When Becca Stevens put her own indelible folk-jazz spin on Frank Ocean’s R&B hit ‘Thinking Bout You’ in 2014, it was one of those rare cases of a cover version trumping its original source material – so much so, in fact, that Stevens’ haunting rendition is regarded by many as the definitive performance of that particular song. ‘Thinking Bout You’ was just one of many standout cuts on Stevens’ third album, ‘Perfect Animal‘ – attributed to the Becca Stevens Band – which cogently demonstrated how the singer/songwriter originally from the city of Winston-Salem is skillfully able to distil elements from folk, pop, rock and jazz to create a unique series of soundscapes and musical vignettes that elude easy categorisation. Such is the stunning artistry of this gifted 32-year-old North Carolina singer/songwriter, whose influences are wide and varied and whose music doesn’t sit comfortably in any particular genre.
A former student of New York’s prestigious and increasingly influential New School For Jazz & Contemporary Music – whose more recent alumni include Robert Glasper, José James, and Marcus Strickland – Stevens has the status of a go-to guest collaborator; her cameo appearances over the last couple of years not only also attest to the desirability of her musical talent in the eyes and ears of other musicians but also her broad and sweeping eclecticism – she’s sung with Snarky Puppy (she appears on their recent album, ‘Family Dinner Vol. 2’), wunderkind auteur Jacob Collier, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and singer José James – who’s an old New School classmate of hers – in addition to jazz pianists Billy Childs, Taylor Eigsti and Brad Mehldau.
With a keenly-anticipated new album in the pipeline – titled ‘Regina‘ and scheduled for an early 2017 release – Becca Stevens star is firmly in the ascendant and to underline the growing appreciation of her talent, BBC Radio 6’s Lauren Laverne has named the singer in her line-up of ‘Wonder Women‘ (which includes Roisin Murphy, Camille O’Sullivan and Gwenno) who will be doing series of summer concerts at London’s Globe Theatre.
Ahead of her concert on Monday 18th July – which takes place at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, on the Globe Theatre site – Becca Stevens talked to SJF’s Charles Waring about her upcoming London gig, her forthcoming album, some of her musical collaborations and that Frank Ocean song…
You’ve been named one of BBC Radio 6 DJ Lauren Laverne’s ‘Wonder Women’ for a series of concerts showcasing female musicians at the Globe Theatre this summer. How does it feel to receive that accolade?
It’s an honour and a treat (laughs).
What are you and your band going to play?
Usually, once I arrive at the venue, I’ll sit backstage and draw up a set list that feels right for that evening. I’ll be playing a mixture of older originals and brand-new music that will be recorded on my next album, which is going to be called ‘Regina,’ which is Latin for Queen. It started out with inspiration from the Elizabethan era – Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. Also we’ll be playing some covers, maybe a Stevie Wonder song and some covers that I had my last record, like Frank Ocean and Usher, and a Joni Mitchell song maybe, just depending on how we’re feeling.
Have you found a responsive audience for your music in the UK given the concerts that you’ve done here recently?
I feel like I have. Playing in London particularly, which feels like home. People are great listeners but rowdy in the right kind of way and really supportive. I love playing in the UK a lot.
You mentioned your new album ‘Regina’ – how much does that reflect your interest in the history of Elizabethan England?
Very much so. I’m really intrigued by Queen Elizabeth I. I’ve had a couple of obsessions with her and her history. And I’m also a huge Shakespeare fan. I’ve even done a little bit of performing with a Shakespeare Company. I played Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ and I have also done some settings of Shakespeare’s poetry to music for that same Shakespeare Company, which is the Adirondack Shakespeare Company (based in New York).
What was it that attracted you to that particular era and Queen Elizabeth I?
I think what drew me to her was that there’s a lot of mystery around her life and her supposed love affair with Robert Dudley and the question of whether or not she was actually a virgin or the question of why she never chose to marry him or anyone. I feel like the story could go in so many different directions and that inspired me to create music, when you can make up your own story. I just love that sort of thing. In my version of the story, she’s just so devoted to her work and to her reign and at the time that she was Queen she wasn’t ready to compromise it in any way. She was in control and she didn’t want to sacrifice that in any way. I imagine that the fact that her father (Henry VIII) had his wives executed because they couldn’t provide a male heir probably had something to do with it too. I just find her to be beautiful and strong during a time when that wasn’t really the norm for a strong woman to be in charge of things. She inspired and definitely bore the seed that became ‘Regina.’ She’s like an imaginary friend or an alter ego that I can always call on and trust.
