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Jimmy John’s, Jock Jams Vol. 1, and Life’s Trajectory: An Interview with Laura Stevenson

February 18, 2016

 

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Hey Folks,

I’m a sucker for opening tracks.  Songs that make you sit up, press your headphones tighter to your skull, and hold your breath in anticipation for the record to come.  I’m thinking Patti Smith opening “Horses” with the slam poetry rock ‘n’ roll run away train of “Gloria,” or Bob Dylan bringing “Highway 61 Revisited” to a start with “Like A Rolling Stone” and the snare drum crack heard around the world.  With out question, one of my favorite album openers of 2015 was “Out With A Whimper” off of New York songwriter Laura Stevenson’s latest record “Cocksure” released on the incomparable Don Giovanni Records.  When an artist kicks thing off with a slow building song that questions whether they even want to continue making music and touring, or whether it’s time to just hang up the ol’ spurs and get a steady job and the stability that brings, you know that there is going to be something on the line for the remainder of the record.

 In addition to ramping up for a full band tour with Chris Farren and Crying, Laura will be playing some solo acoustic shows over the next few weeks, one of them being this Friday (02/19/16) at the Millworks in Harrisburg as part of Animal House Shows Showcase for Millenium Music Conference.  In the midst of rehearsing, Laura was good enough to take some time and have a chat about song-writing, well constructed records, and tacos.

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 I love the different aesthetics of your 2013 album “Wheel” and 2015’s “Cocksure.”  They both sound like Laura Stevenson, but “Wheel” has a folky freewheeling vibe to it while “Cocksure” has more of a punky power pop feel to it.  You do both so well.  What were you listening to early on that led you to be able to write so comfortably in these two veins?

Neil Young records were always on at my dad’s house and he would take me to see him play a lot, which makes me a VERY lucky person. I think Neil Young’s ability to bounce back and forth between being the quiet singer-songwriter on a chair to the front-person of a big messy rock band really inspired me to do the same. Both Neil solo and with Crazy Horse are just as big and powerful on recordings and in live shows- that to me is the mark of a really good writer, which is what I hope to be someday.

You’re going on a full band tour with Chris Farren and Crying (I’m so excited for that) however you’re currently playing a string of solo acoustic shows.   How do these two types of shows feel different to you?  What are things you like about each? Does one make you more nervous/excited?

I’m excited too, I think it’s going to be great! The solo stuff definitely makes me much more nervous, for sure. Especially the guitar solos that I always seem to want to play and bungle up if my hands are cold, and my hands are ALWAYS cold. Both types of shows have their merits, I have much more control of my voice in the solo setting so I’m really able to connect with it and use it as an instrument and feel more through it. If that makes sense. Also, I play a lot of quieter stuff which I don’t get to do too much of in the rock band setting… both shows are just as intense just in different ways I guess. The full-band stuff is so fun because all the melodies I have in my head can get played all at the same time, by amazing musicians who are also very fun to hang out with and play with. We had a practice last night and then had a pizza party and it got me very excited for the tour with them in March. They’re all such great musicians and we’re really close, I think that shines through and people like watching us play together because we like each other. I’m extremely lucky that I get to play with them.

I know sequencing an album is something that is really important to you.  On “Wheel” I know you actually wrote some tracks you thought the album needed.  What goes through your mind when you are sequencing an album? What do you look for? What are some albums that you think are sequenced really well?

That’s a tough one – yeah with “Wheel” I was feeling like there was something missing when we were putting it together. The songs were so all-over-the-place from one to the next, dynamically and with the instrumentation. I didn’t want the sequencing to be jarring but in a lot of places it is, which some people say is one of the record’s strong suits, so it definitely depends on the way people like to listen to records. It’s always hard… things make sense at the time and then you listen back to it a year later and you wish you put two songs back-to-back that you hadn’t thought of. But, then you get to play those songs together on tour… we’re doing that with some of Cocksure which will be fun. Songs that we didn’t realize were in the same key, or complimentary keys, whatever. I think I’ve had the most success with planning the sequencing before going into the studio- we did that with Sit Resist and with Cocksure. I’m most comfortable with that process- however, that means you’re kind of locked into having certain songs on the record despite whether or not you think they were your best performances. I mean, making a record on a very tight budget is scary, you can’t go back in afterwards and say, “let’s do that again” – you just have to trust the people you’re working with and yourself and your band and let go a little bit and hope for the best. Records that I think are sequenced well…. obviously “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, songs bleed into each other really beautifully on that record, you can tell he had that all worked out beforehand. What else… “Exile On Main Street”, “Comes A Time”, “Marquee Moon”… I’m bad at this because I always exclaim in the van “this record is perfect!” about so many records and I can’t think of any right now. Oh I always say it about “Is This It” by The Strokes haha.

In regards to having the track list and order before recording the album, when did the title “Cocksure” show up? How did you come up with the title and at what point did you make that decision?

The title came up way before the record actually. My friend, Ian Graham from Cheap Girls actually suggested it one night while we were on the Against Me! tour together, I think he was just trying to fuck with me. He was just like, out of the blue, “your next record? Cocksure.” I don’t know why it stuck with me, probably because it’s perfect, and I guess I had mentioned it to my friend Chris Farren somewhere along the way because while I was making the record I was going over possible titles with him and he was like “whatever happened to ‘Cocksure’?” I couldn’t get away from it but honestly, it’s so perfect for this record.

