The Sweet Spot Between Expression and Familiarity: An Interview with Becca Stevens
Jazz-pop great Becca Stevens is breaking from being billed as a band to craft a progressive solo effort that will take many of her fans into new and fascinating places.
It seems like decades since Becca Stevens turned heads with her guest spot on jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's modern-day masterpiece, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint and the song "Out Basement (Ed)". With a voice that exudes as much grace as it does seduction, the North Carolina-born singer announced herself to an entirely new audience with her singing on that song, and from there, it's seemingly been a storm of endorsements featuring everyone from Snarky Puppy to David Crosby.
Earlier this year, Stevens released her fourth studio album as a leader, Regina. A concept album that began after studying the life of Queen Elizabeth I, each song in the set relates in some way, shape or form to various queens from throughout all of recorded history. Expanding on her formula of quirky pop, introspective folk, and always-changing jazz textures, the record marked the first time she released something under her own name (rather than attaching it to a band) and featured everyone from the aforementioned Crosby to Laura Mvula as collaborators.
"I've found that by removing my plots from the storylines I've accessed more of my artistry than in my writing before," Stevens noted before her latest album hit stores. "Even though my writing for Regina was inspired by other characters, I told their stories by means of relating to them on a personal level, which made them my stories, too. Writing with Regina as my muse has allowed my art free rein to dance in new and unexpected directions."
PopMatters caught up with the singer recently to talk about which queens inspired that new record, her ability to "fart out" certain types of songs for breakfast, the ability to write angry songs (even after she gets married later this year) and the importance of never being bored.
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I've read that Regina is your alter ego and I was wondering if you could expand on that and what that means. Also, how long as Regina been in existence?
That's a very good question. It started out as just the title for a theme for a body of music I was working on a couple of years ago. I was writing for commission for a body of songs that were inspired by the word "queen". My dad came up with the idea, "Why not Regina because it's Latin for Queen?" I really liked the word. Something about it spoke to me. Then, the deeper that I got into this project, the more I started uncovering different ways to approach the word, "queen". Not just literally and historically, but also figuratively -- coming up with my own types of queens and also just distilling the elements that make a queen and finding that in myself or other people and other situations.
Over time, Regina became something that I was building inside myself. This synth of strength and clarity and divinity. Every time I wrote from that platform, I was just building on this clarity. Sometimes, it feels like she's a person that I created -- like an imaginary friend who hangs out with me and when I write songs with her, I feel very clear. [laughs] And sometimes it feels like something I'm developing in myself so that I can be stronger -- a stronger writer, a stronger performer, and just person.
Is it sort of like a Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce thing?
[laughs] I've thought of that, actually, because as writers and performers there are a lot of moments of vulnerability and the more that we can trick ourselves into believing in ourselves, the better we are as artists. There are moments on stage where I might think, "Oh gosh, I'm such a weirdo and no one likes me," or something, and then I'll quickly snap to, "No! I'm playing Regina right now. And Regina wouldn't be scared. She would be standing out on a balcony over hundreds of thousands. Her kingdom is below her, and she is there to spread love and clarity." So, I trick myself into being this character that I've created and then everything's OK.
With that said, this album -- it's really kind of pointed. Knowing that you were going into the album like you were, was this a different kind of process, putting these songs together? Did you feel more empowered? Did you feel like a different artist when tackling these songs?
Yes. In general, largely, yes. And then at times, I felt more vulnerable, depending on the song. The majority of the writing was a lot more clear and a lot more empowered. There was a lot less doubt. Being completely alone in the process is what I'm used to -- like going deep-sea diving into these uncomfortable emotions, and it can be very slow and very vulnerable. Writing that way, which is the way I started, there have been times when I had to put away a song for a year because it was too soon.
But something about having this theme has allowed me to remove myself just enough that there's nothing in the way. It's much easier for me to download this kind of material from this sacred river that we tap from. I'm not so much in the way, and I'm not doubting the things that come through because even though it's an entity that I've created, there's someone on my side saying, "Yeah, yeah. You're on the right track!"
Are any of these songs hard to revisit or hard to play, emotionally, at all?
"Harbour Hawk" is an emotional song to perform. That's one that I wrote for my grandmother, and it's a very personal song. I wrote it from her perspective, which made it ... before coming up with the Regina theme, I had started writing that song from when my grandfather passed away. It was just kind of clunking along, and it wasn't going anywhere. I had a draft of it, but I just wasn't pleased with it. Then, my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that night, I was taking a bath, and I was picturing her on the boat that they had when I was kid called "Harbour Hawk", and the song just poured out. By that time, I had written in the context of this idea of a queen, and she was absolutely a queen in my life. There's a lot of metaphor; there are some jokes. At the beginning of the song, she's standing on the back of the boat, and she's trying to sketch a portrait of my grandfather after he passed away and she's unhappy with it, so she throws it off the back of the boat, which is very much like her.
