After over 10 years in the music industry, Long Island-born indie singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson debuted on the Billboard charts this March at No. 11 for her alternative album The Big Freeze. With the milestone attained, she ditched fast-paced Brooklyn for new-yet-familiar, songbird-morning Saugerties.
Stevenson is slated to perform at the Reformed Church in Saugerties on Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m., heading up a slate of musical acts around the village for Shout Out Saugerties’ “Make Music Saugerties” event. With an album in the works, a tour plotted through the United Kingdom and Germany later in October, a second tour-leg cutting through 10 states and a baby due with husband and bassist Mike Campbell in the spring, Stevenson had plenty to talk about in a recent interview.
Saugerties Times: Why did you move to Saugerties from Long Island four years ago? Does it meet your expectations?
Laura Stevenson: We were looking to buy a house, looking to live in a town that was a little bigger than Rosendale, and we had been to Saugerties a bunch of times with my husband’s parents. They always wanted to come here, because of the antique stores and everything. We loved it more and more every time we came here, and when we were looking at houses, every house that I liked was in Saugerties. We spent more time here, we found a little house right near the waterfall, and it was a perfect little spot.
I don’t foresee myself moving back to Long Island. We just sold my childhood home, so I’m off the island. My husband is on Long Island too. Every time we go down there, it’s just ugh. It reinforces why I like it up here, I can handle moving around in the world here. It’s more comfortable and beautiful.
How does the music scene here compare to other places that you’ve lived?
Obviously it’s more insular than, like, Brooklyn. In Brooklyn there’s so much going on and there are so many different musical communities and people don’t know about each other. Here, people seem to know everybody else. The people who I have met are all friends. Everybody knows my drummer, and it’s just cool. Everybody knows everybody. I’m meeting a lot of new and exciting people all the time through friends I’ve accumulated.
How did you get into music? When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?
I started playing the piano when I was four, just playing and sitting there and playing things by ear. My mom put me in lessons, I was in all the choirs in middle school and high school, I was always singing in all the singing and a capella groups. It’s cool now, because of Glee and Pitch Perfect, but when I was in high school it was not cool. I was always immersed in music one way or another, and I was always writing songs. I was 18 and that was it.
Who are your musical influences?
Leonard Cohen, lyrically and melodically. Just so beautiful. Elliot Smith, I think is similar in music, and his lyrics are equally important. A testament to someone that is a strong writer is when you can’t tell if you like the lyrics or the melody better. When I was little I grew up on the Beatles, like most kids. Paul McCartney’s songs were my favorite, although when I was really little I liked the Ringo ones.
Tell me about your creative process for your most recent album, The Big Freeze.
That record took … it didn’t take a while to write but there were a couple of years between the previous record and The Big Freeze. They were a collection of songs that I felt were “best of” in that period in my life — these are the songs that I definitely want to be on the record. I didn’t want to have it arranged with the band before going in to record, sometimes when I do that the songs become what they’re going to become before you record. I left them as little shells, a little skeleton, and I put stuff on top of that. They could become whatever they became sonically without being weighed down by too much arrangement before coming in.
You mentioned to a Vice reporter in May that you had “given up on being cool — what does “cool” mean to you and why did you abandon it?
I just felt like, I don’t know, I always felt like I was on the outside of what was cool. I was nerdy in high school so I think that just carried through. I never felt like I fit in with the bands I wanted to roll with when I was first coming up, and that was so important to me, getting a good pitch for review because that was cool. Those things were important to me, but I realized that it was taking away from my ability to write genuinely. If I’m writing something to be cool, it’s not real. I gave up on it and I embraced that I will never be cool. I feel like that’s finally cool.
Do you have any advice for burgeoning musicians?
Just keep working on making the thing that’s your truest expression of your own voice, you know what I mean? It’s a hard thing to find when you’re young you’re informed so much by influences, but just keep pushing toward the real, honest expression. Don’t do something because you think someone is going to like it, do it because you like it. I think you just have to like the thing you’re making — if you like it, it’s probably good.
You’ve described yourself primarily as a songwriter, what inspires your lyrics? What is your process for composing lyrics?
A lot of times, it’s just like. It depends. It’s one of two ways — either it’s just kind of birdshot, crazy brain-to-pen without standing in the way of myself writing, free association. I also have pages of just this mess, and I wrangle that. I go back to it if I have a melody or a chord structure that I like, I pull out that page and go, “What works here.” Other times, and this is really embarrassing and I need to be alone, my husband can’t even be home, but I just kind of make vowel sounds. Whatever vowel sounds sound good with the melodies I’m writing, and I try to make it mean something and turn it into a story. That’s a really fun way to work, but it’s also embarrassing.
How did you connect with Shout Out Saugerties organizers? What do you think they bring to the local scene here?
Isabel [Sofer, one of the core organizers of Shout Out Saugerties] reached out to my booking agent and my booking agent is new. She had just picked us up right when The Big Freeze came out. I met her once, she didn’t know anything about my life. She quit being a booking agent very quickly, but she had just received the email and was like, “Do you want to do something in upstate New York? That’s where you live.” And I asked where and she said Saugerties — we live in Saugerties. We met up with Isabella, went to the church and it was beautiful.
What was it like to make the Billboard 100?
I think it made my mom impressed, which is what I’ve always wanted to do because it’s really hard to do that these days in music. You can be like, “I got a review from Paste!” and she’d be like, ‘What’s Paste?” I told her about this and she was like “oh wow!” it’s hard to explain in this day and age that people come to see me play if you’re not Taylor Swift, if you’re in the middle.
Any upcoming projects planned?
I’m going to have a baby, so that’s a project. Working on a new record, so hopefully that will be out after the baby is born but not too far after the baby is born because I want to plan the next thing. We’re just figuring it out. We’ll probably do shorter tours.
Make Music Saugerties
Inquiring Minds, 200 Main St.
(entrance on Partition Street)
Grit Gang 1-1:45
Sal Cataldi and Spaghetti Eastern 2-2:45
89A Partition Street (courtyard)
Sloka Iyengar 1:30-2:15
Roses and Rust 2:30-3:15
Rosie’s Vintage, 114 Partition St.
Paul Clarke 2-2:45
KAT Sounds Project 3-3:45
Alleyway Ice Cream, 135 Partition St.
Roses and Rust 1-1:45
Malcolm Cecil 3-3:45
Light House (full stage), 102 Partition St.
KAT Sounds Project 1:30-2:15
Grit Gang 2:30-3:15
Celeste Graves performing Mask Woman
2:15-2:30 & 3:15-4 p.m.
(in the storefront window)
Dolce Vita, 86 Partition Street
Paul Clarke 1-1:45
Sal Cataldi and Spaghetti Eastern 3:15-4
Emerge Gallery, 228 Main St.
Malcolm Cecil 1:30-2:15
Sloka Iyengar 3-3:45
Reis Lot, 27 Market St. at Main
Finding Alice 1-1:45
Walter Dominicis 2-2:45
Hervey Sunside 3-3:45
Lost Aesthetic 4-4:45