Interview: Laura Stevenson

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 04.23.13 in Interviews


Laura Stevenson

It’s a gorgeous spring afternoon on the Lower East Side, and Laura Stevenson is talking about death. Not her fear of it so much as its inevitability — the fact that it’s coming for all of us, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. That she delivers the observation in a bright, chipper, skipping voice just makes it feel more ominous.

That, in part, is one of the most bewitching things about Wheel, Stevenson’s third record and first credited solely to her as opposed to “Laura Stevenson & the Cans.” Musically, it’s big and brash and joyous — Crazy Horse by way of the Blackhearts — but tune in to Stevenson’s lyrics and you’ll find California being decimated by an earthquake and fragile, trembling children begging for their mother to notice them. That Stevenson should reach such stunning musical maturation so quickly is, in part, hereditary: Her grandfather, Harry Simeone, was a musical arranger most famous for co-writing the Christmas standard “The Little Drummer Boy” and her grandmother, Margaret McCrae (née McCravy), sang with Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Stevenson’s own music eschews the lush for the ragged — they’re scrappy songs that claw their way forward, bleeding, bruised and determined.

eMusic’s Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes met up with Stevenson at the Grey Dog Café to talk about suicide, nihilism and how America faked the moon landing.

I wanted to start by talking about your grandfather, actually. How did you start to become aware of the fact that he was, you know, kind of a big deal?

My chorus teachers started getting excited about me being in their classes — he was a really important choral arranger. They would ask me questions about him and I would be like, “How do they know about my grandpa?” And then I’d start to see his name on TV — like, when you see the commercials for the compilation CDs of Christmas music — and there would be a blurb about the song with his name on the bottom of the screen.

Did he offer any guidance to you as you were getting started in music?

No, he was scary.


He was very stern, a very serious guy. So I was really intimidated by him, basically. He would tell me I was banging on the piano when I would play him something. He’d say, “Stop banging, stop banging.” And I thought I was playing gently. So now I play, like, overly gently because I’m afraid I’m banging. But he did help me a few times. When I was really little, I wrote this song for a nationwide contest, and he helped me notate it.

What was the contest?

It was a contest at the end of the year every year in school — there would be a theme, and it was multimedia, so you could write something or you could draw something, whatever. So I wrote a song called “Dare to Discover,” which was the theme that year. I remember the first part, which was about Christopher Columbus: ‘When Columbus sailed the ocean blue/ he found a great new land for me and you/ he daaaared to discover/ a land for you and me.’ And then the chorus is, “Yes he did,” over and over and over again [laughs]. I was like, six.

You were six? How did you put this together?

Well, I played piano…

Even still, though! I played piano when I was six but —

I don’t know! [Laughs.] I would write little melodies, and I sang in my room. But that was the first time it was written down. I mean, I grew up around music. My parents were divorced, and I’d stay at my dad’s on the weekends, and every morning he’d put records on, and I’d wake up to music. He listened to a lot of Grateful Dead and took me to a lot of Grateful Dead shows — a lot of Grateful Dead shows. He took me to Phish shows. And I was little! I would have wax earplugs in my ears so I couldn’t pull them out. I was really little —

Like four or five?

Littler! My mom was pissed. I mean, people were doing drugs around me. I remember there would be the “spinners” at Dead shows — those people that dance — and [shrugs innocently] I guess they were all on acid! I had no idea, I just thought they were awesome.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in a big circle with a bunch of free-spirited 24-year-olds and they were passing around a big jar of water and everybody was drinking out of the same jar, and they were just treating me like I was an adult. They were like, “Here, man,” and I was like “Thanks! OK!” And I was just drinking, catching all the germs of all these weird people. It felt really cool, it felt really communal.

But eventually you started moving away from that music almost in the exact opposite direction, toward punk rock.

