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Laura Stevenson in conversation with Larry Livermore

When I first heard Laura Stevenson, I knew absolutely nothing about her, except that friends had told me she was becoming kind of a big deal on the alternative indie/folk scene. The minute she opened her mouth to sing, I could see why; her crystal-clear vocals, tinged with achy-breaky country sadness and wise-beyond-her-years insight and understanding, made you want to listen, and listen closely, to whatever she had to say.

Having no idea who she was, where she had come from, or what her lyrics were about (my first encounter with her was at a live show in Hoboken), I constructed my own narrative, most of which turned out to be completely wrong. She must be from the South, I assumed, or at least had spent a good deal of time there, and must have grown up deeply steeped in the tradition of singers like Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and (especially) Kitty Wells, all of whom I could have sworn I heard echoing in Laura’s voice.

So much for my keen ear: when I got to meet and talk with Laura, I learned that she’d lived her whole life on Long Island and had never even heard of Kitty Wells. What’s more, her musical roots are planted firmly and foremost in punk rock, apart from a grandmother who sang with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra and a grandfather who gave us one of the 20th century’s better-known Christmas carols, "The Little Drummer Boy."

I visited with Laura and her longtime bassist and boyfriend, Mike Campbell on the eve of the release of her third full-length album, Wheel (Don Giovanni Records). She showed me around her hometown on Long Island, admitted her anxiety about the master’s thesis in art history she’s trying to complete at the same time the band is gearing up for a national tour, then sat down at the dining room table for a couple hours of conversation. Here’s some of what we talked about.

Ok, I’ve gotta ask, you don’t have to answer…
The Cans thing?

You used to play as "Laura Stevenson and The Cans." Now it’s just "Laura Stevenson." What happened to the Cans?
Well, it was a long time coming. There were several reasons. Basically, we heard from a lot of people that in closed doors, people would be like, "I don’t know who this band is, it sounds ridiculous." It’s unfortunate. I had a love-hate relationship with it. A lot of people made jokes about my boobs and stuff, which was shitty.

I didn’t think of that.
That means you’re a nice person if you don’t automatically see a woman’s name and think [of that]… But a lot of people do. If it was Rick Jones and the Cans, nobody would be like "Boobs! Ha ha ha!" But because it’s a woman’s name and a can… I didn’t like being the butt of a joke. So we were ready to change it, because people said it sounded goofy anyway. It wasn’t serious, wasn’t reflective of the type of music we were making.

So at the end of the day, it became just "Laura Stevenson," which is how it started out. The first record I released as me. Two or three years later, we came out on Asian Man as Laura Stevenson and the Cans.

Was there ever a stage where there was a long-haired Laura Stevenson playing very earnest folk songs in coffee houses to bohemian college students?
Yes, there was (laughs). There was. I’d do open mic nights, I’d do solo performances at coffee shops and stuff like that, at bars… Bars were hard.

That’s how it started, then? Just a girl with a dream?
Just a dream. I was writing songs, and they had to be small, because that’s what I was working with. I’d have another melody that I’d sing out as an instrumental part and think, well maybe eventually in my life there’ll be a trumpet that plays that… But it was very minimal, and it was a sad time, because people didn’t really…

Yeah, because all my friends were punks, and I wasn’t going to play those shows. But then I started to, and my friends would back me, my friends in Bomb the Music Industry.

The new record seems to be less country, less folksy, more branching out and experimenting with big themes and big sounds. Can you say something about what might be going on there? Or are you going to deny everything?
We just like playing loud. I was playing with a distortion pedal today before you got here. I’m excited about playing loud, and playing with the band… It’s not genre-specific. It bounces from song to song. "Eleonora, " for example, sounds like a Pixies song, and we were very conscious of that when we first played it at practice.

