Laura Stevenson creates a world to tackle her fears

Joel Oliphint
Laura Stevenson

When Laura Stevenson was envisioning her 2019 album,The Big Freeze, she kept thinking aboutHarold and the Purple Crayon, a children’s picture book from the 1950s in which a solitary boy on a blank page begins to create the world around him, using his crayon to draw the moon, trees, buildings and, eventually, his bedroom. 

Armed with a collection of emotionally transparent songs, Stevenson wanted to create a sparse world in which her personal tunes could live. “And I feel like we achieved it,” she said recently from the road. “It's really solitary, and lyrically, to go with it, it's the most honest and bare I've ever been. So I think it needed that kind of treatment. … At the root of it is just me and the guitar.”

While some songs get orchestral flourishes, or a full-band sound that recalls Stevenson’s earlier work with the Cans, much of The Big Freeze embraces spare arrangements, with Stevenson’s gorgeous voice up front in the mix as she confronts her darkest fears and anxieties. It’s the best she’s ever sounded, and one of the best records of 2019. 

Andy's three favorite books to read to his oldest daughter at the moment are: 1. The Sneetches and Other Stories 2. Harold and the Purple Crayon and 3. Anything but Peppa Pig how did this get so popular. Sign up for our daily newsletter

“As a writer, for so long I was veiling things pretty heavily with metaphors or skirting certain subjects or talking about them, but only vaguely alluding to them. I just was ready to tackle some shit,” she said.

Take “Dermatillomania,” named for the psychological condition she suffers from that causes a person to repeatedly pick at their skin. Stevenson documented her struggle in an essay for Talkhouse, and it also shows up on The Big Freeze track “Value Inn”: “In a Value Inn I dig at my skin/With a travel kit in the fluorescence/’Cause I’m lumbering, ’cause I want to be gone.”

“Saying anything out loud — putting a name to it and being like, ‘I have this thing’ — is scary, but it's also cathartic. It's good for you to be able to face it so that you can maybe tackle it,” she said. “There are people in my life and people that I've met through the song that inspire me, and we're inspiring each other to work on our shit.”

“Dermatillomania” also got a second life recently through a Stevenson/Adult Mom split single that features both artists covering each other’s songs; the two bands are currently touring together and will make a stop at Big Room Bar on Friday, Dec. 13. 

Like Harold in the picture book, Stevenson found herself back in her childhood bedroom while making The Big Freeze, recording in the Long Island home in which she grew up. The familiar, deadline-free environment gave the winter sessions with friend and producer Joe Rogers an intimacy that was often welcome — but not always. 

“A lot of the things that I was tackling stem from childhood, and my most formative years took place in that house, good and bad. So there was a lot of energy there, and not all positive. It was really heavy and intense. And also my mom was putting the house on the market, so I was saying goodbye to it, too. It's since been sold,” she said. “And I was closing on my own house that I bought with my partner [and bandmate] Mike [Campbell]. And so in the middle of recording that, I was like, ‘OK, I've moved on to this new place, and I don't know what life's going to be like there. This was my safe home, and now it's going to be gone.’” 

“But also,” she continued, “my mom was always trying to get me to buy the house that I grew up in from her. … But I don't want to live on Long Island, and it's crazy expensive, and it sounds like it would be horrible. And I’d be in the town I grew up in, surrounded by other people that stayed. But I was kind of being pressured to take the house on and keep it in our family. But I decided to get my own place and start my own life. So it was just a lot. … It got emotional. I had to excuse myself once. I was just like, ‘I gotta go upstairs and cry for like 20 minutes.’”

Throughout the record, Stevenson embraced the “weird and fluid” aspects of the songs, refusing to repeat a hook unless absolutely necessary. “Joe [Rogers] and I were joking that it was the least license-able record ever, because there were zero choruses,” she said. “I’m not super into repeating a chorus. I've done it a few times in my life as a songwriter, but I kinda hate it. Unless I'm saying it in a different way or it sounds completely different or I just really want to say it again, I'm done talking about it.”

Since the record came out in March, Stevenson has also released an EP of Neil Young covers with her former Bomb the Music Industry! bandmate Jeff Rosenstock, which she recorded in August while battling nausea early in her pregnancy. “I was taking, like, eight naps a day, so I just drove down to Brooklyn somehow, with a lot of Saltines in my car, and we just sang it out. It was really quick and super easy,” she said. 

These days, while playing this string of December shows, she’s preparing for the arrival of her first child in March. “Right now life still feels the same. But it may be completely different in three months,” she said. “Check back in with me then.”

Big Room Bar

7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13

1036 S. Front St., Brewery District

Laura Stevenson / Adult Mom