It’s hard enough establishing a music career in North America when you’re a North American. Now imagine you’re based in a much smaller country, located very far away, where English is not the first language, there are few touring markets, and, oh yeah, the whole country is still reeling from a devastating economic crisis.
These were the obstacles faced by Athens, Greece-based artist Stella Chronopoulou when she began releasing music as Σtella in 2012. As an English-singing synth-pop musician in a country where folky, traditional Greek music still reigns supreme, Σtella’s prospects for a viable long-term career appeared slim. Yet some eight years later, she’s amassed a repertoire that’s racked up millions of Spotify streams, and she recently secured an international release for her stellar third album, The Break, through Arbutus Records (the Montreal label that introduced fellow electro-pop outsiders like Grimes, Majical Cloudz, and Doldrums to the world at large) and a publishing deal with Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. Here, Σtella explains how she’s been able to expand her reach despite living in a country existing on the periphery of the global indie-music landscape.
Spotify for Artists: When you were starting out, what sort of music scene existed around you?
Σtella: There was some kind of scene here, but it was mostly like a rock scene. Some people were doing pop music, but I don't think there are many [pop artists] in Greece. I just started doing what I like to do—stuff that I had been listening to all my life. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing—I didn’t want to fit in somewhere. I uploaded, like, three songs and gave them away for free download. That's how it all started.
What was your approach to getting noticed?
In the beginning, this independent label from Greece spotted me. We made a contract for two records. I didn’t want a contract for two records at the time, but that's what they wanted. I'm singing in English, and a lot of people in Greece just listen to Greek music—like, traditional folk music—so I was thinking that I had no future here; I knew this from the very beginning. I had always been sending my music to labels in the U.S. or England, all around the world. But I was not as determined as I was in the last two years.
How would you describe the Greek music industry?
There's only a few things that a musician can do in Greece, and you can count them on your hands. There are people that listen to me here, but it's a small amount. Greece is a country of 10 million, and most of these people listen, as I said, to Greek folk music. I've played all the big cities, I've done the round—and it's a small round. I wanted my music to be part of an international conversation.
You’ve played festivals like South by Southwest. A lot of European countries, like Norway and Denmark, have funding programs to help their artists showcase around the world—does that exist in Greece?
Forget about it! There’s nothing here. We’re super-poor. We’re just getting out of this insane crisis where people didn’t have food to eat—so, it’s a no. I love my country, but that part sucks. For South by Southwest, I just applied—I had no booking agent at the time. I didn’t have the money to go, so this radio station sponsored me and I also got some money from my previous label—instead of shooting a music video, they gave me that money to buy tickets. Small things like that would happen, so I just kept at it—I was thinking that either I was going to sign with a label that I love, or I'm going to die. [laughs] I felt that strong about it.
How did you go about connecting with an international label?
My second album had come out in 2017, and since then, I had been looking for an international label. I was emailing any label that you could imagine every day for, like, 10 hours a day—like, the same people, three or four times, again and again. I was really determined to get the hell out of here! In December 2017, I started talking with Sebastian [Cowan] from Arbutus, and we ended up talking for about a year before he asked me if I wanted to work with them.
What attracted you to Arbutus?
I love a lot of their artists—Sean Nicholas Savage is one of my favorites. And I thought I would be a good fit for their sound. Sebastian was probably the only person out of all these people that I was talking to who was very present. I had never met him—and still haven’t, because I live in Athens and he’s in Montreal—but I felt from the very beginning, talking through emails, that he was very there, you know what I mean? That really made an impression. The funny thing is, just a couple of months before I agreed to sign with Arbutus, I had sent my album to the A&R of Sub Pop, and he replied to me after two months and said, “Sorry, I hope you haven’t given up on me—I really love the record, can I share it with people around the office?” Then Garreth Smith, the head of publishing at Sub Pop wrote me back and said, “I can’t stop listening to your album, I really love it—are you working with a publisher?” And I said, “No! I have nobody, I have no publisher, I have no label, I have nothing!” So then he was like, “We need to find you a label, because I need you to have a label in order for me to work with it.” So after two months, I signed with Arbutus, so that was solved. It’s funny: First I found a publisher, and then I found a label, which was weird.
A lot of people think you need to have all these connections to get ahead in this industry, but you’re basically saying that persistent cold-calling can pay off.
You have to push. This is what I've learned. You constantly have to push. Even if you get to work with the people you want to work with, you still have to push.
To any artists out there reading this who are also from a smaller country, what would you say is the most important thing for carving out an international career?
I hate giving advice, but I'm going to say something that's not really advice. The only thing that's important is to be really focused, and feel really strongly about what you want to do. That's the only thing I can say. It doesn't matter if you're from Greece or Guatemala—if you really, really, really want to do something, you're going to do it. At some point, something’s going to happen. There's no way you're going to be trying for, like, 10 years and nothing's going to happen. There's no way. It's just about insisting, and believing in what you do.