California musician Leslie Stevens searches for the rose among the thorns
There has always been an element of darkness in Leslie Stevens’ songwriting.
In a recent phone interview, the Missouri native recalled crafting her first song at age 8. She wrote the tune on the family piano, which was positioned near a large, plate glass window that had a tendency to attract birds, which would regularly “thwack” against the pane and fall to the ground outside the house, dead. The song dealt with this phenomenon, and Stevens called it “Song of the Bird.”
Similarly shattered cosmic country tunes populate Stevens’ most recent full-length, Sinner, released earlier this year. Throughout, narrators struggle to overcome the hollowed-out feeling brought on by the ugly end of a romantic relationship (“Depression, Descent”), mourn lost childhoods and doomed pregnancies (the lilting “Teen Bride”), and, on “The Tillman Song,” which recounts the true story of late footballer-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, grapple with the horrors of an unjust war.
At the same time, Stevens’ characters persist amid these mounting losses, uncovering what she termed “the rose among the thorns.” With their vulnerabilities often rightly framed as strengths, most emerge from the rubble with head held high, frequently bettered in some way.
“It was all for the best somehow,” Stevens sings on the album-closing “The Long Goodbye,” acknowledging how even bad relationships can positively shape the people we become. “We’re free to go our own way now.”
“Even old relationships you might want to think don’t matter anymore, they matter, and they’re still there somewhere in the universe and the ether,” said Stevens, who visits Ace of Cups for a concert on Sunday, Sept. 22. “All of us have friendships or relationships where we want to be like, ‘This chapter is finished,’ but I find coming back to these chapters it’s often like, ‘Oh, OK. That really is still there and it still matters,’ so it becomes, ‘How do I make peace with that and have compassion for that?’”
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Stevens said she’s always written with her heart on her sleeve, though this tendency strengthened when she gave birth to her daughter six years ago. “I am completely in love with the world, but [having] her made it worse. I could start crying right now, I’m such a sap,” she said. “It made it even more beautiful, because I was able to see that everyone is somebody’s baby. They give you such tenderness for existence, and remind you how precious it all is.”
For Stevens, it also kept her at home in Los Angeles for a majority of the last six years, focused on the odd L.A.-area show rather than more extensive tours that would have pulled her away for long stretches, an impossibility as a single mom. According to Stevens, even the rare one-off concert proved challenging when her daughter was younger, with the then-toddler first making her mom promise she’d only sing one song and then return, and then, eventually, only a single word: “lemon” (Stevens was playing with her short-lived trio Dear Lemon Trees at the time). “So I’d be like, ‘OK, I’m going to go, I’m going to sing that one word, and then I’m coming back,” Stevens said, and laughed.
While Stevens has kept a lower national profile in recent years, she remained active in the California music scene, singing with Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, palling around with friend and fellow musician Jenny O., who appears alongside Stevens on Sinner track “Sylvie,” and guesting on records by everyone from Father John Misty to Florence and the Machine.
Though Stevens now makes her home on the West Coast, her family has deep Ohio ties. The musician’s father, Bill Stevens, is an Akron native and former college basketball point guard who was inducted into the University of Akron’s Sports Hall of Fame, and growing up Stevens said she would occasionally summer in the state.
Rather than basketball, though, Stevens was always drawn to music. Beginning in childhood, she would record cassette tapes with her cousin, laying down silly songs between commercials for their invented radio station, WDUMB. At 16, Stevens procured her first guitar from a boyfriend, teaching herself to play on the battered instrument’s four functioning strings. Through it all, she would write tirelessly, subscribing to the notion that “if you write a thousand songs, maybe two of them will be good.”
“What I do is write a song and then leave it alone, and then I come back to it and see if it resonates with me,” said Stevens, who estimates that 99 percent of the memory on her phone is taken up by songs, and the other one percent personal contacts. “I’m really not an excellent writer, but I write so much that I can find those little bits. … Songwriting is important. We need to eat three times a day, and there are more basic needs, but music is that thing that connects us, and lets us know we’re all alike. Even though you don’t need music to get through every day, I think you do need music to get through your life.”
Ace of Cups
6:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22
2619 N. High St., Old North
ALSO PLAYING: Mery Steel