A songwriter still in discovery mode
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, April 19, 2013
Laura Stevenson’s new album, “Wheel,” begins quietly and slowly with Stevenson’s simple guitar and lilting voice painting a picture of a sad, troubled girl hiding herself away.
It’s a folk song with distinct imagery and the feeling of a late-night campfire. But then around the middle of the song, the tune takes an unexpected turn, revealing a strong beat, a dirty rock guitar and strings and horns.
“I consider this a folk record even though it’s totally not,” Stevenson, 28, says by phone from her childhood home on Long Island, just a couple of weeks before starting a six-week national tour with her Brooklyn-based band, the Cans.
The new album showcases elements of catchy rock, punk and folk that mark a departure from Stevenson’s last two albums, 2010’s “A Record” and 2011’s “Sit Resist.” Those works felt restrained, featuring whimsical songs more strictly rooted in the kind of folk music of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young that Stevenson grew up listening to.
“I’m relinquishing some control,” she says, thinking back to the creative process. “I’m not standing over [the songs] being a crazy, anal-retentive person, which is how I started. . . . Anybody else’s idea I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.’ It’s definitely become a process of me learning how to step back.”
In doing so, Stevenson says she has allowed the band members’ various influences to shine through. From guitar player Peter Naddeo’s love of Radiohead to bass player Mike Campbell’s thing for the Replacements, the songs on “Wheel” reflect eclectic palettes. “Bells and Whistles,” Stevenson’s favorite song on the album, starts with a Wilco-esque dissonance that evolves into a creative, slightly angry punk tune.
“That was one of the first I’d written for the record. It started off as a folk song, and it had a rambly, fast, Bob Dylan type of guitar part,” she says. “And then when I brought it to practice and everybody was like, ‘Let’s make this crazy and let’s make these noise parts,’ I just like the transformation it took.”
In keeping with her folk roots, the lyrics are important to Stevenson, and she writes autobiographical tunes that feel therapeutic. The album is full of “scenes of life and death and fear and anxiety and love and relationships and relying on people and people depending on you and you letting them down,” she says. “Those themes are constantly coming in and out. I feel like coming out of my 20s, life’s getting a lot easier to understand. I feel less like I’m running in the dark.”
Stevenson comes from a musical family. Her grandfather Harry Simeone had a hand in creating such Christmas classics as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” And her grandmother Margaret McCravy was a singer who worked with Benny Goodman.
At 6 years old, Stevenson wrote her first song on an old Knabe upright piano that didn’t have all 88 keys in working order. The song, about Christopher Columbus and other explorers, was called “There to Discover.”
Since then, Stevenson has gone on her own exploration, developing as a songwriter and a person, taking odd jobs to pay the bills. (Her stint at a Brooklyn movie theater picking up trash, she says, was especially horrible.) She’s also trying to finish her master’s degree in art history from Queens College.
But Stevenson’s bold new album, which turns her folk roots upside down, reflects a new confidence. The album’s last song, “The Wheel,” again features just Stevenson and her guitar as she emotes achingly about things she can’t quite understand.
“Making a thing by yourself, it’s such a personal, therapeutic experience,” she says. “But then you bring it to people and they totally change it . . . it makes it more exciting. It makes the songs come to life in a way that they hadn’t previously.”