Laura Stevenson Looks Back on 10 Years of Wheel

The New York singer/songwriter sat down with Paste to talk about her seminal album and her 11-date anniversary tour next month.

Music Features Laura Stevenson
Laura Stevenson Looks Back on 10 Years of Wheel

For 15 years, few musicians have made more of a tactile imprint on the landscape of indie rock than Laura Stevenson. Before the Long Island native made enduring, personal records like Cocksure and The Big Freeze, she was a featured member in Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock’s ska punk outfit. After releasing her debut A Record and its follow-up Sit Resist, Stevenson took her greatest turn in 2013 with Wheel. Her third LP was a baker’s dozen songs that chronicled her own mental health through a language of existentialism and impenetrable metaphors.

Stevenson’s command of language is a big part of why, 15 years later, her work still hits on all cylinders. Lines like “You’ll be a home for ungrateful drones / Who will churn your bones to butter” on “Sink, Swim” and “The telescopic pull of what you know’s a lie / It’s broken down a hundred times / The parts collapse, in caving they’re inside the atmosphere” on “Runner” place her firmly in the zeitgeist of American storytellers who blur the lines between country, folk and indie. By the time Wheel arrived, Stevenson had all but abandoned her ska and punk roots. Rosenstock would produce Cocksure and they’d tour together off-and-on for years, covering Neil Young tunes to the masses.

Over the last five years, so many musicians who found their footing between 2008 and 2013 have begun filling up their time machines and delivering fresh, contemporary renditions of the songs that made them household names to the folks who’ve stuck around long enough to see the metamorphoses. It’s a gift to grow up with artists, it’s an even greater prize to watch them be unafraid of digging up their old tracks for the sake of putting them back in the spotlight, if only for a few nights.

In turn, starting in April, Stevenson will join the company of her peers and embark on an 11-date tour. She’ll celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Wheel with an orchestral assemblage and a newfound perspective on the tracks that have come to be some of her most treasured work. Last week, she sat down with Paste to recollect on how Wheel continues to live on in her songwriting, career and life at home.

Paste Magazine: It’s been a really pivotal time for records that are now being celebrated and 10-year anniversary tours have really been hitting their strides recently. Is Wheel something that you’ve wanted to revisit like this for a while?

Laura Stevenson: No, definitely not. This is one of the records that I don’t really go back and listen to. I think I had a tormented time making the record. Not writing the songs! The songs were all written in various states of depression, so that’s really reflected in the writing. But, I also really loved writing those songs. I love writing any songs that I write, it’s a beautiful, cathartic thing for me. Each record, the creation of the songs is always a beautiful thing. And I like to revisit that. But the recording process, I really struggled with it, so I put it away. And then, everybody was like, “Oh, you’re gonna get a Pitchfork review and this is gonna be so cool.” So I was like, “Oh, okay.” Then my hopes got really high that things were going to get easier for me, like I was gonna get a little bump and that was going to be helpful. Then that didn’t happen and it was the same slog, which is fine now, in retrospect. But when it came out, I got super disappointed afterwards and then I just tucked that record away. I mean, I still played the songs, but I never really listened to it.

Paste: So what made you decide to tour this record and do a big, orchestral version of it?

Stevenson: We did the 10-year [tour] for Sit Resist and that came out during COVID. That ended up just being me playing in front of a camera and my in-laws had to come over and watch my baby. It was a whole thing in my house. So, I wanted to have that experience of revisiting a record and doing it with band members and, maybe, even revamping things that I didn’t like. I wanted to reclaim [Wheel] and, in doing all of these practices and doing all of the arrangements for these shows, I’ve been able to reinterpret the songs the way that I would now. Not saying that I wasn’t true to the core parts of the song, but I got rid of a lot of the extra shit that I kept piling on there that I thought was gonna make the record better and better and better if I put more shit on there. And, I realized that’s not the approach.

