Talking With Laura Stevenson About Her New Album and Learning How To Be a Person Again

There's this thing that some writers say that I find very true, and it's that the hardest artists to write about are the ones you love the most. For me, that's been true of Laura Stevenson more than almost anyone else

Talking With Laura Stevenson About Her New Album and Learning How To Be a Person Again
Credit: Bon Jane

If you've known me for any length of time then you've definitely heard me talk about how great Laura Stevenson is. That's a statement that, though it's often about the music she makes, is true of her in every possible sense. She's someone who writes records that are so beautiful and emotionally vulnerable that you'll be on the verge of tears but is so disarmingly funny onstage—and online—that it makes you have emotional whiplash.

There's this thing that some writers say that I find very true, and it's that the hardest artists to write about are the ones you love the most. For me, that's been true of Laura Stevenson more than almost anyone else I've ever covered. When I profiled her a few years ago, I can't explain how many hours I put into that piece just trying to get it right and, even now, I'm not totally sure I did. That's why, this time, I didn't want to mess it all up with my words, I just wanted to talk to her about her new, self-titled album that's out this Friday. Like all of her albums, Laura Stevenson is a perfect summary of her strengths, and if you've not heard her music before, it's as good a place to start as any. Because there's not an album of hers I wouldn't loudly recommend to someone no matter what their taste in music is. So go ahead and give it a listen and read us talk about the very weird years we've had.

The last time I talked you was ahead of The Big Freeze, and since then you did the big Sit Resist reissue and the podcast about that with my buddy Tim, and I wanted to know if being in that reflective period had any influence on what you wanted to make with this record?

I think it will change how I want to approach the next record, because with this one, the writing happened in 2018. The writing happened before The Big Freeze even came out, before the Sit Resist reissue, before all this retrospective stuff or whatever. I think this one was just a response to the way that I wrote The Big Freeze, because those songs were older, and I shelved The Big Freeze for over a year after recording it because I was dealing with all the shit that was going on. It was a lot of life changes, but there was all the stuff that was going on that I wrote this record about, I was kind of dealing with all of that. The way that these songs kind of came together, I didn’t want to be so quiet and I wanted to do full-band stuff and that was kind of a step away from The Big Freeze. But now, thinking about the whole catalog, I’ll definitely be writing things in the future that are more informed by looking at my past self. But this one, not to fuck up the question…

Well I’m the one who fucked up the question.
[Laughs] But it wasn’t super informed by that. I think the full-band stuff was more informed by the way that I had made the previous record. I wanted to go bigger and bring the band in, and I feel this one kind of exists on its own.

To go off that, The Big Freeze sat for a while, and this record’s songs being a few years old, with the pandemic holding things up too, does it feel weird to be promoting something that’s so tied to such an intense period that you’re now a few years removed from?

Yeah, it’s super weird. It feels like I was a totally different person. Especially now, this even more starkly than the last record, the world has changed so much around all of us, and now I have a baby, so my whole day-to-day…oh, now she’s screaming [Laughs]… my whole day-to-day is fucking wildly different than I ever imagined it could be. I just feel like my priorities are completely different now. God, she is screaming so much. [Laughs] She just screams bloody murder. Do you hear that?

Somehow, no! And a few different couples I knew had kids during the midst of this and it’s been so interesting to talk to people about it, because these life plans were all laid out and then everything got flipped on its head.

We were planning on slowing down, just not to the extent that we did, clearly. I had a plan to do a European tour in August of last year, and she was born in March, so it would have been kind of soon to go overseas and be away for an extended period of time, but that was how we were going to dive back in. I was planning on releasing this record way earlier than we did, but it would have been kind of weird to just release it and then be like, “Okay, I’m going to go on tour in…10 months.” We waited a little bit longer than we would have, but we were still planning on waiting. It’s cool and it sucks in different ways, because every day I had a task for every second of the day, which was amazing, because I was never bored for a minute. She was born March 22 and I didn’t have a moment to sit down and think about anything other than keep the baby alive and maybe clean the toilets.

Those things are of equal importance, really.

I mean, yes, obviously.

Saying you were never really bored, did having a child make this all, I don’t want to say better, but maybe a little bit of a nice thing to be able to just spend that time at home with your family and really just focus on your family?

