Becca Stevens Offers Up Pop Grooves

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Becca Stevens features synthesizers and dance grooves on her new album, Wonderbloom.

(Photo: David Goddard)

In the July 2016 issue of DownBeat, Becca Stevens was spotlighted in the article titled “25 for the Future.” In the ensuing years, she has proven to be an artist worthy of such attention. For her latest project, the ingenious classical and jazz-trained singer-songwriter took the production reins for a synth-pop opus she calls Wonderbloom (GroundUp), co-producing and engineering the album with Grammy winner Nic Hard, who has engineered projects for Snarky Puppy and Bokanté, among others.

With its pop veneer and danceable grooves, the 35-year-old North Carolina native’s latest album might be her most accessible recording to date. Under the hood, however, it has a good deal more musical and sonic complexity and sophisticated lyric writing than is normally found in dance pop. The album’s immersive soundscapes and densely layered arrangements feature intricate synth programming and innovative use of percussion (including, at one point, the squeal of a squeezable rubber pig played by percussionist Keita Ogawa).

Although Stevens’ original plan was to make an album of songs she easily could perform live by herself, the project evolved into a grand collaboration with contributions from about 40 musicians, including longtime musical partner Jacob Collier; David Crosby, Michael League and Michelle Willis of Crosby’s Lighthouse band, of which Stevens is a charter member; keyboardist Jason Lindner and guitarist Cory Wong.

League, the bass-playing founder of Snarky Puppy, who plays on three of Wonderbloom’s 14 songs, spoke to DownBeat about his initial impressions of Stevens. “When I first started checking out her music,” he said, “she was doing this fully acoustic music that was ... well, weird, but in the most positive sense [laughs]. It was like listening to an alien. I had never thought about acoustic music that way. You could hear the Appalachian roots, but also influences from Björk and Joni Mitchell—all filtered through a very Becca filter that let you know it was her. She definitely was not
copying anyone.”

Even though the new album might sound like pop, Stevens said she had no “target audience” in mind when she wrote the songs. “Maybe it would benefit me to work that way, in a business sense,” she said by phone from her North Carolina studio. “But creatively, I feel that would get in the way of my process. It would take me away from serving the song and pull me more in the direction of
serving myself.”

She didn’t set out to write a “danceable” record. “When I was first planning the album, I had envisioned it as intimate and stripped down, song-focused with sparse instrumentation. I ended up doing the total opposite of that.”

Stevens wrote several of the songs while dealing with some heavy personal situations. “Instead of writing a bunch of sad songs, I thought, maybe I can challenge myself to come up with some accompaniment that I would want to dance to.” The results were some fairly ecstatic—and often funky—productions, with titles like “I Wish,” “Good Stuff” and “Slow Burn.”

Stevens got her hands dirty with the engineering and production, and found it “empowering,” giving big credit to her production partner Hard. “This is the first time I could say I was an engineer on the project. I love the engineering and the world of creating the music. It is a testament to Nick’s generosity as a producer and engineer. He believed in me and shared the power with me. It meant a lot to me as a woman.”

Stevens is loath to put her music in any category. Her next album will be a more classically oriented, acoustic collaboration with The Secret Trio, a group from Turkey composed of clarinet, oud and kanun (a
76-string zither).

“If you follow a genre rather than your muse,” she explained, “and then you end up with something you’re less excited about, and people don’t like it ... then you have nothing. Whereas, if you follow your muse and it takes people 100 years to wrap their brains around it, at least you’re living a happy life. You might not have any money ... but you’ll be fulfilled creatively.” DB



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