Becca Stevens. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Becca Stevens’s queen power

One frosty December evening in Manhattan a few years ago, I saw the Becca Stevens Band perform a cover of “Walking In The Air,” from the animated children’s movie The Snowman. It was so unexpectedly moving that the tune remained stuck in my head into spring. I would hear it, and Stevens’s big, breathy voice, while envisioning the corresponding scene in the film, in which the Snowman reaches for the boy’s hand and takes him on a magical nighttime flight over land and sea. But in my mind’s eye I would see a giant accordion—which had featured prominently in her band’s jazzy rendition—floating in the sky alongside the duo, as if played by the hands of God. And this little reverie managed always to brighten my mood. I like to think I’m a fairly normal human adult; but that’s what Becca Stevens will do to you.

I am not alone in this sentiment. A couple of years ago, the folk legend David Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fame, encountered Stevens at a rehearsal for a new jazz album. Both Crosby and Stevens had been invited to contribute songs to the project, and when the time came Stevens strapped on her charango to rehearse a version of “I Asked,” from her 2014 album Perfect Animal.

“It was one of the most stellar musical things I’ve ever heard in my life,” Crosby told me. “I was standing there, just gobsmacked, you know, going ‘Holy fuckin’ shit!’

Crosby, who helped discover the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, saw in Stevens a similarly rare talent, having found himself “stricken with her presence and her voice and her writing and her playing,” thinking “she is completely different from anyone else I’ve ever heard in my life.” The two quickly became friends, and he ended up collaborating with Stevens on her latest album, Regina, for a song about creative inspiration called “The Muse.”

Regina is Stevens’s fourth album, and best. Released in 2017, it is also one of the more remarkable works to come out of a fraught year in American history. The album takes its name from the Latin word for “queen,” and features eleven tracks that revolve around the theme of queens and female power. Regina is also a character that Stevens embodies—a sort of muse or alter-ego, she told me, that “allows me to materialize as this stronger version of myself.” The album is not explicitly political, but resonates deeply with the times, given the women who are speaking out against sexual harassment, and the alarming degree to which toxic masculinity characterizes our current leadership. The queen theme, as Stevens puts it, “is about getting this strong, divine, regal nature out of me, and out of other people, and into the world.”

Stevens grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and began performing in her family’s band, the Tune Mammals, not long after she could walk. I first saw her onstage, in fact, when I was in the second or third grade; she was about three. I remember being summoned to the Summit School auditorium, where the Tune Mammals waddled onstage dressed in vibrant costumes and carrying an assortment of instruments. Stevens’s older brother, Bill, was my age, and played goalie for my soccer team; but now, dressed in a flat cap and wielding a fiddle, he seemed to have stepped out of a previous century. Stevens’s parents were both classically trained musicians, and the songs were kid-friendly and steeped in Appalachian folk: one was about a centipede who spent all winter taking off its shoes, so that it could run around barefoot in time for summer.

Stevens eventually studied classical guitar at the North Carolina School of the Arts, then jazz composition at the New School, in New York. She soon collaborated with a string of accomplished musicians, including the jazz pianists Brad Mehldau and Billy Childs. She also became the vocalist for Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra, an eighteen-piece jazz orchestra that interprets the work of the Icelandic musician Björk. Despite her talents, Stevens flew mostly under the national radar. In a review of her first album, 2008’s Tea Bye Sea, The New York Times hailed her as “something of a best-kept secret.” Her following albums, Weightless and Perfect Animal, received critical acclaim, if not widespread recognition. Stevens, meanwhile, began touring throughout the country and Europe, patiently building a following, and putting on shows that could make the audience feel as if they were walking in the air with a friend made of a billion snowflakes.

Stevens, now thirty-three, has shaped her own voice from these jazz and Appalachian folk influences. The Los Angeles Times has described her as “a more folk-tinged St. Vincent.”

Regina makes the strongest case yet that she deserves a wider audience. The jazz magazine DownBeat gave the album five stars, naming Stevens the year’s “Best Rising-Star Female Vocalist.” One can sense the joy that she took in its creation, drawing from literature, history, and her own life to produce a work that crosses boundaries between jazz, folk, and rock. “Well Loved,” a catchy track with a throbbing drum and bass beat, was inspired by a thousand-year-old text by the Japanese author Sei Shōnagon called The Pillow Book—a sort of “Sex and the City” for medieval Japan. (The British musician Laura Mvula helps with vocals as well.) “Queen Mab” takes its lyrics from a soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which Mercutio describes the tiny fairy queen who “gallops night by night / Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love.” As the cover of Queen Mab’s chariot is made of grasshopper wings, Stevens layers her voice in the opening bars to mimic the buzzing of winged insects. NPR’s Talia Schlanger, in a glowing review, described the sound as “notes that feel like they want to soar, but are stuck in the sort of crunchy jazz chords that grasshopper wings might make if they tried to flutter under water.” It’s the sort of song one can hear a dozen times and still find new details to relish. “[M]usic fans who truly appreciate complexity and craft dream of an artist as ambitious as Becca Stevens,” the review said, noting in Stevens “a voice that tangles beauty with terror in a way that would give Shakespeare the shivers.”

