Success breeds new wheels

Indie singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson rolls through Colorado

Laura Stevenson grew up in a musical environment.
Photo by Dave Garwacke

Laura Stevenson knew from an early age that she loved music — enough, in fact, to believe it probably would always be a big part of her life.

“Maybe not as a career,” Stevenson says. “But I knew I would use it as an outlet personally.”

She grew up Nassau County, N.Y., with parents who loved playing music (Neil Young and the Grateful Dead were among the favorites) at their house. And music, in a literal sense, was in the blood of the family. Stevenson’s grandfather was Harry Simeone, the composer who wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Her grandmother, Margaret McCravy, sang for Benny Goodman.

“Having the genetics that I do, like having that part of my brain be able to function well, I give that to my grandparents because they definitely just had that gift,” Stevenson says.

Those familial connections also helped Stevenson develop a realistic attitude about music as a career.

“There’s always the fear that it’s not going to work out,” she says. “You have to have that view on it because if you’re just blindly going for it without knowing that it might not work out, I think [failure] would be really crushing. I was always remembering that it’s a hard thing to make a career of.”

Difficult, yes, but singer/guitarist Stevenson has put in the work needed to develop a sustainable career. She debuted with a largely acoustic solo album, A Record, in 2010 and put together an early version of her backing band, the Cans, for touring.

Those early tours weren’t easy. For one thing, her van seemed to perpetually be on the verge of a trip to a repair shop.

“Our old van had like a drive shaft problem,” Stevenson says. “It was a really dangerous van to be driving around. So we were always really nervous it was going to break down.”

Stevenson and the Cans made it to enough gigs and A Record made enough of an impression that in fall 2010, she was signed by Don Giovanni Records. Soon she turned her attention to making her first full-band album, the 2011 release Sit Resist.

That album got far more attention from the press for Stevenson’s catchy and frequently edgy rock-pop songs. Another round of extensive touring further built a fan base big enough to enable Stevenson and the Cans to headline clubs from coast to coast.

They even have been able to afford a new van.

“We just bought a nice van and we’re making payments on it, and we’re getting more responsible,” Stevenson said. “It’s really helped us because we’re not too nervous about being able to get to the next location.”

That van isn’t the only thing that’s new for Laura Stevenson & the Cans. In April, she released her third album, Wheel, an impressive effort that should introduce Stevenson and her band to a larger audience and further establish her as one of the most promising artists on the indie rock scene.

It’s the first album that Stevenson has made with what has become a stable current lineup of the Cans — Mike Campbell (bass), Alex Billig (accordion, trumpet), Peter Naddeo (guitar) and Dave Garwacke (drums).

The familiarity Stevenson is gaining with her band allowed Wheel to become more of a collaborative project, even though Stevenson remained the songwriter.

“There’s definitely a lot more input in terms of arrangements and where the songs are going to go in general,” Stevenson said. “I’ll bring them the song. I’ll bring them the melody and the chords I play, or my guitar part and my vocal part and the lyrics and all of that. The songs are structurally ready, but sometimes they’ll be like ‘This song should be faster.’ Or this song, ‘Sink, Swim,’ has like a calypso beat, and that totally evolves at practice because it started out kind of like fast, like a cool punk song. Then we had to slow it down and put an interesting beat to it. So the songs totally evolve around the tastes and the skills of the other musicians in the band, absolutely. It’s definitely very fun to experience their take on something and then just kind of flesh that out and see where it goes.”

Stevenson also sought out a producer in Kevin McMahon who could evolve the sound of her music. Sit Resist was a decidedly lo-fi affair, but for Wheel, Stevenson wanted to raise the production value.

“I think that I wanted there to be more depth to it sonically,” she said. “I traditionally am drawn to the aesthetic of like a one-dimensional sound, kind of like a wall-of-sound thing, where it’s not like instruments are stacked in a way where you can’t see the depth. It’s more like fuzzy and blaring and trebly, and that’s what I like aesthetically. I was trying to get away from that because I wanted to experience listening to it like I experience playing it, and I hear the drums and they sit in a certain place. The bass is in a certain place, the guitars are separated in my ears. So it’s nice to have that actual sonic separation.

“It was scary for me because it sounds slicker than I’m used to hearing us recorded,” Stevenson says. “But I thought it was time to experiment with that, especially with these songs because I felt like they were really strong and needed that.”

Stevenson chose producer McMahon to bring out the detail in her music in part because she felt his talents fit the character of her music.

“The people he works with are all over the place,” she says. “Like Frightened Rabbit, who I love, love, love, like seriously, so much, and then Titus Andronicus, who I also love, they’re totally different bands. So everything is like so different, but he can capture the thing about each of those bands, that certain thing. … He had that range. That was really important, that he could capture the thing about the song. It’s not like the thing about the sound. It’s like what the song needs, and he could serve that better than anybody else I could think of.”

Stevenson is right about the eclectic nature of her music. Although her music falls under the pop umbrella, this covers a lot of territory. On Wheel, the songs run the gamut from big-boned catchy rock (“Triangle” and “Eleonora”) to pure pop (“Runner”) to dreamy orchestral pop (“Every Tense”) to spare acoustic ballads (“The Move”).

Sit Resist was multi-faceted as well, which should allow the new songs to fit well in the live shows Stevenson and the Cans will play this fall. Stevenson says the mix of old and new material will depend on what she senses the audience prefers.

“We’re going to play it by ear, but we’re prepared to play a lot of them [new songs],” she says. “We’ll see what the energy of the crowd is calling for. If they seem like they want to hear more songs from Sit Resist than Wheel, then we’ll figure that out. But we’re ready to play a lot of [Wheel], and I’m really excited about it because they’re really fun songs to play. Some of them are hyper-emotional, some of them are just really rock rippers to play. It’s going to be a well rounded set.”

Laura Stevenson opens for Tim Kasher at the Larimer Lounge on Sunday, Oct. 6. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. 2721 Larimer St., Denver, 303-291-1007.