New York-based musician Laura Stevenson has produced three albums, most recently her breakout album, Wheel. In this interview, Aubrey asks her about life on the road, her upcoming work, and the recent transition to living with her band. Stevenson reveals some of the autobiographical influences in her writing and what her stripper song would be. You can catch Stevenson and her seraphim-like voice live this Wednesday at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue playing a solo acoustic show.
CG: You’ve been touring, non-stop for a really long time—how’s that going for you?
LS: It’s going good. It’s hard to be on tour and come home and try to have some sort of normalcy and leave again and then get used to that. It’s a lot of adapting, but I’ve just started taking this adaptagen herb called rodiola. It’s been helping, so I don’t know, maybe it’s just in my head. My immune system tends to shut down when I’m in new and stressful environments. You want to get home—it’s stressful acclimating to that.
CG: Aside from the obvious things, what do you find really stressful about touring?
LS: Even just waking up on time to go on a long drive and having all the unforeseen circumstances that keep you from getting to your objective, which is the show. Equipment, the van, somebody getting sick, somebody getting lost, making sure five people are in the van and get to the place on time: that’s a lot.
CG: So you guys don’t have a tour manager?
LS: We do, our bass player basically does it, just doesn’t get paid for it. One day…
CG: Are you able to get any writing done while you’re on the road?
LS: Oh no, no, no. Not at all.
CG: Where do you like to do your writing?
LS: Just in a quiet place where no one else can hear me. An empty house or…I live with my bandmates right now in Upsate New York, we’re renting a house.
CG: Where abouts in Upstate?
LS: Hudson Valley, near New Paltz. It’s not too far from the city and it’s the furthest away from home I’ve ever lived. It’s been nice, but it’s a lot of people so when I do have down time, I don’t have privacy, so it’s hard to write anything. But, my mom is a snowbird from New York to Florida, so right now I can go to her house and her house is empty. The last time I was there, there was no running water, so that was a problem, but I think it’s fixed now.
CG: What’s your process like and how does living in a house with all your bandmates influence it?
LS: Like I said, solitude, so it effects it because I get none. There’s no specific formula for writing a song, like chords come first or words come first or the ideas and content come first. It’s a mish-mash. It could be any sort of thing that jumpstarts it and it becomes what it becomes. But it’s very personal because I don’t have a way of doing it, so it’s just an emotional experience. So I just kind of have no discipline. But I have a whole record worth of songs right now that I’m teaching the bandmates which is cool because I’ll have songs ready and I can prepare them quietly in my room—not actually create them, but prepare them—think about parts and then go right out my bedroom door and up to the attic and Peter, our guitar player, has a whole recording set up in there, that’s his room and also where we practice. It’s a huge attic space, so it’s pretty cool. We just got our new drummer, Sammy, she’s from Upstate, so she lives nearby. This has been the first time that we’ve all lived very close to each other.
CG: So the upcoming album is going to be the first product of you all living together?
LS: Of that environment, yeah. We’re demoing, which we never really did seriously before. We always had practice recordings and then went into the studio pretty much unprepared which led to a stressed out and overwhelming recording experience, which was bad. So this one, I hope, will be good.
CG: Now that you are living together, does the band have more musical input? When you come to them with a draft of a song, does it sound significantly different when it’s a final product?
LS: I think so. I’ve always tried to keep as open as I can be to their ideas, and their personal voices, and their instruments because I want them to feel creatively fulfilled. Plus, they’re great musicians and I trust their taste, and they’re good at what they do. The longer we’ve been playing together, the more accustomed we get to each other’s styles so I’ll be able to write a song and know kind of what they’re going to do.
CG: So when are you going to record the next album and when is it going to come out?
LS: I don’t know. Because now all the vinyl plants are so fucked up right now because of the newfound popularity of vinyl.
CG: What’s happening?
LS: All the plants are backed up. We’d have to set a release date with that in mind unless we want people to pre-order things and tell them they can have it in six months. That’s the scary thing that’s happening now.
CG: So how did you decide to stream the last album on the website?
LS: Well, our first record was for free completely and then donation based to the label. And then Asian Man picked up because they wanted to release it physically, but it was always still free. And then our second record was free for the first month and then we did the same thing with Wheel, but for a shorter span. As Spotify and Pandora came into existence, it really didn’t matter as much because people were able to access it for free in other ways. But when our first record came out, there was nothing like that, it was just like Pirate Bay and putting people at risk for listening to it. Whatever, if you can’t afford a record, you should still be able to listen to it, I think. Taylor Swift just pulled her record from Spotify, I guess today.