Could you talk a little bit about the Laura Stevenson song-writing process?  There are a lot of layers going on in your lyrics, will you spend a lot of time editing or re-working a lyric?

I never over-work lyrics, I feel like that’s kind of cheating. I just throw it all out there, in the end I’ll take out SOME of the garbage but I leave a lot of garbage in there for people to sort through if they want. I definitely think vague is a little better, it protects me or the subject of the song, which could be cowardly a little, but it also gives more people the ability to connect it with their own lives, and sometimes that helps people going through stuff they can’t really put words to.

I listened to your Spotify commentary for “Cocksure,” and I really liked how aware of other people’s songwriting styles you were.  You were saying how one song you thought had a Cars vibe, another felt a bit like a Wilco song, you even brought up artists like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison.  Who are songwriters you really look up to in regards to their craft?

I look up to all of those people for sure. Who else… Leonard Cohen, Judee Sill, Townes Van Zandt…. the list is long. I’m friends with a lot of great musicians who all inspire me very much not just like, people from the 60s and 70s. I’m not like, some weird music historian snob or purist in any way. I also very much like everything on Jock Jams Volume 1.

You are very open about your struggles with depression.  How does your songwriting, your art, help as a weapon to battle those feelings?  How would you want your songs to help others who might be dealing with the same struggles?

Just singing alone in a room, that is the most cathartic thing in the world to me, I would do it every since I was little and I would cry while doing it… even if it was nonsense words, it was the best way for me to get something out… there was a lot of instability around me as a kid, a lot of chaos and everyone was either angry or very sad or both and it was confusing and, in turn, I was a very angry kid. That anger kind of turned inward when I got to middle-school age and I started going through depressions that would wax and wane until it got to a scary place when I was about 19. Anyway, after all that happened, I started singing again and writing songs that were definitely not good. And then I started writing songs that were kind of good, and my friends started pushing me to share them with people… doing this for real was never like, my big goal. I just kind of fell into it, Mike (the bass player in the band and now also my fiancee) was the one who pushed me to make my first record, and now we’re on our fourth, it’s kind of crazy. None of this was my intention, BUT it really makes me so glad I stuck around to help people – now people come up to me at shows and tell me that a certain song or record helped get them through the same stuff that I was battling/am battling… it’s amazing. When I’m low now or feeling myself dip back into it, I think about how I’ve contributed a little bit to other people’s lives, and it really helps me… that might be selfish kind of, I want to help people for sure, but them telling me I help them is what makes me remember it’s good to be alive so everybody wins.

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*Lightning Round*

What have you been listening to lately?

Let’s see… this morning I listened to “The White Album” and some Beethoven. That Notwist record “Neon Golden” has been a heavy play in my house for the past few weeks. The song “One With the Freaks” is the best song I’ve heard in a long time. I can’t stop listening to it.

Ok so I’m a huge Beatles fan and since you were listening to The White Album I have to know what some of your favorite songs off that record are. 
Hmmmm- well as a kid my absolute favorite songs were Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Rocky Raccoon. Now I really like Mother Nature’s Son and I’m So Tired. Those might be my favorites. Bungalow Bill is still terrifying to me.

 

What do you like to eat when you’re on the road?

Jimmy John’s. Is that bad? I get very very excited about “The Vito” from Jimmy John’s. Also, McDonald’s oatmeal is not too bad if it’s the only option. Their coffee isn’t terrible, just don’t get it with milk or else it’s seriously just a glass of milk. I get excited about tacos from Texas through the northwest. I will eat breakfast tacos, lunch tacos, dinner tacos, until like, Spokane and then the dream is over and it’s back to Jimmy John’s. I’m not healthy I just realized.

What do you AVOID eating when you’re on the road?

Subway. I’m done with Subway. I will use their bathroom if I have to but I’m seriously done. And Dunkin’ Donuts. Their coffee tastes like lemons and I hate it.

Your favorite lyric from “Cocksure.”

Maybe from “Out With a Whimper” – “we’ll buy a car with a million miles on it, I’ll dig it out of the snow, and we’ll set alarms and breakfast while it’s dark, I will slow down and flicker and fall”   those words paint a very clear picture in my head and bring me to the place I was writing from… that whole song is about stopping making records and touring and just having a life with structure and quiet and a job that’s a sure thing and maybe that being the thing that will make me happy… that’s something I think about and I guess it’s good to think about that, it’s good to check in with yourself about the trajectory of your life, right?

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As was mentioned earlier, prior to her full band tour with Chris Farren and Crying, Laura Stevenson is going to be playing a solo acoustic show as part of Animal House Shows Millennium Music Conference showcase at the Millworks in Harrisburg this Friday February 19th.  Also on the bill are Keeps, The Plums, and Roger Harvey.  The gig kicks off at 9:00, has a $5 cover, and is 21+.  These are cool people.  Go to this show and meet them.

Remember to like Laura Stevenson on Facebook, follow her on twitter, and buy her music.

 

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Peter Winter gave up buying records for Lent.  He is going to break that rule and buy “Cocksure” though.  He is on twitter @peterwinter38

 

 

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