Country, folk and the blues have always held out open arms to sad songwriters. The lamenting dip and drag of a fiddle, the feathery stroke of notes on an acoustic guitar or the cry of an electric all provide a vehicle to turn your depression into something more compelling than blubbering. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes hard to separate these genres—and why they’re often lumped into catchall categories, like Americana or, better yet, the dreaded “roots music.” Laura Stevenson exists somewhere among those labels.
“Renée,” the opening cut off of her equally delicate and ferocious new album, Wheel, starts with Stevenson singing in a fragile whimper next to an acoustic guitar. But then the stretched sob of the violin joins, then some rolling drums keeping waltz time, and suddenly it feels like you’re listening to a rock version of the “Ashokan Farewell.” “The hardest part is getting older,” she bellows like some weathered woman looking back on her life.
But Stevenson doesn’t fit the rest of that classic country trope. She’s from Long Island, a land not exactly renowned for its abundance of country singers, and she’s an easy-going 20-something, one who, when I met her at a bar of a Manhattan hotel lobby, was anxious about meeting up with her dad later in the city and fielding his questions about the progress of her master’s thesis. After our meeting, she would head into Brooklyn for band practice.
All of her band members live within a four-block radius of each other in Clinton Hill with rehearsals happening at the apartment of her accordion player, Alex Billig. Stevenson, Billig, bassist Mike Campbell, drummer Dave Garwacke and guitarist Peter Naddeo used to go by Laura Stevenson And The Cans, but they changed to simply Laura Stevenson on this latest album. The name change resulted from the advice of some well-meaning industry friends who Stevenson says advised, “‘You gotta drop “The Cans.” It sounds stupid.’” Another problem was the association of a female-fronted band with the word “cans.” “I didn’t want people’s jokes about my boobs on the internet to win over the fact that this is what my band is called,” she observes.
The name thing, as it now stands, makes Stevenson uncomfortable, but it’s not unfair to give her so much credit in the band, as Stevenson writes all of the songs. Some of the writing happens at her apartment in Brooklyn, but she sublets it in the winter so that she and Campbell, her boyfriend and bassist, can house sit her childhood home on Long Island. She gets a lot of work done in those months of near isolation, but it also leads to run-ins with people she “went to high school with…who stayed.” Those high school years played a big part in Stevenson’s migration to music, as that’s around the time she met members of the Arrogant Sons of Bitches.
Frontman Jeff Rosenstock grew up a town over from Stevenson, and she remembers first seeing him when she was in middle school. “He was older than me, and he was punker than me, so I just thought he was awesome,” she says. They became friends by hanging out at the same shows, and later, after she “kinda got kicked out of school but not really” and was home full time, he invited her to come on tour to play her giant Yamaha keyboard with his new band, Bomb The Music Industry. “I got a hernia from [lifting] that keyboard,” she says. “My boyfriend yells at me when I lift my amp, but you gotta get strong, gotta build up.”
Stevenson and Campbell have been together for six years, and they met while working at a rock summer sleep-away camp in Queens for 12-to-17-year-old “creative kids” who were all just “trying to make out with each other.” They bonded over the stress of the experience, and eventually started playing music together, along with Stevenson’s friend Billig. They had a series of drummers who kept quitting but then found a match in Campbell’s college friend Garwacke. Billig added his friend Naddeo on guitar, and the lineup was settled.
Laura Stevenson And The Cans released their first album, A Record, on Asian Man in 2010, but for their follow-up, 2011′s Sit Resist, they joined up with New Jersey independent label Don Giovanni. The band was friends with label co-founder Joe Steinhardt, who went to Boston University with Billig and Naddeo, but they weren’t sure they fit on the roster, home to bands like Screaming Females. “That was the world we came from,” says Stevenson. “But that’s not what we sound like at all.”
Stevenson’s music aligns with the straightforward, slice-of-life writing of labelmate Waxahatchee and the countrified, sweet-but-smart melodies of Caitlin Rose, but the expansiveness she brings to her songs is all her own. “L-DOPA” is about Stevenson’s grandfather’s mother, and “Eleonora” covers her relationship with her older sister—”but her name’s Katie” and she lives in D.C.
This autobiographical take resulted in one of the best song’s on the album. A lot of the writing for Wheel took place in the summer of 2011. Stevenson was living in Crown Heights, and after experiencing a couple of “gentle robberies” when she was walking by herself on the street, she was inspired to stay inside a lot. It was this indoor funk that led her to write one of the album’s best songs, “Runner.” The track is a jubilant ripper that doesn’t betray its mood until you hit the chorus of “This summer hurts.” “I get a little depressed in the summertime,” she says, adding with a laugh that she also sometimes thinks about her own death right before she falls asleep.
In this way, Stevenson is a total embodiment of her music: Her easy laughter tempers any melodramatic side. “I still like music that’s optimistic sounding despite the content,” she says. It’s a lot like a good country song, hiding the bad news in a smile.