“Somewhere, I lost some of my innocence, and I miss it,” Lennon Stella gently weeps. Her song “Older Than I Am” perches smack dab in the middle of her debut record, Three. Two. One., out Friday (April 24) on Columbia Records. Through airy piano and string work, she reconciles growing up in the spotlight and moments she yearns to reclaim. “My life’s been a survival of the fittest,” she later confides.
“I’ve been through some weird things while being in the spotlight,” she tells American Songwriter over a phone call earlier this month.
“Sometimes I wish I could do something stupid / Be kind of reckless while I can / Say, ‘I don’t give a damn,’” she wrestles with knowing her childhood has long faded from view. The pressure she once felt resurfaces with an elegant and moving performance, one still adhering to her folkier, singer/songwriter roots amidst a flurry of synths, alarming percussion, and grander theatrics.
“Being on the show [ABC’s ‘Nashville’] was such an amazing experience, and we were fortunate that it was a really great group of people,” she says, “but when you’re going through things that normal kids go through, and have the pressures of everything, it can be a lot ─ like my parents’ divorce and the messy things that come with that. You are forced to have your eyes opened up to things you really don’t want to [see]. That purity and innocence gets taken away.”
Stella traded a normal childhood for the spotlight ─ and who wouldn’t want the opportunity to star on a hit TV show. The price, of course, was an unexpected side effect. “I feel like I’m never my age. I was never just a kid that could go to a party. I was an adult at 12 with adult responsibilities and a full job,” says Stella, who blossoms into her own in the here and now.
“Weakness,” a collaboration with her sister Maisy, clocking in at nearly eight minutes, is another bridge-builder, aesthetically, and pulls back the curtain on the emotional gravity of growing up in the world today. “Woke up in a decent mood / So, I don’t want to hear the news / Turn the volume down,” she squeaks, a barely decipherable lamentation. “Don’t know if it’s even true / And there’s nothing I can do / So, turn the volume down.”
Admittedly, Stella became “really good at blocking everything out and not having anything negative affect me,” she says. A polar opposite, her sister Maisy, five years her junior, feels everything deeply and unapologetically. So, a song like “Weakness” was born out of a need to comfort her sister as best as she knows how.
“Anytime [Maisy] is the slightest bit upset, it completely kills me. Every bit of emotion comes pouring out [on this song],” she explains. “And it’s really relevant to right now. There are a lot of lines that tie into what’s happening. You kind of have to put blinders on, but there’s always that one person, subject, or thing that really touches you. You’re unable to ignore it.”
Taking a page out of the Huey Lewis playbook, Stella sews a lengthy interlude onto the back half of the track, a way to escape and reflect. “I wanted there to be space and time and feel less restrictions,” she says. “I’m OK with this album landing wherever it wants to land. I’m not obsessed with it being in any one genre. Having [Maisy] sing on it, made it that much more personal.”
Later, she agonizes over “all this chaos,” she sings. “God help us break this cycle.”
“You get into cycles especially when you get comfortable with not feeling certain things,” Stella notes. “It becomes a cycle without even knowing it.”
Three. Two. One. is largely a breakup record. “Much Too Much” pops open with a dying relationship’s tug-of-war and feeling the love slip away from both ends. “What if it’s just, just a little too late? Just a little too little / What if I’m just a little much too much for ya? / What if we just take a little more space?,” she teeters between extremes.
Within a bedrock of synths, vulnerability oozes from the vocal performance. “It may not work in the future because things will change. Time will do what it does. It was that fear,” she says. “Simon Wilcox [co-writer, alongside RØMANS and Malay] is very clever with words, and so we leaned into the wordplay for the chorus.”
“Games” and “Fear of Being Alone” signal a natural evolution, both gummy with Stella’s most fascinating pop work, in a relationship that’s soured ─ but she finds herself stuck anyway. “At the beginning, it’s this unhealthy relationship. I wrote all these songs when I was going through very unhealthy things with people ─ not even serious, heartfelt, loving relationships,” she says, also expressing the album’s thematic arc. “They were just toxic, and that’s all they were. I wrote the first couple songs during those periods. I wanted to show the growth and what I learned. Then, the album goes into less relationship-based songs and more songs as being a human.”
She adds, “There’s a thing that happens when you’re with someone, and it’s just out of comfort. Then, you realize it’s not about the person but the fact being alone is scary when you’re comfortable. Over time, I learned I’d much rather be alone than be with somebody that’s not good for me.”
While Stella swings big in production ─ assisted with producers Big Taste, Captain Cuts, Joel Little, Malay, Ruslan Odnoralov, and WYNNE ─ she roots it all with her most vulnerable songwriting. “I didn’t even realize it until we started writing, and every song is very much a healing thing for me. Everyone is going to understand me so much better, just as a human being, and where I come from. There’s a lot more vulnerability and honesty, and that’s what I felt most inspired to do.”
“Fear of Being Alone,” among Stella’s most ambitious musical moments, came together during a 10-day writing camp in Cabo, sessions explicitly booked for the record. “I had only ever written my own songs and never had anyone write for me or start something without me. Everyone at the camp knows me so well and really understood me, musically and personally. Having people write for me when I wasn’t in the room was such a cool experience,” she recalls. “They all sounded so much like me. It really helped me understand myself. I realized I had more consistency than I thought I did.”
Penned with Emily Warren, Caroline Ailin, Malay, and Paul Shelton, “Fear” instantly clicked. “When I heard this song, I was so obsessed with the production and where it was at the time. Obviously, it’s different now. The base of it is so unique. The production is really watery.”
When the final track rolls, the soothing “Goodnight,” Stella allows for a magical reprieve and bathes in the moment. “You can hope it’s back again in the morning. I really liked the idea of ending the album with this. It has this finishing feeling but also leaves something unresolved. I liked the drop at the end that happens. We went back and forth on that. I wanted the end to be such a liftoff and completely different than the rest of the songs.”
From the phosphorescent cover art (depicting her jumping into an unseen pool) to dabbling in production, Three. Two. One. is Stella’s shining moment. “I instantly felt more freedom, and I wanted to be more experimental. All around, I was extremely involved in the production of the album. With the EP, [2018’s ‘Love, me’], I was less involved because it was a faster process. It was pretty much getting a bunch of songs together that sounded good. On the album, there were months spent just on production alone. There was more space to get creative and explore.”
“Putting out an album has been my dream for as long as I can remember. I wanted it to be something that embodied who I am. I wasn’t listening to any other opinions to morph it into anything,” she continues. “I definitely felt more pressure in the backend of it. At the beginning, it was lighter, and by the end, there was more pressure involved with the business side of things. Ultimately, I wanted this album to be a very freeing experience for me.”
Photo Credit: Aidan Zamiri