CG: Actually, my editor asked me to ask you about Taylor Swift. What’s your opinion on that?
LS: I really wanted to listen to it, but I really don’t have an expendable income to spend money on things that I might not like. I’ll be like, “I know I need a new pair of shoes and they cost $80, and I know that next month I’ll have $80 for shoes. And I know I’m going to like them because I bought them before.” I really don’t get to listen to too much new music because I’m just trading records with my friends’ bands, and that’s just what I hear. I heard a Nada Surf record that came out like twenty years ago for the first time last night because the sound guy played it before we played.
But anyway, the Taylor Swift album. I wanted to listen to it, but then she pulled it, so I’m not going to unless it comes my way. I don’t download things because a) I don’t know how, and b) it just freaks me out. If someone else downloads something, I’ll listen to it, but I just don’t do it. Not that I’m opposed to it, I think you can do whatever you want, but I do appreciate it when people buy my records. I think if they don’t care about supporting us, they’re not going to give us money, and that’s okay. We could always try to pitch it to a TV show and get money that way because we’re not planning on making money by selling records. You don’t really get to do that unless you’re Taylor Swift. But I don’t know, maybe if everyone follows suit and pulls their music from this distributor because they don’t pay artists and somebody is getting money, and it’s not the people who are making the thing, maybe if everybody followed suit, then we could close them up. That might be a positive thing. But I don’t think a lot of people would because I think a lot of people want the exposure of offering their music for free. So it’s kind of a twisted web.
CG: So do you think you’ll put the new album up on the website for free?
LS: I would like to. We’ll put it out with Don Giovanni and they’re from the same camp as we are, music for everyone and everyone should be able to listen to something. And if they know enough to want to support the band, they’ll buy the record.
CG: So, have you had any music on a TV show?
LS: Yeah. It’s called “ding dong money,” that’s what my friend Mike calls it. It’s money that just shows up to you and you’re like, “This is great!” They give you a synopsis of the show, of the scene that the thing is in so you can decide, “That’s fucked up, I don’t want to be a part of that,” or, “Okay, that’s cool.” There’s a show called Playing House that one of our songs is on. It’s this two ladies who used to be comedians and now they have this show. I only saw the two episodes that our song was in, but from what I saw, it was really funny. But I don’t really think that’s “selling out” or whatever. I’ve never been punk enough anyway.
CG: You have to be able to eat!
LS: And pay taxes. I work for myself, so I have to pay taxes and that took a lot out of me this year, so any way that I can make money doing what I do as long as it doesn’t compromise my core values. I can compromise…things get grayer and grayer as you get older so I’m not as staunch as I used to be, but as long as it’s not going against something where I won’t be able to sleep at night, I might do it.
CG: What would you say some of your core values are?
LS: I don’t know…not giving a song to Haliburton? Obviously basic human rights…I can be shifty on that too. Just kidding. I’m not as firm as I was as a kid, when I was like, “Fuck every company.” Now I’m like, “Fuck the really big companies.”
CG: What do you like about performing onstage? What do you try to convey in your stage presence and how do you interact with the audience?
LS: I try to be as comfortable as I can and I’m usually very uncomfortable. I usually end up just making stupid jokes or just talking about nothing and then getting uncomfortable about talking about nothing and it spirals out of control. If I feel crazy, I just stick to playing songs and talk to my bandmates and they just look at me like I’m crazy. So, I’m not comfortable playing in front of people…well, I’m comfortable from when the song starts to when it ends, and then I open my eyes and I’m like, “There’s people here, and I’m standing here with a microphone, saying things,” and that makes me uncomfortable. As a kid, I would go to shows and sometimes people were more about the between songs than the actual song, and I felt like that was alienating in a way. I think it’s about balancing. I don’t want to feel alienated, and I don’t want people to feel alienated. I just want to play music, because that’s when I feel comfortable. I feel like nobody’s looking at my face, they’re looking at my instrument, or my band members. Maybe I’m too self-conscious. I’m in the wrong business, I guess.
CG: Are you introverted?
LS: I don’t know, maybe. I do like to be alone a lot. That’s kind of how I recharge emotionally. When I’m with my friends, I like to laugh and have fun. I don’t like to be serious.
CG: Well, if it makes you feel any better, I have sung at that stage at Punk Rock karaoke, and I have no talent.
LS: What’s your go to?
CG: “Hey,” by the Pixies is a good one.