So what’s the story with Bomb the Music Industry? I saw them once or twice, but don’t remember seeing you. Were you hiding behind an amp or something?
I was in Bomb for three years, on and off. I was in school, too, but I dropped out to go on tour. I got in the van, and learned how to do DIY touring. That’s how I got introduced to scenes throughout the country, being in that band. Bomb could be like the Replacements; one day could be a glorious best show you’ve ever seen, another day could be an absolute train wreck. But the songs were just genius. And it was a lot of fun.

[Editor’s note: Check out Laura Stevenson’s cover of "It Ceases to Be Whining If You’re Still Shitting Blood" by Bomb the Music Industry on this week’s mixtape, a collection of songs that communicate our mission statement for The Media]

So I was wrong in imagining that you had country roots, and apparently I was just as clueless about your punk roots. If you don’t mind my saying so, you don’t come across that BtMI-ish. I mean, you haven’t been overthrowing the system lately, have you?
No, there are no systems that I overthrow, really. I wasn’t very political, but yeah, I would go to shows every weekend in high school and middle school.

Were you "living the chaos?"
I was not living in any chaos. I was a hanging out against the wall kind of punk. I was a wallflower. Not too much in the pit. But I loved the community aspect of it. I loved the kids. Everybody was so accepting and cool. Seeing that here on Long Island, where there was a really cool scene when I was a kid, it was really exciting how it spans the whole country. I was totally isolated on Long Island, but when I started touring with Bomb, I saw there were scenes like mine all over the place, and kids like the kids I knew. That’s how we started touring, that’s how the Cans started touring.

Ah, so the Cans return. So how did the Cans emerge and become part of the world of Laura Stevenson, folk singer and/or Laura Stevenson, punk?
Our first tour was with Bomb the Music Industry. We were all smashed into the same van. Mike and Alex came, but at that time the Cans were still very much a fluid thing… Some members of Bomb would play with us.

Mike, when did you play in Latterman?
Mike: I was in Latterman from like 2000 to 2005 or 2006. It was the same thing with them as Laura was saying about Bomb the Music Industry, DIY, basement touring. I learned how to play in a band and go on tour, to share things with other people in close quarters for extended periods of time.

These days you’re getting attention from far beyond the punk scene. So much so that I was afraid you’d be bored with the whole thing by the time I got here. Do you find yourself getting interviewed by people who have no idea who these bands are that you’re talking about?
Not so much yet. I’ve been interviewed by a bunch of people who already knew where we were coming from. It’ cool the way the punk kids are psyched for us, because they know us.

I’ve been intrigued by how the punk scene will accept some types of folk music… The Weakerthans, for example, or John K. Samson solo. When he started out, true, he had the Propagandhi thing going for him, but his new music was nothing like Propagandhi. Yet he was totally accepted and welcomed. But there’s also this punk rock mentality that’s sort of like that scene in Animal House where John Belushi smashes the folk singer’s guitar and everybody goes "Yay!" What’s the secret? How do you get accepted instead of getting your guitar smashed?
I think it’s context. Like with John Samson: kids know where he’s coming from, what his background is, so they’re willing to give him a chance. Our first big show as a full band was The Fest.

Were you well received?
Yeah, we had a really good time. We played with Paul Baribeau. It was, like, "the folk show." That world totally opened up to us. It just felt… right. But it was definitely the Bomb the Music Industry/Latterman connection that helped pave the way.

Are you nervous or concerned about whether "the punks" will stay with you as you branch out and explore greater diversity in your music?
I don’t know. If we’re still putting out things that have integrity, that are interesting and thought-provoking, I think people will stick around. I think.

Are lyrics are very important to you?
Very important.
I’ve argued with John Samson about this, and I’d like to get your opinion: are song lyrics on the same level as poetry? Are they, in fact, poetry themselves? (John Samson, by the way, says no.)
I personally don’t write just for the bare words. Probably because there’s too much weight on that and I don’t feel like… I don’t have a classic literary education and I don’t know much about poetry. I like William Carlos Williams. I remember reading him and being drawn to him, because what he wrote was lyrical, but also really visual. But I’m not a poetry person, so I would say I’m only comfortable writing songs. If people find it to be poetic, they can take it as they want, but for me it’s always gotta be hitched to the music.