She was always very self-deprecating but in a very charming, adorable way. Then, the painting comes flying back onto the boat and hits her in the face. And this was my nod to a story that she had told me once -- when she went to spread his ashes, she went out on a boat, out to sea, and there was this moment where she threw the ashes out to the sea, and a big gust of wind came and blew them all back in her face. [laughs] So, I was referencing that, and then I was also referencing the fact that I tried to throw the song away and the song flew back into my life unexpectedly. There are a couple of others on there that are more personal than others, but the majority of the songs -- they're not really my story at all. I've pulled from my experiences in order to tell the story, like an actor, but they weren't really my character.
Well, then, I have to get to the burning question I have, which is the song "45 Bucks" because I think that might be the single best song I've ever heard in my life. It's so cutting.
[laughs] Wow, cool! You're the first person to say that.
Have you had any other responses to that song?
I had expected that one to be the single but was kind of surprised that everyone was gravitating toward "Queen Mab", which blew me away because that was one, that at a certain point, I almost threw it away because I was so unsure about it. But the funny thing about "45 Bucks" is that ... so, I have this really great relationship with my manager, and she and I talk about songwriting sometimes, and it's interesting what people are drawn to and what takes people more time to come to. I really love a challenge, and I love it when people challenge me. She had said, "Why don't you just try writing a simple, catchy song. Do your own thing with it; make it interesting to you. But just try." My response to that has always been, "Well, I fart those things our for breakfast." Ever since I was a kid, I make a billion of those songs a day, and they bore me.
So, I was like, "OK, for example, I had this neighbor who was getting in the habit of asking me for money a lot. At first, I was very generous and was just like, 'Pay me back when you can.' After a while, I was like, 'Are you going to pay me back?' And he was always like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll pay you back.' Then, after the last time, it was a large amount of money. I think was about 45 dollars and I just gave it to him and said, 'Don't ask me for money again until you pay me back.' I kept seeing him on the block, and he would avoid me. He would cross the street, so I got really annoyed." So, I started farting out this song one morning and said, "Well, I have this song in my head, but it's really stupid, but I'll recording and send it to you, and you'll see how stupid it is."
As I was putting it down on paper, I realized that what I thought was about this one person, this neighbor, started to ... the more I got into the song, the more I was embodying all these relationships in my life where people had really broken my trust, to the point where I didn't even really care about them anymore. So, it ended up being that I was even proud of it by the time I sent it to her. It was funny because when I sent it to her, she was like, 'This is exactly what I was talking about.' So, I took it to Troy Miller, the producer of the record, and together, we came up with some interesting sections to go around and fit in with the rest of the material on the record a little more.
It's so biting. To hear it's about a neighbor that kind of sucks -- I have this whole vision in my head that you're getting back at somebody in this song. I feel like there's a lot of you in it.
Well, you're right. I won't go too much into that, but there was another relationship that came up pretty strongly as I was writing it and it was sort of like an outlet for that, for sure. You're right ... you're right. [laughs]
If that person heard the song, would that person know the song was about him or her?
Those are the best. The line, "I don't think you're funny. I only laughed 'cause I could tell you wanted me to," you're not just mean, you're cutting this person apart. I love it!
There's a Southern quality. In the South, you learn how to insult people by mixing it with passive-aggression and compliments and some mild, "Oh, I feel bad for you" kind of thing. So, that's where that whole, "I don't even think you're funny; I just laughed because I felt bad for you" came in. It's that Southern passive-aggression that I grew up with.
You touched on something here, though, when you said you fart these songs out for breakfast and those kinds of songs kind of bore you. What drew me to your music a while ago is the complexity of your work. To me, it's so original, so singular. So, I was wondering about the songwriting process for you, especially with odd time-signatures. When you sit down to write, do you have the band in mind? Do you have backing parts in mind? Or do you let everyone else kind of fill in the gaps?
I will say that currently, my favorite challenge when I'm writing music is to try and find that sweet spot between expressing myself, which is inevitably authentic -- if we're purely expressing ourselves, then we're expressing our authenticity -- but it's also inevitably a little odd and always has been, much to my dismay. [laughs] A balance between that and some sense of familiarity, which is more challenging for me, to be accessible and to be familiar. It's sort of backward for me. I assume for other people; it's easier to do things that are simple.
So you make things harder for yourself?
Yeah. It's sort of like I start with every single color out on the table that you could imagine, and then I take things away that I feel like I don't need. I think finding that balance is the sweet spot, and that balance for me is always changing, depending on the project. With that said, on some of my previous records -- especially on Weightless, which was like chamber music for my band, I'd set up a Garageband file and have three tracks for Liam [Robinson, the band keyboard player]: one for his voice, one for his accordion, and one for his piano, and maybe another one for auxiliary percussion that he could do on the side of his accordion or something. Anything that he could do was on this score, basically, that I made on Garageband. Same for Chris, same for Jordan and same for me.
