Laura Stevenson: Working On It
A career in music is an uncertain venture – and that’s okay.
A career in music is an uncertain venture – and that’s okay.
By Jade Curson
“I’m home for six days and then I go to Australia. Which is very very cool, but I’m a little nervous about flying.”
Laura Stevenson is the last person you’d expect to have a fear of flying. Since joining Bomb The Music Industry! in 2004 she has toured relentlessly – first with BTMI!, but soon forming her own band and playing her own shows too. Having played countless headline tours as well as supporting the likes of Against Me!, The Wonder Years, and The Gaslight Anthem, she is already a veteran of the punk scene at just 32. We meet on the last night of her latest UK run with Kevin Devine – and with just a week to go before her Australian headline tour, she doesn’t seem to have any desire to slow down just yet.
Anyone familiar with the understated, haunting beauty of a Laura Stevenson record might be surprised by the effervescent, animated Laura Stevenson that I sit down with in the back room of The Dome in London. She jumps in before I’ve even had a chance to ask a question, to ask if I’ve heard the new Menzingers record. “Is it good? I haven’t heard it yet because…well, we’re in a feud.” Oh? She laughs. “Yeah. We have this fake beef because they’ve kept upping the ante for years. It’s not real, but it’s fun to perpetuate.” I tell her that the record is great. “Aww, well fuck those guys. I’m kidding – they’re lovely people.”
Stevenson’s debut A Record is an impressive collection of poignant and emotive songs. A truly accomplished first album which could just as easily have never happened: “I thought making records was something that only people with some sort of ambition would do.” After some encouragement from friends and tourmates, the album was recorded in 2008 – mostly as a means for Stevenson to document the best songs she had written. It wasn’t until 2010 that the record had an official release (“Mike Park at Asian Man Records was like ‘do you want me to make this a real record, instead of just a cd that you make yourself?’ and I was like ‘oh cool, sure!’”)
Growing up listening to a lot of folk music, it came naturally to her to write the kind of lilting delicate melodies that permeate A Record. But as her band lineup was finalised and they began working together more closely, Stevenson began to write more band-friendly songs, and her most recent record, Cocksure, is a straight-up indie-rock album.
Stevenson’s fourth album marks a clear turning point, not only in her songwriting prowess but also in her personal life. While still packed full of doubt, heartache and uncertainty, Cocksure approaches familiar emotional ground from a new perspective: “I think I’m getting a bit more emotionally strong. I’m a big enabler of people in my life, and try to make everyone okay. And that really drains me, makes me a mess. So I think once I turned 30 I started setting up boundaries to make sure I’m okay. I was in a better headspace about my life when I was writing that record.” The album is littered with references to recognising those big ugly feelings – depression, anxiety, jealousy, you know the ones – as temporary phases; obstacles to be overcome rather than insurmountable roadblocks. That sounds “…healthier?” she interjects. “Yeah. I’m working on it.”
Although she has now established herself as an acoustic/indie savante, Stevenson’s first foray into music was as a touring keyboard player with Bomb The Music Industry!; a revolutionary exercise in barely-organised chaos which – true to its name – rejected the idea of music as a for-profit business. The band, led by prolific punk icon Jeff Rosenstock, paved the way for the current thriving DIY punk scene by being the first band to give away their music as a pay-what-you-want download. They were a collective rather than simply a band with fans to be monetised. Bomb The Music Industry! played their final show in 2014, but their influence is still widely felt today. A pretty good introduction to a life as a touring musician, then.
“It felt really new and crazy and cool and accessible and exciting,” she says of the experience. “And people were just so happy to be able to access something. When you’re a kid you want to hear new things but you can’t afford to go out and get it. Or even if you’re an adult and you don’t have the means to throw money away. It definitely felt like an innovative thing when it was happening.”
And while the music Stevenson plays is a world away from the ska-tinged bratty punk of BTMI!, she credits their support and their ethos as the reason her band exists today. “Being in Bomb The Music Industry! definitely taught me how to tour, how to put a band together around my own songs. Jeff taught me how to do DIY touring and feel comfortable doing that.
“I didn’t really want to do it as a career necessarily. I just really liked writing songs, and I didn’t have any ambitions past that. Jeff really urged me to share my music with people.”
This extended far beyond mere words of encouragement. In the days before her band lineup was fully in place, members of BTMI! would frequently lend their talents to her first solo shows. Moving out from behind a keyboard and into the spotlight is a significant and potentially intimidating step, but to Stevenson she was still just sharing the stage with her friends. Nothing new, and nothing to fear.
