photo via PR, Michael Campbell
Laura Stevenson talks cover songs, creative streaks, constant touring and making a live record for Planned Parenthood
Laura Stevenson has been quite busy. Over the past year and a half, the punk scene songwriter fave released her excellent fourth LP, Cocksure, via Don Giovanni Records and went on several back-to-back-to-back laps touring the U.S. and abroad in support of it. She hit the festival circuit last summer, released a live album this winter, and appeared on the Don’t Stop Now covers compilation to benefit the ACLU. Somewhere along the way, she found a minute to marry her bass player, Mike Campbell.
Live At the Vera Club came out in December, with 100% of the proceeds being donated to Planned Parenthood. It captures a night at the storied club and community creative space in Groningen, situated in the North of the Netherlands. The crowd was small, Stevenson recalls in the album notes, and she couldn’t speak Dutch, so she wasn’t as chatty as usual, but the show rules — the band sounds tremendous, from the uppers like “Torch Song” and “Runner” to the slow burn of “Out With a Whimper” and “Renee,” and a delightful cover of “Alex Chilton” by The Replacements.
Stevenson and her band — Campbell, Alex Billig on accordion and keys, John Burdick on guitar, and Sammi Niss on drums – just headed out on an east coast tour that brings them to Boot and Saddle Thursday. When I caught up with Stevenson via phone from the Hudson Valley home she’s lived in for the past few years, she had just gotten back from a solo tour of Australia with the frontpersons of various down-under DIY acts: Iona Cairns of Shit Present, Lucy Wilson of The Sugarcanes and Wil Wagner of Smith Street Band. We began by discussing this photo of them cuddling a chill koala named Waffles at the Lone Pine Sanctuary in Brisbane.
The Key: Tell me about Lone Pine – I’ve seen photos there from other punk bands like PUP and HOUND. What is it exactly, and how did you find out about it?
Laura Stevenson: Smith Street Band took us there — they take bands there all the time. You get free entry if you’re in a band, or if you post about it, I guess because it is such good press for them. I actually knew about this place because of the NoFX Backstage Passport show – they did this whole Australia extra episode and they went to Lone Pine. And I was like “woah, holy shit, I gotta go there.”
It’s like a zoo, it’s sprawling – there’s a kangaroo prairie area that you can go feed them. It’s kind of awesome; there’s koalas, you can hold koalas, there’s dingos, there’s Tasmanian devils. There’s wallabies. It’s very Australian.
TK: Since Cocksure, you’ve toured a bunch, you put out a live record. How does it feel now, being a year and a half out – are you still into playing those songs from Cocksure in concert, or are you ready to move on to the next body of work?
LS: I still love playing those songs. We have a new guitar player subbing in on this tour, so we had to re-learn a lot of Cocksure songs. So that was fun, we got to change parts up and do some different things. I’m really into those songs for sure, but I have a whole new record written, and it’s ready to be recorded. I just haven’t had any time to be home.
I’m going to be home in April, pretty much, and starting then I’m going to sit down, get everything where I want it to and start thinking about the future for that. I’m ready, I’ve got new songs, and I’m gonna write more new songs for the record after that. I’ve got a lot of songs.
TK: Going in with a lot of songs, I hear, is a good thing.
LS: Yeah. I never do that! I always have the songs we’re going to do, never any more or less, and we just use them. This time, I think I’m going to throw some extra ones on there that I’ve been working on. If we use them, we use them, and if not I’ll throw them on the next one. I’ve never thrown a song out, which is weird. I guess that’s a testament to me not being able to edit myself, maybe. But I feel like if you finish a song and you put the effort into it and you think it’s good enough, then it’s pretty much up to your standards for a record.
TK: The band has been pretty much your band for a while, right? Or is it rotating?
LS: It’s rotating. Sammi is our newest drummer, ‘cause we’ve always had a different drummer. And we’ve had different guitar players. But Alex and Mike have been in the band forever, Alex does accordion and keys – he’s not coming on the west coast run, but he is coming on the east coast run and he is playing the Philly show. He just bought a house and has a lot of shit going on. So it’s rotation, and even moreso now that we’re getting older and people’s lives are getting to where the consequences are more if you’re gone for a month. It’s always shifting, but Mike on this west coast run will be the only original member of the band to be coming. Sammi has been playing for two and a half years, this new guy John is a Hudson valley guitar player, and he’s really good and a good buddy, so it’s going to be exciting to have him on board.
TK: At the time Cocksure came out, you talked about it as a document of what your band sounds like. No fuss, just a straightahead rock record. What led you to the Live At The Vera Club record; did you feel like there was still room to capture that vibe?
LS: We never released a live recording, and I feel like the shows are different from the record. Cocksure is a collection of Cocksure songs and the show is a collection of greatest hits, sort of. So it’s just fun to hear. We got the recording from Vera, we were listening to it, and we were like “oh, this is really good!” It was the end of the tour, so we were like super tight. And we just decided to release it for Planned Parenthood. We didn’t have any big ideas – it was just like “Let’s release this. People will like it if they like us, ’cause it’s all the songs people like the most, ’cause those are the ones we play live. And let’s use the profits to help a charitable foundation that we really enjoy.”
