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North Carolina/New York singer-songwriter Becca Stevens defies pigeonholing and demands attention. She's a popular collaborator, having worked with artists as disparate as Taylor Eigsti, Brad Mehldau, Esperanza Spalding, and with her friends Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin in the trio Tillery.

Her voice draws from all over the musical map, encompassing jazz, pop, indie rock, but always with an identifiable persona. Her acoustic band emphasizes a guitar/mandolin/accordion roots sound with tasteful male backing vocals, both on covers (The Smiths, Seal, Animal Collective) and on her exceptional compositions, such as the title song from her best-known album, Weightless (2011). The song is a wonder of flittering charm, weaving airy melody and pulse (There's nothing like witnessing the moment that a life lets loose and falls to the ground. Weak autumn winds tip and easy like a wish upon weightless dandelion seeds.).

In this interview, Becca discusses her working habits, musical influences, aspirations and plans, including an upcoming new album.

Jeff Meshel (Songfacts): First of all, let me say that I'm a fan of your music. I think very highly of it.

Becca Stevens: Thanks so much.

Songfacts: I think you have a very original vision and it's an important kind of direction for music to go. And I'm pleased as punch to have the opportunity to talk to you about it a little bit.

Becca: Well, thank you.

Songfacts: What's new with you?

Becca: Well, just last night, actually at about two in the morning, I finished the last session with my band for my next record.

Songfacts: Wow. That's exciting.

Becca: And I'll have one more session in North Carolina in a couple of weeks, just me doing some overdubs of my voice and instrument by myself. But last night was the end of the band tracking. So that's exciting. And in about a week I'm going to Brussels to teach, and next month I'm going to Switzerland to play.

Songfacts: With your band?

Becca: No, actually, I'll just be a side-woman on that trip, with a composer, singer/songwriter named Levin Deger. And when I get back I'm singing with Tillery at the Kennedy Center. Tillery is me and Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin.

Songfacts: What used to be Girls Gone Wild?

Becca: Exactly. I'm doing a concert in June in California, actually, a few concerts, with part of this thing called Mainly Mozart, where a string ensemble is playing some of my compositions arranged by Steven Prutsman. That'll be cool.

Songfacts: What kind of compositions?

Becca: Well, they're just songs off of my record, but he's arranged them for a
string quartet. So lots of cool things like that on the horizon. And then once this record is finished, the band is going to be doing a lot of touring.

Songfacts: Wow. What's on the record?

Becca: It'll be mostly originals. And then I also did a few reworkings of songs that I like. Three of those.

Songfacts: Like what?

Becca: There's... oh, I don't want to give away all my surprises. But there's an Usher cover on there that I play live a lot.

Songfacts: Okay. Looking forward to it. And in what way is it different from Weightless?

Becca: Let's see. The music itself is different. If Weightless was somehow finding itself in the jazz genre, that this record has departed even more from being able to be categorized as jazz. And I don't mean by that any kind of negative way. It's just an observation. I think also because of the producer that we're working with, he really sees eye to eye with the vision of where I see the music going right now. And so the process of recording this music with him has been very different and much more like recording a pop record or a rock record. A lot of attention to detail and layering and sculpting the sonic landscape for every song.

Songfacts: Individually?

Becca: Uh huh. His name is Scott Solter.

Songfacts: You mentioned the dirty word of categorizing. I'm glad you mentioned it. How do you like to categorize it? When people ask you what kind of music you make, what do you answer them?

Becca: Well, to answer your first question, I don't like to categorize. It kind of stresses me out a little bit. You'd think that after all these years I would have just figured out a way to deal with those questions. But I think that part of what I love about making music and just music in general is that it can always be changing. It doesn't have to stay in one place. Even within a record I think that you can cover a lot of ground musically and still tell one story. And with my music and with my favorite artists, I find that they don't stay in one place for their whole career. They do a lot of investigating and growing and they keep you on your toes. And I like to live that way through my music. I like to follow whatever is inspiring me.

