Singer Becca Stevens Had To 'Pull The Trigger' On Her New Album Stevens says it was hard to let go of her quest for perfection. But after a long creative process, Perfect Animal ended up "exactly how it was meant to be."

Singer Becca Stevens Had To 'Pull The Trigger' On Her New Album

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Last year, singer Becca Stevens caught the ears of critics with a striking song she wrote for trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, called "Our Basement."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR BASEMENT")

BECCA STEVENS: (Singing) And now I'm higher than the streetlights fading on beneath the night sky's blue.

WERTHEIMER: The angular melody and dark harmonies intrigued and enchanted listeners. The song turned up on Best of 2014 lists by Pop Matters and NPR Music. Now the Becca Stevens Band is showing its own stuff with a new album, "Perfect Animal."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMPERFECT ANIMALS")

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) I want to hold every moment in my own hands. Feel, feel every breath that I take in. Love you. Love you the way that I know I can.

WERTHEIMER: Becca Stevens joins us from our New York bureau.

Welcome.

STEVENS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So, what's the "Perfect Animal?" Why that title?

STEVENS: Well, the track that you just played is called "Imperfect Animals," which is a song that I wrote about striving for perfection in art and relationships and stuff like that, even though you know that it's not something that's totally possible or necessary. And then I went with a spin on that title for the title of the record, "Perfect Animal" because to me, the album in itself was an example of that experience.

WERTHEIMER: Clarify.

STEVENS: Well, in the end, even with all of its twists and turns and blood, sweat and tears and hard work, I think it ended up being exactly how it was meant to be. So in the end, it was my perfect animal.

(SOUNDBITE OF BECCA STEVENS BAND SONG)

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) Our love is a crop that's sleeping. Walk me to the yard and we'll see what it needs. We'll dig the dirt and pull up the weeds. The truth hurts most when we keep it asleep.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the last album was maybe more folky...

STEVENS: Sure.

WERTHEIMER: ...More straightforward, with instruments and sounds that sounded like live performances, things you could get out on the stage and actually play. This album, on the other hand, all those sort of - your voice folded over itself over, as we've just heard.

STEVENS: That's a very good observation. In fact, that was the intent behind those two records. "Weightless," we intended to record all of the sounds exactly the way that we would play them live. And then for "Perfect Animal," the idea was to really take advantage of the opportunities of the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF BECCA STEVENS BAND SONG)

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) Out of love.

WERTHEIMER: You studied jazz at the New School at New York.

STEVENS: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: Your music today is a departure, though. It's not really jazz. What did you learn there that sort of made its way into your music?

STEVENS: I would say that the harmony, the study of jazz harmony, definitely had an influence on my approach to songwriting. Before I studied jazz, I had a different approach to harmony. Like, even as a kid, 11 or 12 years old, when I first started playing the guitar, I would put the guitar into weird tunings and come up with my own chords and stuff. And also, growing up with a musical family, we performed music in a band growing up called The Tune Mammals. And my dad always had really high-quality music playing in the house, like gorgeous classical music and world music, Irish folk and Appalachian, and you know, there's really lush harmony in all of that music as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILLERY")

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) No season of the soul strips clear the face of God. Safe golden frozen wind upon the frozen sod.

WERTHEIMER: Most of the songs on the album are your originals, but there are some covers of songs by Usher, Frank Ocean, Steve Winwood. Just for compare and contrast, let's listen to an original and see what you do with it. This is Steve Winwood's "Higher Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER LOVE")

STEVE WINWOOD: (Singing) Bring me a higher love. Bring me a higher love, whoa.

STEVENS: That song came on the radio when I was in Duane Reade or something, and I mean, I'd heard it a thousand times, but it was if I'd never heard before. I just - suddenly this door flung open in my mind and I could see a way into it. At the time, I was doing some work in a correctional facility with kids, doing a songwriting program. And during the breaks of the teaching, they would do this thing called get in light. Basically, they would stand in a circle and do this sort of like, stomp (clapping), clap pattern and one person would get in the middle and like - solo dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER LOVE")

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) Look inside your heart and look inside mine. Things look so bad everywhere.

STEVENS: So I started the arrangement with that stomping, clapping pattern and then would like, extract parts from the original that I thought were important parts. And then from there, let it become my own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER LOVE")

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) Bring me a higher love. Bring me a higher love, oh. Bring me a higher love.

WERTHEIMER: On the video trailer for the album, you are scribbling at one point on a Post-it that says, pull your trigger on the mixes.

STEVENS: Yeah. I took that little iPhone video. I was with my cousin Miranda. She came over to celebrate with me the very last day of sending notes to the guy who mixed the record, whose name is Matt Pence. And it was hard for me to let go of that process because it went on for so long, and then at the very end, I had to make those notes and put them on my walls as if it was like a to-do list. And so she came over and I crossed it off. And then we opened a bottle of champagne afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF BECCA STEVENS BAND SONG)

BECCA STEVENS BAND: (Singing) So may we shout and may we sing.

WERTHEIMER: Becca Stevens. Her album with the Becca Stevens Band is called "Perfect Animal." She joined us from our New York bureau.

Thank you very much.

STEVENS: Thank you so much, Linda.

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