Laura Stevenson Writes Pretty Sad Songs

Laura Stevenson - Christopher Hainey

It might be a bit too early to say this, but LAURA STEVENSON’s Cocksure is a serious contender for Album Of The Year. The Long Island native has a number of studio records to her name via The Cans and Bomb The Music Industry!, and with her latest solo effort, she’s clearly found her comfort zone as it gift wraps her narratives in a spontaneous rush of East Coast rock ‘n’ roll. It’s lush, gritty, and as honest as 2013’s Wheel, but in its own way, it’s a candid reminder that it’s perfectly fine to have feelings.

With a U.S. tour in effect, we recently chatted with Stevenson about Cocksure, what it takes to be less self-conscious, and how Jeff Rosenstock helped her record a project that’s unedited and pro Full House.

Voicing your insecurities can be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s almost essential in terms of overcoming them. Do you agree?

I do. I don’t know… I am insecure (laughs). But if I talk about it and share it with people then I can make it a real thing and overcome it. Sometimes I overdo that and I get worried that people are going to make fun of me about something so I make fun of myself first. I know that’s sometimes a little overlaid self-consciousness but on this record, I try not to be self-conscious.

Your most recent album is presented with utmost confidence, so much so that it’s called Cocksure. What changed with you personally that allowed you to be so self-assured?

I’m still a little crazy and constantly questioning what I’m doing but I just decided that I shouldn’t bring that into the songwriting or recording of this particular record. I just wanted it to be completely honest and not worry about its reception when I was making it – which is different from the last record and that one before that. When I was writing and recording my older songs, I would think about people listening to them and criticizing them, and I think that got in the way of me trying to make the best record that I can. This time I wanted to try a new approach of not giving a shit (laughs) and I really, really like this record. I’m proud of all the songs and I think they’re as honest as I’m going to get.

Is there a specific meaning behind the title Cocksure and how it relates to the stories and emotions that are on the album?

It means overconfidence to the point of arrogance, which hopefully I am never arrogant. I don’t think I’m able to be because I try to be nice (laughs). It’s always been a word that has been in my vocabulary – but when I decided that I was going to call this album “cocksure”, a lot of people were like “That’s a word I’ve never heard before…”. For me, it was a word that went around my house. When I was really little, my first recollection of knowing what the word was – and I seriously just realized this the other day – is through the movie Robin Hood: Men In Tights. It’s one of my favourite movies and in a scene, a man says, “Be headstrong and cocksure!”. Or is it the other way around?

With this record, a lot of the songs are about me calling myself out for being the way that I usually am. It’s like there’s something inside of me trying to scold my self-conscious self… does that make sense? I’m just trying to overcome this person who’s so concerned with what everyone else thinks and is always trying to please someone. I’m a serious people pleaser and I’m really trying to stop. I probably say “sorry” more than any other word in the English language and it’s an unattractive thing. It’s just wasting time because everyone is worried about themselves and they’re not worried about what I’m doing, so I’m just trying to not be that way. That’s what this record is about.

Do you remember when you realized that about yourself? Was it something that just hit you or was it more of a slow realization?

I think it was a slow realization. I was finding myself bowing down to certain people and shrinking when I should have just been assertive. For a lot of women, and not just women, you’re afraid to assert yourself and you do it timidly – like you raise your voice to make it higher. I found myself doing that and it’s really frustrating. I’m 31, I want to be the strong person that I should be and it drives me crazy that I have been trying to make room for everybody else when I should be making room for myself. It was a long string of events that led to me finally being like, “Alright, let’s not care so much”. It’s sad that some people never realize that. I’m not going to stop trying to make people feel comfortable around me, but that’s not going to be my top priority anymore.

Has music been a tool in building your own self-esteem/image?

I think so, it definitely has given me a purpose. There was a point in my life where I was purposeless; even when I was making music I wasn’t thinking about sharing it with people. I was thinking that I wasn’t going to be around much longer and I was super depressed. Once this career started it gave me something to look forward to – going on tour and making records.

You wrote some of this record via “stream of consciousness”; was it difficult learning not to censor yourself or second-guess decisions?