So I think that the short answer is that my music is a result of the things that have been my influences and my inspirations in the past and currently what is inspiring me has a big effect on my music. But when I have to categorize it, I usually just say that it's like a songwriter blend of pop and world music and jazz and rock. Something like that.

Songfacts: Yeah. I agree. I think there's almost a movement of that kind of music going on. I think there's a remarkable number of talented singer/songwriters operating in the no man's land between pop/rock and jazz. Esperanza Spalding's jazzier stuff is very song-ish. And she's one of the leading lights of the younger generation. And your friend Gretchen Parlato, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of years ago. And a whole bunch of others. I think it's a great thing for rock/pop and for jazz.

Becca: And I think that it's a result of a lot of people of my generation growing up listening to the popular music of their generation, but then they also have this love for jazz. And so it's only natural that they find a way to bring those worlds together in their writing and in their own music.

Songfacts: I think it's even more than just jazz, per se. A guy like Chris Thile, he says something like, "I'm going to base myself in this world that I grew up in, but screw all the rules. I'm just going to do something really independent within that. Something that doesn't abide by Bluegrass rules or Roots rules."

Becca: I think with the people you've mentioned, with Chris and Gretchen and Esperanza, those are people who I think really have their own voice. There's no one like them. And I think that part of finding your own voice is not playing by the rules. If you only play by the rules, then you're only like a reflection of other things that have already been done. There's this movement that I've seen with my students and colleagues and people that I look up to of people that have come through jazz school and after a couple of years of jazz school they start to realize, "I love jazz, but I want to do something more. I want to do something my own." And so they take this jazz education, the amazing harmonic knowledge that you get from that, and then blend it with all the things that move them. And then we end up with all these awesome bands that are a hybrid of so many different rich and interesting things.

Songfacts: I grew up on Top 40 music in the '60s. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for the 2 minute and 30 second pop hit.

Becca: Totally. Me, too.

Songfacts: It's like a sonnet. There are very strict rules that you have to play within and strictures and you have to work very hard to do something really cool there. Those are the rules of the game. I think it's good for jazz or more open sorts of music, open-minded sorts of music, to have some rules set, to be pushed into a song. That's what I mean about Esperanza, for example. It's like a jazz musician forced into playing songs, she's writing songs.

Becca: Totally. And I don't even know that I personally feel more or less constricted or liberated between the two different art forms, I think it's just different. Because there are things about jazz that feel limiting to me, but then at the same time sometimes I'll go and I'll sing a jazz standard on someone's record and then there are other things about it that feel so liberating. I've been in the studio, I've had three sessions already and I still have one more, and we're talking about almost week long sessions of me being very analytical about every single little piece.

And then I went and I was singing in the studio on Dayna Stephens' record - he's a wonderful saxophonist. I sang a take all the way through and I came into the studio ready to chop it up into a million pieces and put together something that I was proud of, and he was like, "No, no, no! It's perfect exactly the way that it is." I think that also has a lot to do with just who he is and what an open and beautiful musician he is, but then we listened through again and I was like, "You're right. This is how it's supposed to be."

I don't even know that that's necessarily jazz so much as it is an idea that you can apply to any art form. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are things that I find that are liberating in any art form. Sometimes if there are no rules, that can be just as limiting as having rules, because you're staring at this blank canvas, somebody hands you a paintbrush and you have every color in the world and you can paint anything. Then you're like, "Well, shoot." And you might end up staring at it for the next day.
But if they say, "You can only use these three colors and you have to paint something that has to do with this, this, and this," and then immediately something will pop into your head.

Songfacts: Motown.

Becca: Totally.

Songfacts: You'll come out with "I Can't Help Myself." Do you know Bill Evans' liner notes for Kind of Blue?

Becca: No, I don't.

Songfacts: Oh, boy. He talks about Chinese calligraphy. About how it has to be done in a single stroke. You have to obliterate the thinking process and it's pure improvisation. He talks about the nature of improvisation.

Becca: I love that.

Songfacts: He's a very articulate guy, really worth looking at. I admire his statement a lot.

