Becca Stevens – Interview

Becca Stevens: “I hope to find solace, inspiration, originality, authenticity, humanness, fearlessness, grounded-ness, spirituality, and raw emotion”

Becca Stevens (Copyright: Ground Up Rec)

„WONDERBLOOM, the title of Becca Stevens new album was inspired by the Titan Arum, the so called “corpse flower”, “a plant that spends 7-10 years growing before it finally bursts into a magnificent bloom that smells like rotting meat and lasts for 12-48 hours before wilting and beginning again”, as Becca Stevens explains in her conversation with Thomas Venker.

Becca Stevens gonna perform with her band in Cologne at Stadtgarten on the 12th of November.

Which music was the first to touch you?
Quite literally the song “Kid on the Mountain” played on the fiddle by my father in the delivery room a few moments after I was born.

What made it so special and out standing to you?
I was raised on Irish Folk/Appalachian music, among many other styles of music, but this music feels like home to me. When I think of the scenery, especially the mountains of Western North Carolina near where I was born, I feel deeply inspired, and connected to my roots.
When I listen to the song “Kid on the Mountain” it sounds like home to me.. the playful lilt of the melody, the dancing rhythms, and the rush of nostalgia that I associate with solo fiddle.

What do you hope to find in music?
I hope to find solace, inspiration, originality, authenticity, humanness, fearlessness, grounded-ness, spirituality, and raw emotion.

The questions goes for both, your own music and the ones of others.
I hope to find all of the same things above when writing and performing music. I’ll also add that when writing and performing, it’s a common practice for me to close my eyes and remind myself that this is NOT all about me. The more I can get into this headspace when I’m performing, the more connected the performance tends to be. Music is a gift for everyone. It’s a language of energy and sounds that are not to be claimed, or made self indulgent/self serving. Music like that doesn’t welcome people, and it doesn’t speak to me. And yet it’s one of the hardest things to remember as an artist. It’s very easy to get sucked into worrying what people will think, and whether they’ll like you or what you create.

Your new album „WONDERBLOOM“ reflects the passing of your grandfather and all the struggle of sadness and love that comes along with such a heavy experiences. What new perspectives did this bring up in your music?
The album’s title was inspired by the Titan Arum, a flowering plant with the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. The Titan Arum, also known as the “corpse flower”, spends 7-10 years growing before it finally bursts into a magnificent bloom that smells like rotting meat and lasts for 12-48 hours before wilting and beginning again. The title came after all the music on the album was written and recorded, on my first vacation since the start of the 7 month process of “WONDERBLOOM”. I was searching for a title, something to encompass the strength and joy, and grooving dancing qualities of the music when the sound of strong wind blowing through the leaves of a palm tree caught my attention. In that moment, the palm tree felt like the perfect mascot for this album. Tall, strong, playful, yet wearing the scars of its growth like badges around it’s trunk. The leaf of the palm tree is customarily awarded as a prize for victory or triumph, and the word “palm” also spoke to me. These songs are on the shorter side, and each tells a different story about a moment that inspired me, whether personal or historical. This was a very different process than “Regina” which came from the inspiration of queens, whereas each song on “WONDERBLOOM” fits right in the palm of your hand.

Becca Stevens (Copyright: Ground Up Rec)

During the writing process of this album, I didn’t really have a common theme that ran through every song the way I did with my last album, “Regina”, aside from challenges I set for myself, like staying direct, enjoying the process, and serving the songs. When asked if there was something that I thought about during the writing of every song, a photo of my grandfather came to mind, not because I had consciously chosen him to be a theme of the record, but because his photo sits on a Wurlitzer in my music room in my apartment in Brooklyn. The photo had been taken just after his doctor told him he had terminal cancer, and he wanted to have a memory made of the way he looked before the cancer took him. His smile beams with so much joy and warmth in the photo. While writing the music for “WONDERBLOOM” in my music room, I often found myself gazing at the photo to come up with words, or chords, or just to remind myself not to take the process too seriously, to find joy, stay light, and direct, and serve the song.

Coming from the fact that the album reflects all that,  I was surprised to read you collaborated all in all with more than 40 musicians for the recordings. Could you describe the idea behind that and how you processed this huge structural and emotional project?
The collaborative element of “WONDERBLOOM” was crucial to the making of this music. One of the main goals I set for myself on this album was to challenge my tendency to turn inward and control the process, and instead share and collaborate as much as the songs asked for along the way. It was a very organic, not premeditated process of collaborating. Nic Hard, my co-engineer/co-producer and I would be tracking and editing and a missing element would arise, at which point we’d think of someone who would be perfect to record on the song, and text them right away. Most of the people we thought of were miraculously able to either come by during the recording process, or send stems from their home studio. This process was extremely different for me, and so deeply fulfilling. It fit the goal of being joyful too as the communal vibe was just more fun!

