Former Nashville TV show star Lennon Stella kicked off the first of two sold out nights at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Formerly one half of a close harmony duo with her sister Maisie, Lennon Stella is launching a fully fledged solo pop career. She is using her UK/EU tour to test out potential album material due for announcement in January 2021.
Tonight’s crowd is a female-heavy, perhaps the first clue should have been the sprays of hot punk glitter peppering the pavement outside of the venue. Up on the balcony young women are posing for Insta shots holding their seat reservation signs, groups of teens chatter and apply lip gloss in between check-ins on their phones.
The stage a haze of lavender and indigo is being studied through the lens of the professional film photographer ready to capture the performance. The men in the audience seem to be all be attached to women, boyfriends and best friends. Even the gold painted plaster bows on the balcony tiers seem complicit in adding an extra feminine accent.
The opening act on tour is singer songwriter and Stella collaborator, fellow Canadian, JP Saxe. He appears alone on stage to offer up a handful of self-penned songs in partial acapella at the keyboards. He is a confident pianist throwing in little jazz transitions between verses. His voice is soulful and well matched to the keyboard.
For such a sweet-sounding batch of songs, both the lyrics and the titles come with a carpet of f-bombs. He picks up a guitar for Sad Corny F**k, a song whose chorus paradoxically is mostly made up of the phrase ‘love doesn’t get better than you.’ After more reflections on youthful romances and break ups, such as 25 In Barcelona, the chatter of the crowd begins to threaten to rise above the sound levels on stage, the audience are having their attention spans tested. Saxe finishes his set with a couple of memorable tunes winning back the audience finally with a song he co-wrote with Julia Michaels, If the World Was Ending.
A theatrical change in lighting, dirty beats and layers of soft vocals announce Lennon Stella on to the stage. Launching into the ‘80s tinged Blacklight she sways side to side behind her Fender Telecaster, a natural performer, totally at ease.
For her following song Bad, she offers her fans the chance to sing along, while she matches with half of her full vocal power, hoping gracefully along the lip of the stage, freed from her guitar. She strolls up and down the stage in a state of carefree joy. The songs may not be the most lyrically sophisticated, but they are honest and give reflective insight into the thoughts and feelings of generation Z as they broach adulthood. The timbre of her voice is beautiful and the phrasing works in her favour, lyrics skipping along and tripping off her tongue then finishing in soft melodies.
A theme is becoming apparent with the gentle ‘80s beat of pop song Pretty Boy, which is made given a dreamy quality with lush synths. To match the mood with an aesthetic she plays a baby pink Stratocaster while visuals on stage evoke the colours of dripping Miami sunsets before deepening to electric red heat for catch number Breakaway.
The tempo is cranked up a notch for a joyful cover of Rihanna’s Grammy winning super hit Umbrella, which has the crowd waving their arms in the air wrapped up in the party atmosphere. The momentum is maintained with pop perfection in making, Die Average.
Lennon Stella @ Shepherd's Bush Empire
In a thoughtful shift down a chair is laid out on stage which Stella sits astride for a sultry performance of Paperweight. The stage around her is saturated in heavy blue light almost obscuring the moment that her backing band step away to allow for more intimate solo renditions.
Standing tall in striped back white spotlight playing a well worn and well loved looking acoustic guitar taped over in magazine cuttings and pictures she sings Takeaway. Maintaining her relatable vulnerability, she takes a seat at the keys for a melancholy cover of Cyndi Lauper’s 80s classic Girls Just Wanna Have Fun which felt primed and ready to be the soundtrack of a John Lewis advert PSA campaign. Still at the electric piano she plays her first her first solo release, Like Everybody Else. After the lines, “What made me think I was special / I’m not special / I’m like everybody else” comes a dramatic pause in which one enthusiastic member of the crowd bellows into the silence in a broad Northern accent, “You’re NOT!” Led by this loyal fan, the rest of the crowd erupts in laughter and applause cheering for Stella.
A bass reverb with the power of a landing aircraft, and the heavy tick and drumbeat signals Kissing Other People. The intro is further punctuated by a blinding white flash from the centre stage. This segues well into heavily produced Fear Of Being Alone – expect this track on a dance floor near you this summer.
Current release, Golf On TV co-written with JP Saxe thanks to a witty retort of his during a discussion about polyamory is up next. Saxe returns to the stage to duet, the crowd scream for the double value of two such strong voices coupled with a performance that is filled with genuine respect and affection.
Percussive hand claps kick off Fortress, as another Fender is handed over from the side of the stage. With a more full throated vocal she offers a hint at the extent of her range. A bank of green strobe lights summon Stella back to the chair in the centre of the stage. Layers of vocal coding and musical break that suggests the band (or producers) must have grown up listening to a lot of Aphex Twin. It creates an edgy, current sound, and has enough restraint not to waste the excellent vocal quality.
The evening wraps up with big hits Bitch, La Di Da and appropriate Goodnight, all played with climatic verve. A good time was had by all, not least Lennon Stella herself, whose likeable charisma, and enthusiasm keeps everyone entertained to the last moment. If she keep this up, it will keep her trajectory on course from YouTube, to TV and to those first committed fans, to the next step – massive international solo arena tours. Watch this space.
Lennon Stella continues her tour with dates in the US and Canada
Live review by Sarah Sievers, photography by Kalpesh Patel of Lennon Stella and JP Saxe at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 2nd March 2020.