Becca Stevens Band
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Becca Stevens Band

Band Folk Jazz


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"True Voices by Jon Garelick"

When I first checked out Travis Sullivan's Björkestra live, it wasn't to see the singer. After all, the drawing card for the Björkestra was the Icelandic pop star's music as arranged for jazz big band. What the hell would that sound like, and would it be a watering down of an idiosyncratic singer/songwriter to familiar latter-day jazz swing? On the band's own early recordings, the vocals had seemed subordinate to the ensemble, with different singers playing the role.
But live, the Björkestra (at the Regattabar last October) turned my expectations upside down. Saxophonist Sullivan used Björk as raw material for exciting playing and writing. What's more, the singer was a knockout. Becca Stevens wasn't doing a Björk impersonation — she didn't affect the octave-leaping growls and choked-off syllables. But she sailed through Sullivan's tricky charts, maintaining a sturdy, gleaming tone at full voice over a blasting ensemble. On tough nuts like "Hyperballad," she matched technique with emotional commitment, but without hamming it up. She just opened her mouth and let the music do the work.

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In December, I caught Stevens singing a few songs at the Lily Pad (on a bill with Boston subversives the Quartet of Happiness and solo saxophonist Patrick Breiner). She was just as self-assured solo. She sang one song with a guitar, a second with a ukulele, a third with the small 10-string South American charango. She sang some of the songs from her Becca Stevens Band CD Tea Bye Sea, and here was not only that big voice and no-bullshit emotional delivery but also some impressive fretwork, as she finger-picked tricky rhythmic patterns against her vocal line and also worked in a little bent-note figure on her song "Canyon Dust" that I would have thought impossible on a ukulele.

It turns out that, at 24, Stevens — who plays gigs this weekend with her band at the Lily Pad and Providence's AS220 and is a featured performer in Adam Rich's open-mic night at Tommy Doyle's — is a seasoned pro. Brought up in a musical family in North Carolina, she had made her first record by the age of two with the family's band, the Tune Mammals. At 10, she played in a national tour of The Secret Garden with her mother. There was a stint at the North Carolina School for the Arts majoring in classical guitar and then one at the New School in New York studying jazz voice and composition. She's also become the first-call singer for the Björkestra, singing on their Koch debut, Enjoy!

Stevens has been steeped in jazz (in addition to the Björkestra, she's sung with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and pianist Frank LoCrasto, and on saxophonist Sam Sadigursky's "Words Project"). Tea Bye Sea is a singer-songwriter record emphasizing acoustic string instruments and folk-type tunes. But in the midst of it are odd instrumentations (accordion, banjo, glockenspiel), odd dissonances, disruptive syncopations. And Stevens's love-song laments are refreshingly self-aware, as when she apologizes to a beau that "all my moods/And demands/Left-over promises made to myself/From all the pain/From other men/Come down on you like frozen rain."

It's practically a job requirement of the Becca Stevens Band (Colin Killalea, Liam Robinson, Chris Tordini, and Tommy Crane on the album) to "double" on multiple instruments as well as sing, and the CD closer, "I Forgive You," is a marvel of criss-crossing vocal parts and rising narrative drama. This weekend, Stevens will be working with just Robinson and Tordini, whose main instrument is bass.

"Since the record, I realized quickly that it's impossible to get the whole band on a gig," says Stevens, "and I don't want to turn down a lot of gigs just because I can't get everyone." It's January 2, and she's sitting in her car on the street outside her sixth-floor walk-up SoHo apartment talking to me on her cell, cleaning up after a New Year's Eve move to a new place in Harlem. "I put Chris through hell, because I had him learn all these harmony parts that he wasn't singing on the record, so he's playing these syncopated bass lines and singing complex back-up harmonies at the same time. Liam does the banjo stuff and a lot of extended technique on accordion. We get a lot of the sound from the record, but in different forms."

Despite varied, jazz-influenced ensemble moves, she says there isn't a lot of technical calculation in her songwriting. "Classical guitar made a huge difference in my technique, but for some reason it didn't change my approach to writing. My mind still works the same way when I'm writing as it did when I was 12. When I pick up the instrument, I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm not thinking: this is the V chord, this is the I chord."

