Like Chris Morrissey’s Standard Candle project that kicked off The Jazz Gallery’s 2015 Residency Commission concerts last weekend, Becca Stevens’s commission project this weekend features a collection of brand new music for voices. Stevens’s album Perfect Animal—released on Universal Music Classics this spring—has received heaps of critical acclaim from both the jazz world and beyond. But ever the adventurer, Stevens heads out in new and surprising directions on Regina, a collection of songs about queens of all kinds—the historical, the mythological, and the personal.
Featuring her ace working band augmented by a trio of classical musicians and singers Jo Lawry and Chris Turner, Regina is perhaps Becca Stevens’s most ambitious work to date. We caught up with Stevens by phone this week to discuss the inspiration for these songs, the expansive ensemble, and the challenges of writing on the road.
The Jazz Gallery: These songs that you’ve composed for the commission focus on different queens, including Queen Elizabeth I of England. How did you decide to write about these women?
Becca Stevens: I’m trying to remember what drew me originally to Queen Elizabeth. I think I read a quote or saw a video clip or something, and it sparked some curiosity. So I started watching different Queen Elizabeth movies on YouTube, just clips of them. I was really fascinated by all the conspiracy about why she never married—whether it was because she was so devoted to leading and didn’t want to be distracted, or there are some people that think that she had some sort of medical problem and was afraid that she couldn’t have kids. That would make sense in a way because her dad [Henry VIII] was a very angry man and killed her mother for not being able to have a son, so maybe she had some sort of fear about that. But I really liked the idea of it being out of her passion for leading. I thought that was a really beautiful idea and it was inspiring me at the time.
When I started writing, I started investigating the lives and the stories of other queens, which is not my normal process. I would say more often than not I write from my thoughts and experiences, through introspection. This was really helpful for me because it got me moving much quicker than usual. I started investigating all these people, like my aunt told me about this woman Elizabeth Woodville who was either the grandmother or great-grandmother by marriage of Queen Elizabeth. Her story was really fascinating—she was begging the king to return lands to her and he fell in love with her, and then they married in private. I was reading about Freddie Mercury, and so I wrote a song about him. And then I wrote some songs where I used the term more loosely—my grandmother has really been inspiring me lately. She’s a queen in my life so I wrote her a song.
TJG: How did you get from your original idea to actually getting lyrics out?
BS: In the case of Queen Elizabeth I, I was very intrigued by this unrequited, or at least unwedded, love that she had with Robert Dudley. Apparently he was the love of her life and she was the love of his, and she sort of strung him along, and he always thought he was right around the corner from marrying her. When I was reading about them, I was wondering if he was alive to the end, but he died three years before her. I found this letter that he wrote her on his deathbed basically, and it was the most beautiful letter. It didn’t confess his love to her in any grand way, but the way he spoke in this letter was so poignant and beautiful. Basically, he was saying that at the end of his life, all of his prayers are for her health and happiness. So that’s what I decided to write the song about for Queen Elizabeth. It’s sort of her response to the letter, and then there’s another verse that’s from his perspective that I’m going to have Chris Turner sing, so it’s sort of a duet between Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, but in a pop song format.
I had been turning around that song in my head for months. I started writing the chords and the melody months ago, and I knew that I wanted to write something about the end of her life, but I didn’t find that letter until a week and half ago, so that song just came together!
TJG: A lot of pop artists have used concept albums to take on new personas and new ways of writing, like say David Bowie with Ziggy Stardust and the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper. Did you feel yourself taking on a new persona as a writer and performer while working on these songs?
BS: Absolutely. Even though I’m taking on these other personas, I think it’s kind of like being a method actor. When it’s really working, it feels as though it’s me. In a way, it’s no different than writing from my own personal experience, because when I’m really embodying the character I’m investigating, it feels like they’re my experiences. It’s sort of like going into a trance of embodying that character. Also, I found that by going into these different people’s minds and different worlds, it’s brought out more than anything my Irish folk music roots. There’s a lot of Celtic stuff coming through in the melodies, which is interesting.
Another big thing is that this music has been more lyrically-driven than what I usually write. I really like to challenge myself and mix up my writing process, so I have written song every which way, but this body of music has been primarily rooted in lyric and the story.
TJG: You’re working with a bit of a hybrid group for this project—your regular band augmented with other singers, a couple of string players, and the classical pianist/composer Timo Andres. How did you link up with these other collaborators?
BS: I first met Timo when I was asked to do a premiere with Brad Mehldau at Carnegie Hall a few years ago. It was two pianists, seven saxophonists and me, and so the other pianist was Timo. So I first met him then, and then he asked me a couple of years later to sing on a premiere of his called Work Songs. On the first half of that program, me and Gabe Kahane and Ted Hearne and a couple of other folks played our original music, and then the second half of the program was Timo’s premiere. I really got to know him then. He’s now one of my closest friends and since then we’ve done other projects together—a little bit of my music, a little bit of his. We’ve also done some performances of Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. There’s just a really natural musical chemistry there.
So when I was pulling people together for this project, I thought of him mostly because I wanted to create an opportunity to work with him more. Also, I thought it would be interesting to see what he would do in a setting that’s a bit different than his comfort zone. When I was working with him for the Work Songs concert, I wrote a song in my style and gave him a lead sheet and let him have his way with it. I loved what he did and I loved hearing him have complete freedom, which is something that is not often what he has in the classical world. I mean obviously he has complete freedom in his writing, but while improvising in a live setting within a certain framework, he does such beautiful things. So I tried to write songs that give him structure but complete freedom within it. For example, there’s a song where it’s just him with voices and strings and I have the strings staying out of the lower register so he can have complete freedom with the root movement and the harmony.