But yet you say that the new album is more song/rock oriented?

Becca: Yeah. Definitely. I think I've been inspired for the last few years, I've been inspired more by that world, by this indie pop and rock world. And I've always wanted to make a record like the one that I'm making. So it's just been natural that that would go in that direction. And that's just the way that we're playing now. Everything is just moving in that direction.

Songfacts: When you go on tour with this album, how much improvisation will there be in the playing? Will it vary at all? Will the individual songs change much from night to night?

Becca: I can count on one hand the number of "solos" there are, per se. But even those solos – I think there are two, actually – they are partly composed. The music is very much through composed. There are places where we open up, but it's everyone together really just breathing for four bars or eight bars and then coming back to composed material.

And then even the two that I'm thinking of are from the last record. So from this record there are places where we open up and breathe together musically, but there isn't like a sax solo or a piano solo, per se, or anything like that.

Songfacts: Let me try to put a couple of threads together into one question. I've heard you do some other kind of jazzier singing very well. You're certainly an accomplished jazz singer. And now you're choosing to sing more structured, strictured kind of music, I guess. Are you happy? How do you feel about your career the way it stands? Do you have enough popularity to keep yourself going the way you'd like? Or do you feel obligations are starting to weigh you down? And try to tie that into the music, also. Do you feel that you want to pursue one type of music? Well, you said you're pursuing other kinds.

Becca: I've never been able to pick one thing. My ideal situation would be to never be associated with only one kind of music. I always want to be writing my own music and to have that be whatever is inspiring me, so that it's real and it speaks authentically, that whatever music I'm creating and I'm writing is authentic. So in other words, not saying, "I don't want to be considered this, so I'm going to write this way." It's less of that and more what is in my heart right now.

To say that I've chosen this genre is true, but that's not to say that I've left behind anything else. Because I still do sing jazz when I want to and when colleagues who I really admire ask me. For instance, Dave Douglas just asked me to do a show with him and it's sort of the perfect situation for me, because he's coming from the jazz world and I love his music, but he's asking me to sing more like Appalachian spiritual hymns with a jazz band.

Songfacts: Is he going to get Charlie Hayden to play bass?

Becca: I wish. Actually, Chris, my bass player, is going to be on the first gig that I do with them first, we're playing at Shapeshifter.

But that brings me to one of your questions, which was you said something about how it's affected my career.

Songfacts: Yeah. Are you happy with the way your career's going?

Becca: I'm very happy. Yeah. I think it's part of the answer, which is that I'm very happy that I've been able to develop my own voice and a name for myself by following what feels right and authentic to me, after 10 years of hard work in New York, not even including the work that I did when I was younger. But since being in New York, I feel like I'm finally to the point where I don't have to take gigs or musical settings where I'm not comfortable. And it's more now that people reach out to me because they want to hear my voice. Which is such an honor and it's all I've ever wanted.

So I feel that when that does come from jazz musicians, they want to straddle genres, as well. Like Taylor Eigsti, when we did the collaboration on his record.

Songfacts: I've been listening to that for two days now. Just got my hands on it.

Becca: So that's him coming from that same desire of 'I'm a jazz musician, I love jazz, but I want to play songs; do you want to play these songs with me?' And I love that. I love being a part of projects that aren't just one thing.

But that said, if someone that I really admired asked me to sing on a record that was just strictly jazz, I would do it, because I love jazz, too. So I'm not picking my projects and saying, Oh, I can't. It's not a controlling thing. It's more just whatever is inspiring me.

Songfacts: What artists among your contemporaries do you really admire?

Becca: Well, my friends Gretchen [Parlato] and Esperanza [Spalding] I admire so much, and Rebecca Martin. Brad Mehldau, and I admire Ambrose Akinmusire and what he's doing with jazz. And gosh, this is such a stressful question, because there are just like hundreds of people. Living in New York and just being a part of the scene, I feel like I admire everyone.

