Mia Hughes goes astronomical with Laura Stevenson, as they discuss her new record, The Big Freeze.
by Mia Hughes
photo: Rachel Brennecke
One day, the universe will die. One prevailing theory of how it will happen is that the universe will continue to expand ad infinitum; everything will move further and further away from everything else, and the world will become colder and colder no longer be able to sustain life, and everything will die. Cheery, yes? Some scientists call it ‘heat death’; others call it the admittedly quainter ‘Big Freeze’.
Laura Stevenson has just released her fifth album, and it too is called The Big Freeze. Though named after a literally astronomical concept, the record itself is incredibly intimate. Stevenson is singing not about the unfathomable reaches of the universe, but the perhaps slightly more fathomable reaches of herself: all those things that settle in dark corners pulled out and held to the light. That dichotomy is beautiful. Firstly; we are all, within ourselves, the same as the entire universe. It’s also, to think about how grand and complicated we feel when we are really so small, kinda funny.
From what I get to know of Stevenson, that incongruity isn’t lost on her. She laughs easily at things that are quite heavy. She’s funny and – as everyone I know who has met her tells me before I do this interview – really, really nice. That perhaps represents another dichotomy. There’s a track from The Big Freeze called ‘Value Inn’, in which Stevenson describes a battle with self-harm in the setting of a depressing hotel room. The chorus, set to a dark and mournful melody: “I am so nice / I am so nice”. “The ‘so nice’ part specifically references how I am always exhausting myself trying to be the strong one and trying to hold everyone and everything together when things are falling apart,” Stevenson explains, “and while I’ve just kind of devoted my life to this role I’ve given myself, I have been hurting myself and not feeling like I was worthy of getting better. There’s definitely pressure I put on myself to please everyone around me, and that shows up in how I run my career – I tend to shrink when I shouldn’t in a lot of scenarios.”
That raises a question of what’s expected of her, and maybe what’s expected from women in general when they create art – particularly art that’s as personal as this. Stevenson doesn’t think about that when she’s writing music, though. She can’t. “I’m never thinking about how it’s going to be received, because then I can’t tap into that thing that’s as close as I can get to a true expression of what I’m really feeling. If I stand in my own way while it’s coming out of me, then it’s not gonna be good. And then I’m just gonna have to toss it.”
That’s a process she’s been refining for a long time. It began, really, when she was living in her best friend’s attic after getting kicked out of home. The friend’s parents had bought her a Mac with Garageband, meaning Stevenson had the means to record her songs with someone to whom she felt comfortable showing them. “That was kinda the beginning of it,” she says. “That’s when I started getting more confident about songs.”
In 2010 Asian Man Records put out her debut A Record, an apt name because that was all it was supposed to be, in the literal sense. A document. “I didn’t have an ambition to be playing shows and making records,” she says. “Not until probably my third record, when I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m gonna make another record.’ Because the first record happened and I was already writing songs that I thought were better than those songs, so then the second record kinda just happened. And then for the third record I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m like… doing this.’” So un-careerist was her ambition that when she signed to esteemed indie Don Giovanni for her second record, she had no idea she was still supposed to be signed to Asian Man. “Joe, who runs the label, was really drunk at a show. We were at a basement show in New Jersey. And he was just like, ‘I wanna put out a record of yours’, and I was like, ‘What? Okay!’ So I said yes to Joe, but I was on Asian Man – I didn’t realise! Mike Park from Asian Man was just like, ‘Oh, I thought you were gonna do records with me’. I didn’t understand! I really was that clueless.”
