Annie Stela sits at her electric piano onstage at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern. The singer/songwriter’s honey brown curls rollick down her back and her equipment is festooned with aqua-blue Christmas lights. The effect is that of a post-modern Boticelli canvas sprung to life, replete with claret wedge shoes and black tank dress.
Stela is opening for Ron Sexsmith tonight and the venue is sold-out. Her 2006 EP, There is a Story Here, garnered attention and when Capitol released her debut album, Fool, just a few weeks prior to this evening, the disc’s piano-based songs, shot through with sad joy and happy pain, met with stellar reviews. Yet, the crowd, seated church-like in folding chairs and standing two-deep in the back and the sides of the rustic brick club, seems to belong to the better-known Sexsmith. “I’ve never heard of her,” a patron says to his friend.
Midway through her half-hour set, Stela launches into Fool’s “Past Due” and there is a palpable shift. “Just say what you need/ and I will pull it off me even if it makes me bleed,” she sings, her voice soaring despite the heft of the lyrics. When she reaches the chorus (“Just give up on me”), she appears to yearn for the exact opposite and the result is mesmeric. “She is really good,” the same club-goer says this time.
Stela follows with the equally mournful “Carry it All”. “Hold me up/ I’m going to fall/ stumble and fall/ because I’ve had enough of trying to carry/ carry it all,” she intones, animating a universal sentiment that would sound maudlin from an artist with lesser gifts. One can’t help but speculate why the twenty-six-year-old Los Angeles-based songster isn’t yet a fixture on playlists and radio. Bono once said you don’t have to be of the mainstream to be in it, and maybe that is the tripwire: Stela is receiving some attention in indie and alt circles (comparisons to Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple are perhaps inevitable), but in many ways, she is the heir apparent to Carly Simon and Carole King, a reminder of a time when song craft and airplay more commonly intersected.
Stela closes the night with the playful and sardonic “Lovesong,” pounding the keyboard that almost dwarfs her petite frame. She belts, “You just keep me on standby,” and imbues it with a wink.