Photo by Roberta Capaldi

Interview with Stella Burns: Delving into the depths of ‘Long Walks in the Dark’

"When you are on your own and all the choices are yours, you have a lot of responsibility, but it is also an opportunity to grow on many levels"
30th January 2024

Stella Burns, a name synonymous with enigmatic storytelling and haunting melodies, sits down with us to unravel the layers behind his latest album Long Walks in the Dark. From humble beginnings in a small Parisian theatre to evolving through various musical projects like The Moss Garden, Tangomarziano, and Hollowblue, Burns has continuously redefined his artistic identity.​ His current solo work, under the moniker Stella Burns, reflects a matured, introspective approach, blending vintage sound aesthetics with deeply personal narratives.

Burns’ Long Walks in the Dark is born from the depths of personal sorrow, creating a rich mosaic of feelings and reflection. The album portrays a voyage through the dark, striving to reach a place of light, imbued with hope and fortitude in every track.

The album features notable collaborations with artists like Mick Harvey, Ken Stringfellow, Marianna D’ama, and spoken words by Dan Fante, each bringing their unique musical and thematic contributions to the project. These collaborations enrich the album’s narrative, adding layers of depth and texture to Burns’ already evocative storytelling.

As we delve into this exclusive interview, we explore the creative process behind Long Walks in the Dark, the impact of personal grief on Burns’ artistry, and the collaborative magic that makes this album a poignant and moving experience. Join us in discovering the soulful world of Stella Burns, where every melody is a reflection of a journey through the night, seeking the dawn of emotional liberation and artistic revelation.

“I talk about love and this is always present, both in the light and in the darker moments and you can hear it in all 12 tracks”

Your journey as Stella Burns has been quite remarkable since your debut in a small Parisian theatre. How has your artistic identity evolved from the formation of Hollowblue to your current solo work?

At the age of 18 I formed my first band The Moss Garden, then in the mid-1990s Tangomarziano and the early 2000s Hollowblue. With Hollowblue I made three albums and it was a really exciting journey. Although I was the driving force behind the project, the albums have a character that is the combination of several people. If I had completed them alone, those same songs would not have the same energy.
But at some point along the way, I realised that I had to regain a certain autonomy. Not only artistically, but also in the lateral choices you have to make in this work.

Under the name Stella Burns, I first performed some new songs in Paris, where I had been invited by my friend Anthony Reynolds to be his guitarist, in the same theatre. From there on, I became increasingly dedicated to work inspired by a vintage sound aesthetic, mixing all my experiences and incorporating those elements that have always been close to my heart: melody and multi-layered arrangements. I started buying old instruments from the folk blues tradition (banjo, mandolin, autoharp, cigar box guitar) and got inspired by them, delving into roots blues that I had never considered until then. When you are on your own and all the choices are yours, you have a lot of responsibility, but it is also an opportunity to grow on many levels. I think that over the years I have become more and more aware of my means and my limits, trying to make the best use of what I have, and at the same time I have tried to maintain the fundamental ability to surprise myself and have fun.

The title of your album Long Walks in the Dark reflects a journey through personal grief. Can you share how these experiences have influenced your creative process and the thematic elements of the album?

The song that gave the album its name was written a few years ago. The title had no connection at the time with what would happen later, but at some point, I realised that the album could only be called that. That song had been joined by others and in the meantime I had lost my father, dear friends. The loss of David Bowie himself I did not get over. But you don’t get over grief, you learn to live with absence. Some songs are an expression or rather a reaction to these years. I never wanted to sing a lament. Building and being reactive and creative is one of the best consolations for me. The journey into darkness is a passage. Sooner or later the day will come and along the way, however difficult, I have always tried to take this into account.

The loss of significant figures in your life, including David Bowie, Dan Fante, Franco Volpi, and your father, has deeply impacted you. How did these losses shape the narrative and emotional tone of Long Walks in the Dark?

I wrote the song “Her Kiss Your Smile” as a wedding present for a couple of friends, Daniela and Franco. They got married in the hospital and we all knew that Franco wouldn’t have much time left. It talks about them and celebrates the beauty of their love. He thought about the record he was writing until the last moment. An example of fullness and enthusiasm that I won’t forget. It is a song I have only sung twice in public, in front of them and on the evening of the album presentation, and it was not emotionally easy. That song represents a feeling that pervades much of the album. At the end of the day in my records I sing about something as seemingly trivial as it is huge, I talk about love and this is always present, both in the light and in the darker moments and you can hear it in all 12 tracks. It’s no coincidence that the first instrumental song (because it doesn’t need words) is called “Amor”.

Photo by Dania Gennai

We Cannot Decide was a song born out of your COVID-19 quarantine experience. Could you elaborate on how this challenging time contributed to the creation of this song and its message of hope?