Tell us about your band, which comprises drummer Jordan Perlson, bassist Chris Tordini and keyboard player Liam Robinson. What do they bring to the music that you do?
They’ve been a part of my music since the day that I first put my band together, which was back in 2005/6 so it’s been quite a journey with them. At this point it’s like they’re my paint palette or my clay. It’s really interesting when I collaborate with other people, it gives me this beautiful perspective on just how special my relationship with them is, because you don’t realise how deep something has gone until you step away from it and try something brand-new with someone else. You look back and go wow, we’ve really created something that is so much deeper than I even realised. It’s hard to even put that into words but a simple way of breaking it down is like it’s gotten to where I don’t even have to write my music onto a staff, I’ll just make a recording of myself executing the parts in whatever way I can and then I bring it them and 100% of the time they bring it to life in a way that I wanted to be heard or better.
I suppose after being together 10 years you develop a chemistry that is almost telepathic.
Exactly, yes. That kind of telepathic chemistry is maybe something that you get if you’ve been in a relationship with someone for 10 years. You don’t even think about it, you almost take it for granted because it’s just how you always feel and when I collaborate with other people, I look back on that telepathic brotherhood and I’m like wow, it’s really rare.
You mentioned collaborations, you’ve done so many in different genres. Is there any kind of music that you wouldn’t do?
No… Bad music. (Laughs).
I suppose that depends on how you define bad music but you’re very eclectic aren’t you? You performed with Snarky Puppy on a version of your song ‘I Asked.’ How did that come about and what was the experience of playing with them like?
Well, I’ve known Mike League and been familiar with that band for a long time. In fact, one of my band’s first gigs we split the bill with Snarky Puppy at a venue in New York. So they and the Becca Stevens Band kind of came up together in New York – we’re around the same age and we’ve been at it around the same amount of time – and so we’ve always been aware of each other and respected each other. When Michael was putting together ‘Family Dinner’ series number two he reached out to me. By then they already had a Grammy under their belts for the last one (‘Family Dinner Vol. 1’) and so I was just honoured to be a part of such a project. At that point we just chose a couple of songs on the phone and he said okay, I’ll put together an arrangement and send it your way and make sure you like it. He sent me this midi-arrangement of the recording and through that I could tell that it was going to be incredible. I watched him put it together in our rehearsal in New Orleans and I was blown away by the band and how many of them there were and yet how no one stepped on each other’s toes – they worked together in that same kind of way which we talked about, that telepathic chemistry, where they just know when to play and when to stop. Nothing is ego and everything is just like it’s all one brain…and I think that Michael is the heart of that brain, if that makes sense. (laughs)
You’ve gone from playing in a large ensembles like Snarky Puppy to playing with someone like newcomer, Jacob Collier (pictured left with Becca) who is a veritable one-man band…
Yeah. Well Jacob I met through the Snarky Puppy collaboration and from the moment that I met him I felt that he was like my little brother, and there was something kindred there. We made a promise to stay in touch and try to do stuff together and then we did a couple of duo shows together in New York and we recently did a couple of shows in Germany and London, where we played our original music and some covers and then tried our hand at writing things together. Honestly, it’s a similar feeling. Jacob is so limitless and so fluent that playing with him feels like I’m a bird and he’s the wind or something. I just feel constantly supported by his artistry but not in a solid or rigid way – it’s like he’s air or water that’s just constantly moving and creating and stirring inspiration around me. He’s so fluent in everything that he does and I can be completely unlimited in whatever I do because nothing is going to throw him off.
It’s kind of liberating in a way, is it?
Mm-hmm. Absolutely, and then it’s not just one colour, he’s moving between a vocal harmonizer and then a single voice and then bass and guitar and ukulele. He’s just crazy (laughs).