I was glad for it, but I also, you know, I’ve been thinking about things like, “Who am I and what do I like doing?” Doing the interviews for this record it’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, I’m a songwriter and these are the songs I wrote.” I just had to turn that on a couple weeks ago, because I don’t even look in the mirror. And now it’s like, I need to cut my bangs and put on pants and pretend I’m the person I used to be. I don’t know, am I answering this correctly? [Laughs]

Is there really a correct answer though?

[Laughs] I mean, maybe!

To tie it to the record, I mean, that feeling of turning your public self back on is exhausting. I feel like we’re all kind of doing that now for work and other obligations and it…kind of sucks. We’re all just going zero to sixty, to use a tired euphemism.

But no, that’s exactly what it is though. It’s completely that.

That’s why I’ve just been trying to have conversations with people that are more about how they feel about the things they make instead of, like, “Tell me about what it was like recording a song two years ago.”

Totally, and I feel like everybody is trying to avoid the, “COVID-era albums” and framing everything around COVID, because it’s all kind of boring. But it’s definitely super jarring to be like, “And here’s my record that I wrote a million years ago!” But it’s also been cool because I’ve been finding time to go out and practice and I wasn’t doing that for myself.

Practicing, for me, is definitely a form of self-care because I just close my eyes, feel the vibration of the guitar against my body, and sing, and I have those two frequencies meet up and just feel some intense, spiritual thing where I can tune into who I am again. That’s been such a gift. It’s been giving me a reason to go out and do shit, because I’m about to dive into the world, and I’ve been a little bit stressed, because I feel so out of shape as a player, and even as a person socially, that I’m just going to have to get on stage and figure out what the fuck to talk about other than my baby that I just look at all the time. Nobody wants to hear that shit. Especially young 20-year-olds. They’re going to be like, “What’s this lady talking about? A baby? I was a baby recently.” So I need to not talk about her, but I just think about her all day long.

People love babies! You should just have a powerpoint that scrolls through photos of her while you do your banter.

Yeah, sometimes. [Laughs] But it’s just been my whole world, and I feel I should try to think about other things that I also used to like, like eating pizza. But it’s been truly wonderful to be in my garage, which is probably 25 feet from my house, so it’s close enough to run in and play, but it’s far enough to feel like I’m in a different place. Because it’s just been me, Mike, the baby, and the dog in our little house driving each other insane for the past 15 months, so I’m trying to tune back into who I am. And I’m not writing really, I’ve only written one song, which was a Christmas song, but I’ve only written one whole song since this all happened. So once I’m not just spending all my time practicing and preparing for shows, I’m gonna actually be able to use the time during the hours when she’s napping to actually write, and that’s going to be fucking crazy. That’s going to be so good for me. I just hope something comes out.

Being a musician is all about those dual roles of being a writer at home then turning it on to be a performer. Did it feel weird not being able to access that performer side of yourself?

I think I’ve always been kind of scared performing in front of people, so I have to try to be present but also have to go somewhere inside myself to feel okay about it and feel something. I don’t want to watch somebody phone it in, and I’d feel so self-conscious if I felt like I was phoning it in. Those shows are kind of disasters, because I just would get in my own head about it. I’m really, really looking forward to the shows with the band, and I wish those were happening before the solo shows, but the solo shows are going to be a serious challenge for me. Not to be a dork, I try to transcend a bit when I’m playing, so I really, really need to get into a good headspace for these solo shows. The first one I’m not so worried about, the next two are with Lucy Dacus in Portland, Maine and those shows are going to be packed, and I’m opening those shows, and I forgot what it feels like to play to people who don’t care at all. That’s going to be a really big challenge. But with the band, I’ll have people to hide behind at least.

To get into the record, what I find really compelling is that you’re singing about this very personal experience, but you’re keeping the details very vague. This may sound weird, but the songs feel very horror movie-esque to me, in that there’s this looming dread and fear, but you don’t know exactly what it is, so it functions kind of like the scary thing that’s offscreen and, by not seeing it, it just feels a lot more intense. So I guess, how did you go about crafting something that was very specific to your experience without making it so transparent?