In the past you worked with artists like David Crosby, Esperanza Spalding, Brad Mehldau and José James, to name just a few. Do all of those artists get the same Becca Stevens? You know what I mean, how specific is your interaction with them?
I try to bring as much of myself everywhere I go, whether it’s singing/writing with others, or just living life. That said, I am influenced by another’s music when I collaborate, which I think is one of the beautiful things about collaboration… making room for the other’s voice, and finding harmony between their’s and yours. It creates a third entity, a world where the two coexist, which can be a beautiful thing.

In your biography I found this reference to the family band The Tune Mammals – family band like with your father, mother and siblings?
The Tune Mammals comprised of my Mom, Dad, sister, brother, and me. We would perform catchy, witty children’s songs at schools and festivals all around the east coast, and sometimes beyond. My dad wrote and played the songs on various instruments and we would sing them together as a family. I am the youngest of three, and was born into this rich and exciting musical environment. Before I could crawl, they would put me in a bassinet on stage during performances. I sang before I could talk, and by the time I could stand I was performing with the Tune Mammals, chiming in on choruses and hooks.

I visited Durham in North Carolina twice for Moog Festival, both very positive experiences.
Would you say that been born in North Carolina had an huge impact of your socialization as a musician?
North Carolina is my roots! The Appalachian mountains, bluegrass, folk music, folk instruments, big tall green trees and sunshine and warm smiles, warm people, and family. I grew up in a house with a lot of different instruments around. My dad is a multi-instrumentalist/composer/singer. He wrote everything from children’s music to symphonies and operas when we were kids, and when he was in his twenties he was a bluegrass band where he played hammered dulcimer, guitar, keys, fiddle, and banjo. When I took an interest in guitar there was a whole closet full of his I could lust over and practice on. Then in high school, when I studied classical guitar at the North Carolina School of the Arts and got burned out on classical repertoire, the jazz scene in Winston-Salem and Raleigh became my creative getaway, and gateway into what would eventually inspire me to make the move to NY and study jazz voice and composition at the New School.

Becca Stevens (Copyright: Ground Up Rec)

Now you live in Brooklyn since a few years – to which degree did the city already write its paths in your identity?
I’m going on 17 years now in New York! Crazy. It’s had a huge effect on my artistry, my music, my identity, and my life. So many of the people I play with I would have never met if I hadn’t moved here. The people in my band for example, and the friends and teachers who encouraged me to put together a band and perform my music live, the people who heard me singing in NY and hired me to sing and tour with them, allowing me to pay my rent in the early days, the jazz studies I immersed myself in, and then ran from, and then embraced again, the relationships that inspired my songs, the apartments where I wrote them, it’s all part of my identity over the course of the last seventeen years. Who knows who or where I’d be now if it weren’t for all of that.

What does it mean to you that the New York Times speaks of you as a best kept secret and a strikingly exciting artist?
That “best kept secret” quote came from an article that Nate Chinen wrote about me front page of Sunday arts section in 2008 back when not many people knew my name. It was a huge deal that he was able to run that then, which means it probably would have been impossible now! I think it’s funny that that quote is still used so often, after 11 years of constant hard work, four more albums, and touring so much that I’m rarely home. Alas, still a best kept secret 🙂 Jokes aside, it’s an honor to have had the likes of the Times say anything about me or my music.

Me as a writer, I can name a lot of role models for me, authors like Julie Burchill, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs or Martin Büsser were very influencial for the devellopment of my own style and attitude. Do you have artistic role models too, as a musician as much as an artists in the not always easy music business?
My family, and music that I heard when I was growing up, especially the Bothy Band. The classical music I heard as a kid and throughout my life. Bach, Bartok, Steve Reich, Beethoven. The folk and pop music I was drawn to in my teens: Joni, Björk, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Robert Johnson, Tori Amos, Thom Yorke/Radiohead. And all the jazz artists who brought me so much freshness to balance my interests and curiosity when I was studying classical guitar: Ella, Billie, Miles, Mingus, Ellington, Sarah, Nina…
My dad was my biggest role model when I was young. He was always very good at nurturing my approach, and feeding my interests with sounds that only expanded my palette further. Through my life I’ve found myself drawn to artists who sound like no one else, and who are clearly following their own path and sound.