I also have two classical string players and both of them are coming from the classical world, but they both experiment a lot with improvisation. I’ve worked a lot with the viola player Nathan Schram and he’s incredible. Both are really down to learn things by ear and just really open and think as much like jazz players as they do classical players. So it’s been a huge relief not having the burden having to write everything out.
The singers are Jo Lawry and Chris Turner. I met Chris in school—I went to the New School with him and we were in classes together. Recently, we sort of musically reunited at a Snarky Puppy recording session in New Orleans. He and I were both asked to sing original music with Snarky Puppy along with David Crosby and Lauren Mvula and Susana Baca, all these amazing people. Hearing him sing every night put his voice in my head during the time I was writing the music for the project, so his persona just oozed into my inspiration and I found myself writing for his voice. Same with Jo Lawry—I’ve been listening to her new CD a lot and she’s also my neighbor, and so I asked her one night when I was over there if she would be available. I sort of assumed that she wouldn’t be because she tours with Sting all the time, but she just happened to be available. I thought the two of them are so different, and it would give me more characters to play the roles that I was writing for, instead of me having to sing all the parts. I thought it would be interesting to have more actors, in a way.
And then there are my bandmates. I can’t say enough about how awesome it is to work with them. They’re the majority of the people that I’ve been writing for and working with in my time in New York. They’re the heart of the music.
TJG: You really seem to be pushing yourself both lyrically and musically with this project. What made you want to challenge yourself and push in new directions here?
BS: I’ve always wanted to write for strings, but I’ve never had the balls to just jump in. Recently, I guess it was last fall, I went into the studio with four members of the Decoda String Ensemble—Nathan the violist is one of them—and they were recording my music with string quartet arrangements by various composers and arrangers, mostly friends of mine in New York, but also some friends and family in North Carolina, namely my dad and my brother. The project was inspired by this project a couple of years ago by Steve Prutsman, a composer in California, did a concert of my music with string quartet. So Steve’s arrangements are on there, and my dad and brother, and Timo did one. So anyway, doing that project around the time that I was writing the music for The Jazz Gallery commission, I had strings in my head and had the burning desire to write for strings and to figure out how to bring strings into my music.
I decided to have two keyboards because originally I wanted to take some pressure of myself with the guitar. I like when I’m writing, I put so much into the guitar parts. I usually start with the guitar and make them very intricate and complicated. I had hoped to not play guitar at all, but then failed miserably. I had been making these home recordings to teach the music to everyone and posting them to dropbox. When I was making these demos, I found myself most comfortable accompanying myself on the guitar and then the guitar just becomes an important part of the patchwork and it can’t be removed. But, I have succeeded in simplifying, which is a huge deal for me. You’d think writing for nine people, I would make things super complicated. But I’ve managed to simplify, partly because I have more people to distribute the parts to and also because of time constraints.
But then there are some songs that are going to be a bit crazy. There’s this song about Queen Mab from Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech from Romeo & Juliet, and the text is like bizarre and wicked, and now the music is too—it’s going to be very strange.
TJG: You’ve had a really busy past few months with the Snark Puppy sessions and doing all of the touring in support of your new album Perfect Animal. How did you set aside both the time and the mental space to work this music?
BS: Back in January, I spent a week around New Year’s at my aunt Becca’s house in Virginia, in the mountains—she lives in the valley and then has this little apartment up on a mountaintop. So after Christmas, I drove up and spent the week waking up alone every morning and just diving into writing for this project. This is where all the seeds were planted and began to grow. Having that time alone was such a gift—I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s really difficult for me to create time like that because I stay so busy and I’m hardly ever home, so I had to plan it way in advance and really commit to it. There were all of these reasons to shave off a day on this end or that end. In the weeks leading up to it when I didn’t have time to write, it became a source of relief, because I was like, “I have that week, so it’s going to be okay.” So I would wake up every morning and make breakfast and start to write until hours later when I would get hungry again and have a meal, then write, then maybe go down to my aunt’s house in the valley and have dinner, or maybe just stay up there and write and make a fire and write until I passed out and went to sleep and do it all over again.
From there, once I had the seeds planted and I had a framework, it was easier to work and build from there when I was touring. I could sit on an airplane, and as long as I had pasted the research that I had done into another program, then I could start to come up with a meter or a rhyme scheme. Now that I’m really in crunch time, I’ve been spending any free moment that I have in a hotel, like maybe a few hours before a sound check, making recording demos for the musicians. Or the other day, I missed a flight to Madrid. It was in Newark and I didn’t want to spend the money to take a cab home and back—I had all my instruments and luggage and didn’t want to worry about public transportation. So I was like, “You know what? I’m going to give myself an early birthday trip to a Newark hotel and just spend 24 hours writing music,” and it was the best thing.
The short answer is that it’s been hard to find the time. It’s not ideal to write on the road. I would much rather be at home or in one place where I can totally surround myself in the writing. But at the same time, the writing wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have this commission and I’m so grateful for it. Without some concrete to work on, I could be like, “Oh I’m touring right now, so I’ll write when I get home.” And then you get home and you get sick, or you get wrapped up in cleaning or getting rid of things or whatever. So it’s been a really good gift.
The Jazz Gallery’s 2014-2015 Residency Commission Series continues with Becca Stevens on Friday, June 19th and Saturday, June 20th, 2015. The group features new songs by Ms. Stevens performed by the leader on guitar and voice, Jo Lawry and Chris Turner on voice; Timo Andres on piano; Nathan Schram on viola; Hamilton Berry on cello; Liam Robinson on accordion, keyboards, and voice; Chris Tordini on bass and voice; and Jordan Perlson on drums and percussion. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. The series is funded in part by a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation. Purchase tickets here.