Yeah. I didn’t have MTV, so I was pretty isolated. I found out about Nirvana through this kid I was in the gifted program with when I was in fifth grade. There was this one cool kid, and he was like, “Yeah, maaan, fuckin’ Nirvana.” And I was like, “Cool! What’s that?” So I went to this store called Prime Cuts which was down the street from my house and I used my own money and I bought In Utero, because I’d heard “Heart Shaped Box” on the radio. I listened to it non-stop. And then I heard Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” and I was like “OK. More guitars that sound like this. Cool.” And I got into Green Day and then later Operation Ivy.

Something I was wondering about — I grew up on Long Island, too, and at that time, there were just not a lot of punk rock kids on Long Island. At least, not that I could see. How did you start to connect with people who had similar tastes?

Well, I found out about this a big ska fest — there were also hardcore bands and punk bands, but they called it the Ska Fest — at Our Lady of Victory church in Floral Park. And so me and my friend Katie went, and we knew a couple of kids from our school were also going. We just got really tight with those kids and that was like our first show, kind of. And then it just became an every-weekend thing — we’d find out about more bands that lived in the next town, or shows that were happening in our town, and we were like, “What is this?!” We started getting into all the local bands — not so much the hardcore bands, but I liked the bands that sounded like pop punk or ska punk. I mean, Less Than Jake was my favorite band of all time. I bought Hello Rockview for my dad. I was like, “Dad, you gotta hear this record!” After that, we’d all just get together and hang out in my friend Zach’s basement. He was the drummer in a local ska band.

What were they called?

Premarital Sax. We would hang out over there, there was Scotty Dee’s Urban Joe Café in Rockville Centre. When we got a little older and could drive, there was Witch’s Brew. That was the cool place where all the cute boys worked that had tattoos and that you didn’t know how to talk to.

I mean, in a sense, that sort of DIY community vibe is really similar to the ethos that governs [Stevenson's label] Don Giovanni.

Yeah, I mean, our reason for why we’re [making music] and the way we established it is very DIY. We’ve been doing it for a while and it gets frustrating when it’s — “Why can’t I live off this yet? Please, help me, universe!” But at the same time you’re slowly building a thing, and you’re building it based on people falling in love with it. And I think that’s what Don Giovanni does. That’s the biggest thing I learned from being on the label: Play shows in people’s houses, play shows with bands that you’re friends with, go on tour with bands that you’re friends with and who believe in the same shit, even if you don’t sound the same.

This is the first album you’re releasing as just “Laura Stevenson,” as opposed to “Laura Stevenson & the Cans.” My immediate response to seeing that is that this record is somehow more personal. How true is that?

I feel like the lyrics…I feel like I’m being more truthful to myself. I feel like I’m being more honest. Before, I would just tuck things away and be like, “This is what the story [behind this song] is on the surface,” without really getting to the root of it. Now I feel like I’m…dealing with some shit. Hopefully that will be therapeutic thing for me and I can build from there. Either that, or I’ve healed myself and now I won’t be able to write anything ever again.

The album is called Wheel, and wheel imagery turns up throughout the album. What drew you to that as a central metaphor?

I wrote the song “Every Tense,” and I knew that was a song that encapsulated how I felt at the time — which was out of control, needing to figure out my place in the world, to figure “what does it all mean?” I felt like every song kind of dealt with that, whether it was dealing with my own personal existence and nothingness, or my relationships with people and what they mean. It was an exploration of all of that. And I felt like a “wheel” was representative of what I was feeling.

But then that last song, “The Wheel,” I wrote that way after the record had already been written and recorded. I was just like, “This record isn’t making sense to me. I don’t understand how we’re gonna put it in order.” With Sit, Resist, we had figured out track order before we even got in the studio. This record, I was like, “This sucks. I don’t know where these songs are gonna go.” I knew I wanted “Every Tense” to be near the beginning, but I wanted to close it with something that brought it all back around thematically.

Is the mention of “Lucky Strikes” an allusion to your grandmother?

Yeah, she sang [commercial jungles] for Lucky Strikes, and I guess you could say she had a lot of lucky strikes in her life. It was the idea of her being a protectress in my brain, protecting me from things I don’t want to rehash.

