Listening rooms are for artists whose quiet moments are as important as their crescendos.
That’s nothing against the bands that can carry the day over the cacophony of a well-lubricated audience, whose poetry is in their punch. But while the smart, polished songs of Becca Stevens might be entertaining in a noisy bar, they’re likely to shine brightest in a venue like Tin Pan, the new listening venue on Quiocassin Road in the unfashionable mid-West End.
Based in New York, Stevens has been compared to Joni Mitchell and St. Vincent, perhaps inevitable touch points for an intellectually vibrant female artist with an intimate touch and a multi-octave range. She gained a bit of visibility in her featured appearance on pianist Billy Child’s Grammy-nominated “Map to the Treasures,” an all-star tribute to 1960s singer Laura Nyro. And her assured and impassioned rendition of Nyro’s “Confessions” adds yet another classic reference point.
Such stylistic triangulation is great for marketing of the “if you like X, you’ll like her” variety, but overcomparison sells short an artist with work as individual and precisely honed as Stevens’ music.
“I grew up in a musical family,” Stevens says. “My father was a composer, my mother a classical singer. When I was young we had a family band called the Tune Mammals that played at schools and in festivals.”
She started with keyboard lessons but when her father gave her a guitar for Christmas her path changed. “It spoke to me as the piano never did,” Stevens says. She was 10.
Then she studied finger-style playing. “I would occasionally learn other people’s songs, but mostly made up my own,” she says. She studied classical guitar at the North Carolina School for the Arts in Winston-Salem, and then vocal jazz at the New School in New York, where her teachers included some of the music’s leading players, including Buster Williams, Rory Stuart and Jane Ira Bloom. The experience was liberating.
“I’m hesitant to give a black-and-white answer for how jazz affects my work,” Stevens says. “It made me feel free. Taking a solo is like telling a story. It has to be authentic. If something feels good, feels healthy, then it’s right. If it feels tense and painful, it’s wrong. It’s not something I was taught, but something I slowly uncovered from the people I was drawn to.”
The songs on her forthcoming album, "Perfect Animal,” are too precisely crafted to be called jazz but also a bit too contrapuntally layered and complex for easy mainstream categorization. Her writing process is a kind of slow-motion improvisation, with various elements — melodies, harmonies, rhythm and lyrics — coalescing over a process that may take a year or longer. “If they are not ready, if they are not in my fingers, I might share them with the 500 people who are super-fans,” she says. “But I don’t play them in a show.”
Each show is a new challenge. “I like to feel I gave as much as I could,” Stevens says. “If I don’t, I feel bummed out. You can tell if you are communicating, if people are looking into my eyes rather checking their phones.”
Songs like these by Stevens, which start in one place and may end up somewhere very different, aren’t designed for detached appreciation. Or for uncommitted performance.
“For best results,” Stevens says, “you have to open your heart. And let it rip.” S
Becca Stevens performs at the Tin Pan on Monday, March 16, with Ben Sollee at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20. tinpanrva.com.