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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Becca Stevens, an artist who at The Jazz Gallery needs no introduction, will be returning to the Gallery stage for the Commissions Revisited Series. Always pushing in some way against her own limitations and boundaries as a songwriter and musician, Stevens used the commissioning series to create Regina, a collection of music that eventually became her acclaimed album in 2017. Regina was the result of months of research, experimentation, and soul-searching, according to Stevens.

This weekend, Stevens will be revisiting the album at The Jazz Gallery with her band featuring herself on guitar, ukulele, charango, and voice, Michelle Willis on keyboards and voice, Jan Esbra on guitar, Chris Tordini on bass and voice, and Jordan Perlson on drums.

TJG: You just jumped straight over to Spain from Winter Jazz Fest to work on a project, correct?

Becca Stevens: That’s right, I’m in Spain doing a kind of writing retreat. Mike League and I are doing a record in about a week in New York with The Secret Trio, an amazing group of Turkish and Macedonian musicians. We’re getting the music together for that, writing it, pulling together arrangements.

TJG: How do you and Michael work together? What’s your process together for a situation like this?

BS: We’ve written together in a couple of different groups. With this one specifically, the songs started out with him sending me demos and ideas on oud and guitar. I would add melodies, harmonies, lyric ideas, things like that. Right now, I’m finishing that process. Once I get a song to a point where I think it’s pretty much finished, at least a draft, I’ll send it back to him. He adds more final touches, ways to bring in the trio. We’ll see how it goes! It’s a back-and-forth process. In the band we’re in with David Crosby, it’s more like we’re all writing together at the same time. All approaches work, this is just how we went about this one since we weren’t working in the same place.

TJG: Well, it’s a treat to be interviewing you, I’ve been a fan for years. The show at The Jazz Gallery is part of the Commissions Revisited Series, where you’ll be presenting music from Regina, correct?

BS: That’s right. The Gallery originally commissioned that music, so it’s the only place to do the reunion.

TJG: A lot of the album explores this childlike wonder, lost hope, dangers of love. Could you tell me about who Regina is, and how she sees the world?

BS: Regina began as a concept, the word ‘queen,’ and different things I could pull out of that word, everything and anything I associated with the word. Through the process of writing the record, Regina began to take on a life of her own. Maybe out of necessity, she became a writing partner, a voice in my own head that I would call upon for guidance, confidence, a clue from a muse. I found that assigning an entity to the muse behind the song helps with clarity. I get a stronger sense of whether I’m doing something that’s serving the song or serving myself, and when I’m writing, decisions that serve myself often don’t come across as poignantly or effectively.

TJG: In this creative space, is she sitting next to you, is she on the paper, is it more physical, more spiritual?

BS: She’s sitting next to me, but in my mind’s eye. Internally, in a way.

TJG: The language in this work is so lush, poetic, mythical. Did you have specific lyrical influences throughout the process?

BS: There were a lot of lyrical influences, depending on the song. For example, on “Mercury,” all the lyrics are compiled from Freddy Mercury’s interview quotes. On “Ophelia,” there’s definitely some Shakespeare influence, and Queen Mab is a setting from Romeo and Juliet. “We Knew Love” was very much inspired by the last letter Queen Elizabeth I wrote to Robert Dudley, there are even specific words I pulled from that letter.

Yet along with the entity of Regina that began to develop, I pictured her to be otherworldly. Not a literal queen, on a throne, but a being from another world. I tried to depict that on the album cover, and I felt that coming through in the lyric writing, which you touched on in your question. Songs like “Venus” were inspired by the feeling of a battle from another world, a virtuous Venus-like being versus some kind of beast, a minotaur in a labyrinth, good and evil.

TJG: When the project began, and you knew you’d be writing new music, performing at the Gallery, eventually recording a new album, what were some of the immediate challenges that you began to tackle?

