Writing a song or painting a portrait can inspire us to see mundane daily life with new eyes. In seeing others with the mercy of a poetic lens, we may get outside of ourselves, and be opened up to new pathways of understanding of and empathy for one another. In this light, good and bad stand side by side, living within everything and everyone, rendering us all complex, beautiful, and endlessly fascinating.
These are the themes explored in singer/songwriter Sami Stevens’s anticipated debut solo album, Morning. On the album, Stevens treats the vastness of the human condition with painterly impressions and an empathetic disposition. Inspired by the musical world of the 60s and 70s, Stevens’s writing draws upon folk, soul, jazz, and singer/songwriter traditions with refined spaciousness and a measured pace. In jazz, Stevens emulates vocalists like Sarah Vaughan; leaving the listener hanging on her every word, supported by a lush, well-delivered arrangement. Stevens also draws inspiration from artists like Donny Hathaway, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Minnie Riperton, taking encouragement from the writing and arranging sensibilities of the era, and displaying a maturity far beyond her years.
The daughter of a painter, Stevens creates loving, unfiltered images with her work, depicting portraits of complex individuals and scenes in our very imperfect lives. In “Margaret,” “Tonight,” and “Nothing’s Wrong,” she captures the unflinching beauty found in even the darkest moments of three women's lives, a beauty found in their strength and in their vulnerability, reflected by her masterful yet raw vocal delivery. This contrasts with light-hearted love songs like the title track, “Morning,” which speaks of the sweet rhythm of love from morning to night, balanced playfully by a tongue-in-cheek reminder to “count our blessing,” notably in the singular form. Further into the album, the languid “Right In The Middle” captures a yearning; the bittersweet ennui of missing a partner, as Stevens's usual reserved control opens up into soaring improvised vocals which carry the second half of the track.
In discussing her influences, Stevens also references her adolescence in rural Maine. “When I was a kid, for a few years I was really surrounded by death in this incredibly beautiful natural setting, and I think it really affected the trajectory of my life. There were a lot of suicides, some murder, natural death, and the cumulative effect was sort of hard to measure. One of the strongest takeaways was maybe also the simplest: That I am going to do whatever I want with my life, because I’m going to die anyway. The other was just some perspective; mostly I think we’re all just trying to figure out how to live, how to feel like we have a place in the world.” It may come as no surprise to learn that Stevens followed this experience by pursuing a degree in Psychology at Tufts University and in Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory.
Complicated emotions are a strong theme in Stevens’s writing. The churning “Paint It Blue” focuses on the toll the artist’s’ life has taken on Stevens herself, laying out her doubts and fears, but always coming back to the same hopeful refrain, a re-commitment to “paint it blue,” a sentiment she describes as “a sad girl version of ‘Paint it Black,’ and maybe a tiny nod to Picasso or Joni Mitchell, if we want to be generous.” In a political turn, “Choir Will Sing,” serves as a testimony to Stevens’s resistance to the Post-Truth era, and her intention to “preach the gospel of knowledge not fear,” illustrating what she sees as the artist’s role in public and political life. Whether or not this role is sufficient, she leaves up to the listener; as she puts it in the song, “Rich men will lie and the choir will sing.” Regardless, her performance is moving.
Stevens wrote Morning on keyboard and voice, workshopping new songs solo on smaller stages around Brooklyn. She then brought them in to be fleshed out collaboratively with her rhythm section, featuring drummer Bob Edinger, bassist Jed Lingat, and pianist Noah Macneil. Finally, Stevens worked with producer Simon Hanes to add lush depth to the recordings in the form of string and horn sections, harp, vibraphone, and guitar, recording in New York City and San Francisco throughout the pandemic. This album may be seen as the culmination of a decade of Stevens and Hanes’s collaboration, as the pair have worked together extensively in acclaimed faux-Italian soundtrack band Tredici Bacci since 2013.
A remarkably seasoned singer, Stevens has toured extensively with various groups ranging from soundtrack music to jazz and R&B to experimental music. She is frequently called upon for her versatility, power, and freedom as a singer; often hailed as a vocalist who can sing anything. On Morning, Stevens decided to go a different route. “It’s not like anything I’ve done before, it’s all landscapes. I’m hardly singing really, it’s just about honoring the songs, the shapes, like silent scenes out of a car window.” Life is full of complexity, pain, light, and imperfect people and, with Morning, Sami Stevens shows us the beauty in all of it.
released July 28, 2023
Sami Stevens - voice, Wurlitzer, music, lyrics
Bob Edinger - drums
Jed Lingat - electric bass
Noah Macneil - piano
Ruby Wang, Abby Swiller, Kashi Elliot - violin
Jay Julio, Allie Simpson - viola
Ansel Cohen, Saul Richmond - cello
Tree Palmedo, Chris Grady - trumpet
Kevin Newton - French horn
Lucy Hollier, Andy Strain - trombone
Aaron Edgecomb - vibraphone
Marilu Donovan - harp
Simon Hanes - acoustic guitar