Shannon Stephens, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter, steps out on her third release with intensified energy, a clear focus and a stronger sense of self. Loaded with equal measures of joy and frustration, the album represents an evolution in sound and songcraft for an artist with deep musical roots.
Stephens’ 2009 album, The Breadwinner, was born after an 8-year break from music, spent adjusting to parenthood and tending her abundant garden. Looking back, she sees the delicately beautiful songs that filled that album as merely a stepping stone to this latest endeavor. On Pull It Together, vulnerability has been replaced with a fierce confidence born of experience. She explains the change in simple terms.
"I turned 35 and all of a sudden I didn’t have the energy to give a shit what people thought about me anymore," she says.
Stephens sings out now with a voice free of youthful self-consciousness, filled instead with conviction – and no small amount of anger at the state of the world. She has always distilled powerful emotions into her music but this time the emotional dial is cranked.
From the sweetly swaggering “What Love Looks Like” to the searing “Your Fabulous Friends,” she balances cynicism with generous quantities of warmth, humour and empathy. Never is this fine balance more apparent than on “Faces Like Ours” where Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham) weaves his voice with hers in a duet that wryly dissects the injustice of racial and economic privilege.
Stephens’ increased confidence also transformed her method of recording for this third release. Where previously she added orchestral players to fill out her songs, this time she took a blues approach to her arrangements. Drawing together a new band of accomplished musicians, she gave them the freedom to explore and create. With Jeff Fielder (Mark Lanegan, Isobel Campbell) on guitars, James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens, Pedro the Lion) on drums and Steve Moore (Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs) on keyboards, Stephens found herself discovering new facets of her own compositions.
She says, “It was total magic. The players opened up new dimensions in the music and the songs became so much more powerful.”
The result of this new approach is an album that is gritty, fluid, and more accessible than her previous work. Call it pragmatic pop: optimism balanced with the sharp-edged reality of life in 2012. And on up-tempo numbers like the grinding “Buddy Up To The Bully,” it’s a sound that has the power to fill a dance floor.
The album’s energy stems in part from changes brewing in Seattle’s music scene of late. Despite economic gloom and the city’s endless drizzle – or maybe because of them – there’s an urge to play hard in Seattle now: foot-stomping tunes that raise the spirits. If The Head & The Heart are the city’s campfire songs and Pickwick is its garage soul, then Shannon Stephens is its late-night bar blues. Pull It Together brings Stephens’ experience and confidence to this freshly burgeoning Seattle sound.
Pull It Together is treated with warm, intimate production thanks to the contributions of Grammy winning engineer Kory Kruckenberg (Rose Thomas, Damien Jurado). Kruckenberg’s light approach to mixing preserved the spontaneity and the vintage spark of the band’s 8-track recordings. The album features a collaboration with DM Stith and backing vocals by Galen Disston of Pickwick.
Shannon Stephens started her career playing with Sufjan Stevens in Marzuki and has had her music covered by Bonnie Prince Billy. It was an auspicious beginning, but only now is she starting to access her full power as a songwriter and performer. She’s sure-footed, and everything’s unfolding as it should. Pull It Together is both the proof and the delicious reward.
released May 22, 2012
Shannon Stephens – voice, acoustic & electric guitars, piano on 11
Jeff Fielder – acoustic, electric & resonator guitars, banjo
Jason Gray – bass
James McAlister – drums & percussion
Andrew Rudd – drums on 7 & 8; percussion on 3
Steve Moore – wurlitzer; piano on 1, 4, 7, 9
Jason Staczek – rhodes; organ on 6
DM Stith – piano & choir on 5
Kory Kruckenberg – organ on 10
Jay Kardong – pedal steel
Brandon Weber – trumpet
Jason Harrod – backing vocals on 3
Galen Disston – backing vocals on 9
“The birthday party choir” – chorus on 10
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