Were these things that happened to you growing up?

Yeah, just some weird shit that I wasn’t ready to focus on. Something that I needed to…overcome.

Did you view your grandmother as a “protectress” when she was alive?

Not so much emotionally, but she’s the closest person that I had to me that’s no longer here. Not to be a hippie, but she’s almost some sort of like spiritual presence. And I’m not a spiritual person at all. I see her sometimes in my dreams and she keeps me away from things I don’t want to see. That’s kind of what that song is about.

I don’t know — we were close, she would sleep in my bed when she was in town. We didn’t have a guest room, so it was, “Put grandma in the bed with the kid.” She’d tell me stories. She had a cool life. Her father was a sheriff in South Carolina. He died in 1913 and she was raised by her mother. She had three older brothers, two of which were on the radio. They had this project called the McCravy Brothers — it was like a gospel thing. And that’s how she got into radio. And then she was put on the Hit Parade and that’s when she came to NYC and started working with Benny Goodman, but [her brothers] raised her to be a gospel singer. Like, old-timey gospel, so it sounds spooky. There’s some YouTube videos where you can hear the audio, and it sounds fucking creepy. Creepy dudes with warbly voices. It’s just kind of scary — it sounds like something from a horror movie.

My grandmother and my grandfather both came from very humble beginnings. He was the child of an Italian immigrant living in Newark — basically, he was living in the slums. That neighborhood was where all the Italian people moved that didn’t have any money. He grew up out of nothing and then went to Jiulliard and sounded working for CBS, and that’s where he met my grandmother. By 1933, my grandfather was a working musician. My grandma had glamour shots and all that. Benny Goodman made her lose weight. He was like, “I’ll buy you all new gowns” — she didn’t have any dresses, and she needed these gowns to be the singer in a big band — but he was like, “You have to lose 30 pounds.” And she wasn’t a big lady. I mean, she had meat on her bones, but she wasn’t fat. But then she just never ate again after that. She told me that was when she “quit eating.” She wouldn’t eat a lot at all. She was so thin. She would just, like, drink scotch. She’d be like, “Just make me a scotch.” And we’d say, “Grandma, do you want some food?” and she’d say, “I’ll have some creamed spinach later.” I mean, she never really ate. Ever. My mom called it a “crash diet,” because that’s what they called it at that time. Nowadays, they call it anorexia.

It’s interesting that you mention that about your grandmother, because I feel like there’s a lot of death on this record.

Yeah, I had some issues at a certain point in my life…I’m OK now, but I’m still fixated on death. I have a desire to continue living my life, but you know, I, at a point in my life — like 19, 20, 21, I didn’t think I was gonna live. I had no dreams or anything because I was just, like, really depressed. And so then I was medicated, heavily, and that was frustrating because I felt like I couldn’t concentrate — which was annoying, but I’d rather have that than be depressed. I mean, now I’m fine. I’m not medicated at all. But it was just overcoming that, but still being naturally fixated on the fact that I’m going to die at some point. It may not be self-inflicted, but it’s still actually going to happen and I have no control over it. That’s something that I think about.

The first line of “Runner” is “To give yourself a little bit of hope’s a lie.” Do you believe that?

At a certain point in my life, yes. At the end of the day? [pauses] I don’t know. I don’t know. If it’s all going to be over, then what’s the point? For some reason we’re all still here and all still believing that there’s a point, even though we know that there is no point. That’s the whole idea of that song. We’re still going, for some reason, even though we don’t know what it is.

So you reject the idea of an afterlife.

I don’t know. I’m not sure about anything, so I can’t say I’m an atheist. I don’t want to reject it. I just know that I don’t know, and that’s sort of scary. “All I know is that I don’t know nothin’,” as Operation Ivy once said.

There’s a lot of apocalyptic imagery on the record, too. “Sink or Swim” is about California basically being destroyed in a single massive earthquake.

It’s scary. It’s scary thinking about the future of this planet, this country, the future of humanity — anything in the future.

Does uncertainty freak you out?

