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Laura Stevenson polishes things up for new gem of an LP

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Laura Stevenson and her band are the kind of DIY band that were made for the age of Internet sharing. Instantly hummable indie pop hooks galore and an open mind to sharing their music with whoever wants it. They offered their first album, A Record, as a donation-based download and their last album, 2011's Sit/Resist as a free download for a week. It helps the music is also pretty terrific and fans have responded in kind, the band experiencing a growing popularity with each album, aided by word of mouth and easy access to their songs, self-produced pop gems.

But for their new album, Wheel (out now on Don Giovanni), the band brought in Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Frightened Rabbit) to produce and collaborators Rob Moose (Bon Iver) on strings and Kelly Pratt (Beirut, Arcade Fire) on horns. The results is a more polished album than Sit/Resist but it's no less a charming, wonderful album. The album's centerpiece, "Runner," is a propulsive slice of shimmering pop that explodes into a cascading chorus that seems gleefully at odds with Stevenson's refrain, "This summer hurts." "Triangle" piles some wonderfully grungy guitars on top of Stevenson's vocals and accordion, roughing up the sound just enough to keep it from being overly slick, a hard enough balance to maintain. There are still quieter moments, too, like the acoustic "The Move" and stellar album opener "Renée," but it's on "Runner" and the epic "L-DOPA" where the production shines, illuminating a band unafraid to grow its sound for the better.

The band is in the midst of a tour across the U.S. and the hit Chicago tomorrow night, Saturday May 18, visiting the Beat Kitchen with openers Field Mouse and Warren Franklin & The Founding Fathers. I spoke with lead singer Laura Stevenson and bass player Michael Campbell about how giving away their music, bringing in an outside producer for Wheel, and where they drew inspiration from.

First of all, let's talk about your last album, Sit/Resist, and your decision to offer it for free for a week. What were the results? Was it a positive experience for you

Laura Stevenson: Our first record is still available for free on a download-donation-based label. Before that I was in Bomb The Music Industry and their records were on the same label and the same type of thing. It was very much a community. We came from that and Joe from Don Giovanni [the band's current label] understood that. It was a gesture because we knew a lot of people would be downloading it anyway so it was like "Here, have better quality files and don't get in trouble for it and we're happy to share it with you." It hasn't done anything but exposed us to more people and gotten more people excited about the record and people do buy the vinyl and the CD at shows and say "I just wanted to help you guys out." It's really cool because people are very supportive.

Mike Campbell: Well, for a very specific example, that's how you first heard of us, right? We made it at the point several years ago when we were in sort of a DIY bubble; it opened doors and made it easier for people to hear the record. I feel like at that point, we thought, "Let's make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to hear the record and it will even out down the line."

Was there any worry about the money?

LS: We're not a band that's living off our digital downloads, we're not at that level. Only really huge bands can see a profit from that. It's people, it's getting human beings in the door and we want to expose as many people to it as we can because we really care about the record and want to share it. This time we did Spotify.

MC: Two years ago, Spotify wasn't a thing. So going into this record, we did a similar thing with the album release date, stressing it - April 23 - and, then, a week before the release date, we said, "Surprise you can listen to the whole thing now exclusively on Spotify!" It was a similar thing, it was a just a new format because that format didn't exist a few years ago.

So it exposed you to more people?

LS: I think so, definitely. People can link to it. We weren't so ingrained in Twitter culture when Sit/Resist came out but now we can see how many people are sharing that Spotify link and passing it along. It helped us in a different way. The Don Giovanni crowd saw they could download Sit/Resist but with Spotify, people are coming out of the wood works who would have never heard of us before. People our parents age are coming to our show because their coworkers shared the link so it's really cool.

MC: I think the free music sharing thing - at the time with Sit/Resist, it was the way we operated with our first album. And people still buy it on iTunes. We put it out on a different label but every three months a guy from the label emails and says I can't believe that many people bought it on iTunes when they could have it for free if they knew where to look. I think the whole sharing thing is unavoidable. It's going to be for free anyway, once the first person downloads it off iTunes. So i think we need to accept it and embrace it, and provide the proper quality and fidelity files.

I noticed that with the new Daft Punk album, that people were ripping the lower quality album stream and sharing that as the full album.

LS: It's sad because people are going to be listening to it so far removed from how the artist wanted you to listen to it in terms of quality.

MC: Just speaking from personal experience, it's funny to think how much money and time were spent into the minutiae of the fidelity, to make it sound the way it sounds and then someone goes and rips it at 192 kbps and it sounds like crap.

LS: It loses all of it's depth that we spent months on it creating. It becomes a one-dimensional chunk. The song scan stand on their own but we spent so much time on the detail something's lost when people listen to it at a shitty rate.

For this album, the notes say you relinquished control of the recording process and brought in producer Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Frightened Rabbit). Why did you decide to do that?

LS: Well, we were looking at producers. Even though I love Sit/Resist, I wanted more depth. I wanted the music to be more reflective of the dynamics we have as a band live. The choice that makes Sit/Resist more lo-fi was my own crazy, "This is the only way I feel comfortable recording this music." But I didn't like that flowery, over-produced sound so I was trying to shy away from that. I think that that record is really strong but I wanted Wheel to have more layers and explore all the different parts of our music and instruments.