In her last press cycle, for 2015’s Cocksure, much was made about the fact that it was, for the most part, a full band-geared, loud rock record. The Big Freeze then, as a follow-up to that, is a total 180: all on acoustic and the songs hushed so that beneath them you could hear a beating heart if you tried hard enough – at least, it’s easy to imagine as much. “There were songs that I cut from Cocksure, some quiet, sweeter songs. Those needed a home, and then everything else around it that I was writing was the same vibe,” she explains. “It just kinda made sense. The songs were calling for not a lot. And I was listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen records, where it’s all about the lyrics, ‘cause he’s such a poet. And so I was like, I just wanna have it be about what I’m saying, and not have it cluttered with a bunch of extra bullshit.” That the lyrics are pushed to the front is appropriate, since this record has some of her most excellent and devastating lyricism yet. But it also means that Laura is very much out in the open. “On my second record, I wanted the vocals mixed really low. And now it’s all about the vocals, and they’re so fucking loud, and you can hear everything that I say. I can’t hide behind anything. I don’t think about it when I’m writing it, but then when I’m like, typing the lyrics out to give to the graphic designer who’s laying out the record, then I’m like, ‘Oh okay, people are gonna be reading these words’. And that’s intense.”
Maybe most intense is ‘Dermatillomania’, if only because it deals with something that up until writing the song Stevenson had only discussed with her partner and her therapist. Dermatillomania is a disorder that causes obsessive picking at the skin, something she has been dealing with –- mostly in silence – since puberty, as she wrote in an open letter published a month before the album release. For her to address it by name on this record, of course, meant that she no longer had the option of secrecy or shame – it meant opening up about it on a massive scale, a process both jarring and comforting. “Short period of time, lot of steps. Which some days I’m okay with and ready for, and some other days I’m kinda overwhelmed by it,” she tells me. “But people have been really warm to me, so that’s really nice. People that have gone through it have been talking to me.”
Stevenson’s fans are, from observation, incredibly loyal and take her songs very close to heart – for her to release this record to them and for it to affect and help them has been, for Stevenson, another therapeutic step along from simply writing the song. “This record in particular people have been talking to me a lot about it, and it’s been really nice. ‘Cause otherwise I’m just home by myself with my dog, you know? So when I’m out on tour I’m interacting with people and experiencing it how they’re experiencing it. You’re putting it into the world and you’re getting something. But,” she adds, “I’m trying to be careful to not put anybody in a position where it’s triggering for them. ‘Cause I don’t wanna cause anyone pain, and if it’s too intense I don’t know if it will, and that’s something that I struggle with a little bit.”
The load of ‘Dermatillomania’ is lightened a little bit by the song itself. Generally speaking, The Big Freeze doesn’t subscribe to the en vogue pop approach of heavy lyrics, fun songs; the songs are emotional and they sound it, all of them. But ‘Dermatillomania’ sounds, while ‘fun’ is perhaps the wrong word, certainly triumphant. It has a genuine earworm of a pop melody, buoyant uptempo drums and, towards the end, a horn section. “I feel like I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it if it was heavy minor chords. I don’t even know if I would be able to write it,” she tells me. “So playing it live feels really triumphant, like I’m taking control of this thing. With ‘Dermatillomania’, but also songs like ‘The Wheel’ [from Stevenson’s third, Wheel] – songs where it’s about trying to reclaim some sort of lost power in a situation – I feel like playing those in front of people bolsters that. It makes me feel two inches taller.”
When Stevenson first read about the concept of the ‘Big Freeze’, she says, “It resonated with me so much in this profoundly sad but really beautiful way, where it was like, there’s hope in that somewhat. ‘Cause I feel like that sometimes, and I’m sure a lot of people feel like that sometimes, where it’s just like, ‘I am just floating in space, and no one will ever know me’.” She laughs then. “And that’s so fucking terrifying. But at the same time, you’re with yourself floating in space, so then you can figure out your own shit while you’re floating into the abyss.” When you transmit so much of yourself onto a record like she has done here, when you create music that is so exhaustively personal and then send it off into the faceless world, I’m sure it can easily feel like shouting into that abyss. Like a sort of false intimacy, where there’s nothing on the other side. For creating art to mean anything it has to find something real on the other side, and with The Big Freeze, Stevenson has found that in its most glorious, human form. A reminder that we are all floating into the abyss, together.