As the lights fade in a dingy Fitzroy bar, smoke appears from hidden corners. A mellow, dream like backing track begins to fill the silence and heads across the room snap up, looking with anticipation to the stage.
The audience members – an interesting assortment of excited 20 somethings, classy 30 year olds and middle-aged folk rocking denim jackets – are here for the single launch of one of Melbourne’s most promising young bands. Stonefox.
Leading the three-piece indie pop band is energetic and talented Jenna Russo. You would almost describe the 21 year old as petite, but to do that would be to ignore the mass of curly brown hair that is her defining feature.
As a performer, Jenna has been compared to New Zealand pop star Lorde and while there is something in her haunting voice that echoes the Kiwi superstar, her hair seems to be the most obvious commonality.
As she leads Stonefox through their 10-song set, Jenna flicks her waves to one side strumming effortlessly on the guitar. As she switches to the keyboard, she flings her hair over to the other side; it’s pretty clear that Jenna is comfortable up there. In fact, she seems to relish every second of her time on stage.
Among the sold out crowd, a collection of Jenna’s friends, family and her parents stand proudly, excited to share in this special moment. There are also unknown faces among them; people that Jenna has never met, but who sing along to her lyrics.
The clear favourite with the audience is the band’s first single All I Want (2014). A mellow tune that showcases Jenna’s talent as both a singer and songwriter, All I Want marks the beginning of Stonefox’s success.
Jenna knows the song has been successful, but to actually see people engaging with her music is different to seeing the number of monthly Spotify subscribers climb above 126,000; it is surreal.
“This is a song I wrote in my room like four years ago and all of a sudden there were people singing it back to me. It was an incredible feeling.”
In between songs, the bands guitarist Tim Carroll, let’s the audience in on a little secret – Stonefox have played here before. Except last time, it was downstairs, to a crowd that consisted of a disinterested bartender and a security guard.
It’s moments like these that the young band mates truly appreciate how far they have come in a short time. Surprisingly – their chemistry suggests they are lifelong friends – it was only in early 2013 that they met, and later released their first song.
Fresh out of high school, Jenna went to see her favourite band, Snakadaktal, at a concert at Fed Square. While she listened to their dreamy, indie pop sound, Jenna met fellow Snakadaktal fan, Tim Carroll. The two instantly bonded and decided to meet up to share ideas about song writing.
With a family friend on drums, Jenna and Tim worked together to create a sound that they loved. In an effort to share their creation with others they decided to release a song under the name Stonefox.
From there, the band took off. Their song received attention and they were booked for a series of live shows.
But it soon became clear that the drummer was not as dedicated as Jenna and Tim, meaning he left relatively soon after this. “At the time it was so dramatic but now it’s like whatever,” says Jenna.
As if it were meant to be, their replacement drummer, Monica Spasaro, has been a perfect fit for the band.
“We met Monica not long after, luckily, and she’s the best. She’s been in the band for about a year and a half now and since then it’s just been like ‘bang bang bang bang!’ We’re all super dedicated to it.”
Their dedication has seen them play on stages across the country since 2014. Most ironically though, they played at Fed Square a year (nearly to the day) after Jenna and Tim had watched Snakadaktal perform on the same stage.
Watching Jenna sing her heart out on stage, while so naturally swapping between guitar and keyboard, makes you wonder if her talent is simply owed to hard work or if music is deeply ingrained.
Music has always been a huge part of Jenna Russo’s life. Despite her mum and dad having limited musical talent, her three brothers were always musical and, as the youngest, she grew up surrounded by music.
“There are so many home videos of us just dancing around and singing along to vinyls,” Jenna says.
“I started playing guitar in primary school, probably when I was about five or six. I used to watch my brothers play and I just picked it up,” Jenna says.
The very first guitar that came into the Russo household had special meaning to the four children and their parents.
“The only person other than my brothers that is musically talented is my mum’s dad, who I actually never met – he died when my mum was really young – but he was in bands that toured Australia.”
Her maternal grandfather played the piano accordion and when he died, it was left to Jenna’s mum Ida.
“My mum had it for years and years but she actually made the decision to sell it to buy a guitar. We were never going to learn piano accordion and my parents didn’t have much money so they decided to do that.”
The guitar was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with music for all the Russo children, but especially for Jenna. While she plays piano, bass, ukulele, and occasionally drums, guitar remains her strongest instrument and allows her to connect with a grandfather she was never able to meet.
Music is currently Jenna’s number one priority and that will probably remain the same for the foreseeable future. While she knows there’s a long way to go, taking a second to look back on how far she has come is always reassuring.
Only 18 months ago Jenna’s goal was to play an interstate show. Just one. Her big brown eyes light up with amazement as she says this, as if she still can’t quite believe that she has succeeded.
Not only has she succeeded, she has knocked it out of the ball park – Stonefox have toured nationally three times and have played shows in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth many times.
“There’s still a long way to go but now catching planes to an interstate show is nothing… Like last weekend we had Perth, this weekend we’ve got Adelaide and Melbourne, next weekend Sydney and it’s become almost normal,” she says.
Humbly, she adds: “I do still catch myself sometimes thinking ‘my goal only a year ago was to just get interstate once and now I’m doing it every weekend’ and it does feel cool.”
Understandably she is thrilled with their success – their single Dreamstate (2016) has been received incredibly well, Stonefox are regularly played on national radio station Triple J and they are currently on tour supporting fellow Aussie band Mosquito Coast.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of, but learning to balance success and the commitments that come along with it can be tough.
Technically, Jenna says, time management is key to balancing university (she is studying sculpture at the VCA), work, social events and band related stuff, “but I’m shit at that!”
“There is no way there is any time management involved in my dealing with this. It is just fluking day to day, but you’ve got to just do it.”
While the band takes number one priority, and Jenna finishes off the remaining few weeks of her degree, she will continue to “fluke” her way through.
As she serenades the crowd on stage in Fitzroy, it is easy to become swept into the dreamy sound. Many musicians use love and heart break as song writing inspiration, but this doesn’t seem to permeate Stonefox’s lyrics. Instead their inspiration comes from all over the place.
“I’ve always found that my writing is not based on a particular event, rather I would have a feeling or just a few words that I liked that would create a phrase that I’d then work on,” Jenna tells me.
“For me personally a song is not about a particular time but it’s a whole bunch of things coming together that I find artistically interesting, which is why I love our songs. They do come across as quite abstract lyrically, but I like that.”
The band’s dedicated fan base would indicate that Jenna is not the only one who likes this.
Jenna Russo is incredibly talented; there is no doubt about that. Whether she and Stonefox can make it big remains to be seen, but with luck on her side there is no reason why this gifted 21-year-old won’t succeed.
“In the music industry today, all you can do is make music that you like, put it out there as best you can and hope people like it,” Jenna says.