BS: Writing the music [laughs]. Getting an album’s worth of material in that amount of time was daunting, which is why I came up with the concept. It was about a year from when they commissioned me in June, but I didn’t start the writing until the end of December into January, I had a writing retreat at my aunt’s mountain house, where I wrote a lot of the first songs. I came home, finished writing for the commission, rehearsed with my band, then when I realized it was going to be my next album, I wrote five more songs, and there ended up being a few from the Commission that didn’t make it onto the record. The idea of “Okay, I have to write an hour’s worth of music in about six months,” that was the quickest I’d ever written that much music. The concept really helped to give me a shape on the canvas before starting each painting, if you will.

TJG: In that crunched space, did you have techniques or prior templates to help you push through those challenges?

BS: As a songwriter, I’m inspired to find a way to change my techniques every time I write a song. Sometimes I don’t control it: Sometimes I’ll let it be completely cathartic and visceral. But for example, on this record, in order to have different vibes, I’d say “I’m going to set a poem.” Or “I’m going to research Freddy Mercury, or Queen Elizabeth, and see where that takes me.” In each of those instances, once I got going, it would be a mix of limitations.

On Queen Mab, I fleshed out the original demo mostly with voices, without instruments. I wasn’t writing on guitar like I usually would. I did a kind of vocal choir arrangement to get the harmony and the layers. On a song like “We Knew Love,” I was in my more natural state, sitting and writing with the guitar, coming up with a beautiful accompaniment part. What I will say is that in every scenario, the only thing that is the same every time – and this will sound contradictory—is the randomness of the flow. It’s kind of like a valet parking puzzle, where you have to move this car and that car to get another car in…

TJG: Like that Rush Hour game?

BS: Yes! Exactly. So I have a process, of course, because I’m me, but a lot of that process is this openness, following the flow of what feels like it’s working. I’ll move forward because I need to move forward, in order to make progress, but then things that I leave behind end up coming back and staying, or I’ll just be doing things to get to a point where I can completely rearrange a song. It all comes down to taste, mood, inspiration. I could finish a song and think, for this album, this has too much of a certain vibe, so I’m going to completely turn it upside down, change the tempo, key, until it’s unrecognizable from its “first version.” There’s a randomness, things are always changing, yet connected… It feels like painting, dancing, cooking. Like making a soup.

TJG: I just spoke with Chris Tordini, and he was curious to hear about your feelings about this music, looking back at the journey it has taken. When you look at this music, are there things that stand out to you as surprises? Things that make you say, “Wow, I couldn’t have anticipated this before the project began?”

BS: The first thing that comes to mind is that while I was writing and performing the music originally, the Regina alter ego felt like something I had to call upon that existed separately from me. Now, when I perform the music, I don’t even have to think about it. That entity has merged with me. Whatever I was pulling from when I wrote it, I can feel it when I play Regina songs. Those qualities of what I’m feeling are very much intertwined with that thing I was trying to create. Even though it came from a fascination with Queen Elizabeth, a desire to have a concept that pulled everything together, I think that deep down, Regina came from need. Maybe ‘need’ is the wrong word, but there were qualities in Regina that I felt would benefit my songs, my artistry.

There’s also the band element, which is interesting to think about because I’m going through it right now, again. I just finished a record where I was writing and recording largely by myself. It was mostly me and Nic Hard, who I produced the record with. It was a lot of very introverted space in the studio, then coming out with this finished product and figuring out ways to arrange it, perform it, share it with people. I remember that process with Regina was challenging. I actually had to be reminded of that recently: I told my husband, “I don’t remember this ever being so hard, going from the recorded product to performing live,” and he said “You went through this same thing with Regina, you must have amnesia.” Once you cross into the live realm, it’s easy to feel like “Oh, it always felt this good.”

Now, I’ve gotten to a point with Regina where I prefer the music live to recorded. The live performance has so much history, from touring it around the world, feeling connected with other people on the stage. Something can change in the moment, and be more different than it ever has been. I love the feeling that the songs are alive. It’s interesting that the transformation that has to occur to get from studio to live, it’s sort of like a birth, in a way. I’ve never had a kid, but I’ve heard women say that the moment you hold your baby, you forget how painful the pregnancy and birth were. Once the music starts feeling good live, I completely forget how hard it was to get there. Now, I’m deep in it again with the new album. It’s a strange life we lead.

