YOUNG & DIY: 21-year-old Jersey Shore-raised Stella Mrowicki is a marvel who writes, performs, and records her songs on a variety of instruments, then produces, mixes, and masters them herself.
Stelle Mrowicki’s two stellar roots-oriented releases add to her long list of credits: last year’s self-titled lo-fi debut LP, and the recent, poppier EP Pine Trees and Wildflowers.
I spoke with the recent graduate of Rowan University’s prestigious Music Industry program about her abundant talent, its formation and future in the following chat that I hope you enjoy as much as I did:
You’re still young enough that it’s not yet impolite to ask, how old are you?
I am 21 years old, 22 in July.
Did you grow up in Jackson, Bayville or both?
I grew up in Jackson. While my parents split when I was young, I was fortunate that they both were able to remain in Jackson nearly until I was old enough to drive. My dad moved to Bayville during my latter half of high school and, while a great town, is very different from the woods I grew up in.
Both those towns have produced several other musicians who also gravitated to the Asbury Park music scene? Why is that? What’s in Bayville & Jackson that inspires musicians?
Asbury is hands-down the hub for Jersey music. I was lucky enough to have two parents involved in the early Shore scene, so I was exposed to the history of Asbury from a young age. Obviously, my dad had a tremendous hand in my involvement in Asbury, which gave me a number of exclusive opportunities early in my career. I remember starting at 14, I would play shows at bars I couldn’t even stay at due to my age.
My mother is an artist and activist, known for her work to preserve the infamous carousel amongst other things. For me, the gravitation to Asbury is not only for its rich history but for the audience there that holds an appreciation for music that I have yet to see elsewhere. Now at 21, after playing in Asbury for years, I am able to stay in those bars, speak to the audience, and learn how intricate and deep the love of music is in those people.
In my music, I take heavy inspiration from where I grew up in Jackson. I hated roller coasters and amusement parks as a child, so I did not see much of the Six Flags phenomenon. What I knew in Jackson were dense woods, trails, ponds and rivers. As a young songwriter, I was fortunate to meet fellow Jackson musicians, such as J.T. Makoviecki of Jackson Pines, who has grown to be a good friend in music and words. Baring witness to talents such as his, metaphorically in my own backyard, played a huge formative role in my music.
What piqued your interest in performing, writing and producing music?
It is very hard to pinpoint exactly what. I accredit most of my interest to my parents, and their love and involvement in such areas. From an early age, I was introduced to music and was encouraged to participate. I started playing piano at 4, writing songs since I can remember writing. I began performing, like many, in a church choir. Once I realized I could get out of religious studies by singing on the altar, I was up there every week.
I’ve been producing for a bit now, since early high school. I have always recorded my own music and decided to pursue that in school. I fell in love with the technology of music very quickly.
Your father, Lee Mrowicki, helped me launch my music writing career in 1980, while I was in high school and he was manager of the Stone Pony. It’s an honor 40 years later still to be working with him on ‘Radio Jersey.’ What influence did your dad have on you personally and musically?
My dad has had a massive impact on my career, especially in the Asbury music scene. As I mentioned before, my dad was responsible for many of my performances at a young age. While that has changed as I’ve aged, my father has always been one of my biggest supporters and fans. His praise means a lot as a dad but also as a member of the industry, and his encouragement to pursue music is one of the biggest factors keeping me going. Knowing I am making him proud as a person and an artist is an immense honor.
What is your most fond memory of the Stone Pony and/or the Asbury Park Music Scene?
My favorite memory of Asbury Park is when I played the Stone Pony for the first time during Light of Day. It was 2014, I believe, so I would’ve been 15 at the time. I vividly remember playing my red Stratocaster, though I’m not sure what I sang. The most important part of that night to me were the pictures that John Cavanaugh took of my performance, which he sent to me later on, and I stared at for months after. I’m still in awe of the courage of that young girl.
How has the Asbury scene shaped you?
Asbury has encouraged me in my career in ways I cannot explain. The members of the scene are so welcoming, so kind, and have often been the guiding voice telling me to keep doing what I’m doing.