She cites her father, William, a respected composer himself, as a key influence, as well as her brother Bill, in whose rock band she sang as a teenager. But in the world at large, Joni Mitchell is still the female singer-songwriter touchstone. "She never stuck to one thing — she evolved through folk, through jazz, she went through every genre you can think of, and she's still timeless."

Stevens is part of a group of young singer-songwriters — many of whom she knows or has worked with, like Monika Heidemann, Julie Hardy, Rachel Price from the Boston band Lake Street Dive, and, the most famous of the crop, Kate McGarry — who are blending jazz and singer-songwriter techniques. "I'm really drawn to people who have no limits and cover a lot of ground." - The Boston Phoenix

"A Variety of Sounds, a Style of Her Making"

Published: August 2, 2008
Earlier this summer, over the course of a busy week, the singer-songwriter Becca Stevens came full circle. The week began with an outdoor performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival before a crowd of 25,000 people. She was singing songs by Bjork, the Icelandic pop polymath, in her role as lead vocalist of the Bjorkestra, an 18-piece ensemble that does precisely what its name suggests.

"In the Midst" by Becca Stevens (mp3)

Then Ms. Stevens headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for concerts with the big band of her high school alma mater, the North Carolina School of the Arts. From there she drove to Winston-Salem — her hometown, where everything began — to kick off the southern leg of her “Tea Bye Sea” tour, named after the impressively absorbing album she released herself this year. (The tour wraps up with a pair of club gigs, on Sunday in the West Village and on Thursday in Park Slope, Brooklyn.)

Ms. Stevens, 24, is still something of a best-kept secret, known mainly among her fellow musicians. But since graduating last year from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, she has established a strong identity for those who have paid attention. The songs on “Tea Bye Sea,” available on and iTunes, introduce a sound both wistful and determined, reflecting her training in classical guitar; jazz and pop singing; and the dramatic, Celtic side of Appalachian folk music.

“She’s one of the most exciting singers that I’ve heard in a long time,” said Kate McGarry, an accomplished jazz vocalist whose tastes run along similar lines. “She has a kind of urgency in her voice that’s not hype, but real. It’s a rare balance between the use of the mind and a surrender to the emotions.”

Oteil Burbridge, the bassist with the Allman Brothers, marvels at Ms. Stevens’s songwriting. “She gravitates towards these intervals in her melodies that I’m not used to hearing,” he said. “Her harmonic sense and rhythmic sense are crazy too. And the way she puts it all together has a big impact.”

Last week, finding her way back to New York after a booking in Philadelphia, Ms. Stevens played a half-hour set at Tribes Gallery, a ramshackle arts space tucked into a second-floor apartment in the East Village. As she has throughout her tour, she was sharing the bill with another singer, Amanda Baisinger. Their audience consisted of maybe two dozen people, mostly friends.

Ms. Stevens began by playing “In the Midst,” the album’s opening track and a good distillation of her style. There was delicate classical fingerpicking, and an easeful but intricate melody. There were propulsive rhythmic ideas, asymmetrical phrases in the bridge, a steady-building crescendo. And there was the articulation of interior feeling through sensory language:

All my moods, and my demands

Left over from promises made to myself

From all the pain from other men

Came down on you like frozen rain.

The next afternoon Ms. Stevens reflected on her music at the Sullivan Diner, not too far from her apartment in SoHo. “If you can think of how to categorize it, let me know,” she said, “because I always seem unprofessional when people ask me.”

Soft-spoken but self-assured, Ms. Stevens gave the impression of someone who has spent a lot of time with her own creations. On the subject of other artists exploring similar terrain, she mentioned Joanna Newsome, the harpist and singer whose elaborate story-songs have similarly eluded classification. But she was careful to distance herself from freak-folk, a term often pinned to Ms. Newsome’s output and image.

Ms. Stevens, who commutes weekly to a day care center in Greenwich, Conn., to teach the Suzuki method on guitar, has been performing for audiences since she was old enough to speak. “I was born into a musical family,” she said. “At 2, I made my first record.”

Her father, William Stevens, is a composer known for his sacred choral music. Her mother, Carolyn Dorff, is a singer trained in opera and musical theater. Throughout Ms. Stevens’s early childhood she and her older brother and sister toured regionally with the Tune Mammals, a zany children’s-music group led by their parents. (Some of its songs can be heard at

“My dad played all the instruments on the records,” Ms. Stevens said. “Growing up, he had a hammer dulcimer in the house, and a hurdy-gurdy, and all these fiddles and guitars.” She focused on singing and theater: at 10 she starred, alongside her mother, in a yearlong national tour of “The Secret Garden.”