So, it’s been really nice to reclaim this record. I feel like doing these shows is going to do that. Even just talking about it with the players and talking about what I want to do and being able to take it back, now I can listen to these songs again. I can listen to the recordings again and be like, “Okay, this is actually pretty good.” Like, I hated some of those songs, just because I really had such a bad time recording them. The song “Sink, Swim,” which is the Vampire Weekend-y song, that’s what I was going for when I was writing. I was like, “I kind of want to write a Vampire Weekend song.” That song, I never really wanted to play. Now, we had practice on Tuesday and it was like, “Oh, shit, this was really good.” I really love these songs again, which is a gift, I think.

Paste: Retrospect is, sometimes, one of the best gifts that keep on giving, because you can look back and know that there’s such a distance since it first came out. There’s a bit more wisdom to it.

Stevenson: I can’t believe how old I was when I made that record. I feel like I was a baby. I was talking about it the other day with Mike [Campbell] and I was like, “Yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing.” Mike was like, “You were 29.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, no, that’s a grownup.” I’ve just lived so much life since then, and I learned so much about myself and about music and about playing with people and making records. The wisdom has increased exponentially since then.

Paste: Is there a bit of freedom knowing that your mission every night on this tour is that you’re going to give all of your attention to these 13 songs that are on Wheel? How does preparing for an anniversary show differ from when you were touring for [Laura Stevenson] a few years ago?

Stevenson: It’s a cool way to structure a show, and I’ve never done it this way. The Sit Resist show was just Sit Resist and that was the end. It was for nobody. It was for people, but it was done by myself. I’m excited because I went to one record anniversary show: The Weakerthans. They did all of their albums, but I don’t even remember how that show was structured. But Shawn [Alpay], the cello player, was like, “Well, here’s how David Bazan did it. He broke it up halfway and then he did a bunch of newer shit in the middle and then he played the rest of the record.” It’s, really, a fascinating way to structure a show.

Shawn was preparing me for the possibility that, once [Wheel] is over, people might leave, and I’m like, “Oh, shit,” because we’re gonna play some more songs. So, it’s been an interesting way to think about structuring a show, because I always just tried to play songs that I think people want to hear. There is that question and anxiety about “Am I playing enough from this record? Am I playing enough from that record? Are people going to be happy? Is the vibe not shifting enough?” when you can choose from any record of yours and you can make your setlist whatever. Long way around the bend, yes, I do feel that is freeing, because I can just be like, “Let’s focus on these.”

Paste: Wheel was the first record of yours that you released as just just yourself, no Cans. But I also know that musicians have historically released solo albums with their backing bands still playing on them, like Neil Young and Springsteen. Was Wheel a true solo record for you?

Stevenson: The records had always been kind of the same, where I was just telling whoever was going to play on the record what to do. It was exactly the same type of process. But, really, the band name change was just because I had gotten some advice that that was why people didn’t care about my music, that it sounded silly or we sounded like a ska band. Everybody’s gonna associate me with ska, because I was in a ska band. But, I was trying to be taken more seriously. The dropping of the name, I was trying a new thing. It didn’t work.

Paste: Can you walk me through how you transitioned from A Record to Wheel? Because the former was pretty stripped down in comparison, and Wheel was your very first elaborate arrangement record.

Stevenson: In the beginning, it was just Mike and Alex [Billig] who were the people who would always say “yes” when I was playing a show. Alex played accordion and keyboards. I think he played some keys on Wheel. He was shifting from accordion to keyboard, and that was what he did through Cocksure. And then, he got a job and started a family. That’s the thing, we were all living in Brooklyn, so people were in and out of the band, because they needed to work jobs and live their lives. It was always a rotating cast.

But, once we started making Wheel, I had a very clear idea of who was actually going to be playing on the record. We had some auxiliary musicians, Dave Garwacke on drums, Alex Billig on accordion, Peter Naddeo on guitar. It was always a rotating cast, but I was used to playing by that point, because I had played all of the songs from Sit Resist. We were touring for a while and I was used to playing with a full band and touring with people, so when I had the songs in mind, I was like, “Okay, this is gonna be a full band song.” There’s only, like, two songs on there that aren’t a full band, maybe three if you count “The Hole.” I was just becoming more excited and used to playing with people that would say yes to me.

