Stella Ruze

Folk/Americana band Stella Ruze was founded in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia in 2014. Bandleaders Brendan Johnson & Katie O’Donnell frequently played dive bars and open mic nights. The band wasn’t truly formed until the duo was introduced to keyboardist Mason Wallack and trumpet player Alex Styer. At that time, they began calling themselves ‘Stella Ruze’ as a way to embody Johnson’s underlying song themes of love lost/love found, while paying homage to Styer’s New Orleans horn style, O’Donnell’s vocal harmonies, and melodic piano hooks from Wallack.
As a 4-piece, the band released two studio recordings. In June 2016, the band released So Here-LP that featured 8 songs written by Johnson but modified to fit the Stella Ruze mold. In October 2017, Stella released a five-song, self-titled EP, in which they received assistance from renowned sound engineer & drummer, Matt Muir, and creative direction from Philly music legend Ben Arnold. Stella Ruze performed a SOLD-OUT EP release show on Friday, October 6th, 2017 at Milkboy Philadelphia with co-headliner Josiah Johnson from The Head and The Heart.
Since the EP’s release, Stella Ruze has since added accomplished blues drummer Sean McIntyre, bass guitar extraordinaire Ted Mayo, and a Philadelphia staple in saxophone player, Vince Gleason, who is a lifetime member of the legendary Mummer group – Ferko String Band. Completing the make-up of the band, Stella Ruze now comprises 7 musicians. The band has established an enthusiastic following, receiving moderate praise from WXPN hosts Dan Reed, Mike Vasilikos and Helen Leicht. The band has also played shows with nationally-touring acts like Pete Francis of Dispatch, Kuinka, Midnight North, and Blue Water Highway.

A longtime Philly resident, Tennis chose the Rittenhouse Soundworks studio in the nearby neighborhood of Germantown to record Two Days on the Fence. The studio’s expansive live room proved to be the perfect environment for Tennis and co-producer Tom Spiker (Calvin Weston, Sun Ra Arkesta, G. Love) to capture the vibrant, telepathic performances of the singer’s well-oiled Clubhouse Band – Joseph Keim (drums), Shaun Hennessey (percussion), Brahm Genzlinger (bass), Maxfield Gast (sax), Nate Graham (keyboards) and Christopher Farrell (guitar). The group’s inventive and virtuosic interplay forms a rich, colorful rhythmic bed for Tennis to embroider the music with soaring melodies and robust vocals.

Over the years, Tennis has seen his music embraced by audiences in America, Europe and South America. However, he rejects the label of “world music,” because it “misses the American roots to describe what I do. I’m more folk, soul and Afro-Caribbean.” The songs on Two Days on the Fence finds Tennis and his band fleshing out every contour of those rhythms, particularly on the rousing party cut “Down & Up,” which he wrote as an undisguised homage to funk legends the Meters.

Two Days on the Fence is Tennis’ sixth release, and he views the EP as an important step in his development as a bandleader. In the past, he admits he used to impose his ideas on the group, but with the addition of new drummer Keim into the fold, Tennis is embracing the beauty of letting go. “Joseph and Shaun find these pockets in the grooves that are unbelievable,” he explains. “Everything becomes bigger and more expressive when I just let them fly.”

Tennis points to the luminous instrumental track “Strange How It’s Changing” as an example: “We just started jamming and it unfolded. Earlier, I wouldn’t have had the faith to just let go, but now I have the seasoning to allow that kind of magic to happen. These guys are just too good – I’d be crazy to try and stop them.”

Despite his multi-genred approach to music, Tennis admits he was a late bloomer when it came to songwriting. Sports occupied much of his time during his teens and into college. “I didn’t start playing music and writing songs until I was about 23,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at first, but I enjoyed it – I felt a sense of purpose I hadn’t experienced before. Discovering all of these sounds from all over the world seemed to unlock something in me – it was almost spiritual – and I think I bring the athleticism and determination from my past life into my music. If it moves and grooves and makes you feel good, I’m in.”

With Two Days on the Fence, the singer-songwriter noticed a dramatic change in his compositional approach than on previous albums. “On my last record, The Easier Mile (2015), I spent a lot time crafting the songs, but you can only force things so much,” he notes. “On this record, I’m more about being in the moment.” He cites the soaring title track as an example of this newfound attitude: “It’s a love song I wrote about trying to work out a long-distance relationship. I realized that I couldn’t control everything; all I could do was can stand up tall and own the things I said and did. That came out in the lyrics: Whatever was meant to happen would happen.”

Tennis recently wrapped a triumphant six-week tour of Europe and a knockout homecoming pre-holiday show in his beloved Philadelphia. On the release of Two Days on the Fence, he heads back to South America in mid-January for a month-long tour of Columbia, after which he’ll return to the U.S. in February to launch an East Coast tour that includes an appearance at Folk Alliance International.

Kirby’s musical adventures have led him around the world, from Bern Switzerland to Los Angeles, CA he creates a vibe that people latch onto. This is reflected in his songs, which are built on hip-shaking grooves, while his lyrics portray a vast set of characters, united in their struggle to be better people in a better world. Because of his intense focus on forging a relationship with his audience, every one of Kirby's performances is a unique experience. It is simply in his nature; if there is a piano in a room, it will be played, and if there is a person in the room, they will be befriended. The only way to truly understand is to experience it for yourself!

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