The power of music comes in many different forms, but when it’s emotional it can be the most personal. This can make the listener feel less alone or like someone is speaking for them. With the musical project Stems, Penelope Alizarin Conley from Worcester aims for this connection while being supported by distorted amplification and personal lyrics. His latest album, “From My Ever Bleeding Heart”, released on January 2, reflects this approach with sonic brilliance. It’s also one of the best records released in town until the dawn of 2022.
Tracks such as “Covered In Leaves”, “Cinder”, “I’m Here” and “In An Alien Sky” evoke an alternative 90s sound that oscillates between gothic post-punk and fuzzy shoegaze. This result comes from a very natural approach at Conley.
“It was definitely very organic,” she says of making the album. “Usually I don’t really consider myself a singer or a musician, but I do consider myself a songwriter because to me it’s about the whole picture. When I write my material , I’m not picking a specific theme, this is more the time. When I go to record it later, I’ll start with a sketch of a song either on my phone or on some kind of recording device, just so you don’t forget that.. Then I’ll go into my production software and tinker around a bit until I find something that looks like I can do and can handle.
“If it comes out a bit on the alternative side, I tend to lean the album towards that,” Conley adds. “My writing style tends to be alternative, even if I don’t think so, everyone tells me that. It’s an organic thing but just by chance because that’s how I wrote in the past, that’s how I keep writing.
During the creation process, Conley did everything in a completely handmade way, as with all other Stems records. This modus operandi ranges from instrumentation and vocals to mixing and mastering.
“I’m going to start playing guitar and it sounds so weird, but something is going to come out of nowhere,” she says. “I’ll usually come up with a vocal melody and actually most of the songs come together pretty quickly. The structure of this one can change when I start recording, if I know I have a decent verse-chorus-verse the first thing I do, because I started out as a drummer, is create a good drum track. I can build just about anything from this while keeping it very simple at the start just so I can get the tempo right. Then I can start adding things as I go, I sort of have a formula that way.
“After I start with the drums, I usually go straight to the guitar because I want to have something to base the vocals on and I tend to get them into the production pretty quickly,” adds Conley. “Except the drums, I do everything in my apartment, so if I scream at the top of my lungs at the end of production, it’s 9:30 p.m., then I’m sure my neighbors are going to hate me for it.”
When it comes to production, Conley is mostly self-taught while using a specific program you can find on any modern Apple computer. She started this project on a slight challenge from a friend over 20 years ago because she wanted to prove the friend wrong about creating music from a certain decade.
“I learned a little from what my friends taught me, but most of it was myself,” she says. “I do everything on GarageBand because it’s free and I’ve had the program for so long that I’ve become pretty intuitive about it. For me it works, it does what I want it to do and it has everything I could wish for. Believe it or not, Stems started in 2001 by accident. A friend of mine in college knew that I had played literally every instrument a band could ever need, we were listening to Depeche Mode or something from the 80s and he told me that at that time he had to be super easy to make an album with just a few synthesizers, bass and vocals.
“I told him I bet he was wrong and I was going to prove him wrong by making an ’80s album myself and see if I could do it,” Conley said. “That’s how Stems started, I was trying to answer a challenge to my friend on whether or not it was easy to make an album. It took me about a year and I’ll probably release it later this year just to say to me: ‘Hey, this is the very first Stems album if you want to hear it.’ It’s literally the drum pattern on a synthesizer with me playing one or two synthesizer parts then vocals and that’s it.
Conley views his music as the exudation of internal conflict and puts it on an auditory canvas. She’s surprised at the positive attention Stems has received since she started uploading her music for the world to indulge in, but she’s also grateful.
“I write everything with a lot of empathy in mind,” she said. “We have all been through a lot, especially lately. A lot of my songs are about pain, overcoming it, going through trauma or something or someone in particular so that I can fight those demons and exorcise them. Music has always been a diary for me, it’s a way for me to express my innermost thoughts and innermost feelings. With Stems, I haven’t shared my music with anyone for years except this guy who challenged me in college. I only recently started releasing these songs to the world because I was afraid to share them.
“There’s so much darkness in there and so much emotion in there that I was afraid someone would take it the wrong way or no one would listen or appreciate it after so much work,” Conley adds. “All musicians would be lying to you if they said they don’t want anything from the public for their music. After launching this project into the world, I was very, very lucky. I’ve been in a ton of different bands and it’s gotten way more attention than I’ve had with any band I’ve ever been in. It amazes me because I ask ‘Are you sure?’ because it’s something dark and sometimes I have to wonder if people are listening, but I’ve been proven wrong.
As for what she hopes people will take away from the new album, she hopes to inspire more compassion and thoughtfulness.
“It means so much when I’ve reached out to someone and they understand,” Conley says. “The goal is to build an understanding and to have empathy for each other because art must live so that everyone can live.”