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Ben Stevenson

Mar 31/2015
WORDS Ben Sir PHOTOGRAPHY Sean Trayner

 

Buried deep within a humdrum Edmonton commercial district is an esteemed boutique recording studio called The Audio Department. Inside, past an arcade machine and kitchen, I met Nik Kozub, partner and engineer at the studio (as well as frontman for the high-kicking electro band Shout Out Out Out Out). Sitting in the production booth, Kozub stared over his recording console and through a large bay window to the tracking floor, where Ben Stevenson was working on vocals for a new record.

“Let’s take it again,” says Stevenson, looking at the floor.

The duo had spent twelve to fourteen hours a day for a week straight trying to complete the record. They alternated between absolute focus and cracking jokes, emanating a casual professionalism afforded by two decades of friendship. Kozub hit playback, and a surprising sound emerged – a lone acoustic guitar ringing out before Stevenson’s voice settles in over it. Kozub leaned my way, “Isn’t it insane how his voice has developed?”

Stevenson abruptly stopped singing. “That was too forced. Let’s go again.”

That album was one of two records Stevenson is currently working on. The recording completed the prior evening (as of yet untitled) marked a return of sorts to his musical past. “I started picking up my guitar and immediately knew how rusty I was,” he said. Since departing Edmonton for Toronto in 2007, Stevenson has released a steady stream of Soul and R&B flavoured projects, including October’s Juno Nominated Dirty Laundry EP. And aside from 2010’s Ben Stevenson & The Wondertones record, the output has had very little to do with guitars.

Some of the most amazing moments I’ve had musically have come with this – being alone in a booth with my guitar.

“Pretty quickly, before I knew it, I had ten songs,” he explained. Acknowledging the duality of his tastes, he added, “Some of the most amazing moments I’ve had musically have come with this – being alone in a booth with my guitar.” But instrumentation isn’t the only thing that has changed as of late. Stevenson recently parted ways with his management of many years, and his future now looks a lot less certain. In recent years, Stevenson had been bouncing between Toronto, New York City, and Los Angeles, working with hot and up-and-coming producers associated with acts like Drake, Eminem and Jay-Z. Major labels were interested, deals were offered. He met with some of the music industry’s biggest names. It should have been perfect, should have been the conclusion he was hoping for. Many have pursued this path, but when Stevenson finally faced it, it wasn’t right. “It took me a while to unravel and face it,” he says plainly. “But I put myself in that situation. I lost my way.”

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So what changed when seemingly the only thing needed to cement his ascent was a signature on a dotted line? “You always know when something is wrong. Even when you don’t know, you know,” he assessed. Whether it was not vibing with a producer, or working on songs he wasn’t feeling, ultimately he explained, “I wasn’t making the music I want to make.” The issues with management became paramount following some positive sessions with a producer out of Houston named Happy Perez. He felt a spark with Perez that had been lacking with other collaborations, while his management understandably wanted to pursue the sure thing, with prospective labels and deals at their fingertips.

Stevenson assumes equal blame for parting ways with his former management, and he’s ruthless in his self-criticism. “I wasn’t exuding confidence in those meetings,” he said, a small example of a larger problem that was growing increasingly difficult to endure. “I put myself in that situation, being concerned with success, money or a career. But eventually I understood that I don’t care about that if it comes at the cost of everything I do care about.”

With the reset button switched, Stevenson’s future may be uncertain, but it’s also unwritten. It’s apparent in his relaxed and open demeanour that Stevenson regards his new direction as a positive thing. Two albums, representing different parts of his skill set, also represent him as a person. And while one features subtler textures such as the acoustic guitars, he’s not backing away from the styles he’s spent the last several years honing his talents on. Whether you call it R&B or Modern Soul, he’s excited about the output yielded through his collaborations with Happy Perez. “There are a lot more organic elements – string, horns, percussion – that create a sound that’s really vibrational. It carries you through.” He quickly turned philosophical: “The overall thing is about finding light and love through it all. And I wasn’t doing that. Eventually you find a situation where your heart can reside, and you’re going to want to stay there.”

Stevenson recalled a song called “Magnolia”, a cut from the quieter acoustic album. “I was leaving the studio in Burbank and saw a woman. She was barefoot, playing guitar, times obviously haven’t been too kind, and immediately in my head I had something. As it came out, it started taking on this country flavour, and I had a realization of something I already knew. You make it and see what happens. I can write a country song, why not?”

I haven’t worked with Nik in over ten years, and to see all the things he’s accomplished with his own music and effort is mind-blowing. And now I’m back here working with him on this record. I’m proud of that.

The two records exemplify divergent histories of Stevenson’s career – the soulful output he’s found in collaborating with others scattered throughout many cities, and the one that’s brought him back to Edmonton, where this life-long love affair with music all began. “I haven’t worked with Nik in over ten years, and to see all the things he’s accomplished with his own music and effort is mind-blowing. I remember over twenty years ago, going to hall shows and hearing about this guy Nik Kozub who plays in bands, and thinking how cool that would be. One night at a show, Nik approached me and my friends and started talking music. In that moment, he welcomed us into that world. Those small, positive actions reverberate. And now I’m back here working with him on this record. I’m proud of that.”

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