So we were looking for producers and we loved Kevin's work and we went and visited his studio while we were on tour and we loved it - it was this barn, really romantic - and we just really liked Kevin as a person. He's so smart and a totally different brain than me, very scientific, very pragmatic while I'm very emotional and crazy. It was definitely a clash of minds but in the best way possible because he could wrangle me in the way I needed to be wrangled.

I just let him go, told him, "You do it, you know how to make everything sound the best that it can." And I wasn't going to step in and tell him "I want this guitar to be a fuzzy mess" because then it's not really gonna cut through and it's not going to be the layer it needs to be. It was definitely an experiment for me because I'm a crazy control freak and it worked out. [laughs]

Was it a tough decision, getting to that point where you felt you could relinquish that control?

LS: No, not really. It was a growing experience. I knew in order to get a record to sound the way it needed to sound, I needed to step back and trust people.

MC: It was still very collaborative. All five of us, we added Kevin to that so there were six people weighing in on arrangements. Kevin was at the helm, controlling things. He was doing stuff without telling us and when we were done, it would be like, "Oh, wow. You did that!" It was really nice to have a producer/engineer in the mix with us because it's nice to have an outside perspective, someone who's not playing an instrument or singing to be the one who is weighing in and has an objective point of view.

LS: Yeah, a certain song would be two-quartered and he understands the way scientifically a song needs to be mixed and the way the space needs to be measured out between the instruments so he would drop something out of the mix and we wouldn't miss it. All the arrangements were ready when we went in and he helped us edit and it was really cool.

Would you do this again on the next album?

LS: I think so. I definitely want to explore the songs I'm working on now. I haven't showed any to the band yet, but I have around five songs for the next record that are almost ready. I want to explore the direction those songs as a group are going. Then I'll make the decision: is it going to be big or is it going to be more acoustic? But I'd work with [Kevin] again, he's great.

So the idea for this fuller production on Wheel was there from the outset?

LS: It started evolving when I brought "Runner to practice. Mike did the bass part and the drum part came and it just became this big song and I was like, "Oh, shit! [laughs]. This is gonna have to be really good." There's a lot of poppy stuff - not like radio pop - but stuff that needed something extra. Not slickness, but I started understanding that as we were moving along with the arrangements of the songs.

It definitely feels more accessible, the move from the rawer production of Sit/Resist to this sound.

LS: Yeah, I think so. We weren't trying to make a radio single but we definitely wanted to explore the poppiness of the songs and explore it in a way that didn't seem sugary or nauseating. We just wanted to make a song you can dance to because my mother always tells me she wants to dance to my songs and she can't dance to, say, "Master of Art" because there are all these stops and starts. [laughs]

Mike, in terms of recreating these full songs in the live environment, has that been a challenge?

MC: It's the same five people it's been for the past while but we have a keyboard that Alex, who would normally just play the accordion, doubles on piano. When all the string arrangements were coming up on the record, we didn't think about it right away because we were in the head space of recording and just making the best recorded version of the songs. But as we were waiting for the album to come out, we realized, "Oh, we have to play some of these songs live! How are we going to do that?"

Rob [Moose], who plays strings on the record, is in Bon Iver so we can't afford to bring him on tour so we got Alex to play the string arrangements on the piano and Peter [on guitar] is doing a lot of cool stuff with his loop pedal. At the end of "L-DOPA," where on the recorded version all the strings cascade over each other, Peter came up with a cool, loud loop guitar pedal noise that translates really well. It's been nice to come close to the arrangements that are on the record but in a fresh, live way.

You also collaborated with Kelly Pratt [Beirut, Arcade Fire] on brass. What inspired you to reach out to these specific people? Was it admiration or something very specific?

MC: Well, with Kelly, I reached out to a musician friend of mine in Brooklyn and is in several different projects. And I asked him for suggestions of ringer brass people. And Kelly was in a band in Brooklyn with a lot of other auxiliary players called Team B. And I reached out to him without realizing what bands he was in, I just sent him an email. And then I realized he was in these other bands and we happened to have played a show with Beirut in Amsterdam. So in my follow-up email, I mentioned, "Oh, we played with you at the Paradiso!" It was a solidifying way of saying, "We're sort of musically connected! Do you want to work together?" He was great. He did all his stuff remotely; Laura wrote the horn lines and he recorded them in his studio in Los Angeles.

Rob came to the studio when we were recording and tracked all of his stuff with us and it was great to watch him work. He's a real pro.

LS: With Rob, it was the same thing. Our violin player couldn't do it because of some personal reasons. I asked Kevin what we should do and he had worked with Owen Pallett [Arcade Fire] on the last Titus Andronicus record, I should email him. He couldn't do it but he recommend Rob so I emailed him and he did it. It was just two kismet connections to end up with people from two bands we are so influenced by and just big fans of.

So as you moved to this fuller sound, were there any other bands you were looking to for inspiration or to hone in on for sounds?

LS: I think when we started picking things up and bringing in uglier rock and roll moments, mixing it with prettier folk moments, I was definitely taking a nod from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Like on "Renee" and "Triangle" as well as "Telluride," that was definitely Neil Young.

MC: That sounds about right.

LS: I love beautifully, carefully arranged music with a classical tinge folk music but I also love dirty, looser rock and roll. And this got a lot looser. We played all the tracks live in the studio with bass, two guitars and drums and then we tracked vocals. It's all our natural energy as a band.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Marcus Gilmer published on May 17, 2013 9:00 AM.

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