Then, the way that I wrote those songs was like, "I'm going to write songs that are as full as they could be live, with no overdubs." When I wrote the songs for Perfect Animal, it was a very similar approach in that I was writing specifically for the musicians in my band, but I was writing with a more produced studio approach, where I would have ideas for more vocals and sounds than we could produce, which ended up being more fun in the studio and then more challenging to get the sounds together for live performance. But in turn, it made us evolve and grow a lot. By the time we were touring that stuff, we were adding in all these elements to our bag of tricks.
What's so different about this one, is that I released myself from the responsibility of keeping this only to my bandmates, which was not a departure so much as an opportunity for more collaboration. The band is still on the record, and I'm still performing the music with the band, but during the recording process, I was able to be more free, like a butterfly that could fly from one country to the next, collaborating with all these people. I was just actually getting to live my dream, which was making music with the people who were inspiring me the most in that time, along with my band.
Does this mean that when you tour, will you take out a larger band?
Depending on the show and people's availabilities. From time to time, I think Mike League will sit in, and Jacob sits in, but really the majority of the shows are the same band that's been playing for 12 years or however long it's been, with the exception of sometimes, Michelle Willis will be either replacing Liam or adding onto Liam. Michelle has become like a member of the band in the last six months since I've been touring with David Crosby with her. I think it's appropriate for Regina to have another female voice in the picture, another female energy.
It's a great band live. How did you find those guys? You found some great people to play with.
You're absolutely right. Chris [Tordini, bassist] and I were classmates for the entire four years that I was at The New School. We graduated together and were in tons of different ensembles together. Liam -- we started at The New School together, and the first band I was ever in, in college, was called In A China Shop because we were ruckus and we were like the bull in the china shop. I never sang any words; I only did screaming kazoo solos. Liam was in that band, and we always got along really well. When I was putting together the first version of my band, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Liam would be in it and Chris would be in it. Liam embodied this energy that I was trying to find for the group. Someone who could sing, so it could give me more possibilities for vocal harmonies, and also, I was drawn to the accordion because it took the keyboard but made it more like an orchestra, and it's portable, which is really useful in New York. [laughs]
Same with Chris, all though I didn't know that Chris could sing initially. It wasn't until the other guitar player left the band that I was like, "Should I audition someone who's just a singer," and I asked Chris if he would be willing to sing. He said, "I'll give it a try, but I probably won't do very well." In the rehearsal, without making a single mistake, he sang every single part and played the bass at the same time perfectly. He's that kind of person, where everything he does is just absolute perfection. He's so freaking talented. The three of us toured trio for a while and then Jordan [Perlson, drummer] was friends with Chris and said, "Hey, I notice you guys aren't playing with a drummer, and I love your record; can I audition to be in the band?" He was perfect. We had auditioned a few drummers, and I had never liked anyone enough to take them with us, but Jordan was able to come in, in such a way where he was approaching it not like a drummer, but almost in an orchestral percussionist type of way. He just was the perfect fit.
You said something that I want to return to -- talking about those simple songs, on Perfect Animal, you covered three pop songs that were pretty popular songs. What compelled you to do that then, if those are the kinds of songs that bore you?
They're not the kinds of songs that bore me. I think that the sweet spot is when you can find that balance of accessibility and authenticity. I'm trying to think of if I've ever covered a song that bores me. I reckon I could and sort of make it my own, so it excites me. But "Thinkin' Bout You" was from a record that I was obsessed with and "Higher Love" is definitely not a boring song. It has like ten sections, and it's epic. "U Make Me Wanna" is a good example of something that I made a lot more complicated than it was, but still have that inviting sense. When I play it at shows, someone who maybe has never heard my music before and is trying to decide whether or not they like it might hear that and they all of a sudden start to smile.
If I can find a way to approach that and keep its integrity and its sense of humor but also make it completely my own, it gives someone a gateway into me, and they get a sense of what my sound is. That was where I was coming from -- I have this stuff, and I need something to bring some lightness to it and make it inviting but still authentic and original.
I wonder if there is something about pop music that you really ... I don't know how much pop music interests you, I guess.
I love pop music! I listen to pop music more than I listen to anything else. Maybe I led you astray when I said that I fart those songs out for breakfast. [laughs] I was talking about a type of song that has no thought behind it. I hear a lot of it on the radio, where it's just like there are these cookie cutters where they don't have anything real in them. It's just this formulaic kind of songwriting that's like, "I'm going to write a hit. It's going to have just the right amount of nostalgia, just the right amount of sex, just the right amount of a boring melody that you know you've heard before, but it's totally ripping off something else."