But I'm really blown away with when you see what someone's doing, but then you also get to know them as a person, like someone like Esperanza. She is working constantly and working her butt off, but she's still so sweet and she has such a good heart, and she'll take the coat off her back and give it to you. She's that kind of person. Same with Gretchen. She's one of the most sought-after jazz vocalists on the planet right now, and then if you ever meet her, she's just the kindest, sweetest human being ever. And she'll do anything for her friends.

So I've been lucky that the people that I'm surrounded by in my musical world are such good people. Rebecca Martin, too. Rebecca will have you over and cook you a three-course meal and make you maple syrup out of the trees in her backyard. She's really good people. [Laughs] No diva energy around here. It's amazing.

Songfacts: Do you know Laura Nyro?

Becca: That sounds familiar.

Songfacts: She was a contemporary of Joni Mitchell, '68, '69, '70.

Becca: Yeah, I do know who you're talking about.

Songfacts: She's as important a voice as Joni Mitchell, I think. A much shorter career, but she did just ridiculously spectacular things. Rickie Lee Jones is very much a second generation Laura Nyro. Amongst the older generation, who would you in your dreams want to go into a studio with or gig with on stage?

Becca: Let's see, people who I would just melt to even be in the same room with would be Joni Mitchell, Björk, Thom Yorke, Prince, Michael Jackson - sadly, I'm devastated that I never got to meet him. Stevie Wonder. There are a lot of West African musicians that I would love to work with one day. And then there a lot of indie pop and rock people that I would love to go on the road with. I always get so stressed out with these questions, because I feel like I'm forgetting everything.

Songfacts: It's not a test.

Becca: Yeah, I know. I should have a tattoo of all the...

Songfacts: James Taylor?

Becca: You know, that's never crossed my mind. I mean, I love him, but I've never thought, I want to go into the studio with James Taylor. Now I'm looking through my iTunes to see what I've been listening to. Anyway, I think I'm set.

Songfacts: Tillery, I'm very much into jazz vocal groups. Where do you see Tillery going?

Becca: Well, again, I would hesitate to call on a jazz vocal group, even though we are all sort of sneaking in from that direction, I guess, like Rebecca didn't come up singing jazz, but she's sort of in the jazz world now. But I think of it more as just like three people who love each other who happen to all be singers and happen to all be songwriters coming together and singing whatever inspires them. That's how it feels.

Songfacts: You don't see an affinity between Tillery and Moss for example?

Becca: No.

Songfacts: Really?

Becca: Do you mean the group with Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann?

Songfacts: And Luciana Souza.

Becca: And Luciana. Yeah. Kate and Theo are dear friends of mine. Is Peter in that group, too? Peter Eldridge?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Becca: And he's a dear, dear friend of mine. But I'm so embarrassed to say that I've never actually listened to I've never put the time into that. I need to do that today. So I've heard of the group, because I know them. But I've not listened to it.

Songfacts: They have one album. It's not a great album, but there's something insinuating about it. I keep going back to it and listening to it. I really like the aesthetic of the album. I don't think it's 1000 percent successful.

Becca: That might be the same kind of thing, where it's like they're all close friends and it's just there's something beautiful about making music for that reason, because you get along with and love and successfully can create beautiful things with someone who you like spending time with.

Songfacts: Luciana I think is pretty exceptional.

Becca: Me, too. I wish I had another life, an alternate reality or something where I could just hang out with Gretchen and Rebecca all the time and write songs and do arrangements. And I find that whenever we do get together it's so magical. But it's funny that even though we haven't had the time to fully invest ourselves in that project, opportunities just keep popping up. It's been sort of like there's been a lot of luck and a lot of good fortune surrounding that little trio. It feels like there's always something on the horizon.

Songfacts: I'd love to hear an album.

Becca: We're talking about that. We're talking about recording. We actually have a date set to record in December.

Songfacts: And it'd be collaborations, each of you bringing some of your own material?

Becca: Yeah. And we've been arranging together lately, too.

Songfacts: Wow. What kind of stuff?

Becca: Some covers. We arranged a Prince song and we arranged, you know, we would sit around and be like, "Oh, I love that song," "Ooo, that would be cool," and then just start taking it apart and finding our way in.

