Becca Stevens on Her New LP ‘WONDERBLOOM’ – Exclusive GIGsoup Interview

Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Becca Stevens is back with her latest effort ‘WONDERBLOOM.’ The second Becca Stevens project (no Band name attached) is a dance-worthy LP incorporating a wide array of genres.

Read our full GIGsoup review here.

We talked to Becca about ‘WONDERBLOOM’, what inspires her, what TLC meets Aphex Twin looks like, and how we should respond to criticism (or, better yet, not-so-nice emails).

So, the ‘WONDERBLOOM’ title is inspired by the Titan Arum, which is the corpse flower. Can you describe what drew you to the flower originally and what was the connection to the album?

So, when I was trying to come up with a title for the record, I was in Hawaii after spending months and months and months working on the record. It had been like months without a vacation. Finally, I had the vacation with my husband in Hawaii, and I’m feeling really inspired by the palm trees there for some reason. I had this moment where I was like, “What is my album title?” Then, suddenly I noticed the wind blowing this palm tree, and I was thinking about the symbolism of palm trees and how strong they are. I just got obsessed with palm trees. I was reading about all these different kinds of palm trees and stumbled upon the Titan Arum, and how it’s eight feet tall at full bloom and smells like a rotting corpse when it’s blooming. Then it takes 9 or 10 years just to get to that point, and then withers and dies and begin again. I was thinking about how hard I worked on the record and how much I enjoyed the process. It just reminded me of the flower. The process of it leading to that point of fruition. When it’s not about the final product, and instead, it’s about the actual enjoyment of the process. It’s a much more beautiful thing.

‘Regina’ was your first album released under your name without a band name attached. How did you feel about that the second time around with ‘WONDERBLOOM’?

I mean I found that decision to be very liberating. Not because I don’t love playing with my band and my bandmates. The decision to do it for ‘Regina’ was originally because I wanted to, for the first time, branch out of the band-fold. It had been over 10 years of being very, very committed to just playing with my band. So, I would only take gigs if all four, or some configuration of the four members of my band, were available. That was really important to me for a long time. It’s still important to me that when I’m on the road that there are people who are intimate with the music. [People] who are backing me, and there’s that energy, that band energy.

I started to crave this more collaborative element of the recording and writing process in the last few years. With ‘Regina’, it was a mild craving. I had Lauren Mvula, Jacob Collier, David Crosby, Mike League and some other few special guests. Actually, it wasn’t the plan to have 40 plus special guests on ‘WONDERBLOOM’, but I always open to having them. I was always open to the format, and being less about “When is the band available? When can we find a studio when the band about is available?”, and more open to it just being like, I came up with these demos and the tracks come together in whatever way they can. I think by calling it a Becca Stevens project instead of Becca Stevens Band project already gives me that sort of strategical freedom.

Then I gave myself that freedom, and with that came this onslaught of inspiration to collaborate with whoever was the right person for any given track. I think Nic Hard, who I produced the album with, had the same sort of openness, hunger and lust for just finding the right sounds for the song and what would serve the song. So, it just it became, without planning for it, the most collaborative project I’ve ever done. Both in a recording sense and in a writing sense. Also, weirdly, in an opposite way, I spent the most time alone, and doing things on my own on this record than I ever have. Learning how to layer on the cake on my own and produce, engineer, and track alone, because it lasted for eight months or more. There were a lot of days spent either with Nic and I in a small room together working 14-hour days, or us in two different rooms, him mixing and me in the other room tracking. So, it wasn’t the whole time was a party and a collaboration, but it also was very, very different from the old school way of me locking down a period with my band and being in the studio with them for a week.

Since you had mentioned that you have worked with Jacob Collier and David Crosby, how was it like working with them on this project verses the other projects you have done with them?

Well, very different with Jacob, because, when I’ve done duo collaborations with Jacob, we’ve always been in the same room. On ‘WONDERBLOOM’, I basically just sent him a track that was sort of sluggishly coming together. It was a track that I was like, “If anything gets cut, it’ll be this one.” So just do whatever you want to it. After that, he sent me what he added to it, and that was like the glue that breathed life into that song. I was like, “Now I understand what this song is supposed to be.” So, I thought, this is really cool, like yeah, I trust you. Do your thing.