That’s really interesting that you said that, because that’s how I experience things, not in a linear way but with a series of moments that are kind of fragmented but you feel really present in them. It’s like how you can close your eyes and it feels like you’re right there again. You don’t even know how you got into the building you were in then, but you remember the building. And for traumatic stuff, that’s kind of the way that it happens. It’s all a blur, but there are these moments of stillness that either wake you up in your sleep in a cold sweat, or there are the sweet moments where things kind of quieted down for a second and you could take stock of what was going on.

Basically, that is how I kind of processed everything when I got home after being in the shit. The first song I wrote was the last song on the record, and in that you’re in this convenience store and, to me, I’m experiencing having been there, but it’s good to know that you can see what I was saying. Because I was trying to be as vague as I could to protect the people that are involved directly, but I wanted to capture these moments that were important to me and to just be like, what the fuck just happened? [Laughs]

I’m glad you brought up the trauma element, because that is just how the brain works. You don’t remember the exact thing, but you remember the blue car that drove by or whatever, because your brain is trying to protect you by focusing on the other details so heavily. But with that in mind, how does it feel to have to talk to random weirdos like me on the phone about those types of events, especially if people try to probe into what was happening more than you’d like?

It’s surreal. Talking to you, I feel super comfortable, and I’ve talked to Dan Ozzi (editor's note: I don’t know who this is) and I’m going to talk to Tim, and these being the earlier interviews, it’s really good because I’m in kind of a safe space. Dan Ozzi (editor's note: I do not understand why people keep thinking I know who this person is. I do not.) was my first interview, and he knew what had happened, so he and I kind of talked about everything and made sure everything was within the parameters. Because I’m an over-sharer in my life.

Preaching to the choir here. I’m literally trying to form bonds with the ladies at the post office

Everyone I interact with I’m seeing as a potential friend. I’m just out here looking for friends. I’m a 37-year-old woman, I don’t know how to make friends.

I’m just so out of practice with interviews, and I’m talking about these things that happened over three years ago and I’m talking about them like I’m still in it. So much has changed, and things have really calmed themselves down in that situation, and we’re kind of on the other side of it and are looking back on it as some crazy shit, so it kind of feels okay to talk about. If this was two years ago, I wouldn’t be able to talk about these songs because it was still too fresh of a wound. It’s just healing to reaffirm for myself that everything is going to be okay. It feels nice to talk about it in past tense.

That resonates with me because I always feel that, when you go through these big, traumatic events, once you are on the other side of it and can speak about it in the past tense, you’re able to kind of assert some control over the situation as opposed to the other way around. Is there anything you kind of noticed in revisiting these songs to talk about them, was there anything that surprised you about what was in the songs that made you feel either more connected, or more disconnected, from the person you were then?

I’m trying to think of specific songs, but there’s just these little moments of intense pain. “State,” the first song on the record, that song was like, I had this anger that was so consuming, but I just don’t feel that anger anymore. I’m glad I documented it, because I was really afraid of how angry I was. I never felt that before, and hopefully I’ll never feel that again. I don’t want to say I’m glad, because is it a good thing? But I’m glad I documented it. Because those feelings fade or transform, and if you don’t capture them when you’re feeling them, you might never remember what you were really feeling. It’s important to remember there was a time in my life where I was in that place and hopefully I’ll never go there again. Unless… [Laughs]

Given "State" was the most aggressive song you’d written, did it feel like you needed to give yourself permission to be able to express that on a record?

I usually temper whatever I’m feeling with a happy ending or the music sounds happy, I’m not as direct usually. I was just so happy with this song and how it came out, it felt like this little jewel that came out of the whole thing. If I was nervous about recording it and sharing it with people, because it is the ugliest side of myself, I felt like it was part of the whole process. There are two songs that aren’t fully about the shit that was going on, but the songs as a whole, they are part of that journey I was on and each one is important and makes sense leading into the next one. So rage is where it started and then sad and quiet songs are where it ended, I guess. It’s probably the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt because it’s not a pretty song. Well, there’s the song “Dermatillomania” on The Big Freeze, which was one of the most vulnerable because I was so direct, but it’s still kind of a jaunty song. But this was just me taking the ugliest feeling I’d ever felt and I just wanted to put it out and not sugarcoat it at all. It’s also a funny one to lead the record with, because the rest of the record is like, “Whoa, I’m not that intense.” I thought it might be a weird first single because I thought people would be like, “This is going to be a crazy record,” but then the rest of it is actually kind of nice. If you listen to the words, it’s fucked up, but there’s happy little ditties on it.

