For a working musician, leaving the city for the country may be a universal rite of passage, but taking root in this soil and growing an authentic life here is another matter. The body and belongings make the move upstate, but the career and the mentality can linger behind, in the places where the populations are denser, younger and more invested in the feverish trading card game of scenes and selves built on pop culture identification. In fact, before the big change in the record industry early in the new millennium, the most common narrative in the mid-Hudson Valley was “stay, don’t play.” When I was growing up, you were far more likely to see a rock star passed out in a Woodstock club than performing in one.
That has changed. The death of recording revenues (due, ultimately, to a listening public that now expects to get it all for free) has obliged players at all levels to realize all revenues, including the local tuppence. This has led to the great if ambiguous enrichment of our own music scene and all the wonderful cross pollination between locals and transplants. In a phrase we might as well use to end all paragraphs for the next 24 months, Covid has changed all that again
The songwriter Laura Stevenson has called the region home for the better part of a decade now, but her career has remained focused elsewhere. It began in the basements of the Long Island punk scene, relocating soon enough to the complex milieu of Brooklyn, the fertile delta of 21st century indie music, where her voice began its move away from its pop punk moorings, a shift that culminated in the mature chamber-folk of her successful 2019 record The Big Freeze. Since moving to the mid-Hudson, Stevenson has maintained an aggressive international touring schedule with only a handful of local appearances to her credit.
In the last couple of years, however, Stevenson and husband/bassist Mike Campbell bought a home, got a dog and had a daughter. If all those pressures were not enough to “make it stick” here, an old-fashioned global pandemic tamped it down for good. And the career and life are one, or at least getting close to it.
Enlisting a name producer in John Agnello, Stevenson recorded her new self-titled record (out August 6) at The Building, the studio known to locals as the site of the legendary original Falcon in Marlboro. For its cover art, Stevenson commissioned a portrait by New Paltz artist (and Breakfast in Fur keyboardist/vocalist) Kaitlin Van Pelt, whom many of us consider to be the visual voice of the mid-Hudson. And for her first public performance in over a year, Stevenson will play a free, solo show on Friday, July 2 at Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park in Saugerties.
John Burdick: The Building, the portrait by KVP, the Saugerties show, and oh yeah the baby: all this seems to signify that perhaps you are finally really owning your mid-Hudson identity.
Laura Stevenson: Even though I’ve been up here for a long time now, it wasn’t until after releasing The Big Freeze, and my mom selling my childhood home on Long Island that I was like, “the Hudson Valley is truly my home.” I was always still so tied to where I was from. I always had that place to drive and park in the driveway and go into the backyard. My mom would be out there sculpting in her art studio in the garage, and that, to me, was home.
So, letting go of that was really difficult, finally cutting that tether to my old home and solidifying myself here. Mike and I had bought our house three years ago, but right after we bought it, I left on tour a week later and just left Mike in this strange place in a town we barely knew and it was… extremely shitty for him.
So it wasn’t until I was pregnant and kind of slowing down with the touring (barely though, I toured for a bunch of my pregnancy but stopped in the beginning of my third trimester) that I started putting my roots down a bit more, and then, you know, Covid happened and I had no other choice than to really root.
JB: I think we all rooted pretty hard this year and maybe recalibrated our lives in ways we never saw coming. Has the “universal layoff” changed the way you look at your career? Many musicians I know are talking openly about how much they learned to love not touring and how they are restructuring their approach to it now.
LS: It’s interesting because I’m going back into the world of touring as a parent of a very young child so it’s a completely different world to me. Now I’m used to being home and being super protective of this little girl so it is definitely going to be a challenge to try to let go, let people into our house to help, or to actually bring her somewhere else to have someone watch her. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would have done my first tour away from her, a tour in Norway that was scheduled for August 2020, and that would’ve been difficult, but I would have gotten it out of my system early and learned how to exist outside of my house and away from her.
I have always loved touring. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. The driving is my favorite part, which some people think is insane, but I just love waking up early, plotting my coffee stop on the GPS (ideally the first coffee is like, 40 minutes into the drive so it feels like a real reward) and then driving all day long. I could have done it literally forever, especially when Mike is with me because then I don’t have to miss him! But now that I have this permanent home, and it has this little baby of mine in it, I think I’ll actually know what it’s like to feel truly homesick for the first time.
JB: Speaking of the beautiful daughter born into quarantine, I believe your Covid year had an extra layer of complication due to nursing difficulties.
LS: I had a lot of trouble getting it started. The baby had some issues and couldn’t transfer milk properly so I was pumping eight times a day and then trying to teach her how to eat with a syringe of milk attached to a feeding tube that I medical-taped to my finger. Every time she did it right, I gave her a squirt of milk. It was arduous and I didn’t sleep more than one hour at a stretch for the first maybe two months, but I was determined to get her to latch, just because I wanted to give her antibodies, and there’s this amazing ability for babies to transfer information to their mother through their saliva and then the mother makes milk according to what the baby needs. I was obsessed with having that with Jo. It was a lot of anxiety and then the postpartum anxiety and the lack of sleep. It was an absolute perfect storm. But Donna from the New Paltz La Leche League came to my house and helped me tremendously. I just needed to be nurtured by a mom with some wisdom. It was like therapy. She was the best.
JB: The advance single and video from the new record, “State,” is striking (pun intended), dramatic, filled with a strangely intimate sense of violence. I know you are not speaking publicly of the real-life events that it documents, but tell me where these last few years have taken your songwriting and recording processes.
LS: I have really been exploring the mid-tempo and kind of sitting in a groove on this record, which is something I rarely did in the past. It was either fast or slow. The middle was not a place I was really interested in, and it takes a lot of skill and an ability to listen and to sit in that place with a band. [Drummer] Sammi [Niss] and Mike are the perfect rhythm section so now I’m learning about space, how to exist in it without overfilling it (as a rhythm guitar player). Pre-production with the two of them was awesome. We were just fine-tuning everything, and just going over every nuance and every moment, meanwhile I was legitimately puking for much of it because I caught something on my flight home from a tour in Europe and we had just a few days to tie up all the loose ends before going into the studio. It was kind of exhilarating but also lousy because I was sick and pregnant and that is no fun at all.
I also did a lot of overdubs with guitar stuff on my own after all the studio dates were over, which I had never done before. It was cool to expand on ideas and build little guitar worlds. Then I opened up all the files when we were mixing and there were a million extra tracks, and none of them were properly labeled. John Agnello was very cool and patient about that, which I absolutely did not deserve. He’s a hilarious and incredibly kind person and he created the most loving and safe and easy environment, which is what I need when I’m recording. No tension or bad vibes happened for a moment on this record which will make me (as the writer) actually want to listen to it!
Laura Stevenson performs on Friday, July 2 at Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park in Saugerties at 7:30 p.m.. Niall Connolly performs at 6:30 p.m. This show is free. For more information, visit https://www.laurastevenson.net.