Interview: Becca Stevens

Hailed as “New York’s best kept secret” by the New York Times, Becca Stevens creates a singular and untainted voice in contemporary music. As a prominent musician in the New York jazz scene and well beyond, Becca is an established gem among recording artists and is truly a joy to listen to. In order to host Becca Stevens’ Pittsburgh debut, the folks at Grey Area Productions convinced local venue and restaurant, James St Gastropub & Speakeasy to stay open on a Monday (with little debate from the night’s sound man) for the occasion. Becca played to a modest crowd, yet the experience was still intimate. Her ability to captivate her crowd reflects her strengths as a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and nonetheless approachable musician.

Pittsburgh was her first step outside of New York City on her Northeastern tour. Becca shared the stage with three fourths of her Becca Stevens Band, performing a mix of covers and works from her albums Weightless and Perfect Animals. She also treated the audience to some tunes from her upcoming record, which is currently in-progress.

When did you start writing your own compositions?

I remember the first time I was ever left alone with a guitar. I was around 11 or 12 years old and I immediately started making up my own stuff, as my sort of preference. My dad gave me a guitar after I had shown interest in his own guitar playing. He showed me some chords, then I found some chords, and I wrote a song.

Do you remember that first song?

I do. It was about some broken-hearted crap. I don’t even think I’d gotten my heart broken yet, but it was angsty anyway.

Just a few days ago, you finished up a European tour with Jacob Collier. What was that like?

Considering how little we had played in that setting - it was maybe our third time playing together - it was thrilling to be singing for so many people. We played a few dates in Germany and London, and then we headlined this huge festival in Germany and played in a huge hall. I was terrified, because I like things to be polished and ready to go and he was more for “Oh, everything will be fine,” because - he can do anything (laughs). We did some of his songs and some of my songs, then covers that we both enjoy.

Jacob was really personable. He and I had this sibling vibe to our relationship. We had a chance to do some writing, and that went super well. We left feeling like we want to do more of it.

Your piece, “I Asked,” was featured in Snarky Puppy's Family Dinner Vol. 2. Aside from an awesome feature, you also played on a less-than-conventional instrument - a charango. What made you decide to pick up the instrument?

I walked into The Music Inn in New York. I was in there, running my fingers across everything, and I got to the charango. It was the traditional kind that had the armadillo shell. I thought it was so awesome - the fact that it was an armadillo with hair still on the back. It sounded like a hybrid of a mandolin and a ukulele, with a harp-ish/classical guitar quality brought on by the nylon strings. I got super psyched because it’s basically the same fingerings [as a ukulele] but different registers.

It’s funny, there have been times where I have been without either my charango or my ukulele. It was in the hospital sometimes, a.k.a. David Gage’s guitar repair shop. They feel so different, and it’s strange when I switch them up.

It’s become sort of a staple of yours, I think.

Well, I love the sound of it and it always sounds good live.

What did you draw most from, in terms of influence, when you were creating Perfect Animals?

Oh, wow. My family is definitely my biggest influence; my dad is a composer, my mom is a singer, my sister is my best friend, she’s a dancer. Aside from that, when I was writing the music for Perfect Animal, I was listening to a lot of world music/West African music. Also, a lot of indie-pop, with a big, dark, more low-end bass and drum-driven sound. For about a year, I was obsessed with this Wye Oak record Civilian. I also listened to a lot of Little Dragon.

What else have you been listening to recently?

On her Spotify playlist:

Gillian Welsh - The Harrow & the Harvest

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Esperanza Spalding - Emily’s D+Evolution

“Silently Weeping to” Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

Aoife O’Donovan - In the Magic Hour

Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon

Kendrick Lamar - Anything he has out

What do you want listeners and songwriters alike to take away from you and your music?

Never sacrifice authenticity for accessibility. It’s important to balance them at times. Basically, don’t write songs that bore you because you think that’s what’s needed. You’re the one who has to play the song over and over. If it doesn’t inspire you, how are you gonna have fun? How are you gonna inspire other people if you’re not feeling inspired?

What’s next on your agenda?

I’ve been working on something recently with Taylor Eigsti & Gretchen Parlato. I’m also working on music with lyrics by David Crosby. There’s also my next record, a project called Regina, which is latin for “queen.” It starts with my band, but there’ll also be a lot of interesting collaborations on this album.

For more on Becca Stevens:

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