The Ballad(s) Of Laura Stevenson

Rachel Brennecke

The Ballad(s) Of Laura Stevenson

Rachel Brennecke

The DIY fixture on her new LP, her mom, & the downside of being ahead of the curve

For someone who’s perpetually ahead of the curve, Laura Stevenson rarely seems to get the praise she deserves. The New York-based singer-songwriter has spent the past decade penning the type of songs that you can’t help but hold close to your heart, occasionally wiggling them loose to share them with people close to you. There’s an emotional allure to the way Stevenson sings her whispered falsettos, makes her warbled notes soar, and positions her self-deprecating jabs as casual asides. It’s personable and singular. That’s why any discussion about Stevenson will include the word “underrated.”

Growing up on Long Island, Stevenson quickly embedded herself in the local music scene. When the DIY world of punk and ska came calling she happily answered. Jeff Rosenstock invited her to play keys in his new band, Bomb The Music Industry! and from there, life became a whirlwind of sweaty basement shows and spray-painted T-shirts. Stevenson spent her free time drafting songs in private, bringing her own musical ideas to life, until her friends in the band encouraged her to share them publicly.

That’s how Stevenson got her start as a solo musician. In 2010, that collection of private songs finally saw the light of day when Asian Man Records released A Record, her debut album. She brought her intimate anti-folk on the road, touring with acts like Maps & Atlases and Cults, and ended up signing to Don Giovanni Records. Next came 2011’s Sit Resist, a string of folk rock songs to sing into your hairbrush; 2013’s Wheel, a collection of sad indie rock songs to blast in the car; and 2015’s Cocksure, a full-band romp through uptempo pop songs. Each record saw Stevenson grow into a more complex musician, but mainstream press rarely had time for coverage, save for the occasional track premiere or news post.

A slow-burning music career hasn’t stifled Stevenson’s ambition. With a nearly decade-long solo career under her belt, Stevenson went to grad school to earn her masters. She bought a house in upstate New York. If anything, the evolution of her life as a singer-songwriter has allowed her to reach a new high point in her life and career. With her newest album, The Big Freeze, Stevenson returns from a four year absence with her hardest-hitting music yet. The songs ache from her emotional vocal delivery as she recounts familial anxiety, self-harm, and a handful of overwhelming fears. It may be her darkest record, but the cellos, violins, and french horns swooning behind her make these country-tinged ballads and intimate orchestral songs sound like a soft revival of Judee Sill or Jason Molina.

The Big Freeze feels like a return to Stevenson’s introverted origins, but this time around, she doesn’t need anyone to validate her when she’s already got a crop of rising singer-songwriters citing her as an influence and longtime friend Rosenstock scrawling “Listen to Laura Stevenson” on his guitar for his beloved Pitchfork Festival performance. There’s a lot to love about Stevenson and her music. It took nine years, but she’s finally starting to feel that way, too.

STEREOGUM: It’s always seemed weird to me that despite having a steady following and touring frequently, you’ve never “broken through” the way other singer-songwriters have. With The Big Freeze, though, you seem poised to finally do so, especially given the rally behind similar singer-songwriters like Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker. Have you ever gotten the sense that you’ve been ahead of the curve?  

LAURA STEVENSON: A lot of this shit is just bad timing for me. Maybe I started 10 years too early. I try not to let that make me feel anything other than good that I’m doing something that has a staying palette, especially since people are doing it now. Making music is about luck, talent, and being at the right place at the right time. I haven’t had the luck part, or the time part. [Laughs]  It used to bum me out. It really did. But you have to put that away and remember it’s about making what you want to make, even if nothing will come of it. If nobody winds up hearing your music, that’s sad, but that’s OK.

STEREOGUM: The plus side to this is how cherished your live shows feel. No matter the size of the venue, your shows tend to attract fans who respect you deeply and hold your catalog very close to them. Does that feel like a fair trade off?  