The heart of the album is best embodied by the title track. “It’s about any woman who loses her sense of self-worth and divinity, and the understanding that she is a wonderful creature,” Stevens said. “Carved a heart in a dogwood tree / Found a song in everything,” she sings, over a ukulele lick, in a reference to the state flower of North Carolina and her own life of music. The song revolves around the idea of beckoning oneself back to the right path, of rediscovering one’s true nature and strength. “She lost her way along the wandering path / She can’t get it back,” she sings. And then, as if pleading with herself to reconnect: “Regina won’t you come back home.”

The album ends with a gorgeous rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “As,” a song about unconditional love. Stevens is a master of the cover—from Gillian Welch to Steve Winwood to Frank Ocean. In “As,” her talent is on full display, as she teams up with Jacob Collier to strip Wonder’s zany masterpiece down to its emotional essence. Her repetitions of “always” in the song’s conclusion, with her nieces and nephews singing in the background, all but envelop you in a blanket of love. Hearing it while on the gym’s elliptical machine, and looking out at an array of TV screens broadcasting the latest desecrations of our democracy, has on more than one occasion brought me to tears.

The fact of the matter is that Regina throbs with an energy that is alive throughout the country, as millions of Americans look within for their own reserves of strength and courage to confront not only misogyny, but also the increasingly authoritarian strains in our politics. Crosby himself, an indelible voice of sanity during the upheavals of the 1960s, could even be thought to be passing on a spiritual torch; he has continued working with Stevens and plans further collaboration. “I just can’t say enough about the quality level” of her artistry, he told me. “I love her, and I want her to win, and I absolutely think she is a completely unusual talent.”

***
When Stevens was getting her start in New York a decade ago, I would occasionally go see her perform in the basement of an old Italian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. I lived a few blocks away and welcomed the escape from my journalism school studies. I’d spent a year examining how nationalism had helped turn the Balkans into a killing field in the 1990s, and how, in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy stayed in power by shredding the rule of law, murdering journalists, and making enemies of America and its values. The darkness of all this weighed on the conscience. You almost didn’t want to know what humans were capable of, how easily they could look the other way when evil was being done in their name, if it had some small benefit to them or their tribe, or how easily they could be led to mistrust, even hate, the very people trying to tell them the truth. The susceptibility of modern civilizations to tribalism and propaganda—that was terrifying, and was what I felt so much responsibility to convey as a writer, as America was already showing troubling signs of not being immune. The sound of the Becca Stevens Band would calm my nerves, bring me back to my roots, make me think of the mountains in North Carolina, my favorite place in the world, a place that had always seemed safe from such madness. Stevens would pluck a little ukulele, or a six-string guitar made of iridescent Hawaiian koa, and sing with a smile that radiated joy. Her voice was soft, sensuous, airy—the tone somehow reminded me of butterscotch, as if it were the aural equivalent of a Werther’s Original. She would say a charming word to the audience as we forked our gnocchi and sipped our wine, and then play a transcendent version of the Smiths’s “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, and the horrors of authoritarianism would melt from my mind.

I scarcely could have imagined that, a few years later, her work would feel so resonant in a time of such anti-democratic fervor on our own shores. Or that we would be reeling from a foreign enemy’s effort to undermine our first female presidential candidate—an attack on our democracy that a former acting head of the C.I.A. would call “the political equivalent of 9/11.” Or that so many millions of women, of all political persuasions, would become so instrumental in rescuing our democracy—women who were fed up with the misogyny, the bigotry, the assaults on our institutions, and those cravenly abetting it; fed up with the anti-media rhetoric that echoed that of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin; fed up with having their pussies grabbed, and with their fellow citizens’ brains being grabbed by authoritarian cowards.

So when I learned last spring that Stevens, during her Regina tour, would be playing a small show in Winston-Salem, at her brother’s recording studio, I decided to travel home for the occasion, and to bring my three young nieces to see her. I wanted them to hear a voice that reflected the same love, kindness, and empathy with which they were being raised, and which they were already radiating wonderfully back into the world. And indeed they sat enraptured as Stevens performed, while Bill sat in the adjacent sound-booth, visible through the glass as he recorded his baby sister. One could feel the love in the air on an evening none of us will forget.

***
Our country’s present ills cannot be escaped by closing our eyes and flying into the sky with a magic snowman. Nor can music—or any art—alone save us. But in Stevens’s voice, I hear hope and strength. I sense an irrepressible devotion, and an echo of the passion of millions of Americans as they undertake the process of beckoning this country back to its values. Regina is an achievement that, in dark times, radiates light. Becca Stevens’s blast of queen power is for us all.