The Singer and the Song (Part II): Becca Stevens

In this new three-part interview series, vocalist Nicky Schrire explores the intersection between the jazz and singer-songwriter genres. A jazz singer-songwriter herself, she often wonders what makes for a successful genre-blending song. And, inversely, when does an attempt at weaving song and story within the parameters of an improvised, jazz context fall short of the mark? 

For Part II of this series, Schrire chats to American vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Becca Stevens. Say the words “jazz singer-songwriter” and Becca Stevens’ name immediately springs to mind. Stevens’ use of guitar as her primary writing instrument and her dexterous ability easily places her amongst songwriter greats like Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, and her late collaborator and friend, David Crosby. However, her partnerships with jazz heavyweights like Ambrose Akinmusire and Billy Childs see her holding her own within jazz. It makes sense that her own writing combines intricate guitar grooves and counterlines with irregular time signatures and catchy but surprising melodies. Her work of late has also seen her stretch into more produced albums, collaborating with Jacob Collier and Laura Mvula but never straying too far from the acoustic sounds that accompanied her early recordings.

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Becca Stevens photographed to the side, looking out of a window. Black and white image
Becca Stevens. Photo credit: Shervin Lainez

London Jazz News: How would you define the term “jazz singer-songwriter”?

Becca Stevens: I would ask, why can’t it just be singer-songwriter? But I guess I would say it’s a person who writes songs and sings them in the jazz persuasion.

LJN: When you’re listening to a singer-songwriter, are you aware when there’s more of an inclusion of jazz language or traits you would associate with jazz?

BS: Absolutely, yes.I think it’s human nature to categorise things, whether you’re eating food and it reminds you of something else you ate. Or you’re listening to music and it reminds you of another thing you heard. But, I also believe, especially as writers, from song to song and album to album and chapter to chapter of someone’s musical career, they might go through completely different avenues that have nothing to do with this, that or the other. A person might record an album that’s more removed from jazz or closer to jazz, etc.

LJN: So with that in mind, your music was some of the first to be described as “jazz singer-songwriter.” And I think that sometimes people grappled with categorising your music, but they felt they had to categorise it, for whatever reason. How have you felt about the categorisation of your music over the years? Especially given what you just said about the fact that songwriters are going to move in a very organic way through leaning more or less toward certain styles during their musical evolution.

BS: You could put any genre specific word in that space before “singer-songwriter”, and I would tend to kind of wiggle away from it because I feel like that would be like putting a genre specific word in front of, say, an author who happened to write one book that was a thriller, but maybe their next book is a romance novel. They don’t want to be defined by that one book that they wrote because then it feels like they’re limited to that one thing for the rest of their life. And that, to me, is no fun.

It’s not that I’m passing judgement on someone, or on being connected to the word “jazz”. I’m proud of that. I’m very proud of my jazz collaborations, the fact that I went to New School and have all these colleagues in that world. Obviously outside of my life as a songwriter, I’ve done a lot of singing of music that is very obviously in the jazz world. But when it’s mixed with the word songwriter, that’s where I want more space to migrate, depending on what serves the song or serves the album or serves the concept of that time. 

LJN: Are there people who you would categorise clearly as jazz singer-songwriters? For example, if we took a British folkie like Sandy Denny: she’s never going to be described as jazz anything, right? She’s very much of the pure folk singer-songwriter genre. But are there others you think have jazz leanings that allow them to be described in this way, as jazz singer-songwriters?

BS: This doesn’t answer your jazz-specific question, but you made me think of Gillian Welch. I would be surprised if Gillian branched outside of the Nashville folk pocket that she’s in. I worship her and I sometimes think, “Oh, it must be so nice to have figured out your niche thing and to just stay steady on that for your career.” There must be something really comforting in that. But, personally, I find a lot of comfort in freedom. I think of someone like Bjork or Joni Mitchell, who you’re almost more surprised if they do the same thing twice in a row.

There are also people for whom a reverence and devotion to the jazz lineage is part of their story. As an artist, it’s coming from a love of standards and standing on the shoulders of these amazing jazz composers that came before them. People like Gregory Porter or Cecile McLorin Salvant, Kurt Elling or Tierney Sutton. People who you feel are coming from this love of the Great American Songbook and they’re reworking standards in this really incredible, arranging kind of way. And then that feeds into their songwriting and also the bands that they play with. 

LJN: I’m trying to phrase this next question in a way that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.

BS: Bring it on. I don’t care.

LJN: In the same way that Gretchen [Parlato] paved a very new landscape for a lot of contemporary jazz vocalists, I feel like you’ve done the same thing in terms of jazz vocalists who are also writing their own music, who are also songwriting. I think that the natural way of things – whenever somebody is helming a ship, moving through the jazz community and our consciousness – is that there will be a lot of people who will say, “I’m going to do what they’re doing”. It hints of mimicry but we know that imitation is a vital part of learning jazz. We absorb from others and then slough off the excess, hopefully moving closer to our own shtick. Have you been aware of a rise in jazz vocalists who are also trying their hand at songwriting?

