There's something about Laura Stevenson's music that makes it impossible for me to stop listening to her songs. Last year, I played her song "Master of Art" hundreds of times in a matter of months, and this time around, on her latest record, Wheel, my drug is the first single, "Runner." It sounds like the epitome of summer—the chorus captures the same bright bitterness of "Vacation" by the Go-Go's, while Stevenson sings over and over, "This summer hurts." It's the same kind of relationship I have with summer. I love it, and I hate it.
Elsewhere on Wheel, Stevenson continues the evolution from acoustic folk songs to more explosive anthems with injections of horns and piano—new layers reveal themselves with every listen. I chatted with Stevenson while her band made the long trip from Houston to El Paso.
You used to be billed as Laura Stevenson and the Cans. I was going to ask you where the Cans went, but then I read your interview with Larry Livermore, where you pointed out one of the reasons you dropped it was because people kept making boob jokes.
That was the thing that annoyed me from the get-go, but I was like, "I'm going to try to overcome this."
Did you see Grimes's recent blog post about the things that she's no longer going to put up with as a female musician? She doesn't want to be infantilized; she's tired of reviews calling her a waif or a fairy... all these cute words. I feel like it's something that isn't talked about much in the music industry. Does it ever still feel like it's a boys' club out there?
Definitely. Especially the infantilizing thing. It's so ridiculous, because no matter what I do, my voice is called "cute." Even if I'm saying something hideous and sounding as ugly as I can, I'm still called cute. I had a party at my apartment, and this young couple said to me, "We listened to your music! It's really cute." They were guests in my home, so I couldn't be like, "Get the fuck out," they were my roommate's friends, but how shitty! Your life's work is fucking cute? Would you say that to Beethoven? Like, "Real cute sonata, Beethoven." It makes you feel small, and you shouldn't have to feel that way, especially if you're an adult human being who's making something honest.
One thing that strikes me about Wheel is that there are a couple of songs, especially "Runner," that are really summery and bright, despite the dark lyrics. Are you a fan of summer?
I'm actually an anti-fan of summer. I have a hard time during that season because I never spent the summer just carefree and on a beach somewhere. I get really depressed all year long, but in the summertime it's annoying because I don't want to be going out and having fun—I like to be tucked away and isolated. It makes me feel like I'm wasting my youthful years. Every summer is just, you know, sad.
Are your lyrics fairly autobiographical?
Everything I write is autobiographical, pretty much. I can't really get into the head of someone else and write because I don't know what goes on in their head—I just write for me.
Some artists and musicians do the exact opposite—they don't want to deal with what's in their own head.
I'm too self- centered. I've tried that; Bob Dylan is really good at that. I can't get there—I don't feel like I can be as honest as I want to be. I have enough demons I need to battle right now, so I'm using songwriting to do that. Maybe when I run out of demons I can venture.
A lot of the lyrics have similar themes of spinning, running, turning—there's constant movement that makes everything feel really unsettled. Is that where you were during the songwriting process?
I think so. You know, I'm doing this thing, but what am I really doing? Is my life going to be able to support itself? Those are the total surface questions. And then there's all the crazy What is the meaning of life? stuff. Existential, ridiculous questions that we all have. It's kind of like, if I stop moving, if I stop trying to build this thing, what's gonna happen? I can't stop.
On Wheel, you seem to break further away from traditional song structures. The crashing piano bit on "Bells & Whistles," and the way the horns start doing their own thing−it sounds more unstructured and wild than previous material, which is awesome.
Yeah, I don't like verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It makes me uncomfortable when I hear a chorus a third time. I'm like, "All right, give it a break." [Laughs] Like, Katy Perry's "Firework" is a great song, but she does six or seven choruses! But I would never trash Katy Perry, I think she's fantastic.
You're a Katy Perry fan?
I don't know! I think I am, because I love that record so much—and her movie made me cry. I think I was just emotional, but I really liked the relationship with her sister—I called my sister like, "I'm sorry I'm a terrible sister!" [Laughs] She was like, "What are you talking about?"
Have you see the Beyoncé documentary?
Yes! It's very good, but there's a way-too-long scene where she and Jay-Z are sitting on a yacht singing Coldplay's "Yellow." It's the worst moment in history caught on film. It's so uncomfortably long. Ugh, it's terrible.
You're going to make a summer play-list for us, too. I'm really excited about that. Do you know what any of the songs are yet?
The video version—not the album version—of Christina Aguilera's "Come On Over Baby." It's one of the best songs. Can I put that on there, or is that weird?
No, that's not weird! You like a lot of female pop stars.
I do! I do. I like to sing in the shower, mainly sugary pop music.
What about Taylor Swift?
I have not gotten on that boat yet, but I do like that one song where she talks on the phone in the middle of it. That song is incredible. I don't like the verses, but I think the chorus—that's just genius. It hits some frequency where I'm like, "All right, that's a good song, I want to hear it again."
I bet your tourmates love that.
Yeah, no, not so much.
1. The Gerbils, “Sunshine Soul”
Scott Spillane sounds like a little bumblebee in this song. At least I think so.
2. Hop Along, “Tibetan Popstars”
Hop Along is the best band. This song is huge and bright and epic and has so many different movements.
3. Mariah Carey, “Always Be My Baby”
One of my favorite songs of all time—just makes me happy. If I could wear cut-offs and dance to this song all year long I would.
4. Maps & Atlases, “Israeli Caves”
We were on tour with Maps the summer that this record was released and this song was stuck in my head every day.
5. Third-Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”
As a middle schooler, I spent dozens of hours of my life calling the radio station Z-100 and requesting this song. The bridge rules. The whole thing rules. "I believe in the sand beneath my toes."
6. Toots & the Maytails, “Pressure Drop”
This is the best song ever written. Period. It makes me feel better when it gets so hot that all I want to do is whine about it.
7. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Up Around the Bend”
Every summer my friends in New York have a southern barbecue and this band Creedence Clearwater Revival REVIVAL plays all the hits. They do a great rendition of this one.
8. Bomb the Music Industry!, “Can't Complain”
The whole record Vacation is perfect for summer… but this song is my favorite.
9. The Cranberries, “Dreams”
If I had a convertible this would be the only song I would listen to in the car.
10. ROAR, “Poor Grammar”
Owen Evans is a songwriter from Phoenix, which is the hottest place on Earth. His songs are upbeat but always a little doomy, which is my favorite combination.