Yeah, but at the same time it is a really cool exercise. I don’t like melodies that are super overwrought and I like when there’s a different melody for each verse – it focuses around a theme but it still moves around. The lyrics aren’t stream of consciousness as I didn’t over-edit myself, but the melodies on a lot of the songs are. I’ve never done that before and it was definitely scary, but it was exciting and I told myself I wasn’t going to change a single note (laughs).

What made you decide to record live off the floor without a metronome? Was that related to the decision to write stream of consciousness?

Yes, but it also had a lot to do with my friend Jeff Rosenstock, who produced the record. For one of the songs, “Ticker Tape”, I thought that maybe we should have a click because it has this drone-y beat you can get lost in, but he said no. You want the music to ebb and flow as it should have a natural feel.

Our drummer is also really good, so we didn’t need to have her listening to something knocking around in her headphones to tell her how to play because she’s awesome, and this is our first record with her. We just did it all [without clicks]; we did three takes for each song and we just picked the best one that felt right. There’s a song called “Diet Of Worms”, it’s track six, and we went into the studio playing it probably twice as fast, but we just picked that take because it sounded the best. The tempo was twice as fast as we had intended it to be, but it was cool. A lot of it was spontaneous and it worked.

Was it difficult to release let alone record any of the new songs? Or does it help to know that someone may find some sort of solace in “Emily In Half” or “Life Is Long”?

That’s the thing that spurs me on as a person that creates things – I’m just looking for people to have my music affect them in a positive way. It’s always scary when you’re writing something and you realize it’s a little on the nose, but if the song comes out and it connects with one person, then I’ve done what I set out to do. Those two songs are also very near and dear to my heart and I hope that people get something from them. It makes it all worth it.

You’ve got a long history of working with Jeff Rosenstock as you’ve designed each others artwork and he helped with Wheel. What was it like working with him on Cocksure?

This is our first producer project. I’ve sung on things on his record, and he also recorded a 7-inch for us once, so I guess he was producer/engineer on that, but in terms of full length records, this was a big project. It was a big bonding experience for us because he really dove into the songs. It was also a lot of fun because he’s someone that I respect so much. We’ve been friends forever and it was such an honor to do anything with him musically. He gave the record so much energy and just being around him and his brain… he’s got a really good brain (laughs).

How did he get tagged on as a producer for the album?

His band was doing this thing where they played a show in each borough of New York City all in the same day and I played the Queens show. It was at the old Silent Barn, I forget the name of the venue now, but I was opening up for that show and he was there for an hour before he had to run to The Bronx. It was a crazy day and I knew I wasn’t going to see him for a couple months because he was going on tour and before he left he was like, “I listened to your demos, I want to produce the record”.

I was thinking about it too because we had talked about doing it somewhere up here – I live upstate now – and the band was in agreement because we all live up here and it’s kind of a pain in the ass to go to the city. In the back of my mind I was thinking that it would be cool if Jeff did the record, because it’s a rock record, so when he said that, it was decided. He was planning his wedding at the time so we needed to record in the city, but it was a very cool experience and I’m just so glad he said something!

What was it like creating the album’s closer “Tom Sawyer/You Know Where You Can Find Me” and using various instruments? Was it a group effort or a solo endeavor?

It was definitely a group effort. It was a lot of me and Jeff coming up with the strings stuff and the vocal synthesizer stuff at the end of the song – that straight up rock and roll stuff at the beginning was just the band and I. We got my friend Mark, who lives in Phoenix, to play the end cello line; we kept building different cello lines on top of each other. Jeff took my voice and put it into a MIDI keyboard so we could use that too. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but I knew that I wanted it to sound beautiful and spooky and leave you feeling uncomfortable, and I think that’s how the record ends.

Well, others have praised you for being a songwriter that takes tragedy and makes it beautiful, but what do you hope fans take away from the new record?

I try to be honest about the things that I do wrong and the things that I’ve gone through or that others have gone through around me. I try to focus on those things and focus on overcoming them. Not to be lame, but there’s always a positive note at the end of all the songs I write. They’re kind of like a Full House episode, I guess (laughs). There’s always an “it’ll be okay” type thing. I just want people to find solace in whatever they can take from it. I want them to know there’s other people out there who are experiencing this shit and it doesn’t make them weak and it doesn’t make them alone.

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