My favorite song by you is ‘War Song’ from last year’s self-titled, self-penned, self-produced, self-released and predominantly self-performed debut LP. ‘War Song’ reminds me of Bob Dylan and John Prine, and like their early days, expresses a wisdom well beyond the writer’s age. Melodically and structurally, ‘War Song’ reminds me of ‘Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho & Lefty.’ What is that song about, what inspired it, what impact has it made, and what influence have those three songwriters had on you, how and why?
‘War Song’ is easily one of my favorites, as well. I wrote the beginning of that song at 17, in my junior year of high school, after watching many of my graduating friends dismiss college and enlist. Without getting too political, this upset me in a way I didn’t really understand until I wrote that song a few months later. I wrote the chorus on accident, really. I sat down with the intention of finishing that song when that came out. A lot of my writing happens that way, where it’s less so a conscious effort than it is just an impulse. As I sang it back, I immediately realized most of that chorus came subliminally from many years of listening and admiring Prine’s work.
As a young child, I admired Dylan like a god. When I first started seriously writing in high school, I would motivate myself by attempting to write ‘the worst Bob Dylan song,’ as it would still be better than anything else made. I see Bob Dylan from a very disillusioned, rose-colored lens.
That being said, Prine is by far the biggest influence on my songwriting. I have been an avid listener, fan, and audience member since I was in middle school. I still have yet to fully accept his passing so it is a bit difficult for me to talk about him.
I got into Townes later on, when I was in high school. I’ve always admired storytellers like him, Blaze Foley, etc.
My two favorite songs on your new EP, ‘Without Me’ and ‘High St.,’ both have gospel inflection. How and why is gospel an influence on you?
To me, the real root of folk is gospel and spirituals. While those folk derivatives have inspired me most, music would not exist without the innovations and talents of gospel and roots music. Most of my gospel influence comes from older folk, country and blues music, such as Lead Belly.
Where is ‘High St.’?
There’s a few, actually. I wrote the song with the High St. in Glassboro in mind. However, months after writing that song, I actually live on a High St. elsewhere in South Jersey.
That tune also reminds me of a New Orleans jazz funeral. Was that intentional because New Orleans is an influence on you or just a vibe picked off the song tree planted by the musical cosmos?
It’s actually a weird story. I wrote that song while I was cooking dinner one night for my partner and I. It came out almost as if it was an old hymn, like it felt familiar. That’s kind of the vibe I was going for, Southern funeral. I just kept humming and singing it until I had to stop cooking and write the rest that night. So yes, and yes.
What influenced the EP title, ‘Pine Trees and Wildflowers’?
The title and album art were inspired by the walls of my bedroom in my college apartment. I had my room decorated with dozens of dried flowers for such a long time that it was influential enough to be the subject of the EP.
Judy Collins’ 1967 album ‘Wildflowers’ was a big one for me growing up because my Pop is a huge Judy Collins fan. It has a few songs composed by a couple of other songwriters you remind me of, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, including ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Sisters of Mercy.’ Are you familiar with that LP, as well as Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen? If so, have they influenced you and how?
Oh, absolutely! My mother, a huge folk fan, took me to see Judy Collins when I was a teenager. I did a huge dive into Cohen at 19, when I did a brief term at NYU’s Steinhardt. Every night I would walk up and down streets listening to ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ and ‘Songs from a Room’ in a romantic attempt to channel some sort of inspiration. I’ve only recently noticed how much my appreciation for Joni Mitchell has grown as an adult woman.
What was it like studying music production and studio technology at Rowan, and how did that shape and influence you and your LP and EP?
Rowan’s Music Industry program is not only comprehensive, but it is inclusive in ways resembling family. My education at Rowan has had the biggest influence on my past and recent releases. Without the knowledge I have gained in the program, the facilities at the university, and the talented people I have met, my music would not exist. I’ve learned a lot in my degree program at Rowan, which is something I am extremely thankful for. But the biggest gift that Rowan has given to me is the opportunities and support needed to create. My professors and classmates have given me confidence, comfort, strength and skills that have forever changed my life.