TK: How was that show in the Netherlands chosen? Did you tape everything on tour and pick the best night, did you go into the gig knowing it was going to be the one, or was it more happenstance?
LS: They just record everything at Vera. It’s really cool – they’re kind of a big community center, so they have art studios and practice spaces. It’s a huge compound, and they record all the shows they host. They were just like “we recorded it, would you like this?” And we were like “sure, whatever.” And we listened back and it was like “oh, it’s good!” It’s mixed well, you can hear everything. It fell into place, honestly. We weren’t seeking to record ourselves, they just did it and and told us after.
TK: I was not familiar with this club / venue / entity before. Are they associated with The Vera Project in Seattle?
LS: Yes. Vera in Seattle is modeled after Vera in Groningen. Someone was like “this is cool, I love this space, I love the people who work there and their ethos,” so they opened one in Seattle.
TK: The record is a Planned Parenthood benefit, and I’m totally loving that so many people in DIY and beyond are doing stuff for organizations like ACLU, The Trevor Project and Planned Parenthood post-election. What are your thoughts on this, and do you ever worry that we’ll hit a point of charity burnout with so many benefit record and gigs?
LS: Well I hope not, but I’m going to contribute as much as I can to anything that comes my way or anything I can think of. It’s honestly the only way that I feel a little bit less helpless. So hopefully we don’t reach charity burnout. I feel like every day, all these organizations are becoming more endangered or are needing a helping hand. But I’m really excited to keep doing what we can – I feel like it’s one of the only things I can do.
TK: I wanted to talk about covers! First, the one you did at Live at the Vera Club, “Alex Chilton” by The Replacements. Great song, obviously. How’d you choose that one?
LS: Well, Mike in the band is probably the biggest Replacements fan I’ve met in my whole life. It was like all right, let’s do a Replacements cover, it’s kind of for him. It sounded great, we did it at practice and ran with it. Covers are always songs I really love. Or sometimes there’s a song I love that I really want to cover and the band is like “Naaaaah.” Like “Possum Kingdom” by The Toadies, I’ve always wanted to cover that. But it’s also really dark.
TK: It’s so dark!
LS: It’s kind of an ugly song from what I can see lyrically, so I don’t think it would really fit with our vibe. But I do love that song. But yeah, sometimes the band says yes, and “Alex Chilton” was a song they said yes to.
TK: Another cover is your version of a Townes Van Zandt song that opens Don’t Stop Now: A Collection of Covers. Townes is one of those artists where I love everything I’ve heard but still need to really dig into their work. What led you to this?
LS: I found that song rather recently. I do love Townes. I think he is so effortlessly beautiful. He’s one of those voices and one of those songwriters where it just comes out of him. There’s no pretense. I could listen to him for the rest of my life and be fine. I found “Tower Song,” I don’t even know what record it was on, I was just looking for songs of his I hadn’t heard yet. And then I was like “oh shit, this is creepily on point” with the way the world was at that moment. It worked out that it kind of came into my life at the point that the comp came my way, so it made sense to me. He is one of my favorites. There’s a record called Live and Obscure that’s really good, and there’s one that’s a double disc, and the date and place is the name of the record, but it’s so so good, that’s my favorite recording of his. We have it on the iPod and we play it in the van all the time. I would definitely listen to that. It’s kind of a greatest hits, and he’s just so good that night. He’s really incredible.
TK: Field Mouse is playing this Philly show with you on Thursday; are they doing the full east coast run?
LS: They’re not doing the whole east coast run, but they will be with us for a few dates. I’m doing a thing where each tour, I’m taking as it’s coming. I got home from Europe and five days later left for Australia. I’m back home now, and five days later I’m leaving for this west coast run, we fly out to San Francisco. And then we get home have a week home and then do east coast shows. So, just so I don’t get freaked out, I look at each thing as it comes. We’re playing with Adult Mom who are also great, this lady called Soccer Mommy who’s also great. I guess we’re playing with a bunch of mom bands.
But the east coast shows are going to be really fun and a bunch of buds, and the West Coast shows we’re playing with Chris Farren and our friends Mike Park. It’s going to be friendship-filled and stress free. Which I’m very excited about, cause I’m getting a little stressed with these tours being close to one another.
TK: It seems like you’ve been touring a LOT in the past sixteen months.
LS: Yeah. When it rains it pours, though. I’m home for a while and I feel insane, and I can’t get into being home and I get stir crazy. And then I’m on tour for so long. This year has been confusing cause I got married, and then as soon as I got married, we’re on tour. It was just kind of crazy. After the spring, it’s going to get a little quieter for a hot minute. And then I can sit down and say “What do I do? Oh yeah, I write songs. Let me do that for another second and make another record.” But it’s fun and only makes me feel crazy sometimes when I really want to take a bath and I’m only in hotels and I don’t want to take a bath in a hotel so I have to wait till I get home. I’m not even really a bather, so I don’t know why that’s the deal breaker. I like the option to take a bath if I desire to.
Laura Stevenson plays Boot and Saddle on Thursday, March 23rd with Field Mouse and Shannen Moser; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.