Yeah. Yeah. But I think that I’m becoming more able to just…I’ve always been really paranoid and scared and neurotic. Meanwhile, my mother is growing more Christian by the day. It’s driving me insane.

Was there something that brought that on?

She joined this one of those megachurches in Florida. I went there and it felt like a casino. There’s no clocks, no windows, you feel like you’re…I think they’re pumping oxygen in there.

You went to a whole service? What was that like?

It’s just so manipulative, financially. They’re just tugging at the heartstrings every five minutes for you to contribute.

Do they do the “modern worship,” with the rock band?

Oh yeah. And the drummer is in one of those plexiglass cages. My mom was like, “You’re gonna love it, because the music is cool, there’s a cool guy playing guitar.” I was like [dryly] “Oh, they have a cool guy?”

So I was there and my mom was, like, crying, and there’s tissue boxes on the back of every chair in front of you. And, you know, I’m trying not to push my nihilism on my mother, but it’s just fucking bullshit. I’ll call her, and she’ll be like, “Give your fear away. Give it away. It doesn’t have to be to God, give it to nature,” and I’m like, “OK, leave me alone.” I don’t wanna “give it away.” Who am I gonna fucking give it to?

How does she feel about your music?

[Pause] She’s coming around.

So there was a point when she wasn’t into it?

She was not supportive in the beginning. She did not want me to do it. I mean, she saw what was happening in the industry, with people unable to make a living…And I totally understand that she wants me to be OK. She doesn’t want to leave this world and be wondering if I’m gonna make it, or If I’m gonna have kids. And she definitely wants me to have kids — I feel like that’s her annoying reason to want me to be successful.

You can do both, if that’s something you want.

If I’m able to make enough money. Right now, that is not in the cards. Life continues this way.

I mean, you’re still very young.

I’m 28. I mean. “Young.” But, you know. These are my “child-bearing years.” [Laughs.] I don’t know. The clock’s not ticking yet, but my mom’s sure calling a lot.

Is your dad on board with your career?

My dad is on board. He comes to all of our shows, he’s totally into it. He’s like, [In a thick, Long Island accent] “I see you’re on tour in April. Were you gonna tell me that?” He’s really supportive, and he has a brother in Austin who we were staying with for South by Southwest who’s also into music. But they’re very Irish Catholic about it [laughs]. Whenever they come to our shows, they can’t just say, “Good job,” they have to say, “This was wrong.” They’re very stoic with their praise.

And then when my mother finally started praising it, she really went over the top. The only song she really knows is “Master of Art” from our last record — but she calls it “Masters of Art,” which drives me fuckin’ crazy. She’s like, [heavy Long Island accent again] “How many times I listened to ‘Masters of Art’ today? Seven. Seven times.” Now she’s like obsessing, but just about one song. I mean, I’ll take what I can get.

Has she heard “L-DOPA” [A song on Wheel that is candidly about a mother who is emotionally unavailable]?

She heard it. She didn’t like it so much.

How autobiographical is that song?

That song definitely has hints of her in it. But she doesn’t know that any song is about her. Like, the song “Caretaker”? It’s about her. And about me taking care of the house on Long Island while she’s living in Florida, and her inability to accept the fact that I want to do this with my life. She’ll be like, “Did you ever write a song about me? You wrote a song about your stepmom” — which is “Renee,” the first song on the new record. She was all pissed about that. And I’m like. “Listen to a different song! Stop listening to ‘Masters of Art!’ Listen to another one. Listen to the words.” I told her “Caretaker” was about her — I wasn’t going to — and she was like “Oh, really? OK, I’ll listen to it again.” I don’t think she did.

What exactly is L-DOPA?

L-DOPA was a medicine they used for people who had encephalitis lethargic. My grandfather’s mother died of encephalitis in the teens in New York, and so she was never able to give him what he needed in terms of nourishing him as a musician, because she wasn’t there. So it was kind of a parallel to my relationship with my mom at the beginning of this whole thing. But she’s really come around. She told me that she was proud of me. But I’m still getting my Masters in art history — and I’m doing that for her. I want to be doing this, but I should have some kind of backup plan.

