Becca Stevens isn’t immune to terrible cellphone service. “There’s a thunderstorm,” the singer and guitarist warns, afraid our conversation will be cut short. Tornado season is well under way in the Midwest, but fortunately, she’s in Columbus, Ohio, and spared that meteorological nightmare. Still, the weather-caused disturbances on her previous call, which kept dropping, put her on edge. That call was with the dreaded DMV.
“I’m trying not to get my license revoked,” the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident explains. “The funny thing is, I don’t really know what it’s about. This random ticket showed up in the mail that was, like, two years late or something.” That kind of headache is less than ideal when you’ve got a van to drive on tour.
We move on to brighter subjects, namely the Becca Stevens Band’s just-released record, Perfect Animal. “[It’s been out for] two whole days!” she says in a woo-hoo! tone, downplaying her genuine excitement over her third album and major-label debut.
“I could only have ever imagined this. I wanted to be with a group of people who supported me and the music I wanted to make,” the native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says. “I wasn’t sure if that would ever be possible with a major label, but Universal Classics made that dream come true.”
The support shows a lot of faith in the classical- and jazz-trained Stevens’s strange brew, which can be pictured thus: St. Vincent (edgy math rock) meeting Björk (off-kilter electro-folk), Esperanza Spalding (buoyant jazz classicism), and Grace Potter (smooth noodling) in Usher’s studio. In a world of generic trend-jumping, Perfect Animal demonstrates that Stevens is not one to follow the horde.
“I will follow a recipe when I’m cooking, but I am always improving and adding this and that until it makes me feel a certain way,” she says. “It’s how I paint, too. Anytime I’m doing anything artistic, it’s the way that I work.”
Another group giving her support, and considerable musical inspiration, is her Brooklyn-based band, which includes Liam Robinson (keyboards, accordion, vocals), Chris Tordini (upright and electric bass, vocals), and Jordan Perlson (drums and percussion). Despite moving to New York in 2003 for college, Stevens admits she isn’t an entrenched Brooklyn scenester. “I’m actually a newcomer to Brooklyn,” she says. “I spent more years in Manhattan, living in Harlem and Lower Manhattan.”
Her band’s previous two records both fall neatly under the jazz distinction: Tea Bye Sea, which was self-released in 2008 after Stevens’s graduation from Manhattan’s New School, where she studied voice and composition, and 2011’s Weightless, which came out on indie Sunnyside Records. But where does Perfect Animal sit in the record store racks?
“With this record,” she giggles, “well, this one has more of a rock tendency. I don’t think I would put it in the jazz section. But I understand it will end up there because of my associations, and jazz does lend itself to the record a little. But I’d say rock, or singer-songwriter, or pop.”
Pop works, largely due to Perfect Animal‘s three soulful covers: Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna,” Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” and blue-eyed soul great Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.”
“I knew I wanted a couple of covers on the record, and I’d been listening to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange a lot,” Stevens says. “The Usher cover I chose first. I was listening to it on the radio in my car and I got goosebumps. I hadn’t heard the song in a long time — I used to listen to it a lot in middle school. It was like a doorway opens and I can see myself in a song, using my voice but telling his story. I wanted one more cover and one from a different era, something you could dance to that was anthemic and joyful. Something you could raise a beer to. I heard ‘Higher Love’ in a Walgreens and thought, ‘That’s it.’ ”
It turns out “Higher Love” was the perfect companion piece for the album’s “Imperfect Animal,” the song that inspired the record’s title.
“ ’Higher Love’ mirrors a lot of the things I was experiencing when I wrote ‘Imperfect Animal,’ being so obsessed with trying to fix problems,” she says. Among those problems were the usual romantic woes. “Then I thought maybe this isn’t the right relationship for me, and when I was arranging ‘Higher Love,’ I was thinking maybe there’s someone who mirrors how I see things. [The song has that] yearning for finding somebody else who works at your level.”
For Stevens, “Imperfect Animal” hit the nail on the head of the album, but it also represents where she’s at even when she isn’t behind the mic. “That song encompassed a lot of the thematic material of Perfect Animal and the core of what I was going through during the making of that record,” she explains. “There was this striving for perfection in art, in relationships, or whatever, but also balancing that with the understanding that sometimes things are perfect the way they are, and it’s not necessary to be so obsessive with perfection. There was a lot of this balancing of this new tendency I have of letting go and letting things be what they are.”
So is Stevens a bit of a perfectionist, a Perfect Animal in her own way? She laughs dryly: “ ’A bit’ would be a big understatement.”
Becca Stevens Band perform on April 23 at Joe’s Pub. Perfect Animal is available now via Universal Music Classics.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 17, 2015