STEVENSON: Totally. So many of the same faces have been with me since the beginning. It’s a positive environment, and I’m lucky to not have fair-weather fans. People aren’t there because I’m popular at the moment, because I never am. They’re there because they actually like what I’m doing, whether it’s power pop songs, punk songs, or sad songs. They’re in it and they get it.

STEREOGUM: Does that fandom include other musicians as well?

STEVENSON: Yes, and it’s so cool to hear about! There’s a younger generation of songwriters who are coming up to me now after shows. It feels incredible. I have the songwriters that I look up to who are everything to me. If somebody feels that way about me, even in the smallest of ways, maybe just to make them feel like they could get up there and perform? That’s the best feeling.

STEREOGUM: Each of your albums has seen you explore new musical territory, and you always manage to sound completely at home in it. For The Big Freeze, you surround yourself with cellos, violins, and French horns. It’s incredibly lush and orchestral. Did that shift — from a full-band indie rock sound into a very barren singer-songwriter sound — come naturally?

STEVENSON: All of my songs start the same, even if they’re the loud, fun, poppy songs I have. They’re generated by me and my guitar. After that, I’ll add on whatever the song needs: drums, organ, weird electronic sounds. But on this record, I decided I didn’t want to arrange anything for the band. I didn’t want to change the trajectory of where the songs wanted to go. It feels natural to me because my songs feel like they’re written with whatever they need. I take myself out of the picture. And these songs wanted to emphasize emotion above all else.

STEREOGUM: So did you know from the start that this album would be as stripped-down as it is?

STEVENSON: I definitely heard the songs as having strings. In the early stages, a lot of the songs I wrote I could hear having strings behind them. I didn’t know how many layers to include or the type of strings that may be used, but I just heard the general swell in my mind. I guess I knew I wanted strings because I always want strings. All of my records have strings on them, a swarm of cellos. This time we stepped it up, though.

STEREOGUM: The strings sync up well with your vocal parts. Did you intentionally write them that way?

STEVENSON: Yeah, I guess so! The cello player we got was mind-blowing. She was so versatile. We had the recording space for a day. Because her intonation was so beautiful and she could completely replicate what I was singing to her, I could be spontaneous singing string parts and immediately have it played back to me on the cello. It’s so cool to work with musicians who have this emotional quality to their playing. She was so intuitive and empathetic, to the point where she put a lot of emotional intelligence into the way she played the parts I sang. It’s hard to hear that and do that with your hands, to play an instrument with emotion the way she did. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. It sucks, because it would be so rewarding to be able to do that. So to be able to sing to her and watch her replicate my parts with her hands was so, so cool.

STEREOGUM: You recorded this record at your childhood home in Long Island. Why was doing that important to you?

STEVENSON: Honestly, I didn’t have a budget for this album, so I paid out of pocket for it to be made. I knew I couldn’t afford a recording studio. My mom’s house was open, so we brought everything there. I hate recording, but I really loved it this time. Having the space to improvise and take my time was nice, and Joe [Rogers, the album’s co-producer] encouraged me to do that. Now, after recording it all at her house, I realize I couldn’t have made this album anywhere else. This album is about a lot of stuff that happened in those walls. That house was the place I felt safe, the place I was sad, the place where I became who I am. It fed into the way I felt about these songs. It was such a gentle way to deal with the heaviest memories from my life. On the song “Hawks,” you can hear the radiators hissing. It turned on in the middle of us recording that song, and we tried to mix it out, but it was hard. That wound up being the best recording of the song because you can feel how I feel when singing, and the radiator just made it feel all the more personal and homey. It’s crazy that I was in the process of buying a house while making this record. The finishing touches on The Big Freeze were recorded in my own empty living room. So shifting from my mom’s house to my own house with this album felt like a weirdly transitional time, almost like I was making peace with all these memories I’m singing about.

STEREOGUM: Once you were in that house, did it inspire any last-minute tweaks or details to be added to your lyrics?

