Talking to JM Stevens

Sparta /
| 28 Apr 2024 | 04:28

Stefani M.C. Janelli interviews Americana pop/rock singer-songwriter JM Stevens, who recently released his full-length sophomore album, “Nowhere to Land.” After his recent performance at South by Southwest (SXSW), Stevens is on tour and will perform Thursday, May 2 at Krogh’s Restaurant & Brew Pub, 23 White Deer Plaza, Sparta.

Question: Your new record, “Nowhere to Land,” has more of an intimate approach with laid-back and mellower tracks. What inspired this style of vulnerability in your new collection of songs?

Answer: All of these tunes were written during the lockdown times when, at least for me, things felt like they were moving really slowly. Because there wasn’t much hanging out with folks going on, I dove pretty deep into playing acoustic guitar, trying to hit on rhythm and melodies that worked with just that. It was easier to pick up and play without having to mess with anything else. I think the loneliness, uncertainty and longing for connection that was rampant during those times crept into the songs, more in the feel and sparseness of arrangement than lyrics. I tend to look for silver linings and glimmers of hope in the stories.

Q: Your initial inspiration for music was from Delta blues, Elvis Presley, and ’70s and ’80s AM radio. How do you feel your inspirations have grown throughout the years? Do these original influences still remain at the forefront of your songwriting?

A: Well, I think those first things that we hear when young, or remember hearing at least, are always in there somewhere. It’s just so unfiltered by the world at that point and those sounds get baked in somehow. I have a flash of memory of being at a stoplight in my mom’s station wagon as a kid and hearing John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” on the radio and noticing the echo vocal and wondering why it sounded like that and thinking it was so cool. I didn’t know why I liked it but I did and still do, of course.

As for growing, yeah, I’m into a pretty broad swath of jams these days and I never know what I’ll get moved by really. I try to keep my antennas up for new sounds and such. I think it’s easy to get stuck in the past as music can have such a nostalgia to it, and I love that, but things evolve and move forward and I try to keep up and not get stuck solely in that rut as there are plenty of ruts out there to get stuck in. I think more than anything though I find inspiration in talking to people, could be at the grocery store or anywhere, maybe just a small quick convo, but some little interactions like that can really be a spark for a lyric or an idea and a good way to get out of my own head and look at things from somebody else’s perspective. Of course, I’ll never not get stoked hearing Howlin’ Wolf or Elvis.

Q: You’ve worked as a producer, engineer and session musician at your studio, EAR (East Austin Recording), for many years. How has your work as a producer for other musicians affected your music and the stories you share in your music?

A: I started geeking out on recording at a fairly young age, so it’s always been kinda one and the same for me, playing and production that is. I’ve never had any formal training, just healthy doses of good ol’ brutal trial and error over many years. I spent a lot of time early on recording my own stuff, just trying to make it sound like music that I loved and, of course, failing miserably at it. But hey, that’s how ya learn.

When I started recording other people, I had to work on upping my game, and I’m still learning. There’s nothing like that feeling of someone laying down a killer performance in the studio and it still gets me in the feels every time. Maybe I’ll think about one of those moments when I’m working on my own stuff and it’ll give me that little kick over the edge I’m missing.

One of the first real sessions I recorded was for the late great Texas country singer James Hand, and I was kinda thrown in the fire on that one. The band were some fellows from the Derailers and several other badass session players - real top-notch crew. James’s songs were so good and I’d never been involved in anything like that. They made it look so easy, which, of course, is not the case. The biggest lesson I learned from that session though, and I’ll never forget it, was from an emotional and songwriting perspective. James was several hours late one day and everyone was waiting around, impatiently at that point. He comes in and says he wants to record a new song he’d just written, says it hit him crossing the Colorado River on the way over. He starts into it just sitting there on the couch with a guitar and the first line was, “You’re my last river to cross, before I remain forever los.” That moment made me look at songwriting in a different way than I ever had before, realizing that inspiration can be anywhere if you’re just open to it.

Q: During COVID, you joined a songwriting club that required you to churn out a new song each week. How do you feel that practice developed your songwriting?

A: I’d say mostly learning to work that muscle of just letting it rip, not overthinking too much and not getting too precious. Deadlines are good for that. The nuances can always be tweaked later, but that first gut-reaction melody or lyric is usually a good one and is worthy of capturing. For me, that’s always the best stuff.

Q: Did any of those songs help craft the catchy melodies found in “Nowhere to Land”?

A; Absolutely they did, several actually. They tend to season up as they age, and some I may not have even remembered, but going back through ‘em later, I’d run across one, almost like hearing it for the first time or from somebody else’s ears, that jumped out at me and I’d then decide to flesh it out more fully.

Q: How would you describe the message in this record? What do you hope this record says?

A: That even though it may not feel like it in these crazy times, there’s still a lot of good in the world and much to look forward to. I’d hope that maybe it would give someone comfort that’s feeling alone or going through a rough spot or maybe just looking for a groove to escape into.

Q: You said “Nowhere to Land” “feels more true to me than anything I’ve done yet ... . It just feels right in my heart.” How does this album feel different than any of your previous projects?

A: For me, these songs just flowed out really naturally. I wasn’t trying to be anything or live up to anything or genre or whatever, I just did what felt right and what I was enjoying in the moment. I wasn’t worried about what other people might think or say about it, I just did it. Maybe that comes with age.

Q: You just performed at SXSW in March and now you’re on tour with a few New Jersey spots, including Krogh’s. Do you have a favorite part of playing more intimate sets?

A: For me, there tends to be a more personal connection that way. For instance, I may notice someone singing along by the third chorus to a song they’ve never heard before. That’s a beautiful thing. Also, it forces me to bring my A game as there’s absolutely nothing to hide behind. It can be terrifying at times, but that’s good for pushing forward and not getting complacent. I also feel like I learn a lot about songs playing in that environment as you can really feel the energy in the room.

Q: What are you most looking forward to for your upcoming show? What songs can we expect to hear?

A: You know, I played Krogh’s a couple years ago and I remember coming out of the show and there was a lot of snow out of nowhere that wasn’t there when I went in. We’re not used to that in Texas and I had a super sketchy drive back to where I was staying, so I’m looking forward to being there in the springtime as it’s such a beautiful part of the country. I’m also a freak about finding diners to hang out in and I know Jersey is the diner capital of the world, so if anyone that sees this comes to the show, I’d love some local lowdown.

I’ll be playing the whole new album, “Nowhere to Land,” top to bottom, and several tracks off my last album, “Invisible Lines,” along with lotsa new and unreleased tracks. Might even have something I come up with along my journey ready to unveil ... we’ll see. I always toss some choice covers into the gumbo as well.