I guess what I was trying to say was I can easily make simple songs, but it's much harder to get to the point where that simple song is something that I'm proud to perform every night over and over again in front of a bunch of people I've never met before. If I'm performing a song in front of all those people that I'm not proud of, I'm going to be embarrassed. That's a terrible feeling. What I like about covering songs is that I'll get this sense from a song where I hear it on the radio, and it's inviting me, like, "Come on in!" It's so fun to do that; it gives me a break from what I normally do. Writing lyrics is very difficult for me, whereas when I'm singing a cover, it's like vacation songwriting time. I get to be in somebody else's world and just play around.
There's one more song that I wanted to ask you about from the new record. "Mercury" is a song ...
I knew you were going to say "Mercury"!
How did you know that?!
Because it's very different from everything else on the record.
To me, it echoes so much of the Police, and I'm wondering if The Police were in your mind when that song was written.
Freddie Mercury was in my mind when that song was written.
Oh, I guess that makes sense. But I hear a lot of the Police in that song.
When I play the guitar part acoustically, it reminds me a lot of Gin Blossoms. From, like, Empire Records and stuff. It reminds me of Gin Blossoms, and it was sort of unintentional. OK. Wait. I'll tell you what the song was about and what I was channeling and you can make your own assumptions about everything else.
Very early in the process, that was one the songs -- that and "Queen Mab" and "Both Still Here" were some of the early songs I wrote for this project -- but that one, I was looking for ways to incorporate the queen theme, but loosely. First, I did Queen Mab and Queen Elizabeth and this other queen that didn't make it on the record, and I was like, "How else can I use that word?" I thought of the band Queen and Freddie Mercury. He has the same regal, strong, defined, fantastic qualities; he's like a queen in that he's this absolutely fantastic human being who's full of confidence and strength. Deep down, he's also very real and struggles with the same things all human beings struggle with.
I really liked this idea of including a man in the queen project because these qualities don't have to be specifically about women; they're just more commonly associated with women, but it's stuff that all of us embody. I embody masculine qualities and masculine strengths just as much as I embody feminine ones, but it just so happens that the feminine strengths are the ones that are less appreciated and less revered. I think that we live in a world where there's more emphasis put on masculine strengths, and the feminine strengths are often seen as weaknesses, unfortunately.
I was thinking about a lot of that stuff, and I was reading about him and feeling really inspired by his life and the way he lived his life and the way he approached his art and reading his interview quotes. The interview quotes were what really got the song spinning. I took, like, a hundred quotes of his and anything that inspired me lyrically, I would take it and put it on another page and crafted these lyrics from his interview quotes.
Is that where the hook came from?
"I want it all" -- I think that's actually from a song of his. "I want it all, and I want it now." But "Dullness is a disease, darling; I'm not going to be a star, I'm going to be a legend" is an interview quote, and "Modern paintings are like women; you'll never enjoy them if you try to understand them" is a quote. And he said something about stuffing his pants: "I hate pockets and trousers, by the way, I do not wear hoes; by the way, there's no bottle stuffed down there." [laughs]
They make these really interesting lyrics. My favorite thing that I found in his quotes is, "Does it mean this, does it mean that? That's anybody wants to know. I'm seeing this, I'm seeing that. If you see it, darling, then it's so." I can't remember if that's exactly what he said, but that's in the lyric. I just like this idea of picturing him, all these people shoving microphones in his face, saying, "Well, this is what I think I see in your music; what does it mean?" Sometimes, you can't put it into words; sometimes, it's just art and what you see in it is what it is.
It's kind of a transformative song for you, I think. I love it, and it's something that is a lot different from before. Is that something we'll see more of in the future? Do you like that song more than the others, perhaps?
It surprised me. I almost don't even know until the CD is done, what I've made. When I was making Regina, it wasn't until afterward, long after I mixed it, that I was looking back and could say, "Oh, I understand this now." As far as that song, in particular, I know that I wouldn't have written it if I hadn't been writing from this queen theme because I wouldn't have given myself permission to. It has so much of something else in it that I don't feel like it belongs to me. I don't think I would have allowed myself to go there, but because I was honoring another person, it wasn't about me, and therefore, I allowed this stuff to come out of me that was there, and that was mine, but it still felt like it didn't belong to me.
What's next? You have your toes in a lot of different stuff. Snarky Puppy. Tillery. David Crosby. How does the rest of 2017 look for you?
I hit the road, off to the UK and Europe in May. Same thing -- a lot of stuff in Europe in June and July. August, I come back. September, I'm getting married.
Oh, congratulations! You can't write songs like "45 Bucks" anymore, if you get married.
I sure can! I can write them about past experiences or I could write them from other people's perspectives. It's never too late to write angry songs.