own. And now we’re getting ready to put out Triplet No. 3, which is going to be another big sonic pivot.
In the song ‘Versions’ there’s a sound of asking a woman if she was singing. What was the idea behind that piece of the song?
It’s real! I was in the 190th St subway station and heard a woman singing in the long hallway with this big, reverberant sound. So I took out my phone to start recording it. I ended up striking up a conversation with her about singing in the subways, and didn’t realize until later that I had left my phone recording the whole time. It felt like a nice little moment between strangers, so Scott and I figured we’d put it in the song.
The band is rooted and has played NYC for a while, to a wide variety of crowds and settings. Any particular significant thoughts on the city, or favorite experiences?
For a while at the beginning, Stello was really just a stage name for Kit Conway
(me). I’ve had a ton of close collaborators in music, but the band was always a rotating crew of friends and fellow musicians. Then about a year ago, this crew of myself and four other absolute talents just sort of serendipitously melded together so beautifully.
Each Triplet has had a corresponding “prom” - a live concert with a few other acts we love for an incredibly immersive night with a dress code and fun activities. Last year, before we really got going, we weren’t pulling gigs at big venues, so our first prom was at this hole in the wall called H0L0. It was really the first night us five felt the chemistry come alive, and it was just so much fun. The energy from a first show like that is just everything. It was the energy of potential, and it just felt really good.
What artists have you been listening to recently? Any potential collaborations that you dream about or would love to make happen?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Billie Holiday, her songs feel right at home in sweltering New York summer days. I’d love to write a song with Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief, or honestly produce an album for Danny Brown. When I’m not working on Stello, I like making weird hip-hop beats. I think that Danny Brown would like them if he heard them.
‘Megalith’ is so real and reflective. What inspired the single? What’s the story?
Growing up, I had this grandmotherly figure who lived in the house next door. She really was family, even though she wasn’t by blood, and she’s such an important human to my brothers and me. She’s just always been the strongest, most compassionate person I’ve ever known.
I recently swung by her home on her 89th birthday, and we sat in her old linoleum-tiled kitchen where we always would when we were growing up - it’s just a funny little timepiece from 1965. But this day - here in 2018 - her tone just seemed to have… shifted. It’s so hard to describe because she’s not depressed, exactly. She just feels expired, past her time. Like she’s observing a world she isn’t part of anymore.
It’s this odd experience because that reality - that confrontation of mortality - just feels so distant to me in my 20s. But yet, here sits this woman who has been so instrumental in defining who I am, just casually confronting life’s most challenging moment while she’s nibbling on licorice from this tacky little box I’d brought her. It just felt so distant.
How do you hope your listeners feel when they listen to your music?
I’d like our songs to accompany the rose-tinted vignettes of memory that creep into your mind right at the witching hour. If that makes any sense at all, then we’re all on the same page and I’m doing my job.
What’s after ‘Megalith’ that we can look forward to this year?
We’re putting the finishing touches on Triplet 3, which should be due out later in the summer. We’re setting up for the next prom. We’ve got a music video in the works. And possibly a duet of some kind? Many big things!