After her parents separated, Ms. Stevens endured boarding school in New Jersey for a couple of years. She had her heart set on the North Carolina School of the Arts, where her sister had studied ballet. But she wasn’t interested in operatic singing, the only vocal program offered there. At her mother’s suggestion, she studied classical guitar.

She also began singing with Gomachi, a jazz-rock band led by her brother, Bill, a guitarist, keyboardist and composer. “After hours and hours of practicing classical pieces, I went straight into the rock band, screaming into a microphone,” she said. “I had all this muscle pain, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I wanted to go back to playing my own stuff that felt relaxed.”

After Ms. Stevens graduated, she suspended her guitar studies, working with Gomachi for a year and then moving to New York to enroll in the New School. She had worked casually as a straight-ahead jazz singer throughout her teenage years, but here she met other boundary pushers. One was the pianist Frank LoCrasto, who brought her into his band; through Mr. LoCrasto she also met the trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. (Ms. Stevens appears on albums by Mr. LoCrasto, Mr. Pelt and the saxophonist Sam Sadigursky.)

Around this time Ms. Stevens discovered the Bjorkestra, led by the pianist, saxophonist and arranger Travis Sullivan. “She hit the ground running,” Mr. Sullivan said, noting that Ms. Stevens, who began as an understudy, approaches the music with the instinct of an instrumentalist.

“With Becca,” he added, “I know that it’s not going to sound unlike Bjork, but it’s also not going to sound just like Bjork.” There’s evidence for his claim: Bjorkestra released its first album, “Enjoy” (Koch), this year.

For “Tea Bye Sea” Ms. Stevens assembled an ensemble she calls the Becca Stevens Band, with the accordionist-pianist Liam Robinson, the saxophonist-guitarist Colin Killalea, the bassist Chris Tordini and the drummer Tommy Crane. Each member also sings, bringing depth to songs like the album’s valediction and highlight, “I Forgive You.”

On the night that Ms. Stevens appeared at Tribes she missed a Bjorkestra gig — Mr. Sullivan and company enlisted her new understudy, Natalie John — and appeared unaccompanied. (She’ll play solo for her shows next week.) Along with her guitar, she played the ukulele and the charango, a South American lute. (As befits “a real affinity for stringed instruments,” she also owns banjos, an African kora and an Irish lap harp.) On a new song, “Canyon Dust,” she secured her instrument with what she playfully called the U.B.H., for “ukulele belt hammock.”

The song was anything but comical, set along the upper reaches of her vocal range in a syncopated cadence. Her fingers flickered across the strings, playing patterns not often employed on a ukulele. She was in her element, combining sounds for the sake of something to call her own.

- New York Times


Tea Bye Sea released March 2008
All the tracks on the album get radio airplay. Artist is registered with a few online sites that stream music.



Hailed by The New York Times as a “best-kept secret” with an “impressively absorbing” debut album, Becca Stevens has established herself as a singer/songwriter of enormous talent whose songs expand and blur the boundaries of folk, jazz, and pop while engaging the the listener through keen poetic observation, rich musical language, and beguiling singing. Her musical roots are in classical guitar, the folk music of her native North Carolina, and jazz, with additional influences ranging from West African rhythms to eccentric pop. Along with being band leader and composer/arranger for the Becca Stevens Band, Becca’s career takes her in many directions – from recording and touring internationally with jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti and as lead singer of Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, to writing lyrics and recording with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist Logan Richardson.

Becca began her artistic career while still in diapers, singing and performing with her family band, the Tune Mammals. In 2002 she received her high school diploma from the North Carolina School of the Arts where she studied classical guitar, and then went to The New School in New York City where she received a BFA with high honors in vocal jazz and composition. It was at The New School that Becca met the musicians who would eventually make up the Becca Stevens Band.

"…a sound both wistful and determined, reflecting her training in classical guitar; jazz and pop singing; and the dramatic, Celtic side of Appalachian folk music."
Nate Chinen, New York Times

"…a rare balance between the use of the mind and a surrender to the emotions."
Kate McGarry, jazz vocalist