Every artist has their lean years. Stella Katsoudas of the eclectic-pop group Sister Soleil remembers hers all too well.
At times, it was a struggle just to carry on in her native Chicago.
“I was slaving and living off food stamps for six years before I got a record deal,” Katsoudas said recently. “I pushed myself through the kind of fatigue that makes people either want to commit suicide or just completely throw in the towel.”
Then along came her heroes, Universal Records head Doug Morris and Peter Gabriel.
Morris signed Sister Soleil after hearing the group’s self-released “Drown Me In You” EP. Katsoudas then was whisked off to London to record the group’s debut album, “Soularium,” with an ensemble of first-rate musicians at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, England. Gabriel gave her some priceless advice through the five-month sessions and even provided vocals on the track “Blind.” The album was released July 14.
“It’s music of the world, what’s going on in the world,” Katsoudas said of the amiable album. “In Chicago, I was schooled with the Wax Trax train of thought, very electronic music, but I’m also a big advocate and fan of pop and songwriting and Eastern influences and my Greek Orthodox roots, the sound of the religion musically. I like to bring people together, I like to break down barriers, just like Peter. I hate segregation in music; it’s contradictory to what music is. Music has the capacity to make people feel human.”
Katsoudas is Everyhuman, an artist with a conscience and a heart as big as Lake Michigan.
“To survive emotionally, I have to make music,” she said, “and when that motivation’s not good enough, I think about all the people I could affect in a positive way. There’s so many kids out there that I could do things for that I wished someone had done for me when I was 15 years old.
“This is an opportunity to be extremely proactive, especially when it comes to anti-drugs. I visit with a lot of youth shelters and kids in detox and halfway houses and after-care programs. Those kids keep me going. Meeting with those kids and watching their struggle and the strength that they have, the honesty they have to have to recover from what they’re suffering, it makes me go, ‘If they can handle that, I can handle what I’m going through.’
“My goal is to open halfway houses when money and time permits it. I want to do a lot of lobbying for government funds for programs for kids trying to get off drugs. That’s the big picture for me.”
Katsoudas’ heightened awareness dates back to age 15 when she joined the straight-edge movement, but she quit last year after the movement strayed from its initial tenets.
“Originally, that whole concept, that term ‘straight edge’ meant you didn’t do drugs, you didn’t drink and you didn’t have promiscuous sex,” she said. “It was all about respecting yourself. It was started because there was a band called Minor Threat, a punk band, and it was retaliation against all the assumptions that this person, Ian McKay, was caught up in drugs and alcohol and wild sex just because he was a punk musician and not getting the respect he deserved as a musician because he automatically got pegged for being a drug addict. He was the first straight-edge and wrote a song about it, and it caught on. There was this movement that came out of it.
“For a long time, that was my identity; it kept me from ever doing drugs or drinking. Basically, what often happens with movements, they just never stop changing; they never stay constant, it never stays what it was originally about. It gets militant, and that’s when I bailed out. There was violence and other issues involved, like pro-life and veganism. They don’t belong in the straight-edge movement.
“I’m not the kind of person that gets up on a soap box and says ‘Don’t do drugs,’ because I think everything is a choice, and it should be an individual choice. Nobody has the right to tell somebody else what not to do. People are intelligent enough to make their own decisions.”
That philosophy has suited Katsoudas well, especially when it came to recording “Soularium,” a musical chameleon of textures and emotions.
“All I know is how happy I am with the album,” Katsoudas said. “I did everything on this record that I intended on doing. It was an experiment, an idea I had years ago. It took me two years to develop the idea and to get on a label that would allow me to do it, that would believe in me enough to give me the freedom and the autonomy to put it together by myself without any interference.
“It was a real catharsis for me. So many good things came out of it, as far as me growing as a person. ‘Soularium,’ the title itself, that explains what I’m talking about, places where souls grow. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a person just doing this record. Even if nothing happened from this point now, I’m still a happy person.”
BWF (before we forget): For more on Sister Soleil on the Web, visit www.katharsisrecords.com.