I like that art history is your backup plan.

I know, it’s so fucking stupid. I’m trying to finish the second edit of my thesis so I can turn it in to my professor. I haven’t spoken to him in two semesters

You can just do that? I thought at a certain point they kinda want to know…

Oh, I think they wanted to know. I think you’re only allowed to do a program for four years, and it’s been four years. He emailed me last semester to check in and I was like, “Fuck, we’re doing the record right now.” So I sent him the YouTube video for “Master of Art” and was like [proudly], “This is what I’ve been up to,” and he was just like, “OK, well, you have to read this and write about…” I was like, “OK, fair enough.” I have no excuse. I’m just, you know — “Playin’ music. With my band. In Brooklyn.” So’s fuckin’ everybody.

I could be mistaken about this, but when I saw you play at South by Southwest, you introduced “Telluride” — which is my favorite song on the record — by saying, “This is a song about how we faked the moon landing.” Is that true?

I guess so! I was really into the conspiracy about Stanley Kubrick helping to fake the moon landing. And I was also listening to a lot of Crazy Horse, so I was like, “OK, I guess I’m gonna write this song, about the moon landing being faked.” It’s more about, if that was true, what he might have felt about everything — about the country believing it and him not being able to express that, and trying to tell people through metaphor, and to give hints through the imagery in his movies. Just the idea of, like, living a lie. Pretending that this thing is true because you can’t say otherwise. And that’s what I did for a lot of my life in certain terms. I felt like I was kindred spirits with Stanley Kubrick. Also, I think I was really stoned for, like, a couple of days.

So you think the moon landing was faked?

Yeah, I think so! I mean, I believe they landed, but I don’t think that’s the footage we saw.

Why would we fake it?

Propaganda. To bolster people’s spirits. It’s really manipulative.

So you just think they didn’t have a camera up there at all?

I don’t think they would have been able to get the shots that they got. Those iconic images? No way. Definitely not.

To wrap up: I know that you’re on the road a lot. I was wondering what some of your more unfortunate tour stops have been.

Oh man. In Bozeman, Montana, we played a show for two people, plus the sound guy. We didn’t know what to expect. We played with this band called Genitaliens — they were, you know, your basic two-piece funk jammer — and the lead singer had been stung by a bee. His eyes were swollen shut. The sound guy was like, “Bro, you need to go to the hospital bro?” And he was like, “No, I’m cool. The show must go on.” Yeah, the show must go on, for no one.

I mean, all of those in-between shows are still hard, the ones in places like Boise, Idaho — even though they should have a good scene, because that’s where Built to Spill is from. We have a manager now who looks out for us, but on the tours we were booking ourselves, we’d be like, “Yeah, we’ll play in this community space at this college we didn’t even know existed,” and then we’d show up and it’s like three kids and they’re like, “Yay! You made it! Um, we can’t pay you, is that OK?”

I get weirdly fascinated with places like that in the middle of the country. I mean, I’d never have any cause to go to Boise. I always just wonder what it’s like there.

I mean, the drive through Idaho was one of the most scenic drives that we did. Wyoming was fucking beautiful. But you’re just bleeding money. Bleeding money.

I mean, on the other hand, it seems like the bands that suffer a lot in the early days and pay dues are the ones that have a longer career arc as opposed to the ones that blow up instantly.

I think so, too. Because you just come across people who love your music, because it’s this little thing that they watched grow. And they know that you care about them, too. So maybe we’re not the coolest band in the world, but, you know…

We have a fan who went through gender transformation, and he got the lyrics to our song “The Pretty Ones” tattooed on his arm during that process, because we helped him go through that. And that was really touching to me, to be able to help someone in a way.

I mean, I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but to go back to something we talked about earlier — maybe that’s the point of all of this. Maybe that’s what we’re all doing here.

To give back something meaningful. [Pause.] Yeah, I think so.