STEVENSON: I didn’t add anything to the lyrics, but I think that the last track on the record, “Perfect,” was more intense because of it. In it, I was in the driveway of my house with my best friend and my sister, thinking about how the world was changing so much. I was definitely thinking, “On the other side of this wall is literally where this song takes place, back when I was seven years old, compared to where I’m at now, 33, thinking about how shit has changed so much but the world is still falling apart.” It made the recording of that song way heavier being back in that space, in my mom’s home.

STEREOGUM: In December, you released two songs for your mother’s birthday for charity. How would you describe your relationship with her?   

STEVENSON: Oh boy. Well, I was texting with her yesterday, and she didn’t even remember that it happened. She said, and I quote, “Why don’t you write a song about me?” and I said, “Mom, I just did. It was covered by media outlets, it was for charity, and it was really special.” She makes me crazy. [Laughs]

My relationship with my mom is OK. She has not been my main supporter as a musician. That was difficult. My entire career has been spent trying to prove to her that I’m doing this. My parents were always telling me I should do something else because playing music is too emotional. I just wanted her to be proud of me. I don’t know if I will ever get that, and that’s going to have to be OK. For a long time, it was really difficult for me to put that in its place and just accept that. I’m still trying to figure that out.

When I play her my music, she’s always wondering what I’m saying. Actually, I played her these songs before the album was mixed, and I’m sure she doesn’t even remember hearing it. That’s the problem. It feels so critical when she listens because she can’t understand what I’m saying. It drives me crazy because I made this and it means a lot to me, but she will spend the whole song saying she can’t understand me. I went to grad school because she wanted me to. I got my masters because she wanted me to. She’s a sculptor, and a lot of my thesis was about sculpture. So I printed her my thesis to read, but she never did. It’s shit like that. Your parents are going to disappoint you. You can’t validate yourself based on whether or not they like what you’re doing because they’re never going to like what you’re doing — and that’s just going to have to be OK.

STEREOGUM: A lot of the songs on this album grapple with unresolved problems like that. You open the record with a similar open-ended sentiment: “When you lift the lid, I will be liquid all swimming in my skin/ There’s a sweetness to that.” Over the years, how have you started to view life differently?  

STEVENSON: I’ve been letting go of a lot of the inevitable, especially the anxiety about the inevitability of my own death. I’ve been feeling more at peace with it. We’re all part of something where we can’t know how it ends, and that’s beautiful. On a grand scale, I’ve been learning to be OK with how dark our ends will be. But also, I’ve been more public about some self-harm behaviors that are skin-related. I’ve been coming to terms with being honest with myself. It doesn’t make me a bad person that I’m fucked up.

STEREOGUM: The way you describe that self-harm on “Value Inn” is both unflinchingly honest and considerably gentle given the subject matter. Self-harm is, unfortunately, pretty common in the US, but it still isn’t discussed openly the way depression or mental health have been recently. How did you feel after deciding to share your experience?

STEVENSON: It was terrifying. I was on vacation when I sent the record in [to the record label] and they confirmed everything was set to be released. Every step of the way, I kept repeating to myself, “This is real. This is real.” It wasn’t real in that I was sharing this song. It was real in that I was finally talking about this thing. The more open I am about it, the more I’ll have to look at it and acknowledge it. That’s the scariest part. I wasn’t worried about being criticized because, let’s be honest, nobody will come after me for being honest about my experience. If I’m open about this in a song, then it’s no longer going to be only my husband, my ex-boyfriend, and my therapist who know about it. That makes it more real to me and makes me have to deal with it.

I thought that releasing this song would suddenly heal me, that all of a sudden I would be over self-harm, but instead it’s been a process. And I guess that’s what I should have expected. Self-harm was, for me, a tool to disassociate. It was a tool to go away, to float in a blank space. It was a behavior that facilitated a sense of isolation for me. It’s hard for people to understand if they don’t already have a behavior like that to help themselves feel OK. It was difficult for me to grapple with why I needed that and what it all meant. In writing the song, I got to understand that, yes, this is where I go, and this is what it does, and who do I think I’m doing that for if not myself? It brought up a lot of questions like these that I had to answer. So yeah, “Value Inn” was the most important song for me. The way that it came out [musically] is exactly what writing that song felt like.