Paste: When you made Wheel did it feel like the first definitive record you’d made?

Stevenson: No, I don’t think so. Sit Resist felt like the first real record that I made, because I did it in a real studio. I would say that one, because the first one, A Record, was made with Mike’s friend from high school in his loft and we would do two hours a day, me and him. It was a real hodgepodge.

Paste: I’ve noticed, on social media, spheres of journalists having this moment where they want more people to write about records after they’ve been out a year or more. I kind of like that, and it’s an interesting moment that we’re in right now for this anniversary tour, because you’ve gotten married and you’ve had a daughter since [Wheel] came out. Life looks a lot different now. What is it like to look back on those songs with the perspective of the world and humanity that you have now?

Stevenson: It’s funny, because I was living this relatively carefree existence when I was making [Wheel], even though I was plagued by intense, extreme depressions that would crop up whenever they decided to. I don’t know, I’m much more even and happier, even though life has become very, very complicated. And it’s not always in a beautiful way. I do have all these beautiful things now that I didn’t have then, now that I’m married. Mike and I have been together for 15 years, so we were just as together then as we are now. We just have a piece of paper. Now we have a house and we have a daughter and a dog and things are hard. The day-to-day is really hard, but I do feel a lot more hopeful now, even though the world completely melted. So I don’t know why, but I do.

Paste: When you’re going to sing these songs every night, have the meanings of them changed, now that you see everything differently and you see these tracks differently?

Stevenson: I think that the worry is always going to be there. I think the worry is, maybe, less ambiguous now. It’s more concrete. I think I had this existential dread at the time that I made that record and I couldn’t attach any of it to anything concrete, which, I think, was even more overwhelming. Now, I’m like, “Wow, okay. Yeah. The world is just as fucked. I know why. I have a better idea.”

Paste: My therapist has echoed similar sentiments. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, your 20s suck, but your 30s will be great, because you’ll know why they sucked.”

Stevenson: [Laughs] That’s a really funny way to put it. I love that.

Paste: I’m curious how Wheel helped you later write Cocksure and The Big Freeze. It really felt like your songwriting turned into this really lovely, fully realized organism and I want to hear your perspective on that transition.

Stevenson: I was pulling from a lot of different sources of inspiration and crafting those songs after what I was going for. I didn’t really have my sound yet, and I don’t think I ever will, because I’m always trying to find what the truest expression of what I want to say would be and how, sonically, that would wrap around what I’m trying to say. I think I was just trying to figure out who I was as a songwriter. I was going through my Gram Parsons phase, and you can hear that. You can hear Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, so many things that I really loved in my early-20s that I was trying to pull from.

Not that I was writing Wheel to be reviewed and revered, but its reception bummed me out so much that, when I wrote Cocksure, I was just like, “Fuck it, I just want to write a record of rippers.” On The Big Freeze, I circled back around to how I was writing in the first place, which was “work off of instinct.” It was a return to form for me. Even in the production, the way it was created was a complete return to how A Record was made, because it was just me and the guy Joe [Rogers], who engineered Cocksure. I was just like, “You’re my buddy now” and he was like, “I’ll make your record,” and we just made it in my mom’s house.

It’s just an evolution of craft, and I’m getting better at it. I was just watching this thing with M. Night Shyamalan and Norm Macdonald the other day. Norm’s interview with M. Night Shyamalan was awesome, because I’m a true M. Night head. I’ll watch anything he makes. But, he was talking about how, in the beginning, it’s really true that you’re writing from this instinctual place and you’re not informed by anything. And then, you hone your craft and you need to figure out a way to not lose that instinct. I’m trying to just do what my brain wants to do and not what I think people want my brain to do.

Listen to our Laura Stevenson Daytrotter sessions from 2011 and 2014 below.

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