“I mean you’re with people that are so supportive of you. They’re friends and you’re used to being on stage with them. So you’re just standing in front of the microphone, instead of standing behind the keys. It was a really nice transition. I’ve known them since I was a teenager, and they’re all just really wonderful, very supportive people. I felt safe.”
Laura Stevenson is very much running her own show now, but the relationships that she’s forged on her many, many tours continue to inspire and influence her creatively. She and Rosenstock remain good friends to this day – he recently included a cover of one of her earliest songs, ‘A Shine To It’, as part of a live album (the cover presumably a nod to their earlier touring days, when The Cans and BTMI! released a split EP covering each other’s songs). He also produced her last album, a fact cited by a number of publications as the probable cause of a more ‘punk’ feel to the record.
But it was actually tourmate Kevin Devine who had a significant impact on Stevenson’s change in sound. Without Devine’s input, Cocksure may have been a completely different record. “I had the demos for Cocksure with all these other songs that are quieter, and I was playing them for him two years ago when we were on another tour together,” she explains. Devine had recently put out two albums simultaneously: Bubblegum, a full-band rock record, and Bulldozer, a quieter, subdued offering more in keeping with his previous oeuvre. “Kevin really inspired me to scrap the quiet songs and make Cocksure a rock record. So this other one will be quiet. The newest one that I’m writing now is more like A Record. There’s still songs that are kinda loud, but they’re good so maybe I’ll incorporate them but just not make them crazy brash.”
It’s a widely acknowledged fact that the friendships you make on the road are the key to surviving an extensive touring schedule. Pick any musician at random, and they’ll be able to reel off a series of tour horror stories, many of which will centre around the challenges of sharing unnaturally close quarters with too many people for too long a stretch of time. The relationships you form along the way are a lifeline in what is otherwise, as Laura puts it, “kind of an insane thing to want to do with your life.” So it makes sense that if you and Laura survive a tour together, you’re probably friends for life – and sometimes more; she recently married bassist and long-time partner, Mike Campbell (of Latterman fame, punk fact fans).
“Travelling with somebody, if you do a long road trip… it’s a bonding experience like no other. With some people at the end of a tour it’s like, ‘I love you, and you’re in my life now.’ That’s how it is with a lot of the people that I know and really care about, and without music I wouldn’t have any of the friends that I have. It’s a really interesting and weird way to live your life, but it’s fun.”
And while she’s enjoying the ride for now, Stevenson remains realistic about the future – and for ‘realistic’, read ‘constantly riddled with self-doubt and option paralysis’, just like the rest of us. The uncertainty of committing to the wrong path in life is an idea that she’s explored in her work before: Cocksure opener ‘Out With A Whimper’ is a heart-wrenching ode to the idea of giving up: “I will slow down and flicker and fall / Into a life unlike this one with its balding tires and heads / Because we’re tired of spending our time on a dream that’s been dying.” Two years later, and on the verge of recording her fifth album, Stevenson still seems undecided on whether she’ll stick with music.
“Everyday is asking yourself what is the best thing to be doing. There’s so much uncertainty with this, but there’s so much uncertainty with a lot of professions and choices people make. [Out With A Whimper] was kind of just me wearing that on my sleeve a little bit.
“But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about this every day. Is it getting too late for me to start something else that I could actually be successful at? Or should I keep doing this and keep slowly trying to make it better and better and have people care about it still? It’s really fucking scary and weird. And hard! It’s really hard to sell yourself to people. I just try to make the best things that I can but it’s hard for me to do merch and be like ‘you should really get this record, it’s gonna change your life’.
“I don’t have the personality for it. A lot of people can fake it til they make it, but…I don’t know, I’m too much of a mess,” she laughs.
As we dive into the more serious topic of a terrifying and unknowable future, there is the first glimpse of the more anxious, introspective Laura Stevenson that appears so often in her songwriting. While she never quite manages to be solemn, she is markedly more serious and less prone to sudden bursts of laughter as we grapple with her future plans. Could there be a definite shelf-life to her music career? She hesitates. “I don’t know.”
“This shit is constantly running through my head. But everything is just in flux all the time in everybody’s life. So it’s always just trying to figure out what is good today. And then trying to start thinking about the future, which is bleak and terrifying,” she says wryly. “But I’m really excited about the next record, and I really want to see that through. And I have other songs that I’d like to share with the world. So if it’s not the primary thing that I’m doing, then it’s not. But if I am able to do it I’ll keep doing it. Is that a good answer?”
That’s a very good answer.
“Life is getting more and more real and that’s really scary. But I’m happy with the life I have right now.