Do you see a connection between your femininity and your work? And if so what is it?
Absolutely. I am a woman, and a big part of my life not only as an artist, but just as a human is learning to embrace that with strength and pride and joy more and more with every day that I live. There are certain struggles that women face in the music industry that men see much less of, and this theme finds its way into my writing, not only as lyrical inspiration, but also an emotional hurdle to stand up to gracefully. I find that because I’m a woman, I have a lot more people explaining things to me in a condescending tone than my bandmates, assuming I don’t write my own music, assuming I must have “some other job, like a teacher or something”, assuming I don’t know what I’m doing, or what I’m talking about.

But beyond being a woman, I find a lot of strength and inspiration in identifying with both my divine femininity, and masculinity. “Regina” was very tapped into the divine feminine, regal qualities, virtue, compassion, sensitivity, emotional world, and the female experience. It is an album inspired by queens, and queenliness, through and through. “WONDERBLOOM” is more sensual than any record I’ve ever made, more fearless, more danceable, more communal, joyful, open, and direct.

Your most beautiful experience focused on your music?
Impossible to decide, but one that comes to mind was a concert I played at the end of a jazz summer camp where I was teaching in Vallekilde, Denmark. It was a candlelit concert in a small cathedral. The camaraderie and emotions were high in the room after a week of really beautiful musical experiences together. Each teacher got to decide how they wanted to commemorate their week. I chose a solo concert, but one of my students had joked at one point that “Becca’s end of camp event should be a hugging room, where people just hug each other.” After my last tune the audience leapt to their feet and asked for an encore. I asked what they wanted to hear and someone yelled “canyon dust” and another person yelled “hugging room”. I said that I don’t think I’d be able to do both and someone else yelled “do both!”. And so I did. I played the song and each student, one by one, there must have been 80 of them, walked quietly up to the stage and gently, but with so much sincerity, hugged me from behind while I was performing “Canyon Dust” as to not disturb my hands from dancing on the strings. I had to close my eyes. It was too beautiful to take it in visually along with the feeling. The song is something I wrote from my suffering, and to have 80+ hugs while I was performing it in a candlelit cathedral was a profoundly healing experience I’ll never forget. After the concert, I was moved to tears and struggled to put the experience into words for a long time.

In Cologne you gonna perform with a band of four other musicians: Chris Tordini on bass, Jordan Perlson on the drums, Michelle Willis on vocals and keyboards and Jan Esbra on guitar. What makes this constellation of people special to you? Is there a way to describe why this set up and not any other?
Since I first put my band together in 2005, it’s been really important to me to play my music with a “band”, a group of people who know the songs intimately, by heart, and who are invested in the process, who know each other’s styles, and quirks on the road, who laugh together, and speak the same musical language. For this record, and a bit with “Regina”, I’m branching out of that a little for the first time, which I think is also important for me as it’s leading to opportunities of growth in collaboration, but for my touring shows, my first call will always be my bandmates. This is the first tour I’ve added Jan Esbra to the fold. “WONDERBLOOM” has a lot of layers and is richly produced. When dreaming up how to recreate the album live, I decided it would be really liberating to have an extra set of trusted hands. This has also given me the freedom to just sing on some songs, which is such a beautiful contrast to accompanying myself with intricate guitar lines while I sing.

The concert announcement comes with quite a wide range of style categories: Jazz, Folk, R’n’B and Funk. What I wonder, do you even think in such terms of is music for you not rather an open field?
I’ve never felt inclined to limit myself to one genre. I don’t believe it suits me. I love the freedom of wandering through styles, following inspiration and whatever serves the song, rather than genre.

Becca-Stevens (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Last question: What is your favorite record out there right now?
Oh wow, that is impossible to answer! But the last thing I heard that blew my mind was a track Jacob Collier sent to me called “Firesmoke” by Kate Tempest.

“WONDERBLOOM” by Becca Stevens will be released by GroundUp in March 2020.

Becca Stevens on tour:
30.10.2019 Aachen Musikbunker Aachen
05.11.2019 Essen Zeche Carl
07.11.2019 Ravensburg Trans4jazz-Festival
10.11.2019 Bremen Sendesaal Bremen
12.11.2019 Köln Stadtgarten
14.11.2019 Berlin Quasimodo

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