Isabelle Stillman — October 16, 2020
Isabelle Stillman’s newest release, Heartrender, comes from a place of vulnerability and awakening that can only be sparked through transition, pitfalls and personal upheaval. The resulting is a collection of songs that navigate changing worlds and the strength that comes from the search for self.
Stillman began creating her album while working as a high school English teacher in Denver. Through a journey of self-realization, she would uproot herself to spend a year traveling on her first national tour, a momentum abruptly ended by the outbreak of the coronavirus. This massive change and the dismantling of her life as she knew it led Stillman to discover the beauty that comes from opening up, leading with heart, leaning into pain and confusion, and ultimately, letting go. “When we are really living, the heart may hurt, but it hurts with purpose. It hurts with humanity, and it hurts with meaning,” says Stillman.
Heartrender speaks to the universal struggle of opening oneself to new possibilities and relationships — opening your heart to the full spectrum of life. It acknowledges the human condition as one of growth from tragedy, reinvention from discovery, and resilience from pain.
The project’s production followed in a similarly transitional trajectory. Sessions at Denver’s CCM Studios with Darren Skanson (whom Stillman worked with for her debut album, Middle Sister) turned into isolated, remote sessions from her apartment post-pandemic. The project again shifted when Stillman relocated to Los Angeles and would rise to self-produce the last four tracks on the album. Recording in different spaces – some familiar and some shockingly new – created a diverse sound that eases listeners from Stillman’s past work into something totally different.
As Stillman explains, “Heartrender marks the beginning of my second chapter as an artist. I finally let my guard down and let myself just be, harnessing my voice and sound, and at the same time letting go of the notion that I had to sound a certain way.” Abandoning the path of traditional genre and ignoring any guidelines, Heartrender is a celebration of self-awareness and the strength in surrendering control to the unexpected turns of a life less planned, cracked open, and more beautiful for it.
Isabelle Stillman finds inspiration from balance, whether it is her dual life as an English teacher and touring musician, or her upbringing in Missouri to her present day in a crowded Los Angeles, she — a guitarist, songwriter and singer — has grown to find a harmony that resonates deeply within her music.
Stillman was raised from Midwestern roots, often attributing her groundedness to her strong family life. She craved music from an early age, always singing and growing up with her parents’ music as the soundtrack. Stillman was a teenager when she first picked up guitar; but, school remained her primary focus. Systematic learning satiated her — the definition of “success” so clearly defined. Raised in a community that valued structure, Stillman embraced it. And yet her creativity continued to flow.
Following a family tradition set by her great uncle, southern writer Peter Taylor, Stillman went to study Fiction Writing in college, growing to create worlds, people and messages on a page. As she continued to search for a place her writings and drive could affect social justice, Stillman was offered a teaching job and relocated to Denver to spend two years a high school English teacher. Still unfulfilled, she went back to her guitar and started to delve into songwriting. As Stillman simply puts it, “It was something of a relief – in a society where progress is the goal, and achievement and productivity often define our worth, I could capture my heart and it felt in equal parts rebellious and healing.”
Stillman taught by day and gigged by night. By the end of her second year teaching, she had produced a full-length album. Her debut album, Middle Sister, paid homage to her family and upbringing while launching her onto a path abandoning traditional genre and ignoring guidelines. Released in 2019 to good reviews, it reflected the confusing process of becoming an artist and a grown-up, cohesive in lyric, addressing themes of grounding and aspiration, love and loss, independence and reliance. As Paste Magazine wrote, “Isabelle’s love of words and depth as an artist are apparent...”; the project brought into full focus the intersection of all of Stillman’s worlds.
Through this journey of self-realization, Stillman would uproot herself to spend a year traveling on her first national tour, a momentum abruptly ended by the outbreak of the coronavirus. This massive change and the dismantling of her life as she knew it was the impetus for her forthcoming release, Heartrender.
Coming from a place of vulnerability and awakening that can only be sparked through transition, pitfalls and personal upheaval, the resulting collection of songs on her newest project navigates changing worlds and the strength that comes from the search for self. Through thoughtful lyrics and an affinity for storytelling, Heartrender acknowledges the human condition as one of growth from tragedy, reinvention from discovery, and resilience from pain. As Stillman explains, “This project marks the beginning of my second chapter as an artist. I’ve finally found a place where all the parts of my can live in harmony, complimenting and challenging each other, complimenting and challenging me.”
Stillman relocated to Los Angeles in June 2020 to return to school for an MFA in Creative Writing/MA in English and teach. She continues to explore the balance between her many creative outlets and career paths, finding the place where everything works to compliment, challenge and build towards a greater good. As Stillman enters her “next chapter”, she celebrates self-awareness and the strength in surrendering control to the unexpected turns of a life less planned, cracked open, and more beautiful for it.