This also brings in the element of how much I learned on this project. How much editing can be like an entity in of itself. The actual computer and the pro tools rig are almost like instruments in of itself. He sent all this stuff, like crazy, amazing, beautiful stuff, and we probably used 1/10 of it. I went through and picked all the things that served the song. In that process, you end up, even when you’ve collaborated, putting more of yourself, in a sense because your separate from that person. There’s this energy, like an entity, that happens when you’re in a room with someone. It’s just a beautiful and kind of intimate collaboration that happens between two people. Then there’s also a different way of collaborating when somebody mails you something, and then you can sit by yourself without the pressure of trying to please them and choose. It’s a very different thing.

Same with David. I sang a song that I wrote with him on his record ‘Lighthouse’, which was a record that I toured with him, Michelle Willis, and Mike League. Then, that became the name of a band that the four of us are in together. We wrote together and recorded a bunch of songs together as The Lighthouse Band and went on the road. In both of those instances, I felt like I was coming in as a side man or a collaborator, and really doing my best to serve David and his vision. Even, when we were writing together, I felt like I needed to serve David, and my end goal was to make sure that he’s happy. Even on the road, I always want to make sure that David is happy. But, in my record, he really put that aside and came in and allowed me to be the band leader. So, it was a different dynamic because it was my record. He came in and was like, “Do you like this? How about this? Let me try this. Tell me what you like. If you don’t like it, I’ll try this.” It was a totally different kind of energy process and dynamic between us.

Another thing that really amazes me about your work is how you’re able to blend and blur different genres seamlessly, but still very compositionally complex. I know we don’t like to put music in a box, of course, but I feel like ‘WONDERBLOOM’, for some reason, stands at more stylistically than your previous records. You incorporate elements like R&B and funk. Did you feel that way when you were making this album? And is there something that you feel like in these elements and styles that kind of gravitated you towards that space when making this album?

It’s funny, again, this record, the way that it turned out, was not my plan. If anything, my plan was sort of, logistically to make something that’s more intimate. I want to make something that I can produce on my own so I don’t have to rely on the overhead of like, “Okay, well, I have to bring five band members and a tour manager, and worry about sound. I wish I had the money for lights in this big production, you know?” So really going into it in, my first call was Nic. I was like, “I wanna self-produce and I want to make something that it’s really intimate, and kind of leaning in the acoustic direction. Something that’s that could be carried by just me.”

I feel like in a lot of ways I ended up making the total opposite record, but it was a record that I always knew that I had in me. It was only a matter of time before it just had to come out, and I really believe, that it was time for this record to happen. Even, as it was happening, any time I tried to dodge where it was pulling me, I felt I was swimming upstream. Then if I just let go, it was just like the most natural feeling to go in this direction. By that I mean more produced, arrangement-wise, kind of more layers happening, and more genres blending.

You have a bunch of different genres from kind of all over the map coming together. That wasn’t a conscious decision. That was like, “This is all the shit I’m into and stuff that inspires me.” It just lives in me, because it’s kind of rare that I sit down and just listen. But when I do, it’s hard for me to pick a style because I’m so into all different kinds of things. I almost do more listening when I’m like in a car with a group of people and I’m just deejaying and playing, like “Here is a song from this band that I love, but here’s a great song from this band that I love.” As I’m deejaying, I try to stretch the boundaries of the genre as much as I can just to give the listening experience that’s really a wide array of sounds and feelings. That’s the kind of music that I’m drawn to, and that’s the kind of music that I’m most inspired to make when I’m making it.

I’ll just say this is one of the first records that I’ve made that I actually want to kind of dance to. When, I’m listening to other people’s music, I often gravitate towards stuff that I would move do. For whatever reason in the past have, in my writing, gravitated to more solemn, kind of introspective, intricate, and serious stuff. So, one of my goals in this record was to enjoy myself more, write stuff that I can dance to, and enjoy collaborating. Enjoy the process of making it, enjoy the process of recording it. If I’m feeling held back by executing something myself, then share that with another person who could nail it.

It’s funny because that was [related to] my next question. How groovy it was, how I felt like dancing. For songs like ‘I Wish’ and ‘Good Stuff’, those lyrics were more personal and serious. So how were you able to accomplish that balance between the lyrical content and the musical content?

It’s funny you brought up ‘I Wish.’ When I’m writing I try to always latch on to some sort of framework, whether it’s like an intention or story or a theme or a restriction. On ‘I Wish’, the framework that I gave myself was like “Okay, I feel like total shit.” It’s one of those days where something had gone down that had triggered me into just horrible depression. I just wanted to lay on the floor, do nothing, or if anything just watch Netflix and eat a bag of gifts and cry.

