Brooklyn Natives Desert Stars Returns: Talks Sobriety, Syncs, & Her Handmade Kimono Romper Line
Meet Desert Stars. The Brooklyn based outfit, led by singer-songwriter Janelle Best, has been spinning their unique blend of shoegaze-tinged surf rock since their beginnings back in 2008. Following the release of their debut LP Habit Shackles in 2013, the rockers earned praise from The New York Times, who praised her "Nico alto," MTV, SPIN, New York Magazine's Bedford + Bowery, and more, comparing the fuzzed out, dream-rock sound to the likes of Mazzy Star and Beach House.
Today, Desert Stars is in transition. After a bit of a hiatus, Best restructured the former-five piece to a solo project anchored on her emotive, poignant songwriting. "I decided to stop playing shows for awhile," she tells Billboard. "I've had this band since 2008, and it proved to be challenging; we were doing a show a month, and focused a lot on preparation versus writing new material. I felt restless and really wanted to do my own thing."
Desert Stars 2.0 -- for Best -- meant a return to her roots. As a classically trained violinist, she made string arrangements a major sonic focus, and also utilized her rolodex of Brooklyn’s best and brightest players, including Steve Marion (Delicate Steve), Kyp Malone (TV On The Radio), Jon Wiley (Adam Green), Leah Cary (Girl Crisis) and more for the sessions, recorded and mixed by Gabriel Galvin at Four Foot Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill at Sterling Sound.
Today, Desert Stars triumphantly returns with the release of her new single, “I Used To Sit In A Wagon,” premiering exclusively via Billboard.
The wistful, nostalgic cut is a snapshot of her own recollection of her childhood, with Best’s deadpan alto steady through a blooming orchestral arrangement. “When I was young and we moved I had no friends in the new neighborhood, so I sat in my black wagon, using an old shower curtain as a tent at the edge of the driveway waiting -- hoping -- for other kids to walk by,” she says of the track’s inspiration. “I felt so alone and isolated, but always figured out how to entertain myself.”
The multi-talented Brooklyn artist also doubles as a vintage aficionado, with her own retail site and clothing line – aptly titled Desert Stars Vintage – which includes her biggest success to date, a handmade line of kimono rompers (“they’ve been selling out pretty fast,” she says).
She’s also kick started a classical music project alongside fellow musician Martin Bonventre called Bonventre Best, sharing their first track "Unfurling" for the first time below.
Billboard caught up with Best to discuss Desert Stars’ continued evolution, her sobriety and success in the film/TV sync world, her love of vintage threads and more.
In the past, you've talked about how getting sober helped you re-connect with music - looking back, what advice would you offer to other artists who might be struggling with the 'rock band' hard and fast lifestyle?
I was such a mess for awhile, not sleeping and staying out late for years. I would talk about all the things i wanted to do, then never follow through with any of my goals. I started this project the moment I put the drinking and drugs down in October 2008 and it really unfolded to keep me happy and stay out of the bars. I focus on music and all my other projects now which is so much more full-filling. Now when i say I'm doing something i just do it.
Your new single "I Used To Sit In A Wagon" premieres today - how was the writing process different this time around?
I wrote it this year, and I really wanted to use my violin, cello and viola on this song. I was classically trained on violin for 18 years, playing in quartets and orchestras. I studied viola and cello later in life, and really wanted to start a string focus moving forward.
What was recording process like and how did you connect with the musicians who feature on the track?
I started working with Gabriel in Williamsburg, its this really special cottage space tucked behind many apartments with a garden. We reached out to many pals and people showed up adding parts, it was so fun! It includes Kyp Malone, Steve Marion, Jon Wiley, James Pollis, Leah Cary, Jen Armstrong, Gregg Giuffre, Kevin Viner and Gabriel himself.
You said your focus is now on making 'cinematic music' and I know your track "Little Cloud" featured on Showtime's Roadies last year - how does the opportunity for syncs or to soundtrack film/tv appeal to you as an artist?
Well I was fortunate enough to land a sync agent in LA a few years ago, and they locked me into a few national TV placements so far, from that experience I was able to create an entire soundtrack for a horror film last year and have done a few fashion video ads as well. I just started a side dream project with Martin Bonventre doing more classical style strings with organ and piano, specifically for licensing. It's so fun! As far as the new album is concerned we just built up an entire symphony on the next song, with at least 30 tracks of strings, and the likes of Paula Henderson on baritone sax, smoota on trombone, and Louis Schwadron on french horn.
You launched Desert Stars Vintage named after your band - when did that first take shape and how/why did you want to create a vintage store + line?
Well I've been collecting wild vintage clothes for stage for years, and when I stopped performing I decided to play dress up with my friends, take their pics and sell everything- from there I hired a tech designer, and started a fun clothing line called HAWKEYE by desert stars vintage. I've been learning so much so fast, and having a great time as well.
How has the store evolved since its inception and what are your goals for the company looking ahead?
Right now i am just focused on the kimono romper, they have been selling out pretty fast, and I need to keep replenishing the stock in small handmade batches, done here in Brooklyn.
How would you describe your style?
"Mommy drinks" (laughs). Always a little tattered and my makeup is always a little smeared.
How does your style reflect your music?
Well lately I'm into silks and furs- super luxe fun shit. When I record strings at home, with Martin, I always nest in my fur coats and textiles to get that satin string feel just right.
Favorite piece to wear on stage while performing and why?
Sequins and fur and gowns- even though I will be sweating, It will look fun.
What's your off-duty look like and how is that different from your on-stage look?
Lately a lot of kimonos tied up with shorts and brass belts, my summer go to. Not as high maintenance as being on stage, but still fun.
What's one thing you never feel complete without wearing?
In winter I always wear a large fur collar as a necklace no matter what. In summer I guess right now a good pair of high waisted shorts or a fun silk scarf.
For more Desert Stars, head here.