Going right back, what’s your earliest musical memory?
I was born into a musical family and my dad wrote these really nutty, intellectual, hilarious yet serious children’s songs. It was Appalachian folk children’s music. So I was on stage performing with that band at the age of two. We were recording and performing so I could say that my earliest musical memories were rehearsing and performing with that band and then performing musicals that my dad wrote and all kinds of performing that I did with my family.
Did you play an instrument from an early age?
No, just voice, and then I picked up a guitar. My dad taught me some stuff on guitar when I was11 years old and I stuck with guitar. I tried my hand at piano but never really connected with it.
When did you start writing your own songs then?
Probably around the time that my dad first loaned me a guitar. I think as soon as I was alone with the guitar, I naturally started to come up with my own little progressions and melodies and stuff. But I would say that I really wrote and finished and shared my first song when I was thirteen. I remember playing it at summer camp and having people say that they really liked it a lot.
And that encouraged you to continue I suppose?
I think so and also I’ve never really been able to give up. That’s not my wiring, so when I see something that I want, I go for it. Even during the times when I wasn’t getting the kind of feedback that I’d hoped for. Writing music was less about getting affirmed but more about finding some kind of affirmation in myself or finding a voice of truth in myself, which is maybe why this ‘Regina’ thing is so important because it’s giving an identity to that voice.
You also play the ukulele and an instrument called the charango (pictured left). How did you get drawn to that particular instrument?
I walked into an eclectic music shop in New York and I think I was looking for kora at the time, an African harp, and I saw the charango hanging there and I saw its rounded back and I said what is this? I just ran my fingers across the strings and it sounded beautiful, and it was inexpensive. It sounded like a mixture of ukulele and a mandolin and it was tuned similarly to the ukulele, which I already played. It’s got that mandolin feeling and the nylon strings give it the ukulele timbre.
You studied in New York at the renowned New School Of Jazz and Contemporary music, didn’t you?
I did. I studied in high school, I studied classical guitar at NCSA and at college I studied jazz vocal performance in the jazz department of the New School.
It’s produced a hotbed of talent, hasn’t it? Its former students include people like Robert Glasper and José James…
José was a classmate of mine and Robert was leaving when I got there. I think that the school does a great job of supporting what you’re going to do when you leave the school but I think also that the success has just as much to do with just the fact that it’s in this neighbourhood in New York that draws in like-minded kinds of artists and then all those artists get to be around each other. Assuming you make the most of that, you really can reap great benefits from that situation.
Do you have any interests outside of music or is music your abiding passion?
I really like food and really love spending time with my family. I also really love comedy, and I dabble with painting. I’m not very good with form but I love to do just free-form painting. I find it very satisfying.
Let’s talk about your current album, ‘Perfect Animal.’ It includes a striking cover of Frank Ocean’s ‘Thinking Bout You.’ What inspired you to choose that song?
Well, I was a huge fan of that record in its entirety. I really love that record. I always thought it would be fun to cover something from that and went through all the different songs and when I tried ‘Thinkin’ About You’ it translated really beautifully to my aesthetic and the instrumentation of my band.
What’s your main concern when you’re performing a song that someone else has written?
I think it’s important for me to find a balance between putting my own stamp on it, like incorporating my voice and my sound, but maintaining the integrity of the original and maintaining the story of the original.
Looking forward beyond ‘Regina,’ do you have any further collaborations in mind? What do you see yourself doing in the future?
Well, for ‘Regina’ there are plans to collaborate with Laura Mvula, writing and possibly performing something on that album with Jacob Collier, and David Crosby – we’ve been writing together – and I continue to work with (jazz pianists) Billy Childs and Taylor Eigsti, and Timo Andres who’s a really great classical pianist. And I’ve been talking to Esperanza Spalding about writing something. Yeah, so there are lots of irons in the fire.
SEE BECCA STEVENS BAND LIVE AT THE SAM WANAMAKER PLAYHOUSE IN LONDON ON MONDAY JULY 18th July
Read Becca Stevens Band Live review here: http://www.soulandjazzandfunk.com/reviews/4050-becca-stevens-band–cheltenham-jazz-festival-152016.html