There’s happy ditties and a song like “Continental Divide” has two guitar solos on it, so there’s still some fun happening here.

Oh yeah! That’s my friend John Burdick, he’s kind of a Hudson Valley guitar legend, and he did a tour with us out west so I called him and was like, “I need a guitar solo on this part and want it to sound like Nels Cline,” and he was just like, “Yeah, okay.”

And he achieved that goal. But to focus on the intense stuff for one more question, whenever I talk to someone who makes a record like this, I’m always curious about how they feel about putting something out like this knowing that it will probably mean that a lot of listeners will likely want to talk to you about the difficult moments they had that the music helped them cope with?

I hadn’t considered it and now I’m totally freaked out. [Laughs]

Welp, sorry I brought it up!

No, no, it’s really good to prepare myself for that, because I haven’t been thinking about that one-on-one interaction with fans. Because I do have those conversations a lot, even about songs that aren’t about traumatic stuff, like “Master of Art,” somebody was sharing how that was a really important song to them and you’re having this really intense connection with this person that is so connected to this thing that you made, and that’s really special and moving, but I think there are going to be a lot of conversations about other people’s trauma. It’s going to be difficult I think, but I think all of that stuff is so healing, and I want to be open to that.

With stuff on The Big Freeze, that song “Dermatillomania,” I had so many people get in touch with me who were like, “I didn’t even know there was a word for this and it’s something I’ve been doing for 20 years.” That has been so healing to me, personally. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is more than just writing stupid songs. This will be a bigger challenge, because there are going to be a myriad of things that people have gone through, and there will be a lot of sadness shared with me, and I have a hard time not feeling what other people are feeling, I can get really sucked into it and be right there with somebody, but I think that’s a good thing. And it’s why I do this, ultimately. But I honestly had not thought about it at all. Which is insane. [Laughs]

I only ask because I’ve just seen a lot more lyrics over the past few years that just go deep into subjects like grief and loss. You joked earlier about a 20-year-old not connecting to the experience of someone having a baby, but they may be experiencing loss or trauma in a way that feels really new to them, and I think they latch onto records like this because of it. And that’s a really cool thing.

Helping people in any capacity is what makes it all worthwhile. Writing music or whatever, when people are touched by something and it can help them in any part of their life, that has always been the reason that I want to keep doing this. Honestly, I think because the isolation is still strong enough, I’m not even thinking about having face-to-face conversations with anybody about this because I haven’t had a face-to-face conversation with anybody other than my husband in a really long time. It still feels so abstract.

To finish off the interview with the question I whiffed at the beginning, how do you see all the reflection you’ve been doing shaping what you want to do next? Do you feel like exploring these past versions of yourself have changed what you want to make moving forward?

It’s been interesting, especially doing the Sit Resist livestream thing—which was actually pre-recorded and some guy was really mad about that [Laughs]—but I can’t blast an amp while a baby is sleeping, but relearning all those songs, because a lot of them I hadn’t played since I was recording the record, and those songs were really interesting. I was just looking at the way I wrote songs structurally, and I did a lot of reflection on that with Sit Resist. There was a lot of analysis on where I was musically and I’m really inspired by who I was as a young writer. It was my second record, I didn’t really have a plan, and I was still just writing songs for myself only. There was a lot of innate stuff that I was doing that, in later records, I started second-guessing myself more musically, and I feel really inspired to just go and write the way I used to write on Sit Resist. Some of those songs just came out of me and they feel really special. I wasn’t being so self-critical, I’d just write the song, and even if it didn’t have a chorus in it, that was fine. I was really inspired by that record, specifically. I’d like to explore that side of myself musically, and I feel like I can, because I don’t know who I am musically right now anyway. It’s been so long, I can just write with a fresh perspective and just write stream of consciousness, because that feels really special.

Looking at this record, that song “Continental Divide,” it’s such a rock band song, and when I was teaching the guitar player the chords and parts, I was impressed by how I did something that I actually thought was pretty cool. I think that’s more of a product of being a student of music. I was thinking more about what I was writing. Honestly, I just want to find a way to combine the two things.