I was thinking about how kind of magical, I guess is a word you can use, when you feel like that. Sometimes if you put on a certain song, it’ll snap you out of it. Even if the lyrical content of that song is not, if you read it alone away from the song, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t necessarily happy”, but when you hear it with the music, you’re like, “Ooh, I think I want to dance.” Then so my challenge, keyword challenge, because this was like a re-occurring theme on this record, was like challenging myself to do stuff that wasn’t my first instinct. I challenged myself, in that moment, to write music that made me want to get up and dance. So, go as shamelessly as I wanted to into the self-deprecating lyric, but as long as the music was funky and fun. Something that you would slam your beer down and be like, “I’m going to the dance floor [laughs].”

I think also one of my favorite tracks too is ‘Slow Burn.’ It’s really funky, and you do give that kind of burn like “Mad I didn’t burn out like you. Be cruel if you want to.” It reminds me of like Michael Jackson or Prince. So, what were some of the inspirations for that song specifically?

Very, very similar. Interesting you brought that up. That one, again the feed was an email correspondence from someone who used to be a friend. It was just a really ugly email, almost to the point of it being like, so mean that it was funny. I had a writing collaboration with my friend Talia Billig around very close to the time that I received that email. I brought her over and we were just kind of talking about it, talking about things that were going on our lives, and what we wanted to write about.

We were talking about that email, and she was like, “Ooh, this is really ripe for a song.” We wrote this kind of 680, acoustic sounding, strumming guitar song out of that e-mail. Then, the more that I spent with the draft that we came up with, the more I was like “No, this song-“, and Nic was pushing for this, too. Nic Hard, who produced the record with me and did a lot of the co-arranging, was really pushing for [it], like “It’s too sweet, like you need to embody this kind of cutting energy. A kind of a meanness that you don’t really embody as a person. But you can go there in this song, and I think it would be cool.” It was like the empty bragging, you know, like my car is nicer than yours and my girl is hotter than yours. I’m a better MC and these are all the reasons why I’m cooler than you, like the Braggadocio approach to hip-hop. I was trying to bring just so far from what is my norm and what I’m comfortable with.

I wanted to challenge myself again to bring this into my writing, because it’s not my norm, because it’s not my comfort zone. It made it even more appealing to me to like, “Okay, well, if it’s a challenge to me that I should figure out how to meet it.” So, that was kind of the goal in that song. Once I figured out what the song was, and what it would be about, and what I could sound like, I was like, “Okay, I wanted to have this Knower-kind of edge, musically.” Knower is Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi, and the lyric to be kind of like the upside of my personality that doesn’t even really exist. Except, maybe in my dreams. [laughs]

I definitely felt that stood out more because it felt like it was out of your norm, and ‘WONDERBLOOM’ is very dynamic and very beautifully produced. Is there a particular track on ‘WONDERBLOOM’ that resonates with you the most?

The one that I find myself gravitating towards right now, that I feel like resonates with my soul is ‘True Minds’, which is sort of weird, because that was one that I didn’t really plan to be on the record. As we were recording it, I was like, “Well, this is the outlier, like, this one is weird and will probably get cut.” Then, the more time I spent with it, the more it became like a vehicle for anything goes. It’s so wide in its genre spectrum. Within the song, there’s a verse that sounds like TLC, and then there’s some kind of like nineties grunge shit in there. Then there’s like a symphonic, orchestral section, and then there’s weird, like Aphex Twin drums and stuff that’s kind of robotic, yet super organic. I think, I feel most comfortable in those worlds where I don’t have to commit to one genre. Where I can, sort of, walk around in a wonder world of genres and feel at home in that, and that feels safe to me.

I also enjoyed ‘True Minds’ a lot. Another track too was ‘Response to Criticism.’ Was that really a response to criticism? 