Two of your grandparents had successful careers in music. Do you feel like you have something to live up to, to show that you can do it too?
Only slightly, because they weren’t super-duper famous. If they were people who were serious household names, then maybe… Like if I was Jakob Dylan, maybe…

But your grandmother sang with Benny Goodman? That’s a pretty big deal. And your grandfather gave us one of the best-known Christmas carols of the last 50 or 75 years…
Yeah, but, you know, they’re… my grandparents. They’re not around anymore. When they were, my grandma was supportive, she was nice. But my grandfather was scary. I didn’t want to play for him. We had a piano, but he was just really… stern. He would tell me I was "banging" when I would play for him.

Little did he know "banging" would be high praise one day…
I still don’t play piano live. But I’m going to on this tour, I’m going to play one song live, and that’s scary for me.

How did you get hooked up with Don Giovanni Records?
Alex from the Cans knew [label head] Joe [Steinhardt] from school. We were on tour in upstate New York when Joe was in Syracuse. We didn’t know anyone, so Alex was like, "Oh, my friend lives here, maybe we can stay with him." So Joe came to the show, and loved it. We went to his house, and he made Easy Mac for us and we watched this stupid movie about Blink 182. We bonded over stuff like that. We became friends, and he got really into us, got our first record and listened to it a lot. Then he asked us to make a record with him.

And it’s been a happy relationship?
Yeah. He’s great. He’s hilarious, and makes us feel good, and he’s so supportive. He didn’t even listen to what we were working on before he agreed to put it out. He was just like, "Yeah! Let’s do it!" He trusts our choices and believes in us that much.

Do you think he walks a similar line to what you do, where he comes from a very punk ethos but at the same time can speak to a larger audience?
I think so. Especially now. But yeah, it’s such a blessing to be part of that family. It’s great.

Before I came to see you I’d constructed a narrative based on the country heartbreak sort of things I thought I heard in your music. I figured you must have lived a hardscrabble life in one of the forlorn outer suburbs, that music had become your means of clawing your way out. But looking around at where you live and grew up, it’s actually pretty nice. So where do you think you got the impetus to sing about tragedy and heartbreak? Couldn’t you have just kept quiet and enjoyed life here in lovely Rockville Centre?
(laughs) I guess. I don’t know. I always felt things really strongly. And there was a time when I struggled with depression. I just… felt a lot. The only way I could communicate was through writing music.

You say "struggled" in the past tense…
Yeah. I’m pretty much out of it now. I’ll fall back a little bit now and then, but for the most part, I’m good. I was bad for a couple years. It was bad.

And music has something – or a lot – to do with it?
Getting me out? I think so. A lot of it, my mom thought was hormones, because she had a similar problem in her late teens and early 20s. It could have been a chemical thing. I mean, I was hospitalized, I was heavily medicated. But after a couple of years, I got to a place where I’m ok now. I’m happy. But when I start to fall now, when I start to fall even a little bit, I get scared.

Now you can go write a song instead…
Yeah! It’s better now, too, because when I was younger, I was writing, but I didn’t want to make records, because I didn’t really think about my future. I didn’t see myself as having one, you know? But now, there’s a sense of, "Oh, I can do this! This is what I want!"

Once you’ve got people singing your songs and waiting for your next record, you’ve got responsibilities. You can’t just check out then…
Even if it’s just a small thing, even if it’s just one person singing along, your words mean something. The other day, people were singing along to a song that hasn’t even come out yet. That’s like awesome, and feels crazy. And people start getting things you write tattooed on their bodies. This guy was going through a gender transformation, and during that period got a tattoo of one of our songs, and showed me. It was such a big deal, because it got him through. So now I’m, ok, there’s a reason, there’s a purpose.

You’ve got a job to do.
Yeah! Cover people’s bodies with tattoos they’ll probably regret!

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