All photos courtesy of Julien Bowry
“Sprezzatura” is an Italian term that means effortless art—a sense of creative perfection that appears innate and nonchalant. This is something that Toronto’s Ben Stevenson embodies as he humbly begins his set on a wooden stool, guitar in hand, at Toronto’s Drake Underground. As the drummer counts in the first song, the venue travels back in time and becomes a 1950s parlour as Stevenson croons to the audience with a simplicity that’s hard to find when live performances involve flashy effects. Dipping into falsettos and contrasting with raspy timbres, it is a collective of genres, from neo-soul to syncopated beats of rhythm and blues, to a range of intricately placed dynamics. Everything is unchallenged and mesmerizing. It is live music in its most charismatic and organic form, channeling a sound that has not only garnered national accolades like the recent Juno nomination for his 7-track EP Dirty Laundry, but has unearthed his creative control through a time of hardship due to Stevenson having to walk the thin line between creating art and the navigating the music industry.
Growing up in Edmonton, Stevenson had already begun noticing the contrast between creative control and rigid repertoires of music in theatre and school performances. His elementary music teacher was quick to notice his budding talent, and steered him in the path of performing at school assemblies and joining school theatre. But the rise of the 80s Edmonton punk scene created a new sphere of control for Stevenson, who picked up the guitar and created a new voice. “I was always singing,” says Stevenson. “But then we started a punk band and it wasn’t always about singing so much. I was the singer, so I’d just yell. I loved it.” At the age, he became apart of the band Misdemeanor, and being positioned in a hub of the Canadian punk scene, the band became a local staple, from being offered tours with American punk rock bands from Guttermouth to Jughead’s Revenge. Putting out their first independent album at the young age of 15, Misdemeanor, after several years of collaboration would undergo a new rebirth of sound as a new band, Our Mercury. The revival came out of a place of growth, not only from elementary to high school students, but also out of a stagnated place. The liberation of “yelling” and “punk” juxtaposed from musical theatre for Stevenson led to another fixity in their tone, “we’d roll up to a punk show listening to Sean Paul and people were like ‘you actually like that shit?’ As we got older, we were more interested in going out and seeing what else was out there.” In attempts to extend their musicality to another realm, Edmonton became too isolated, and hitting the road meant moving out, which not all members could do, “creatively, we were at our hype, but certain guys weren’t willing to take the leap and I had already put all my cards in.” After 12 years of playing together, Our Mercury decided to split, and Stevenson left to Toronto as an independent artist.
Moving to Toronto in 2008, a few years after high school, Stevenson committed to opening up his mentality to expand his musical creativity. In the lulls, he stayed afloat by doing odd jobs, one of which included house painting. The money he made was recycled back into unearthing his voice by renting out studio time. “I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “I’m always trying to do the best I can.” This idea of perfection becomes another double-edged sword that Stevenson wields in trying to complete and polish his projects. But the balance of his self-regulated creativity became lost when working with major figures in the music business. He was no longer working on his own music, but realized that he became adrift from his own creativity because he was too absorbed by the industry. “It got to the point where I was on board to put out a record deal before I knew what I really wanted to do. When I suddenly got a dose of reality, I needed to get back on track, and in doing so, I harmed relationships with certain people.” Not only did this damage the project he was working on and the people associated with it, it also became an existential realization of how far he strayed from his innate relationship with music.
“I became shut in, kind of like a monk,” he says. “I just realized I’ve been neglecting a part of myself and also the guitar, and I tried to play it again and it didn’t sound right,” Stevenson says. He had entered into an illusory idea of making records and forcing tracks without his own discretion. Taking a leave of absence within the industry, Stevenson began to realize how important the guitar became, as it had always had been a limb of his musical expression, “the guitar is a companion, writing tool and even a teacher. There is an endless stream of possibility playing the guitar.” In revisiting the instrument, Stevenson found his own way of focusing in on the quality of his music comparatively to the qualitative aspect of the industry, “I’m not that prolific, I’ve found myself more productive by playing guitar, labouring and massaging my songs.” This labour of love and time of tranquility led to this year’s Juno nomination.
Listening to Dirty Laundry seems to be an aural illustration of the subconscious—silky synths and layered rhythms each carrying their own silent breath and thought. The fluidity and motion of the album is the product of Stevenson’s fortification from exterior influences on his music. “This album comes from a lot of upheaval and tumultuous career times,” he says. “A year and a half of recording different stuff, different places, but I’m glad the music still carries alight to me.” Stevenson also reflects on the fortunate relationship he fostered with Grammy-winning composer Happy Perez—who’s worked with Frank Ocean and Miguel—on his contributions to three of the tracks on this album. “Happy is a very unique producer, he’s the kind of guy who lets the music guide what he’s doing, and it’s very freeing,” he says. “It’s interesting to see how things come together with him, which can be totally unexpected.” In finding that producer who respects his artistry and navigating the industry in a way that allows Stevenson to retain his artistic values, Stevenson has faith that his craft will flourish as a result. “I know the people around me, for better or worse, they don’t infringe on how I work. I try to be understanding of the people working around me so we can all positive about it.”
In the time between Dirty Laundry and the Juno Awards, Stevenson has already been developing his new acoustic project by taking on a more organic sound. Stevenson doesn’t want to be defined as a fixed genre, but rather have his music be a reflection of his own growth and openness to dip into different musical categories, “It doesn’t come together on a headline, if anything, I want to create in the mentality that doesn’t question of what genre it enters.” In experimenting with different components, Stevenson’s newest project is another regeneration of the collectivity of musical styles, with one track described as “a folk sound from 1972.” As Stevenson continues his enlightenment of music, he bridges the dualistic nature of art and industry, and in the process, he creates a distinct artistry.
Evelyn Kwong is a writer living in Toronto - @EVWHOS20