So that one that’s a setting of a poem that I didn’t write. It’s by poet Jane Tyson Clement. I’ve set five of her poems now, and I was commissioned by her estate and family to do this collaboration. I did several settings of her poems, and also wrote the commentary on a book of her poetry in the forward. It’s a book called, ‘The Heart’s Necessities,’ which is also a lyric from a song that I set on my record ‘Perfect Animal.’  So that one, you know, [I was] reading a lot of poetry and going through all of her books, trying to figure out like, “What’s the next thing that I’m gonna set on?” That one just dumped off the page to me because it’s something that, obviously all artists go through. I think really any person, but we all deal with criticism. Oftentimes, the criticism comes from someone who I has no idea what it’s like to be in your position, and furthermore, especially if you’re an artist, criticizing something that is, literally at best, an expression of who you are. So, to criticize that is to kind of miss the point. So, I love the fact that Jane Tyson Clement, in her ‘Response to Criticism’, is saying like “C’mon, let me set this straight with you. If want to do what I’m doing, do it, and do it the way you want to do it. But I do it this way.” It’s not saying like “you idiot” or “you’re wrong.” It’s not taking a negative approach to the response. It’s just saying like, “No, that’s fine. If you want to do it that way, do it that way. Do it the way you will. I only know that it was right for me to do it the way that I did it.” I love that.

Also, to add to that, being a female in the industry, do you feel you do get more response to criticism?

Hell yeah, definitely. It’s an interesting conversation, because sometimes there will be moments from time to time where I notice that someone’s giving me a free pass, because I’m a woman. I don’t like that either. I just want things to be equal. I don’t want to be spoken down to because I’m a woman. I don’t want to be babied because I’m a woman. I don’t want to be overly criticized because I’m a woman. I just want to be treated the same way that I would be if I was a man. If that means that someone harder on me, I’m fine with that. I just want equality. Something that I’ll notice a lot in sound checks, is the crew of a venue will be extra with the female member of the band. They will be like, “Oh, let me show you have this amp works”, or “Let me tell you how your microphone works,” or “Let me tell you how far to stand from the microphone.” It’s just constant. I’m always looking over my bandmates, and being like, “See?” [laughs]

Then, with critics and reviews, what I’ll notice is that there’s often this assumption that I didn’t do the work, that a man did the work. I am just there as a singer, and the music was written and arranged and produced by someone else who was a man. It’s funny that, after 17 years of living in New York and working on this craft, that still happens. I’m still introduced as “New York’s best kept secret,” and oftentimes, a jazz singer [laughs]. I don’t even mind the jazz part. I get that. It’s more just like the idea that the instrumentalist and the composer and the producer, that’s more often associated with the masculine side of artistry, has been completely neglected because it’s more comfortable to do that.

You close your album with “Heather’s Letter to her Mother”, which is about Heather Heyer who died peacefully protesting in the white nationalist rally around in Charlottesville. So how did that event impact you, and what made you play that song as the album’s last send-off?

Well, I gotta give props to David Crosby for thinking that that would be a cool idea for a song. Initially, he thought that the song was somewhere in the meeting of Heather and the man who was driving the car that killed her. He thought, in the moment that that they locked eyes, or in the moment that the car and she collided, that there was a song there. I’ve written a lot with David, and I know to never turn down a songwriting suggestion from him. He truly has a gift for seeing songs, and [it’s] almost like he sees songs like a cinematographer. He’ll have these really clear visions of songs before the songs are written. I found that I should trust that, and that there’s always gold at the end of that rainbow. So, when he brought the song to me, he was like “Becca, I think you should write this song.” I was like, “OK, David Crosby,” and I tried taking the approach that he suggested.

I tried and I tried, and I tried. I tried for two weeks sitting down every day and trying to open the door, and it just was stuck. It was sort of like the muse was shaking her head and being like, “Uh-uh, don’t go this way.” It just felt uncomfortable and too political, and two-sided, and just something wrong about it. Then, I slightly shifted to the side and tried the approach of speaking from Heather’s perspective. Absolutely no reference to the driver of the car, or even to the attack itself, and more just focusing on, where she was coming from? What were her passions? What was she excited about? What was she going through? What sort of things would she say to her mom if she was just like sending her a text once a day, just to catch her up on her life? So, it’s it does that. Then, there’s a text message or a letter the day of the protest, from the protest basically. Then the final verse is beyond the grave.

The reason why chose to close the record with it, I think that with ‘Regina’ we closed it with ‘As’, which has my nieces and nephews singing the “always” choir part. There’s something so sweet about finishing with the sound of little kids singing. To me, this felt kind of like the sequel to that. This feeling of, you go through all these different, really intense journeys on the record. Then you finish with hope, and you finish with a very tender emotion, and I like that. I like that feeling.

How do you feel your experience of being born and raised in North Carolina and living 17 years in Brooklyn have shaped your music today?