LS: That is a good one. If I was ever going to be a stripper, that was going to be my stripper song. I would think about that when I was a kid and be like, “This is a sexy song. If I wanted to be a professional dancer, I think that’d be a good one.” I went to one strip place, and I felt immediately crazy and had to leave. I understand that they were making good money and were totally in control of the situation, it was a clean place run by good people, from what I could see, everyone seemed happy, but realizing how much worse it could be sent me into a crazy place.
CG: Let me ask you about your songs. Who are the characters that you’re writing about? A lot of times you have names in there like “Renee” or “Eleonora”—who are these people? Are they made up? Are they people that you know?
LS: They’re people in my life. Renee is my stepmom. Eleonora is my sister. Her name is Katie, but that was just not enough syllables. There’s a song called “Eleanor” from my first record, and I don’t know what that’s about, I just wrote it. But everybody else that I write about is a real person. I can’t write from a position of not knowing emotionally, I’m not that good of a writer. I can’t write fiction.
CG: So moving away from home, that’s all about you?
LS: Yeah. Well, that song’s about my mom not being supportive of me playing music. She wasn’t for a really long time. And then when Sit Resist came out, she was like, “Uuhh…” and then “Master of Art” came out and she saw the video, she was like, “Cool,” and now she only talks about that one song. And it’s been like…years!
CG: I feel like that’s a childhood dream. Like, “When I make a music video, I’m going to wear this outfit…”
LS: “And look in the camera…or not.”My friend Sarah made it, she’s really cool, she’s really good at what she does. But we haven’t made music videos since then. I just don’t feel comfortable pretending to sing and look at the camera. But everything other than that is great. But when I’m looking into the camera and mouthing the song, it makes me go a little insane.
CG: You and Taylor Swift have less and less in common….
LS: Does she like being in videos?
CG: And she’s in movies too.
LS: She was in The New Girl, I watched an epsidode. She’s very tall.
CG: She’s in that movie about Valentine’s Day that’s like the Love Actually…
LS: Is it called Valentine’s Day? I saw New Year’s Eve, I haven’t seen the Valentine’s Day one. I like that kind of thing. It makes me feel safe, I’m like, “I know how this is gonna go. At least two of these people don’t like each other first and they’re gonna start liking each other towards the end.” That’s just how it works.
CG: Are you doing any festivals this summer?
LS: I don’t know. We did some this past summer. I have no idea what’s happening after February. In February I’m going on tour with Kevin Devine and Into It. Over It. It’s like a solo acoustic thing and we’re coheadling. We’re playing churches and a lot of cool spaces. Like a synagogue, places where you go to see someone play with a guitar and listen to what they’re saying. Which is nice because sometimes I’ll be in a position where I open for someone and I’m acoustic and no one is fucking there to hear music. It’s the worst feeling in the world because you want to be like, “Shut up,” but you’re opening and it’s really not your show and people are there to get rowdy. I would never tell somebody to be quiet because I don’t want to offend someone else’s fans. If you’re supporting, it’s a very weird situation, but you question everything that led you to that very moment when you’re playing. Like Sun Kil Moon, he goes off on people, but he’s also a veteran and has been doing that for such a long time.
CG: Yeah, that’s what that whole rambling album was about.
LS: Yeah. I think he’s awesome, I’ve never gotten to see him live, and I don’t understand why anyone would talk during one of the shows, but maybe it’s just because I’ve been in that position. I think he’s cool, I like his music so much. Mike, our bass player—he’s my boyfriend of seven years—put a Red House Painters song on a mix that he made when we were courting each other, and I just fell in love with it.
CG: Did you guys meet first? Or start playing in a band and then start dating?
LS: Kind of at the same time. We met at a summer camp we were teaching at, a rock and roll summer camp. We were teaching kids how to be in bands, we had both been in bands before. And then we were hanging out a lot. He was dating someone else at the time and we were just really good friends. We were spending a lot of time together, kind of playing music together. Then he broke up with his girlfriend and I was like, “Oh no, now it’s real.” I didn’t think about him that way, or maybe I just didn’t want to, and then it was real and I was like, “Well, I guess we’re in love now.” And then the band started forming around that.
CG: That must give you a lot of stability with all of the touring, to be able to do that together.
LS: It’s also hard because we fight as bandmates and we fight as boyfriend and girlfriend and those are two of the worst kinds of fights you can have. So we just try to be normal so when we get home, we can jump back to being in a relationship again. It’s tough, but it works.