Early March 2020 I took covid. In a pretty serious form. I spent 14 days in the hospital thinking I would never go home again. But fortunately, I got better and although still sick they sent me home where I was locked in my living room for 40 days. My companion would leave my meals behind the door. In those first months, there was a lot of fear, no one knew what we were up against but those 40 days locked in a 4 x 4 metre room were wonderful, I still had pneumonia but I lived in the present as I never had before. Enjoying everything from waking up in the morning to the simplest things, knowing that my partner and our cats were there behind the door and that I would see them again sooner or later. A few days after returning, I found the strength to pick up my guitar and wrote “We cannot decide”. In a few minutes, it was all there, lyrics and music. I remember that as I sang it out of emotion and exertion, my fever rose with the fear of being hospitalised again. In those days of happy confinement, I recorded it and the version you hear at the end of the disc is that one. It has not even been touched in the mixing, it is the one with the sandy voice from pneumonia. The song is about how we cannot know what nature has in store for us but that we should enjoy every moment, with the people we love. I felt that song was the right counterpoint to the album title.

The cover image of your album, inspired by David Bowie’s Cracked Actor documentary, is quite intriguing. How does this image, along with the symbolism of the milk and motel signage, represent the themes of your album?

I was born in Sicily, but I have lived in Livorno in Tuscany for most of my life. Now I live in Bologna. I have never felt my roots. I suffered from it as a child but at a certain point, I realised it could also be an advantage. When I saw the documentary Cracked Actor I was very struck by that moment when Bowie, travelling in the Californian desert, says he feels like a fly in milk. A foreign body that absorbs everything around it. I have always seen it as a statement that goes beyond his experience in the USA.

I’ve always felt the same way. Bowie is my guiding light, there is something deep that has always touched me, beyond music. I liked the idea of quoting that moment. The milk also symbolises for me the preparation for the dreamlike journey. In addition, the lights are reminiscent of motel signs and this also has to do with the night journey in stages. The stages are the songs and life is the dream. We will wake up one day.

Photo by Roberta Capaldi

Your album features collaborations with artists like Mick Harvey, Ken Stringfellow, Marianna D’ama, and spoken words by Dan Fante. How did these collaborations come about, and what did each artist bring to the table in terms of musical and thematic contributions?

I am honoured to have guests on my album who are dear talented friends and musicians I have always admired.

Even with my previous project Hollowblue I always tried to include some duets in my records. I like the unexpected result that comes from the combination of two vocal personalities. In this record, however, everything had already been written for some time so there was unfortunately not much room to invent new things.

A friendship was born with Mick years ago after one of his concerts in Livorno. From then on we always kept in touch. He inspired me a lot not only with his solo records and his English versions of Gainsbourg songs, but as an arranger in the Bad Seeds and as a drummer. Years ago I had written a song that reminded me a lot of his sound world and after my experience with Covid, I abandoned any hesitation and asked him if he would like to participate. He accepted enthusiastically and shortly afterwards sent me his vocal track following my instructions with great generosity and humility.

For the song with Ken Stringfellow, I was looking for a high timbre of voice, I like what Ken produces (especially his foray into some country songs) and I asked him to join in. He also added a beautiful and adventurous backing vocal.

With Marianna, we have been friends for a long time. She is very good, with a great voice and talent. And so although the song “Make a Wish” initially did not include another voice… I asked her to duet with me and I was delighted. Whenever possible we try to sing it together live.

With Dan Fante, the story is very long. I collaborated with him years ago on the Hollowblue project. After a couple of tours together there was the idea of doing a whole album of music and poetry. Sort of like The Doors’ An American Prayer… but Hollowblue went on standby and Dan unfortunately left us. I have the hard disk with many of his vocal tracks recorded on some backing tracks I had prepared. Some time after his death I listened to one of these tracks and it was the song you hear on the album. It is a poem in which Dan talks about his own death, without sadness and drama but as a celebration of life. It didn’t seem a coincidence that I listened to that one among many, I felt it was time to release it and that this was the right album.

What was the first album you purchased?

The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie.

Which artists are you listening to right now?

Right now Timber Timbre, Tamino, Martha Skye Murphy, Arvo Pärt, Jackson C. Frank, Anthony Reynolds, Tommaso Varisco’s new record, in which I had the pleasure of playing some guitars, and Swanz The Lonely Cat’s Macbeth.

If you could open a show for any artist who would it be?

Calexico, Mick Harvey, Timber Timbre, The Veils, Father John Misty.

Given the range of emotions and experiences captured in Long Walks in the Dark, what do you hope listeners take away from this album? How do you want it to resonate with them on a personal level?

In my work, I have always tried to be moved to tears. The same emotion that I felt as a child with certain classical music and that made me feel a yearning that seemed to elevate me and distance me from the roughness of life. I would like my listeners to shed a tear, but not of sadness. Of happiness.