That’s an interesting one because I feel like I was very influenced by my family, and that there were definitely strong influences and experiences I had in North Carolina. My dad raised us on what felt like normal music at the time when I was a kid. Then the older I got, the more that I got to know what other kids listened to, when they were growing up more, I realized that we did not have a normal upbringing, musically. It kind of explains why I feel most at home in a wildly eclectic, genre world. That said, my dad, when he was my age or younger, was a multi-instrumentalist, folk musician, classical composer and classical singer. He had been in the Air Force singing in every language, singing in classical music, and also played guitar, banjo, fiddle and dulcimer. All these different kinds of bluegrass and Irish folk instruments that were just around the house.

So, I grew up with that coming from his side. He also was, when I was a kid, composing, this charming kind of bluegrass Americana, children’s music, and musicals, symphonies, orchestras, and just all kinds of stuff that we were around, and it was normal. My mom is a beautiful opera singer like classically trained vocalist. She was always practicing the next contemporary piece in the living room. I could hear everything that she was working on, and I grew up kind of mimicking her. Then I came across different styles of singing. So, I feel like my household, first and foremost, was my influence in North Carolina, but also the sort of western North Carolina, bluegrass influence, was definitely strongly there.

Then when I was a teenager, I got into jazz, and I found a jazz scene in North Carolina that I followed, until I left to study jazz at The New School in New York. There were a good 10 years where I was very influenced by what was around me in New York. Now, this is what I was saying, I kind of have this weird reaction to the question now, because now I feel like I just live there. When I spend majority of the year on the road, and then when I come home, I come in my apartment, like hanging out with my husband, resting, and recouping. I don’t get as much out of the city as I used to. For a solid 10 or 12 years, it expanded me in so many ways in so many directions in exactly the way that I was craving.

If you’re ‘Weightless’ Becca could talk to ‘WONDERBLOOM’ Becca, what would she tell her?

That’s sweet. I feel like ‘WONDERBLOOM’ Becca has more to teach ‘Weightless’ Becca than ‘Weightless’ Becca has to teach ‘WONDERBLOOM’ Becca. I think ‘Weightless’ Becca would really look up to ‘WONDERBLOOM’ Becca [laughs]. ‘Weightless’ Becca will be like, “How do you like write music like that?” [laughs], and ‘WONDERBLOOM’ Becca would be like, “You just let it happen. The more you can get out of your own way, and the more you can trust that you are the best person at writing your songs, the better. That the more you could just embrace and enjoy the process. Enjoy yourself. It doesn’t have to be tortured. It doesn’t have to be obsessed. It doesn’t have to be overly critical. You can let go, and it’s okay. You’re safe if you let go. If you just release your grasp a little bit, and just enjoy a little bit more each time, you let go a little bit more, and you’ll see that it just gets better. It’s not gonna make you less believable. It’s not going to make you less fancy or intelligent-seeming if you let go.” I think ‘Weightless’ Becca was, as a writer, more introverted, more obsessed with, almost like OCD, touching every single little part of the song. I don’t know. I also loved, loved those songs, and there’s no part of me that looks down upon them. It’s interesting, thinking of it, as like, two girls talking to each other. I could see her, that even then, she was longing to see where she is now.

My last question is, do you have some advice for musicians starting out, especially women coming in the industry?

Well, to all musicians of all genders, I would say, first and foremost, write the music that you want to play. The music that you want to hear, the music that you want to dance to. Write the music that inspires you because you are the one who has to play it over and over again, hear it over and over again, and talk about it over and over again.

If you write music that maybe you’re not 100% inspired by, but you’re making that sacrifice because you think that other people will like it more and then they don’t end up liking it, then you’re in a bind. You’ve sacrificed your own self-worth for the sake of something that fails. Then if you write something that you’re not that into and people love it, then you’re also in a bind, because then you are a slave to these songs that you’re expected to play over and over again, and you don’t enjoy the process. Then, even if you’re making a ton of money, that’s not success, because you’re not happy. You could have millions and millions and millions of dollars, but you don’t want to wake up in the morning and you don’t want to go to work. So how can you call that a success?

I would say, to women, that there are gonna be struggles, but in the same way, that you find a way to write music that you enjoy, so that you can face the day with open arms, find a way to greet those struggles with sure footing, deep strength and with confidence. So, that not only are you growing stronger with each time you meet them, but you’re also making yourself a mirror to the people around you, who might not realize what’s happening. You’re a trailblazer, and you can hold firmly to that and stay strong without it letting it knock you down.

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