STEREOGUM: Especially compared to a song like “Dermatillomania,” which musically sounds exuberant, but lyrically is a dark self-reckoning.

STEVENSON: I do have a lot of unchecked anger that has turned inward for a long time — and that makes me angry with myself. Not only am I angry at myself for that, but I also am because I’m still turning inward after realizing such. I’m not letting it out. It’s a constant motion of looking inward instead of actually working through that anger. The lyrics are intense and — not violent, but graphic. They’re grotesque in a way that makes me feel powerful. It felt empowering to write it, to check myself like that. It pairs with the trumpet patterns in “The Wheel” which allowed me to feel triumphant in a weird fucked up way, where I got to feel like I saw my own evolution. It’s hard to describe, and I realize how weird this may sound, but “Dermatillomania” was a big one for me to get off my chest. There was a lot going on in my life, a lot of stuff I pushed off dealing with. There was so much swirling around in my head, and this record was a way for me to finally do something about it.

STEREOGUM: These are topics that I feel like punk has traditionally been open to discussing. In what ways did your upbringing in your local punk and ska scene influence how you approach music?

STEVENSON: The bands that I came up in were open and honest. That’s why I admired them. They were performing to these open-minded kids. I didn’t feel judged talking about mental illness or anything like that. I never felt like I wasn’t in an OK space. I could be weird or goofy or fucked up and still be embraced. It gave me the confidence to try to be as honest as I can be to find the most realistic version of myself that I can, and that still holds true.

STEREOGUM: That confidence comes through. There’s a moment in “Low Slow” where your voice sounds enormous — far bigger than you’ve ever sounded before. Your voice carries a lot of strength this time around, even when you’re singing empty notes. Were you surprised at how massive it sounds?  

STEVENSON: Thank you for saying that. That makes me feel good because I’m always ripping myself apart. Everybody hates what they do and how they sound. But I didn’t achieve what I thought I would with this one. The reason we used a lot of these vocal takes was because the emotional content or delivery was there, not necessarily my technical skills. I whiffed it a bit. That said, I can hear an honesty in my voice that I’m proud of. I feel comfortable layering my vocals, and I will say I’m really pleased with how those turned out, because we did layer a lot on these songs.

STEREOGUM: It’s funny that your most lush, stripped-down record doubles as your darkest.

STEVENSON: Absolutely. Instead of focusing on making sure everyone else was playing in time together, I got to slow down to focus on what I was saying and how I was saying it. I got to maximize the way I delivered a lot of very important subjects and lyrics. I got to empathize with things that do really mean a lot to me. The performance in its solitary state got to grow, which is something I haven’t been able to do in years. These songs all feel so real to me.

STEREOGUM: Looking back at the four years between your last record, Cocksure, and this one, how would you say you’ve changed?  

STEVENSON: With my first record, I had zero ambition to be a musician. I was writing songs for myself. The only reason that record came out is because all my friends told me that I had to record them. Mike [Campbell], who I’m married to now, convinced me to go to his friend’s apartment and record them. I didn’t care, because I was wildly depressed and honestly didn’t think I would even stick around long.

But I embraced playing music. I thought, “Wow, I found a path. Isn’t that exciting?” But then I realized it’s a business where if you’re unsure about yourself and feel bad, you will probably feel even worse because you’re at the mercy of critics. Unfortunately, I have never really been very cool. I haven’t done anything where people are cheering behind me. That bothered me and, at a point, almost destroyed me. But in these last few years, I decided to say fuck it. I want to do this because it brings me joy. I love to write. I love to share songs with people who find it means something to them. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. I’m completely at peace with it now and I’ve learned how to embrace it. So I guess I’m back to where I started, writing songs for myself and enjoying it for the pure act of writing it. Only now it’s, like, nine years later.

The Big Freeze is out 3/29 via Don Giovanni Records. Pre-order it here.

more from Interviews