You may not have heard the name "Karen Stever," but I am willing to bet that in the coming years you will hear it plenty. Born in Canada and now in Los Angeles, Karen is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, musician, producer, and animator. Late last year she released her CD Playground Isolator. Co-produced with Frank Gryner (who has worked with the likes of Rob Zombie, The Dandy Warhols, and The Cult). Playground Isolator contains some of the most starkly original and inventive songs to come down the pike in years. Karen and Frank also animated and provided the theme song for the trailer for Ben Templesmith's graphic mini-series Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse.
Through the modern miracle of email, I recently had the opportunity to interview this brilliant, multi-talented artist.
Mercurie: Growing up, did you always want to be a singer and songwriter?
Stever: Just today, I received a picture of my niece from my sister who looks alot like me (I am told she is acting a lot like me too...not sure that is good or bad....lol)
My sister said she just started grabbing the camera and taking pictures of herself. When one of her parents clicks her picture, she always asks, "Am I in it?" Apparently, that was me. I was a kid who always danced in front of a mirror and banged on things. I think I was free then. I had a time period in my life where I was not free and the idea of being a singer/songwriter was called a pipedream/stupid/not a real job so I shelved it. The music haunted me and called me back. I've mentioned before to people that it's an appendage. It really is. Cutting it off just creates a ghost that you don't want haunting you. As soon as I accepted that it was my path, I was lived in harmony with the ghost. My path changes a lot...the voices and words that are constantly flowing through my head probably aren't going anywhere anytime soon,
but if they do go away, I'll follow the next path. I've learned to listen more.
Mercurie: On a related note, what music did you grow up listening to? That is, what are your influences?
Stever: Everything except country. It was pretty much banned from my home as my father was a touring musician who got paid the most to play country and hated it. His annoyance rubbed off on us like a prejudice. HA! Despite the fact that I loved the metal, pop, new wave stuff that my siblings listened to, anything orchestral and rock made me "feel" the most. My home was filled with just about every kind of music you can imagine...and family jams on Sundays. Many people know about Lisa Dalbello being a heavy influence on me as she never seemed afraid to be herself. She taught me through her music to accept my own voice and experiment with it.
Mercurie: How would you describe your music stylistically and thematically?
Stever: Stylistically; heavy and orchestral. I like to grind my teeth and clench my fists to music. My life is intense, so in keeping it honest, thematically the subject is generally intense. I'm a bit of a boy really...so everything has a healthy level of sand and sawdust on it.
Mercurie: Could you tell us about your creative process? How do you go about writing a song?
Stever: This could change from day to day and hour to hour lately. A song like "Sicko" was written in the middle of my bed as a diary entry and turned into a poem and then a song later. "Sicko" ripped my guts out whereas a song like "Ride of Your Life" was written upside down on a couch on a crappy piece of paper with my foot tapping 4 on the wall (as opposed to 4 on the floor) throughout. Really my main goal with the process is to exorcise the voices in my head. They dance in insanity in there ya know...LOL. I have to free them and give them all a home. I am a foster parent of my songs...keeping them safe, giving them some stability and organizing them in such a way that they will have legs to stand on and wings to grow someday. It's awkward and ugly sometimes. It's a lot of tears, ripped up paper and anger. I'm probably not the best person to teach a seminar on song-writing. I'm still trying to figure out where the melodies come from. I don't write them. They present themselves in an obvious way to me. They float in my head, I match them up with their word partners and away they go for better or for worse. The Playground Isolator cd varies from song to song in it's conception. A few songs my co-producer Frank Gryner had some preliminary instrumentation for and he'd hand it off to me. "Funeral Mute" was perhaps my favourite (as far as fun) process. I had some words written and Frank had a very crappy acoustic guitar with him and we came up with the chords and I put my melody and words with it. I later played with the accordion sounds and then instrument by instrument layered on. I will say that I believe a song that works should be played around a camp fire and work. I never believe instrumentation should hold a song together.
Mercurie: Were there any authors, film makers, or artists who have had a strong influence on your work?
Stever: I love Italian Renaissance art. I also love anything graphically insulting meaning if it makes me feel uncomfortable, I question it and become envious of the courage of the artist.
