On The String: The Restless Synthesis of Becca Stevens, From Family Band To 'Wonderbloom'

Jul 17, 2020

Snarky Puppy, the many-headed collective from Texas and New York, has done the near impossible, which is to become a commercially successful young jazz band that creates new mystique around modern big band music through a web of heavy composition, collaboration and discovery. Their hip-hop infused wall of sound sits between third stream jazz and jam band. And it is through a Snarky Puppy record that I first heard Becca Stevens.

The project was 2016’s Family Dinner, Vol. 2, a live recording session built around an array of vocalists and songwriters who assembled in a New Orleans studio to work up elaborate arrangements of their songs. The album opens with mystical strings, subtle hand percussion, murmuring guitar and ultimately the supple and true voice of Stevens singing the tricky but altogether lovely song “I Asked.” When I followed this alluring artist’s trail, I found that the song originally appeared on her 2015 album Perfect Animal. Its many colors and surprising harmonic ideas sent me eagerly on to 2017’s Regina, and by that time I’d signed on as a super-fan who eagerly awaited this year’s newest, the eclectic and more electronic Wonderbloom.

What I was hearing in this body of work turns out to be what happens when a North Carolina child of folk musicians with a family band studies classical music and jazz before launching a New York career in modern singer-songwriter pop. Stevens’s music is, to be sure, more involved and harmonically challenging music than we generally hear in the roots and Americana space, but it’s not unrelated. Stevens built her vision on a folk music foundation. And she is a restless, concoctive musical mind, a synthesizer and collaborator who isn’t hindered by letting her creations be cerebral, because the emotional immediacy of her voice and poetry is too intense to be overshadowed.

“I’ve never liked to settle into one thing, not out of being against it, more out of a desire for constantly being stretched and inspired,” Stevens tells The String in Episode 136. “If I make a record that sounds one way then I’m already inspired to do something that sounds different because I haven’t done it yet. So I think that habit of mixing genres - it comes from my personality and wanting to try everything.”

Stevens grew up in Winston-Salem in the 1990s. Her mother composed operas (sometimes Becca played roles) and her father was in the old-time band the North Fork Rounders. Their family band The Tune Mammals worked up witty folk rock songs around the three young children (a collection of those old recordings was released a couple years ago under the title “No Bath Today & Too Cute To Spank”). Stevens studied classical guitar and attended the NC School of the Arts in her hometown, where she got “obsessed” with jazz. That led to a vocal jazz degree from the New School in New York, which set off the antithesis effect she spoke of.

“I was really craving pop and indie rock and hip-hop and anything that broke the rules of what I was learning every day which at that point was a lot of jazz harmony and composers and history,” Stevens says. “So my interests pulled me in all these different directions and now at 35 I am a product of all that stretching.”

The relationship with Snarky Puppy and its founding bass player Michael League grew out of being in the scenes as the artists developed in the 2000s, and it would have significant repercussions. For one thing, the last two Becca Stevens albums were released by Ground Up Music, the label League founded. But even more potently, that Family Dinner experience in 2015 led to some life-changing new relationships. She befriended Jacob Collier, the young English harmony phenom who blew up on YouTube, with whom she’s recorded quite a bit. And she met folk music icon David Crosby, who built his latest group The Lighthouse Band around her, League and Canadian songwriter Michelle Willis, who was also on Family Dinner.

This episode features music from several Stevens albums and partnerships. We talk about Crosby, her particular love of the charango, how she manages the muse and the collaborative life. You can learn more about her here and pursue her Patreon page here.

Here is the new video for "True Minds," lyrics by William Shakespeare, from the album Wonderbloom.