After a breakthrough in 2013, Christelle Gualdi's life collapsed. Six years on, her house of cards is nearly rebuilt.
Describing Stellar OM Source live is like trying to lasso a whirlwind. The raft of blinking equipment illuminating her, and the breakneck speed at which her hands move, gives the impression of watching a scene from Minority Report on 1.25x playback. She is headbanging within minutes, upper body flailing, her face obscured by a great bushel of hair. It's cathartic and engrossing, but these aren't always qualities people seek out at the beginning of a 62-hour marathon rave. The young audience is into it, but with reservations.
I leave at 4 AM, snooze, then get a cab back to see Dr. Rubinstein close out the first leg of Het Weekend's basement action. Stellar, real name Christelle Gualdi, is having brunch upstairs. We'd had fleeting communication over the internet before, but she comes over to say hi. We chat awhile about Alice Coltrane.
Six months on, we meet for a lunchtime curry before a night she's opening in Liverpool, her eighth gig of the year. She has flair in person as well as on stage: emphasised body movement, lots of direct eye contact, sentences rolling fluidly into one another with barely a pause for two hours. She shows me sketches made in the pickup from the airport—she had been engaged in dry tech-head chat the entire way, her internal monologue tilling: "Yes, I know what this does and yes that filter does have that effect, but it just feels like you have nothing else to talk to me about." I nip to the loo and come back to notice her napkin has been folded into an origami swan and a glass of prosecco on the table, freshly downed.
Restlessness runs deep through Christelle's life. She grew up in a nondescript town outside Paris. Her parents were, she says, "anti-conformist and into esoteric things." Her father held down a blues radio show for more than 15 years, and wore out a cassette of Tangerine Dream's Rubycon in the family car. Her mother would rock purple leather on the school run and treat allergic reactions with copper. Futuristic imagery and music, a cultural constant in the '80s, piqued the young Christelle's interest. She absconded to Germany when she was 16, although with her parents' blessing. An intention to study sound engineering didn't pan out, so she became a high flyer in the world of architecture and urban regeneration instead, working at an elite firm before getting cold feet and quitting age 27. It was "dumb," she laughs, but recurring dreams of being fastened to a train steadily rolling down life's tracks without controlling its direction startled her into action. "I don't settle," she says.
As the 2000s folded into the 2010s, Stellar OM Source made a name for herself in a nebulous scene of outer-realm electronic explorers, at a time when artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, Heatsick and Bee Mask were also reaching maturation. One moment that sticks out from her early material was on "How Many Voyages?," where a trapdoor opens and the bottom falls out, before a beautiful, bubbling respawn. Out of the blue, Christelle chanced upon a mint condition Roland TR-303 for €25. Deflated by countless sparsely attended basement gigs, she retooled her live show. 2013's Joy One Mile, on RVNG. Intl, was dynamic and powerful, one of that year's very best LPs. It is also, to date, a hard full stop in her catalogue.
The immediate aftermath of Joy One Mile was not just joyless, it was a nightmare. Her father, who had been ill for two years, died two months after the album's release. Two months after that her brother died unexpectedly. "I was going to play Elevate Festival in Graz," Christelle recalls. "Of course I was thinking how I could bring joy to people when I'm beyond sad inside. But I was afraid to withdraw and grieve, so I took care of my duties. I rang up Marlene Engel [curator of Vienna's Hyperreality festival] in advance and told her, 'Hey, my brother just died. See you for the show in a week.'" Marlene picked up Christelle from the airport personally, took her to a winery and brought extra packs of cigarettes along just in case. Christelle honoured the booking, but she wasn't really there.
She started getting premonitions again of being on a fixed rail she had no agency over, and "the speed of the train kept getting faster." While recording a follow-up EP, Nite-Glo, she found out in September 2014 that she was pregnant. Christelle took this as a chance to pull the emergency stop lever. She informed her agent that it was time to wind down. The following June, her son Zé arrived—named in part as a hat-tip to tropicália great Tom Zé, as well as the Dutch pronunciation of the sea, and Zé Povinho, a Portuguese national symbol who personifies the conscientious and kind working class. This was her life now. Nite-Glo arrived with no supporting shows. The few interviews she gave around that period have detachment scrawled over them. Stellar OM Source was over.
After years of reflexively turning down live sets, Christelle agreed to an offer from Unsound in Minsk and bought back pieces of equipment she had sold off (not the 303, nor her father's Juno-106). A few more trickled in after that, probing Christelle into making a call: restart her career in earnest or keep it in the cryogenic freezer? Architecture provided steady income, while music would require a concerted effort to get it off the ground again. During our conversation, she was playing a one-woman game of contradiction tennis, slumping across the table theatrically before snapping straight and singing the quiet joys of getting a red-eye flight from Brussels to Manchester knowing a party and a paycheck awaited. Being surrounded by friends at some gigs was thrilling, but other shows were duds.
She spoke effusively about Karen Gwyer's capacity to hold it all together, but fretted about the "stigma of being a techno mum." Trauma compounded her concern. "I worry that if I tell people about what happened, they will be like, 'Fuck, that's so heavy.' Well yes, but I'm still here. Shit happens in life and sometimes it's very heavy. Everybody's a survivor. But these tiny moments, where I can play, I can close my eyes, time can stop, the world can stop, and that's it. I'm happy. There's no music industry worry, it's just…" she trails off. I got the niggling sense that Christelle wasn't all the way in. She wasn't.