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The Becca Stevens Band: A Review and Interview - June 30th, 2012 at The Horseshoe Tavern
The Becca Stevens Band (sans accordionist Liam Robinson) played an intimate show at The Horseshoe Tavern Saturday night that pleased seasoned fans and new listeners alike.
The set included original songs from her two records, Tea Bye Sea and Weightless, as well as some covers and new material. Her cover of Canadian songwriter Joni Mitchell’s "Help Me" was a crowd-pleaser on the eve of Canada Day.
Stevens switched seamlessly between ukulele, guitar, and charango while delivering her lyrics. Drummer Jordan Perlson experimented with various textures through his use of brushes, sticks, various shakers and cajón as bassist Chris Tordini supported the music with warm, resonant bass notes and back-up vocals.
The acoustic trio, though lightly amplified, was relatively quiet, engaging the audience in an aural experience that proved that less really is more. The room was almost silent as the band drew the complete attention of both seated couples and university students gathered closer to the stage.
"I’ll Notice" was an example of one of my favourite things about Stevens’ vocal style – every note has a direction and purpose, whether decaying or growing. "One and Five" exemplified Stevens' command of both jazz and popular harmony, making the name of the tune somewhat humorous. Tordini shone on "Canyon Dust" as he played arco harmonics and struck the centre of his bass to achieve a sound that blended perfectly with Perlson’s cajón.
The highlight of the night was Stevens’ cover of The Smiths’ "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", featuring a haunting introductory vocal line (played by the accordion on Weightless). Stevens’ singer-songwriter soul shone through her interpretation of the pop-like chorus. Perlson got a great bassy tone out of the cajón that blended perfectly with Tordini’s warm sound. On the outro, Stevens and Tordini delivered an intricate and percussive a cappella vocal duo.
I had the opportunity to speak with Becca (who happily greeted listeners after her Horseshoe set) prior to the festival about her music, her band, and life in Brooklyn. Snippets of our conversation are below.
Q: How much of your compositional process is informed by the "jazz vocabulary" you learned at the New School?
A: I majored in voice mainly – then turned to composition, playing guitar again. I wrote for my band specifically, so we had some repertoire together by the time I graduated. Some of the songs from Tea Bye Sea were on my final recital. I learned a lot there…
Q: Your music feels very organic - there’s something refreshing and personal about it. "Canyon Dust" seems to blend these great modal and rhythmic ideas with that organicism. Can you tell me about how you came to write that song?
A: Sure. I was on a trip to Hawaii, and there was an arts & crafts and ukulele festival in the lobby of the hotel. So I bought a ukulele to take home with me. Our flight was delayed, so I was sitting in the airport and I made up this riff. Then I added a note, and I sort of add complexity to that riff throughout the song. Then one night, back home, I was doing the dishes and this melody came to me. It even had words with it, which is really uncommon for me because lyrics are usually what I struggle with the most. It felt like it was in another time signature, but I tweaked it a little bit and it worked.
Songwriting is a process of extrapolating on ideas. I tell my songwriting students that every song is a different child, and they all have different birthing processes. The process of writing each one is very intuitive and natural.
Q: "My Girls" was one song on Weightless that really spoke to me, as a woman facing the fiscal reality of being a musician while still hoping to have a family. Did you have a similar reaction to the song, and decide to cover it, or was there another story?
A: Liam, my accordion player, actually brought that song in. I just got chills listening to it, so I knew we had to do it. The original (listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zol2MJf6XNE) is so electronic, and we’re all playing acoustic instruments. Getting all the sounds in was the most challenging part of making the song happen.
Q: "Traveller’s Blessing" has a spiritual vibe, and the lyrics create this great imagery. They have this narrative quality that makes me wonder, are you much of a reader? Or is life experience enough to inspire your lyrics?
A: I like to read novels...and books about science, the mind, behaviour. I wish I had more time to read. Irish folk music and bluegrass has this story-telling aspect...and the lyrics from this song actually steal from part of an Irish blessing: "May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face."
Q: Is it refreshing to work with Rebecca Martin and Gretchen Parlato when you’re constantly surrounded by guys in the music industry? (Check out "Tillery", the ladies’ project: http://tillerygals.com/) What have you learnt from them?
A: I don’t really get tired of the guys...but it’s so different with Gretchen and Rebecca. They are two of my best female friends...There is a healing energy. We laugh, cook, talk...it’s the same energy when we’re performing. It’s like medicine.
Q: What has it been like to realize your songs with non-vocalists?
A: I used to write everything out, but over time, the guys told me that they actually prefer to learn by ear and memorize the music, which works for me. I can write the way I like to write, and they’re learning the way they like to learn. I was thinking of getting another vocalist at one point to sing back-up vocals...but then Liam and Chris said that they would be willing to sing. They love singing. We’ve rehearsed trio voice for hours.
Q: Has sharing Chris with Ari Hoenig been a problem?
A: [Laughs] No, we’ve been very lucky. Everything tends to be booked so far in advance that there hasn’t been a problem yet.
Q: What does a day in the life of Becca Stevens look like?
A: Well, when I’m in Brooklyn, I set my alarm and wake up early. I make breakfast, then I get on my bike with my guitar, computer, USB mic and headphones. I go to my workspace, where I write and record ideas for my new record. Then I have lunch, then I work some more...then dinner. After dinner I usually have a rehearsal or meeting. Then I either go out and I’m fun, or I stay home and I’m boring. When I’m on the road, everybody gets up early, and we hop on the bus/train/plane to the next hotel, or straight to the sound check. Then we play and do it again.
Q: What does being your own tour manager involve?
A: I make sure everybody, myself included, is awake, fed and healthy. I keep track of the CDs that we sell...and the guys help to take care of me too. Taylor Eigsti has a tour manager, so it makes things easier when I’m touring with him. I just sort of follow along and make sure not to get sick.
Q: Going back to your time at the New School, did you face adversity as a singer-songwriter trying to do the jazz thing in a sea of instrumentalists?
A: Definitely. There were a lot of classes that I was discouraged from taking. I showed up to audition for this one ensemble and when they found out I was a singer, they sort of told me that it wasn’t for singers...stuff like that. There were classes available to instrumentalists and not vocalists, and vice versa.
Q: What advice would you have for other musicians who have found themselves in a similar situation?
A: It’s about who you are musically and what you want to do with that. You have to develop a belief in what you have to offer...then it doesn’t matter what other people do.