BS: Yeah, but I would never have attributed it to me. For me to think, “Oh, I did that!” My brain doesn’t work that way. I will say I’ve noticed there are students or fans where there’s an alignment that’s happening where they might say, “I do what you do and I want to ask you questions about how you’re doing it.” I have noticed that. 

LJN: Right. And you teach a lot and I’d imagine often in a masterclass-style where a singer will bring a song that they’ve written and sing it for you. And you will then offer constructive criticism. When you hear an original song from a jazz vocalist and they’ve gotten it right, what is it that you feel they’ve managed to balance?

Authenticity. Because to me, that is the way you deliver something in a believable way. You’re putting your truth into it. Earlier you used the word mimicry. If you put on another hat but it doesn’t fit your head, it’s not going to look good on your head. So you’re putting on hats because you believe in them. And because you believe in them, they work with your thing in a different way than they worked with the other person’s thing. So, yeah, I think authenticity. 

Becca Stevens artistic headshot in black and white
Becca Stevens. Photo credit: Shervin Lainez

LJN: So you would buy something that someone was selling even if you thought the lyrics were nonsensical or the melody was wild and woolly. If a song was clearly an extension of the person singing or writing it, you would sit there and think, “That is wild and awesome.”

BS: Yeah. I think so. It doesn’t mean that I would necessarily like it, but that’s a whole separate conversation. 

LJN: How do you balance that when you are teaching and offering critiques?

BS: It’s easy for me because when I’m teaching, there’s this mindset that turns on that’s more about wonder than it is about taste. In the same way that if you were teaching a room of first graders and they were doing an art project, you wouldn’t go around and say, “I don’t like that.” It would be so off-base. You’re there to nurture and to receive and to respond with, “Oh, it’s so cool that you made that choice. Is there any way that I can help you finish this?” Then you’re responding to their desires and tastes and visions more than your own. If you’re implying your own taste and factoring in whether or not you like something, then you’re failing as the teacher.

LJN: And that’s why you’re a good teacher.

BS: Well, that’s nice of you. Thank you. And it’s also why I think I love teaching songwriting the most, even though people may ask, “How would you teach songwriting?” I think I love it the most because the person, the writer, is truly the pilot, and you’re just there as a sherpa or a doula.

LJN: I love that analogy. What do you think when you look back on your earlier songs as a songwriter? What do you think? We can go album by album!

BS: I’m proud of them. I can’t say that I would do it all the same today. I feel like I’m in a different chapter now. I’m a different person now than I was then, but I see who that person was and I’m proud of her and I embrace it.

LJN: What qualities of the singer-songwriters you love do you most treasure and revere?

BS: Authenticity and uniqueness. In general, I’m drawn to things that make me think, “Wow, I’ve never tasted anything like this before or I’ve never heard anything like this before. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I’m drawn to that. But it’s not just that. I respect depth, story or narrative and production and vibe. There are so many things that I like and respect. So somebody could have none of the things, but one of the things really deeply and I’d really fall in love with that. Like Bon Iver, for example. I have no idea what he’s saying or talking about, but I love his music. Same with some Radiohead songs where I have to look up the lyrics and it’s all vibe and you might not necessarily hear the words at first. Then there’s somebody else who’s all narrative and some people who are very derivative and I’m obsessed with them. That’s because the way that they’re putting on that hat does it for me. It’s hard for me to say one thing, but I do know that I have a lot of respect for people who are knocking down walls.

LJN: You’re in the middle of recording a new album. What are some of the things that you hope to achieve in your songwriting and in the music that you’re working on now?

BS: Hmm.

LJN: Sorry to ask that!

BS: No, I’m glad you did. This has been a hard one. It’s different from any other album that I’ve made. I’m just trying to be honest. That’s the answer. I’m just trying to be honest and not be afraid that I’m disappointing people with my honesty.

How do you navigate that, whether it’s being afraid of disappointing other people or being afraid of what other people will think, will they enjoy it? How do you flex that muscle and shut out that noise?

BS: This answer that I’m about to give is similar to one of the answers I give when somebody says, “How do you know when a song is finished?” It helps when you think of the big picture. It helps to have the luxury of having already put out five records under my name. Because if someone’s really going to think, “Well, this defines her,” you can tell them there’s other stuff out there if you really want to take a look. This is just one mode of expression at this very specific time where I’m being very upfront about the fact that this specific record is a means of processing and grieving and surviving. This art came from a place of, “I have to make this in order to get through this.” Whereas maybe another record was more of a way to find joy in every day.

There’s also something David Crosby said to me a bunch of times during our beautiful years together and it has become one of my most treasured songwriting mantras: serve the song. Any time you find yourself being distracted or bogged down with these criticisms that either you’re creating or you’re hearing in real life, you can always reset yourself by remembering, “It’s not about me. I’m the conduit. I’m receiving and putting it down. I’m in service to this thing that’s bigger than me.”

LJN: Well, that’s a really lovely place to end, with a quote from David. I love that.

BS: I want to add one more thing to that, which is that it’s also comforting to remind yourself that not everybody has to like everything. If you serve art beautifully, you might instead of getting a sort of murky, mediocre response from everyone, you might get a polarised, really strong positive response and a really strong negative response. And that’s good too. 

LINK: Becca Stevens’ website

The Singer and the Song (Part I): Jamie Cullum

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