Listen to Laura Stevenson
While her peers will gladly shout her praises from the rooftops, the singer is content to quietly make art on her own terms, which she has done on her stunning fifth album, 'The Big Freeze.'
Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin
Laura Stevenson is starting to make peace with the fact that maybe she’s just not that cool.
“I just have a hard time being cool, because I’m not, and I was never cool,” she says. “It took me a while to let go of worrying about that—that maybe, because I’m not cool, that people think what I make doesn’t have value.”
This is a notion that’s been drilled into her head over the course of four album releases, albums that have never quite caught on with those who determine what music is and isn’t “cool.” Since releasing her debut album, 2008’s A Record, on Jeff Rosenstock’s Quote Unquote Records, each subsequent release has broken new ground for the singer-songwriter and expanded her following. But despite that, she’s never ridden a wave of hype. None of the albums netted her glowing profiles in Rolling Stone or The Fader, and the first review she ever got from Pitchfork, for 2013’s Wheel, was a middling one. The record, which she describes as being part of her “Gram Parsons phase,” was likened to Operation Ivy and Green Day, comparisons that were clearly meant as digs.
The pop-punk barbs likely stemmed from the fact that, before launching her solo career, Stevenson got her start playing in Rosenstock’s now defunct, beloved punk ensemble Bomb the Music Industry!. And while Rosenstock has since become something of a media golden boy following the acclaim of his 2016 album WORRY., Stevenson’s punk association was a stumbling block for critics who had yet to welcome punk bands into those spaces.
“I felt really misunderstood and, I guess, coming from punk, people want to be like, ‘This is a punk singer-songwriter,’ but I’m just a singer-songwriter,” she says. “I’ve really let go of worrying about that stuff, because it doesn’t serve me. Not to sound hippie-dippy, but I try to live in a way that I feel is positive, and I don’t feel like I want anything that anybody else has. I want to do the most with what I have and contribute the most that I can in a positive way.”
Of course, it can still be frustrating for her fans to see Stevenson taking a backseat to buzzier, decidedly cooler bands. Perhaps no person has been as vocal of a supporter as Rosenstock, who produced Stevenson’s 2015 album, Cocksure, and gave her a huge shoutout on stage at 2017’s Pitchfork Music Festival by scrawling LISTEN TO LAURA STEVENSON on his guitar.
“We knew we were playing to a larger audience who might not be aware of our underground wheelings and dealings, so I wanted to rep my buds on the big, bright stage and screen,” explains Rosenstock. But the underlying root of it wasn’t just that they were friends, but that he is one of her biggest fans. “Her ear for harmonies, her voice, her lyrics and arrangements are all really beautiful and/or devastating,” he notes. “I think all of us have always thought she would be the person out of our friends who broke through to big mainstream success because her talent is undeniable. It's fucked up that hasn't happened yet.”
In a just world, Stevenson’s forthcoming fifth album, The Big Freeze, would be the record that bridges that gap, but that’s also not the album’s intended goal. The creative process for The Big Freeze dates back years—as far as 2013, she says, when she was living in Brooklyn, New York, before relocating two hours north to Hudson Valley with her husband and collaborator Mike Campbell. Stevenson was constantly refining the songs, gaining an understanding of the material, and finding the best ways to express the thoughts inside her head. “Building these songs structurally and vocally, just having the performance, then building on top of it, it’s a really good way to find out what it is,” she says. And the result is that The Big Freeze captures her in a moment of releasing every pent-up feeling at once, producing an emotionally harrowing listen full of unflinching honesty.
While Stevenson’s previous records have always featured a backing band, one once known as The Cans, the only member of the band that still plays on The Big Freeze is Campbell. This time around, co-producer Joe Rogers listened to the material and brought in musicians that would be best suited to the compositions. “Joe knew a drummer who was super jazzy who would be able to play along to the crazy tempos, because I have no internal metronome,” she says. “He was like, ‘I know someone who can do this and play along to what you’ve done.’”
This approach yielded something that fans both old and new will be surprised by. While the songs all bear Stevenson’s hallmarks, such as her haunting guitar playing and show-stopping vocals, they rarely progress in conventional ways. “Dermatillomania” may be the album’s most straightforward track, one that could have fit in with the power-pop sugar rush that was Cocksure, but even then, it darts in various directions because it was not meant to be played with a band. Instead of simply sliding from verse to chorus, Stevenson guides the band through the song’s peaks and valleys, allowing the songs to feel like living, breathing pieces of music.
“I knew I wanted to have these blooming moments and then have these moments that came down, because I love those Leonard Cohen records, and Judee Sill, who I have gotten into over the past couple years, and she does so much of that,” she says. “On Heart Food, she has the strings exactly echo her conversational way of singing because she directed them. That was something I was really interested in, because she’s so jazzy, so you could hear that in the strings—they sound exactly like her speech. I was doing that a little bit, singing to the string players and they just played exactly what I wanted, and that was so cool. It was just building.”
There are moments like these throughout The Big Freeze, but none as striking as on “Low Slow.” The track builds to a massive crescendo, one that sees Stevenson go on one of the most astounding vocal runs of her career as a string section comes rushing in. It’s like nothing she’s ever done before, and it’s indicative of the record as a whole. Where her previous records were able to be broken down to their component parts and remain effective, that’s impossible with the material she presents here. Stevenson’s guitar playing has never been this confident, and it allows her to let her notes flutter in and out of focus so that instruments such as cello, piano, and strings can finish her thoughts for her. Unburdened by things like conventional song structure and outside expectations, Stevenson has made an album that’s richly detailed and completely genuine, the product of a songwriter who has never been given her big break and is wholly content to make work that is solely for herself.
Looking back on Stevenson’s career, there’s a purity to it that continues to resonate. Her records were never anchored to a narrative that could easily be spun into glowing press coverage, and, clearly, she was never considered part of any rising trend. She just wrote songs and made records for the people who cared to listen. It’s why her influence on modern music feels erased, even if artists are willing to acknowledge it openly, and why her work can’t be reduced so simply. She puts it all into the work, and it resonates with the people who see themselves in the music she offers to them.
“I just want to make the thing that I think is beautiful and meaningful,” she says. “If people get it, they get it. A lot of my songs, I write for myself to deal with something that I am not ready to share with anybody. In doing that, I make this veil of ambiguity that’s purely to protect myself from being like, ‘Hey, I do this thing that’s fucked up. I’m so fucked up. Help me.’ Because it’s like, I’m not even going to talk to my therapist about this.” (“Dermatillomania,” for example, delves into her compulsion to self-harm.) “So a lot of this shit, especially a lot of what I talked about on The Big Freeze, it’s shit that I deal with that I was not ready to… deal with. I’m not ready to try to fix it because I don’t know how. A lot of me writing about something is ‘I’m going to tackle this and fix myself, but I’m not ready to actually do the work.’ Me writing a song is sometimes me being like, ‘Okay, and then once I write a song about it, I’ll be fixed, right?’ And then I’m not.”
When asked about how much she cares about reviews and press and all those functions of the music industry, she responds simply and openly. “I’ve definitely backed away from caring about it,” she says, “I’m just existing in this little niche bubble, but if that’s where I can make my best work, and my most honest work, I’ll keep doing it.” In fact, she already has a prospective follow-up on deck, joking that, “I’m gonna have to tour on this one before I can afford to pay for a whole new record to be made. I gotta pay off the credit card first.”
And that’s the beauty of Laura Stevenson. Despite every setback, she’s never decided to stop. Because these songs aren’t for us. They’re for her. Maybe they always were.