TJG: Very strange indeed. What you mentioned about Regina reminded me obliquely about interviews I’ve been reading and listening to with Lady Gaga, and the origins of that identity for her. It’s coming from a darker place than you’re coming from, but she first developed this alter ego, this identity, this muse, as a means of empowerment after a sexual assault, and now, many years later, she can barely tell the two apart, she’s so integrated.

BS: Oh wow! That’s awesome. So interesting to hear. I’m going to have to listen to the whole thing… I love that. There’s a bit of that with Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé’s alter ego.

TJG: Yes, exactly. You mentioned your band, and I’ve seen videos you’ve done about Chris and Jordan, but tell me a little about your relationship with your band, especially when you bring the music form the studio to the stage.

BS: The history we have is so rich, this friendship and relationship we’ve built over the years.  The amount of time we’ve spent together… these are five of the deepest relationships I’ve ever had. The band began around 2005. I put it together, and I didn’t know Jordan, but Liam and Chris were in the band. In the beginning, I had these epically long scores and lead sheets. Too many pages. After the first few rehearsals I asked, “Do you like having these scores, or would you rather learn by ear?” Everyone agreed: By ear, one hundred percent. Since that day, I’ve had the good fortune of playing with these musicians who learn stuff as it’s happening. They have become vaults of my music, they carry it with them. It’s such a gift to be able to form songs that way, because then we’re not fussing with sheet music.

Back in the day, when we all lived in New York, we would have long rehearsals. We would get together and learn one of my new songs, spend hours putting the parts together. That was an era. We were a unit. As we’ve gotten older, Liam is a Tony-award winning director of Hadestown, Jordan lives in Nashville, Chris has a baby. We’re adults now, and we can’t sit in someone’s apartment for hours learning a song. The band has started to evolve in a beautiful way.

I’ve been able to step into ‘Becca Stevens solo record’ realm. The one I just made has forty-odd collaborators on it. It’s been incredible for me to write music with people, which I’ve been afraid to do because I didn’t want to lose my creative voice. My fear was–not anymore–was that in writing a song with someone, it would erase me. My voice wouldn’t come through anymore. In challenging myself to collaborate and write songs with people, I found that the opposite happened. It’s expanding my voice, making me stretch. I’m still in it, but there’s more around me. To collaborate with people, invite different sounds into the record-making process, has definitely been challenging, especially when trying to recreate the material in that old band way…

TJG: The Wonderbloom EP and “Good Stuff” are so, so good. After listening to Regina, there’s something deep, crisp, tactile, and dry about the lyrics and sound. Do you resonate with that characterization?

BS: Yes, I definitely do. It is a challenge for me to be direct in my lyrical writing, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s one of my goals when writing to push up against something, challenge something that is not easy for me. With this project, I thought, How do I challenge myself to write lyrics that are the exact words I would write down in my journal? Or the first way I would explain something to a friend without putting a fancy veil around it?

TJG: Does this feel like a new chapter for you, and do you feel that this approach is coming back to inform the music of Regina as you’re preparing to perform that music again?

BS: It’s definitely a new chapter, but that never necessarily means that this is the new me. I’m already dreaming of whatever the next thing may be. I haven’t started it yet, but it already feels different, in my imagination. I think that comes from being a person who likes change, who likes to be challenged, who likes to create something I’ve never created before. 

TJG: I can’t wait to hear the full album. It’s coming out soon?

BS: Yes, March 20th, 2020. While I’m here in Spain I’m going to make a music video. I’m really excited about the music. It feels very different from Regina. I felt that I had that alter ego to fall back on, to protect me, in a way, in writing, performing, even in interviews. With this record, I unintentionally pulled this dark, real stuff out from inside me, and blasted it out in the most direct, raw way. It wasn’t my plan. It happened because it had to happen.

Becca Stevens performs Regina as part of The Jazz Gallery’s Commissions Revisited series on Friday, January 24, and Saturday, January 25, 2020. The group features Ms. Stevens on voice, guitar, ukulele, and charango; Michelle Willis on voice & keyboards; Jan Esbra on guitar; Chris Tordini on voice & bass; and Jordan Perlson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $35 general admission ($20 for members), $45 reserved table seating ($30 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.