How did being part of the Rowan Music Industry program lead to a gig at SXSW, and what was the best part of that opportunity?
Rowan’s Music Industry program gave my band and I the incredible opportunity to travel to Austin, Texas to play at SXSW. The program ran a contest of sorts, where students were able to submit their project to potentially go play SXSW. As a solo, female, folk artist in a predominantly male, pop-punk scene in South Jersey, I did not even consider applying. It was, in fact, the encouraging words of one of my former professors and now good friend, Jeff Otto, that pushed me to apply. Thankful to him, and shockingly to me, I was chosen along with two other Rowan bands to perform at the festival.
The entire experience was incredible. However, my favorite part of the experience was busking outside on 6th Street. While I loved the opportunity to play at a renowned club in Austin, it was a beautiful, organic rush watching a crowd come together solely to hear you.
In addition to recording, mixing and mastering your songs, you play most of the instruments on them. How and why did you become proficient on so many different instruments?
Before last year, I never had a backing band and had minimal musical collaborators. Once I learned that I could record multiple tracks of myself, I no longer felt the need to wait for help to create. I have forced myself to learn a numerous amount of instruments over the last 10 years. I had formal piano training until age 12 but struggle to read sheet music and tabs. So I teach myself by ear, by watching videos, and by writing.
Which instrument is your favorite to play and why?
I’m inclined to say guitar or piano, as they are my two primary instruments. I love playing banjo, though I’m far off from being good.
Who is in your band, what do they play, how did they connect with you, and do they record with you?
My band right now consists of Nate Whyte on drums, Kurt Hendricksen on bass, and Zack Rofrano on guitar and keys. Nate, Kurt and I actually met in a performance class at Rowan. I called on them to help me out on a few shows, and they’ve been with me since. Zack joined us a few months after we went to SXSW.
Most often, I record alone. My own downfall is shame, and in order to get what I want out of myself, I usually have to isolate. I love collaborating on other projects, but I’m very meticulous and shy with my own work to an unfortunate extent that I prefer to create alone.
Any plans to perform virtually online while venues remain closed because of the pandemic?
I do! I’m in the process finishing moving out of my college apartment so planning a performance is a bit hard at the moment. I am planning a virtual performance sometime in early June, with a few very talented NJ opening acts. An announcement will be made on my social media account and website soon.
What promotional plans do you have for the EP during the pandemic, and what hopes for promotion do you have once it’s safe to realize them?
I’m hopeful to perform for a live audience soon. However, during the crisis, I’ve been focused on advertising as much as possible on social media and sending my music out. I’ve been thankful to have help from connections I’ve made both in my career as an artist and as a student and am hopeful to push this EP into radio rotation soon.
What other goals do you have with your music?
I’m not sure exactly. I never intended to have a career as an artist, and still don’t, so I will most likely keep doing what I’m doing. My primary goal is in engineering, and my music to me is a factor of that. I plan to continue creating but am not focused on a grander goal at the moment. The fact that anyone is listening is more than I could ever imagine for my music so I am grateful.
Are any of the songs on your EP or any newer songs related to the pandemic and/or today’s partisan political climate? If so, what are they and what specially inspired them, why, and how did you react to it and why?
I was fortunate to have begun production of this EP before the pandemic, so none of the material is really related to the crisis. However, most of my music is underlyingly political. On this EP in particular, the line ‘suddenly I’m afraid that I will die at 68’ in ‘My Wine’ is directly related to a study conducted by the American Petroleum Institute in 1980, stating that the consequences of the petroleum industry on our climate will be ‘globally catastrophic’ by the year 2067. No matter your political standing, I really recommend reading this document which can be found for free online by searching ‘task force AQ 9.’
I’ve been casually planning an LP, which, while not directly related to the pandemic, is intended to be a biographical depiction of struggles in American life.
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
Just a big, fat thank you to you for giving me the opportunity to do this!
For more about Stella Mrowicki, visit http://stellamrowicki.com/.