Tonight. What are you up to? Asheville, North Carolina’s Stephaniesid will be performing at Cafe Nola to commemorate their upcoming CD, “Excavator.” We recently caught up with singer Stephanie Morgan to talk about how the band began, exploring some darkness, and what went into their upcoming record.
Take us back to the beginning. At what point did you decide you wanted to make music a career and what led you to do that?
I didn’t really set out to make this a career. I was a gymnast, a pre-med student, then a psychology student, then a social worker. But I liked playing music and especially writing and singing, so I did that a lot when I could. When I was a year-round counselor in the wilderness with troubled kids, the only music we could have was the music we made. I went kind of crazy, because I didn’t realize how big a part of my life music was. So I started writing a lot then. On the other hand, Chuck started on piano at age 5, and Tim comes from a family of drummers, so it was a straight line to music for them. Chuck convinced me to quit my job working in adoptions after I got to the point where I was gigging five nights a week. It was too much. Music became the obvious thing then.
Your website says you make music “for the darkness in you that’s trying to find the light.” Can you expand on that idea a little? What does that mean?
The “id” is the “center of all impulses and desires” in a person, and I created this band to explore more of that. Our inner beings are gorgeous and wild, but we’re conditioned to hide ourselves under social armor, and I find that sad. So I like to make music for that part of a person, as I think it gets pretty lonely in there. Our latest album is titled “Excavator” because I spend a lot of time mining for the true self/the id. In a perfect world, it gets to see the light.
The Cafe Nola show is the CD release show. Can you talk a little bit about what went into the process of creating this upcoming record? Where did you record it and with whom? What were some of the struggles and best moments with it?
We were on hiatus for almost two years. After a decade of playing and touring, I had to renegotiate with myself about what I was trying to do. There was this feeling that I needed to go deeper, and I was looking for a way to do that. I went to screen-acting school, and met an amazing teacher who made me see the ways in which I was guarded in my interactions with other people. I really didn’t know that — I always thought I was a really open person. But that started an excavation of sorts for me. Most of the songs on the album were written in the past year, and came in a kind of stream-of-consciousness way at first — the details just kind of filled themselves in as the guys and I were playing around with them. Some were written over improvisations we’d done in rehearsals, some were from one or more songwriting trips I often take myself on. We did this 5-week residency at a jazz club in Asheville to season the songs, some of them only half-baked when we started it, which was unusual for me to want to do. But again, I needed to break down that fourth wall, and that kind of rawness proved really freeing for all of us. Our fans were part of it. We recorded with our old friend Vic Stafford at Southern Tracks studio in Atlanta, a magical place that is being bulldozed in a week or so — so we’re happy we got that before the place is gone, and we even went back just a month ago to record some improvisations, in the nick of time. Anyway, I think “Excavator” is our most honest record so far.
Your songs were featured on “Nurse Jackie” and The Weather Channel. How did you guys land those spots? And more so, is there a television show or movie or channel that you would like to hear your music in? Why?
We have a good film/TV agent and the songs must have just worked for them. Placement is such good financial support when it happens. But it can also be a nice collaboration, in a way — like, I’d love to hear our songs over the beautiful images in a Sofia Coppola or a Werner Herzog film. I love visual art so much and I always see images when we play live, especially when we’re improvising. It gets very cinematic.
What are some of your career’s biggest highlights so far and why?
There are some sweet validating moments like being on NPR and playing at Bonnaroo and stuff, but really now is the best time in the band’s history. We’re tighter than ever, we’re writing our best songs, we love each other a lot and push and support each other, and the live show feels like a catharsis nearly every time. That’s about all I can ask for.
Can you give us one or two instances in which your commitment to music has maybe been questioned? Maybe being out on the road got to you or you encountered a few of the tons of frustrations a career in music can bring?
Yeah, I was pretty burned out before the hiatus. It wasn’t that I thought music was the problem, but I didn’t know if I’d return to it as a full-time pursuit. It’s not an easy thing financially, and sometimes when you don’t see the money part growing, you can interpret that as a problem with what you’ve chosen to do. But then you have to just ask your real self, “What do I love to do?” And you just have to do exactly that. I mean, f#*! it, how long are we on the planet?
Who are some of your major influences and why?
The three of us come from really different musical backgrounds. Chuck is an academically trained classical and jazz pianist from the South that loves Van Halen and sports. Tim is a self-taught Dead-and-Phish-head drummer from Irish stock in northern Maine. And I was raised on AM radio love songs and Brit-new-wave dance-floor music. We all have strong passions for our first loves and we advocate for them on the regular, so each of us has developed an appreciation for the others’ favorite stuff, and we’ve learned something important from all those genres. For example, Chuck and I aren’t really into the music of Phish or the Dead, but we’re super intrigued by their ways of improvising together, so we’ve recently incorporated a lot of that into our rehearsals — and it’s crazy, because a guy at our show in Ohio this past weekend said to me, “Wow, I feel like I just saw a Dead show. I mean, not the same genre, but just the feeling, you know?” I’ve never even seen the Dead, but I know Tim’s influence is there. And we get an equal number of comments about how Bjorkish we sound, or how heavy the music can be, for just piano, drums, and vocals. So I know we’re all influencing each other.
Where are some of your favorite places to play (cities/venues) and why?
It sounds like a copout answer probably, but anywhere there are tuned-in people that really want to join with us and have an experience. Asheville, our hometown, tends to be tuned pretty well to feeling the vibe. They know us well, and I think one of the very reasons people move here is to commune with their true selves. So yay for us. But there are pockets of people everywhere that can find that space — even in New York City, Boston, Columbus Ohio, Cork, Ireland, … Frederick, Maryland?
Could you give us some names of some great lesser-known original artists we might not already know? Who are you a fan of and who should we keep an eye on?
Benji Hughes, out of Charlotte. He writes the simplest, truest love songs you’ll ever hear, and he’s the only person like him in the whole wide world. Also, Jonathan Scales Fourchestra out of Asheville is doing some really innovative things with the steel pans, and Jon Stickley trio out of Asheville is effing up the whole bluegrass genre with a really emotional, inexplicable style of smart jazz or something. You totally didn’t ask me about non-musical things, but I’m also a huge fan of 2 blogs, penned by wonderful writers, which are on the rise and not-so-well-known in some circles. I can say pretty surely that they regularly inform this music. Reading brainpickings.org is like going to a museum of books past and present, with a really well-read friend as my guide. And waitbutwhy.com untangles complex topics like the origin of the universe, climate change and Middle East/U.S. relations by researching thoroughly and then presenting a long-form (but really fascinating) lesson on it. Ok, and to take this a step further, Joe Zimmerman’s comedy is hilarious.
And finally what can we expect from your show at Cafe Nola? Do you have any surprises in store?
Haaaa! Every show is so different right now, because we play four different kinds of things live: 1) Arranged songs from “Excavator” and our back catalog. 2) Arranged songs with “afterbirths,” i.e., extended, improvised endings. 3) Totally improvised tunes. 4) Improvs that are trying to be songs because they keep recurring in sets and getting more specific. So we give them a chance to get air and water on stage. Also, we’re bringing the strings! Violin and cello. They both played on the album and they’re with us on three dates of this tour.