Laura Stevenson doesn’t hesitate to call herself a worrier.
As a kid she used to lose sleep thinking about her impending death and even as she nears 30, she still suffers sleepless nights wondering how long she has left on this earth, citing global warming as one of her biggest fears. It doesn’t help that the native Long Islander lives in Brooklyn, where for years climatologists have said rising water levels could lead the borough (along with the rest of New York City), to sink. But as of late, these worries have helped keep her honest, especially in her songwriting.
“Those are just some of the things I worry about, which make their way into everything, no matter what I’m writing about,” Stevenson said with a laugh, though it’s clear she’s not joking. “It could even be a children’s song.”
During the making of her latest album, Wheel, Stevenson actually tried to write a children’s song, but it ended up being too dark for the Sesame Street crowd. The song, which appears on her record as the cymbal-crashing “Sink, Swim,” is about what would happen if California really did break into two along the San Andreas Fault. In the first verse she sings, “The dirt is gonna crack and split you in two/And you’ll be half and you’ll have to find a match that fits your guts/It hurts so much, but it keeps your blood in.” Let’s just say, it only gets worse from there.
Stevenson, a former member of musical collective Bomb The Music Industry!, has always had a penchant for sadness. She told Radio.com that Appalachian music is in her blood, thanks to her grandmother who sang Southern gospel under the name Margaret McCrae. As a kid, Stevenson’s mom signed her up for classical piano lessons, which led to her obsession with a certain 19th century Polish composer. “I had a crush on Chopin,” she joked. “Because he’s so moody and beautiful.”
When she wasn’t listening to her classical crush, it was a steady diet of The Beatles, Carole King, Dolly Parton (who influenced her finger-picking guitar style) and Neil Young, one of her dad’s favorites. For three months straight, her dad would wake up and play Young’s 1978 album, Comes a Time. Young’s return to folk still holds a special place in Stevenson’s heart. “Everybody’s like, ‘What about After The Goldrush?’” she said. “No, it Comes a Time. That is the best one.”
On first listen, one probably wouldn’t describe Stevenson’s music as sad. This is mainly because she masks her solemn lyrics with less solemn sounds that mix folk, alt-country and punk. “I do it mainly to temper my own misery,” she explained.
On her song “Runner,” Stevenson sweetly throws off lines like “This summer hurts,” over a punchy mix of percussion. The song was written about the time she was “gently mugged” in Brooklyn. It also talks about her distaste for the summer, a time that has always made her feel kind of depressed. Basically, she explained, the song is a message to herself to stop wasting time because she’s going to die one day. And through this mortality chatter, she’s laughing — something she does often when she’s talking about something that makes her uncomfortable.
On Wheel, Stevenson not only confronts her fears, but a few of her demons. Her song “The Wheel” focuses on events from her past that she always thought she would rather forget. “I wanted to deal with it and all the parties involved were dead so this is a perfect time,” she said.
Other songs focus on those that are still of this world, like “Eleonora,” a sullen apology to her sister (whose real name is Katie) for always being a disappointment. “I’m not always around, but she’s always around for me when I need her,” Stevenson said. “I need to get better at that.”
Even the finger-pickin’ love song written for Stevenson’s boyfriend, titled “The Move,” has a somber tone. The first line talks of grinding teeth (something she was actually doing while writing the song) and goes on to talk about being a liar and thief only to end with the defeatist statement, “I am leaving it up to you.”
“You can’t feel pure joy,” Stevenson explained in defense of her doom and gloom attitude. “I mean, I can’t. I’m sure there’s a person out there who can, and that’s cool. But there’s always reality in the background, you know? And when you’re sad there’s always the reality of goodness in the world so you know everything’s beautiful and terrible at the same time.” Again she laughs.
Currently, Stevenson has six songs ready to go for another album, though she thinks it’s too soon to start recording. (It’s only been two months since the release of Wheel, Stevenson’s third album.) These new songs, she said, definitely take her out of her comfort zone and are even more honest. “I hope I get rid of the censorship,” she said. “I want my music to be a document of my life. I want to look back in ten years and remember this the right away.”
Stevenson is also taking another stab at writing kid’s music after being approached to record a proper children’s record. She’s written a couple, mostly about body image. None of them talk about death or anything else that might give a young child nightmares.
“We’ll let them learn about that later,” she said with a smile. “They’ve got time.”