Shakespeare was an enormous influence on me (even though I don't write like him) because of his theatrical experience in Elizabethan times. I was into theatre a lot in high school. I didn't understand him though so my mom would break down what he was saying into modern day terminology and I started to see the beauty of his poetry. It made me want to write. But instead of writing like him, I just wrote with the modern words. Poetry after all doesn't have to be eloquent. LOL I was always more inspired to write music after watching Bugs Bunny (because of the orchestration) and a film like The Crow makes me feel dark and edgy enough to put myself in the appropriate place to write. Anything intense doesn't influence me so much as gives me licence to also do it.
Mercurie: How many instruments do you play? And what instruments are your favourites?
Stever: I am a hacker. I don't look at instruments how they should although I was taught to play piano growing up. I was the kid that annoyed my teacher because I would improvise songs to make them more interesting rather than follow her ugly notes. I would also argue with her that the writer sucked at writing and therefore it wasn't a good song to learn anyways. SO I play drums, guitar and bass POORLY...I mean POORLY whereas the piano I am comfortable on. I like writing at my piano. I probably should have been a drummer though as I tap incessantly ALL DAY LONG. All the instrumentation on the Playground Isolator cd was shared between Frank and myself. We played what we needed to when it came up. I sing all my own vocals and backgrounds. I would never subject another soul to how we do things...UGLY UGLY UGLY.
Mercurie: You're originally from Canada, but you are now based out of Los Angeles. Was it difficult in making the move from Canada to California?
Stever: I like to think I am not based out of anywhere. I want to keep my mind somewhat nomadic. Location doesn't mean anything. It is the people you are around. Travel breeds tolerance and for me right now, being anywhere permanently means I am not listening to where I am needed. Canada will always be my home, but unfortunately having lost both parents, I don't have a family home to visit. New York feels like a second home to me as I feel really comfortable when I am there. People are dark and edgy. Middle America has rocks and landscapes that inspire me. But California has sunshine which is like an anti-depressant for the suicidal. California is a good place to be for a time to renew one's relationship with the sun and hills. If I feel the need to settle down somewhere, I hope it is an old abandoned church in the middle of nowhere...somewhere I can sing into the rafters and feel the history around me.
I think a move is only difficult when a person is to attached to where they are. For the first time, I'm not.
Mercurie: You are also an animator. Do you find animation more or less satisfying than your music?
Stever: Oh please let me say I am no animator. I hack at that more than music! I couldn't tell you how half these programs operate. I want it to do something and I use the help menu and make it work for what I want at the time. Something like Ben Templesmith's Wormwood trailer took probably 50 times longer for Frank and I to do than it would some professional because we honestly don't know what we are doing. But to answer your question, it's SO MUCH FREAKING FUN! It's just something cool to do.
Mercurie: Do you think the advent of the internet and digital formats such as MP3 has drastically changed the music business? Is it quite as important for an artist to be attached to a music label as it once was?
Stever: Oh wow. Don't hit my nerve like that! hahahahaha.... Seriously, if one single artist out there reads this, I will say if a major label comes to you, turn and RUN. The majors are dying. I have had contracts in front of me and they are RAPE. Not only that, what they offer is irrelevant nowadays. They may hate me for saying it, (all a person has to do is look at sales and stock market numbers) but they will sink into the ocean. People are constantly being fired as we speak. I suggest every artist out there goes and reads the Bob Lefsetz Letters and educates themselves. With the internet, you don't need major labels. It does depend on the artist's motivation though. Despite the dozens of requests I get from these people for cds etc, I don't want to be a big star. I want to remain being an artist and my goal on earth is not to be wealthy, it's to make a difference in the lives of PEOPLE. I don't even like the term "fans". People I meet inspire me daily. I learn from them. We are a community. I don't want fans...I just want to have relationships with like-minded spirits. I hate the hierarchy and arrogance of the "Rock Star" Get down from your pedestal. You look stupid up there...morons... lol. I do think too many artists put money before art. Art should not be driven by the need for money. I did (and do) other things to pay the bills so the art doesn't suffer. It keeps it pure. I've seen artists make bad choices because of the need to make money. My dad quit those country gigs he did, kept farming to pay bills and spent his evenings playing the music he loved with his family. No interest in fame. Just an interest to enjoy his life.
Mercurie: Any parting words for our readers?
Stever: I am delighted you made it this far. Anyone who is part of my blog community knows what a rambling, blithering idiot I can be. Thanks for being so patient with me. ;)
For those of you who would like a sample of Karen Stever's work, here is the video to her song "Sicko."
If you would like to hear more of Karen Stever's songs, you can visit her profile at MySpace.
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