At one time or another, those closest to Becca Stevens may have witnessed her hop up and leave the room in the middle of a conversation, to steal a moment with her guitar across the hall. When she’s in the midst of composing new music, the singer and multi-instrumentalist allows inspiration to follow her wherever she goes—even when the moment’s not entirely convenient.
“I’m a very intuitive and in-the-moment creator,” she says. “Even if I’m painting or writing a story or something, I really work on my toes and I come up with ideas as I go—I sort of figure out where things need to go when I’m standing in the middle of them. So, I’ll make a choice and start to go in that direction, and then making that choice and going in that direction is what reveals the next step.”
Allowing what she considers the natural momentum of creation to help develop her ideas into stories and compositions, Stevens views the practice of revising as an optional part of the process.
“I do revise, sometimes. It definitely does depend on the piece. There have been times when I’ve written a hundred versions of a song and then gone back to the first version. But that would be more rare. I tend to be committed to that forward motion and to the process of making decisions and sticking with them, and then working with those instincts. I find that if I trust the instincts that feel good, it tends to be the right decision.”
A prolific artist, Stevens has released four records under her band’s name and collaborated with a diverse cross-section of musicians throughout her career, from Snarky Puppy to Esperanza Spalding to David Crosby. When writing, she commits to herself and to her own vision of what’s honest and inspiring, rejecting the idea of writing what she anticipates the listener might want to hear.
“I think it’s really important to write the music—and this is not just to musicians, this is to any artist—to create the art that moves you—the stuff that sparks your inspiration and gives you the urge to come back to the canvas or come back to the guitar. That’s, I think, the most important thing because I’m the one that’s going to have to play it over and over again, and if it’s inspiring me, then I’m going to be inspired when I share it. And I think that inspiration when you’re sharing a song is just as important as accessibility or the impression that it makes on people, musically. And also, as a result of that approach, oftentimes my music evolves, and I think that’s a good thing. If you’re following your inspiration, then you’re staying open.”
To Stevens, inspiration is a kind of propelling force—and clearing the way for that force to exist means the difference between generating content and creating art. “Believe in what moves you,” she says.
“If you do the thing that you think is going to move other people, then you run the risk of it not moving them, and being stuck playing stuff that you don’t even like, and that’s a lose-lose. You also run the risk of it moving people so much, that you have to play it over and over again to make them happy, and it doesn’t make you happy. If you write a hit song, and everybody wants to hear it over and over again and you don’t even like it, then what’s the point?”
From a young age, Stevens understood her artistic persona, how it related to and differed from her day-to-day self—an awareness that later would help her develop her sound in an honest way.
“I’ve always had this dreamy kind of darkness to my artistry,” she says. “Even when I was in the family band—we were doing this brainy kind of witty music for little kids. If I were to sit down and make up a song, it had more of a seriousness to it, even though I wasn’t a very serious kid. For whatever reason, I would get kind of serious when I would compose a song. It was the same thing in middle school and high school. When I would do a painting in art class, it always came out much darker than I intended it to be. I remember in my early teens, making a CD of songs that I had written for my family, and having them sort of react to the very seriousness of it.
“There was a voice that was always there. It was just something that I was kind of tapping into. That’s my most kind of familiar and true voice and it’s blooming and becoming more nuanced and having more faces and stuff like that. But my earliest approach was like a very serious and kind of dark thing.”
The release of Stevens’ latest record Regina, produced by Troy Miller in 2017, called for a new kind of inspiration. Before she began working on the record, every long-form piece of music Stevens composed had drawn from intense, raw emotional experiences that pinned her pen to the page. When the Gallery commissioned her to create a set of original music at a time in her life when she felt content and secure, Stevens turned outward, conjuring what seemed to be, at the time, an external muse.
“I knew that I had to write an hour of new music in a limited period of time,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Okay, well I’m going to need some kind of theme and I’m going to need some kind of muse to drawn this music out of.’ I found that the idea of queens was very inspiring to me, and it wasn’t until I was a few months into the writing that I started to recognize that I was drawing from the muse within myself. So I’ve created this sort of queen identity, and then in order to truly relate to it, I would identify with her on a personal level, almost to the degree that existed inside me when we were writing music together.”
Beyond relating to the queen identity she conceived for Regina, Stevens allows certain other relationships to shape her creative process, particularly as a composer. A multi-instrumentalist and singer, she taps into the unique relationship she’s cultivated with each instrument’s distinct attributes.
“With the voice—I feel comfortable saying that I’m a singer,” says Stevens. “I feel very at home in my body as a singer. I understand my instrument. With guitars and ukuleles and charangos, part of my relationship to those instruments is that they don’t totally lay out in a cohesive way in my brain the way a piano would. And I think that’s also part of the nature of the instrument. For me, guitars are more shape-oriented. A piano is more linear; you can see a big scale sitting there in front of you. It’s all laid out; whereas, guitar, you come up with these interesting shapes with your left hand and then it’s the job of your right hand to dance around those shapes and to make those shapes as interesting as they can be.
“That’s sort of how I approach the instrument. Obviously, sometimes I’ll sit down and figure out exactly what it is I’m doing, but that’s not the frame of mind I come from when I’m writing. When I’m writing, it’s more like I’m searching around on the instrument to find a way that I can come up with something that’s inspiring to me and that tells the story.”
When Stevens picked up the ukulele after having been composing with and playing guitar for some time, she found herself applying much of the same shape-driven principles of her guitar playing to the four-string instrument.
“I didn’t ever take ukulele classes or anything like that,” she says. “I got some chord books and watched some videos, but otherwise I just treat it like the guitar. And I think that because I treat it like the guitar and with classical guitar technique, it comes across sounding more interesting than your average ukulele playing—meaning the ‘boom-chuk, boom-chuk’ three-chord strumming stuff.”
This coming year, Stevens looks forward to further exercises in composing, continuing her collaborative association with David Crosby as part of his Lighthouse Band, which also features Michelle Willis and Mike League. She’s in the early “dreaming” stages of composing her next record, and in the midst of working through settings of the late Jane Tyson Clement’s poetry.
“It’s been really nice, actually, coming back to writing after a year of heavy touring,” says Stevens. “To come back and enjoy the creative process—I think it’s going to be a really exciting year.”
Her two nights at the Gallery will feature a solo performance with surprise special guests, plus an evening of original music accompanied by Attacca Quartet, a string quartet with whom she’s been playing for several years, and whose viola player Nathan Schram also happens to be her husband.
“I’m really excited to perform with them because every time I’ve performed with them, it’s just been euphoric,” she says. “A lot of arrangements have been added, and the arrangements have grown. I’m actually planning to record this project with them this December.”
As she continues to compose the music that moves her, with fellow artists who inspire creativity and individualism, Stevens shares an enduring piece of advice:
“Hold tight to what moves you. And listen to that, because that’s what’s going to take you to finding your voice. And that’s what’s going to keep you happy along the way, because you will be inspired. Happiness doesn’t come from doing what you love; happiness comes from loving what you do. And in order to love what you do, you have to really listen to yourself and do the thing that moves you, not the thing that you think is going to move other people.”
The Jazz Gallery Celebrations Series presents Becca Stevens on Friday February 23 and Saturday February 24, 2018. On Friday, Stevens will play solo, alongside some special guests. On Saturday, Stevens will perform with the Attaca Quartet; Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violin, Nathan Schram, viola, and Andrew Yee, cello. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.