Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Laura Stevenson and the Cans

It’s difficult to tell by listening to Laura Stevenson sing, or hearing her strum an old Telecaster’s six strings, that she’s new to this whole music-making thing.

Maybe “new” is the wrong word. After all, Stevenson released A Record on Quote/Unquote Records in 2008 with her band the Cans; their follow-up seven-inch Holy Ghost! was released on Mandible Records last year. Still, there’s something in the way she describes her place in the band, on stage, on tour, and in the scene that makes her seem like the new girl at a new school—not completely uncomfortable, curious and silently excited, but endlessly unsure if she’s in the right place.

“Not to be like boo-hoo, but I’ve never really felt like I’ve belonged to anything,” explains Stevenson, who is staying at her mom’s house for a week while she waits for the band’s next tour to begin. “Even now, I feel really self-conscious playing music; I feel like I’m not one of the cool people.”

Stevenson’s self-consciousness might come from entering Brooklyn’s established indie scene before she really knew what it meant to be in a band; though she may not have been completely prepared, rock and roll, it seems, may have swooped in at just the right moment. “I was kind of going through some dark times,” Stevenson says. “I was just really depressed and not leaving my house. I had a TCBY that was around the corner from me, but I would drive there in my car and come back home; that’s the only place I would go.”

It was around that time that Stevenson’s friend Jeff Rosenstock was starting a new musical project. “I don’t know if Jeff was aware of how awful my life was,” she says, “but he invited me to be a member of this new thing he was starting because he knew I played the keyboard and I could sing.” Though it started as Rosenstock’s small, solo experiment, Bomb the Music Industry! (as it came to be called) has since become an explosive punk-ska collective known as much for their reckless and relentless live sets as they are their digital, donation-based albums. “It was great,” she says. “It was the perfect thing to happen in my life at that time. Being in Bomb the Music Industry! definitely pulled me out of whatever I was going through.”

While she discovered what it was like to write, record, perform, and tour with an army of musicians behind her, Stevenson started to experiment with her own songwriting. Some of the songs, many of which would become the backbone of A Record, were a response to the “dark times” through which she was navigating. “They were the product of this really bad relationship I was in,” she says. “I got my heart-broken.” Others were more of a reflection of these dark times. Two of the songs are about tragic instances when children were killed. “‘Baby Bones’ is about this massacre that took place in El Mozote, El Salvador,” she explains, “and ‘Landslide Song’ is a song about a landslide, obviously, that happened in the 1960s in Aberfan, Wales. These two stories had a big impact on me”

But not all of the songs on A Record are somber and bleak. “A Shine to It” begins with two guitars emerging gently and slowly from silence; one, an acoustic, is plucked with quiet confidence while the other, a fuzzy electric, buzzes behind it. Stevenson’s softened voice bounces on this bubbling guitar part as she sings about selling her blood and posing nude for an artist. These lines seem bleak—like a black contradiction to the song’s tranquil spark—until the chorus, that is, where she offers the money she makes to someone she loves. “I thought that you might like this,” she sings with a sincere sort of innocence, “because it’s got a shine to it. / I know you like shiny things so I will try to buy it up for you.”

“A Shine to It” was inspired by Cans bassist Mike Campbell (who encouraged Stevenson to record a collection of her songs) and the only one that wasn’t inspired by heartbreak. Now that Stevenson has some distance on her "dark times," some of the songs on A Record feel almost foreign to her. “It definitely feels like a little time capsule,” Stevenson explains, “because it’s a part of my life that I don’t even really think about any more because things are so different now.”

These dark and deeply personal songs may be part of the reason why it’s difficult for Stevenson to feel comfortable as the front-woman in her band and why she feels so self-conscious on stage. “They’re all very personal songs,” Stevenson explains. “Talking about it the way I sing about it makes me feel weird. Between songs when we’re playing live—I get a lot of shit for this from my band mates because they want to play a normal set—I’ll say, ‘Okay, this next one’s this song and it’s about something!’ And I have this weird, goofy thing that I do out of nervousness, and they hate it.

“I’m trying not to say anything between songs now,” she continues. “This is the new thing we’re trying: write a setlist, stick to it (which is hard), and don’t say anything in between songs. We did it once, and it was good. People reacted positively and my band mates weren’t upset with me.”

That doesn’t stop Stevenson from using among the most personal stories as her music’s muse. On “Holy Ghost!”—the title track for the Cans’ most recent seven-inch and one of her most dynamic, meaningful tracks—she picks softly at her acoustic, lets the strings ring and slide into silence. Stevenson’s voice sounds afraid, alone, like she’s lost at sea—even with the wind of a string section blowing at her back during the second verse; even while she wails above the drone of a dingy guitar during song’s final chorus; even with the steady engine of the rhythm section keeping the song on course.

“‘Holy Ghost!’ is, I think, the most important song that I’ve written,” Stevenson explains. “It’s about my dad, who was going through this really terrible time and I thought I was going to lose him. I wasn’t sure. He was really, really sad. He lived on this houseboat by himself; he didn’t have heat and it was the wintertime.”

“Oh dear lord,” she sings, exhausted and in “Holy Ghost!”, “I can feel your claws upon me, / scratching sweetly / in the middle of the night. / My father is so tired / I can feel your weight upon him. / Crushing gently, sweetly, nightly / from his house upon the sea. / Make it all right.”

“It’s like this prayer, sort of,” she giggles suddenly, nervously, as if she’s trying to surface from the seriousness of this story. “I don’t really follow religion because I’m a doubter, but this was kind of a last resort kind of thing. He’s doing okay now.”

Though it may make her self-conscious, or nervous, or feel like she doesn’t belong, it’s the personal nature of Stevenson’s music that makes it so stirring. It’s the reason why Stevenson was encouraged by Rosenstock—and later her band mates in the Cans, including Campbell—to step outside of her comfort zone and play the music she was meant to make.

And, though it may feel uncomfortable or feel foreign for her to be homeless when she’s not on the road, crashing on her parents’ couch between tours, a nomad with limited possessions—“I just went up into my mom’s attic to see what I had packed up there,” she snickers. “I forgot that I had some sweaters and a winter coat.”—something inside Stevenson endlessly reminds her that she is, indeed, in the right place.

After weeks of missed connections, limited windows of availability, and general illness, Stevenson was finally able to record these songs at her mom's house in New York on an autumn evening just before she took her band down to the Fest 9 in Gainesville, FL. The songs were performed so dynamically and tenderly that some parts of the song fall beneath the hum of the landline.

"Holy Ghost!" is the title track on Laura Stevenson and the Cans' 2009 seven-inch. "Juanita" is a Flying Burrito Brothers cover; the song originally appeared on their 1969 record The Gilded Palace of Sin.

Visit the Cans' Tumblr blog for more music, or their online store to purchase or download songs from each of their records.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.