Contributor’s Note: Sami Stevens, or as the full band is known Sami Stevens & The Man I Love, has been setting New York on fire with her sultry mix of jazz influence pop and neo-soul. In a sea on indie kids and laptop rockers, it’s refreshing to listen to something rooted in something different from what I usually hear. We talked about her new record, her amazing band, her boyfriend and sax player Kazemde George, and her recent shows in Spain. You can keep up to all things Sami Stevens on her website www.samistevensvoice.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/samistevensvoice
Your debut album, ‘And I’m Right,’ feels both classic and contemporary. Do you work hard to walk that fine line or does it come naturally to you?
Thank you! My ultimate goal is to write songs that stand the test of time, and I am very influenced by jazz and the rich tradition of songwriting that has descended from it, so yes that is absolutely my intention. I strive not to write anything that feels unnatural to my ears and voice, so I guess you could say my music comes naturally to me, sure.
How do you feel that the neo soul revival has influenced your music? Do you feel that you’re having to work harder to stand out? Are people’s ear more ready to listen to more jazz influenced music with the explosion of artists like Anderson Paak?
Wow, yes. It’s a beautiful time in RnB and Neo Soul, especially in New York, there are some amazing people out here that influence and inspire me for sure. I used to want to sound like those artists, but as I get wiser I realize that my worth is in sounding like myself, not like anybody else, as obvious as that may seem. I think richer harmony is coming back into more popular music, like the Soul-Trap the kids are listening to out here, which I think is a real indicator of the direction of popular music in general, it has really nice rich harmony, even if it is 8 bars on a loop, like a beat type thing, its a lot richer. That makes me very happy, very optimistic about what people are open to. And of course, the rhythmic content of some of that music is probably the richest thing about it, that’s great too.
Opening this album with a feminist anthem like “She is God” sets a strong tone for the rest of the album, do you feel it’s message is touched upon in your other songs? How?
I’m not sure I would say that the whole album is as explicitly feminist as the first song, unless you count the fact that I wrote it. (laughs) The record is really just about my experiences over the two years leading up to recording it, the stuff I was going through, what I was thinking about, and a lot of it does touch upon the strength I found in myself in that time, as a woman, and as a partner, as a person in the world.
How involved were you with writing the instrumental parts in the songs? Did you ever find yourself coming into conflict with the other musicians in your band when it came to the recording process?
So the way I generally work with my band is I bring in a song, melody, chords, loose form, and they help me workshop it until it feels right, everybody kind of coming up with their own parts together. We have a few newer songs though that we’re a lot more collaboratively written, that someone wrote the verse to and I wrote the chorus to, collaboration like that, and a few that Kaz brought in that he wrote on his own, that I usually write just the lyrics to. He is a fantastic songwriter so I’m very glad to have him around. We actually released an Ep recently, just he and I, called Make Your Mind, that I think was very successful. I wouldn’t characterize the band’s process as a conflict, as I only ever feel supported and respected by my band. They’re all really fantastic people and players, and we share a very clear common goal of making the music as best as it can be, so no I would say it’s very unified.
Let’s talk a little more about the recording process. What sort of challenges did you encounter while recording this album?
Logisticaaaallll!!! (laughs) Logistics are the story of my life. We recorded the bulk of the album in two days at Dimension Sound Studios in Boston. We really are a live band, so laying down the record was pretty straightforward, just doing what we do on stage in the studio. After that we layered some harmonies on sax and voice, a few organ and percussion parts to fill it out a bit. Mixing was the most difficult part of the record, and since we live between genres, I think that it made it very difficult for us to get a clear grasp on what the recorded sound should be. Some people thought it should be a more acoustic vibe, some more produced, and the music really could have gone in either direction in the mixing process. We ended up somewhere in between, but I would say the record leaned toward pop in that sense. I wanted it to be easy to transition sonically from very modern popular music, even if the writing was influenced by music from many eras and genres.
The arrangements leave a lot of space to let each instrument shine. Was it difficult to not layer in a bunch of other parts?
Thank you! I really wanted to honor our live sound, to let you hear everyone’s ideas, reflecting how they play it live, so no it’s not really my tendency to layer over and over.
You recently played several shows in Spain. How was the reaction over there different from what you’re used to in New York?
In Spain we played at Jazz clubs, with a band of Spanish cats Kaz and I put together. I think if we went over there with the Man I Love, the full band, it would be a whole different thing. The songs might be the same, but the sound is totally different depending on who is playing it, and where its being played. Overall though I would say the reaction was great. Every time I leave NYC I realize how crazy the hustle is out here. Sometimes it feels like people take the music for granted out here, like only other musicians are really ever checking out live music, which is pretty backwards, so as soon as I leave, it can be very encouraging, how supportive the audiences are. People really showed up out there, came out and really listened. We’re planning on going back, hitting France and England too, hopefully all in one run next time. I’ll keep you posted!
On Friday, June 15th, Sami Stevens & The Man I Love will be performing at Littlefield in New York, New York with Rose Hotel, Riley Pinkerton, and Belle-Skinner. For tickets and further information, click here.