Songfacts: What kind of instrumentation do you use?

Becca: String instruments. Rebecca mostly plays guitar. Gretchen's been playing a little bit of charango and ukulele and I play guitar, charango, and ukulele.

Songfacts: You guys play your own instruments and that's the backing for it?

Becca: Exactly. We have done shows where, for instance, we did a show where we played with Taylor Eigsti's band in Stanford. But lately where we've been playing it's just the three of us.

Songfacts: Composing, do you compose easily on airplanes and stuff?

Becca: It's always different. But usually my composition process is long and slow. Every once in a while a song will fall out of the sky into my lap. And that's such a gift for musicians. I know that there's a tendency in people who think that they can only write songs that way. Because that's totally normal. And I remember thinking, Oh, I need to just wait until the inspiration strikes me like a thunderbolt.

But unfortunately, when you have deadlines hanging over your head, sometimes you can't wait. And so sometimes you have to, like we were saying, come up with restrictions and rules for the big blank canvas to inspire you to move into your inspiration.

Songfacts: When you went into the studio now did you have all the material ready and rehearsed?

Becca: No, I didn't. When I went into the studio, I had all the songs complete. I basically finished right before we went in.

That's another form of inspiration, that kind of pressure and the terror. But I do have a tendency to painstakingly obsess over every layer and detail. And I have a hard time letting go of the control of crafting every little nook and cranny of the song. So this has been a really interesting experience for me, because the songs that were finished but not fully fleshed out the way that my OCD behavior wants them to be, actually had more room to come to life in their own way and with Scott's genius.

It ended up being more of a collaboration in the arranging process. The songs themselves were done, but the arranging was more interesting in the studio on the songs that I had left some space for that to be done.

Songfacts: So you enjoyed it?

Becca: Yeah. Totally. And that says a lot about Scott and about my band. Because I think that if I was there with people who I didn't agree with, I would not have enjoyed it.

Songfacts: Right. That also has a lot to do with where you are in your career. If The Rebecca Stevens Band is working and making a living, then you can be together.

Becca: Yeah.

Songfacts: Feedback. Who gives you good, important feedback?

Becca: My family. My manager. My friends. My family's a big one for me, they're very, very supportive.

Songfacts: I wasn't asking about supportive. I'm talking about the opposite, saying, "Sorry, Becca, that just doesn't work. Trash that one."

Becca: Oh, I see. Same people.

Songfacts: Musically your family has input?

Becca: My dad's a composer, my brother's a composer, my mom's a singer, my sister... of anyone in the whole world, she's going to be the first one to tell me what she thinks about something, and I love that. But there was even a time when I wrote a song for her newborn son, my nephew, and I played it for her, and she was like, "I like it! But..." She was like, "There's something weird about the harmony right there and there and there." So yeah, she'll totally be honest. [Laughing] I've had to learn over the years how to react to feedback, whoever it's from, whether it's a review or some random person coming up to me after a show and saying something rude.

You have to take things with a grain of salt, because I'm the one that has to sing the song over and over again. And I have to be the one that enjoys it. So whatever that means, that means that for whoever that is, if it means that they need to sing something that they know people are going to like, then that's important. Or if it's a song where the only important thing is that it's just completely true to the story and then that's what it is.

But yeah, I've definitely had negative feedback and then thought, Okay, well, I'm not going to cry about this, but I'm going to sit down with it and think, Why is it bringing up doubts in me? Are those doubts my own doubts? And if so, do I need to rework this a little bit, massage it? And then I'll take it and I'll think through a very practical list of shoulds and shouldn'ts and then come to a conclusion and then commit to it. Because I think that in the end being proud of what you do and committing to it and owning it as your creation is the most important thing.

I've had that happen before, too, where I'll play a song exactly like it was before, and then the person will be like, "Did you change it? I like it now." Like, "No, just the energy behind it."

October 24, 2013.
Becca's website is beccastevens.com.
Jeff Meshel can be found at jmeshel.com.
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