Leslie Stevens wraps up her first tour of the UK with an appearance at this weekend’s Long Road Festival in Leicestershire. Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth caught up with the fast-rising Americana/country star following her stint opening up for Israel Nash.
Rushonrock: How come it’s taken you so long to tour the UK?
Leslie Stevens: I’ve had a lot going on within my family for some time. My dad was very sick and was suffering with pancreatic cancer. The last six years have been really difficult. Even touring the US has been tough so the UK and Europe was never really on the cards. But I’m just so happy to have been able to do these dates now. I’ve received an invitation to play the Americana Festival in London in January but I’m not sure if that will happen or not. I really hope it does. I hope we get to come back soon.
Rushonrock: How did the opportunity arise to support Israel Nash?
LS: I wasplaying a festival in Denmark and at that point my agent in the US reached out to Israel and it ended up working out. It’s great when these things happen and everything kind of falls into place.
Rushonrock: How excited were you to finally play in the UK?
LS: With the release of my Sinner record outside of America and then a run of dates in the UK I genuinely feel like a real artist! It’s a really good feeling. It makes me feel like I’m actually influencing something or someone. Although I’m not quite sure who or what!
Rushonrock: Were you touring regularly in the US before your father fell ill?
LS: I toured quite a bit back home. I had a band called Leslie And The Badgers and we tyoured all over America. Starbucks even played our songs! That might explain my fondness for their coffee… I started to branch off from the Badgers and work with some different musicians simply because the opportunities presented themselves. But I still play with my old band from time to time. We’re still good friends.
Rushonrock: And you used the time not touring to hone your songwriting craft…
LS: I started writing my own material when I wasn’t touring as much. But I also played with The Milk Carton Kids and Kenneth Pattengale from the band produced my 2016 record The Donkey And The Rose. As far as Americana and folk go they’re the best that you can get within those genres and it’s been a great honour to work with them. Again, they made me feel like I was a real artist.
Rushonrock: You still don’t sound convinced that you’ve made it as a singer songwriter?
LS: I know it sounds silly but I really don’t. Writing and performing is something I do full time now and I guess I’ve got to get used to it. But it hasn’t always been full-time for me. I teach songwriting and I’ve worked at a college in Los Angeles. Like a lot of musicians I do session work and sing on other people’s records. But I love the teaching and it made me realise just how much my own instructors and teachers did for me and gave to me. I like to give back to those students starting out, when I can.
Rushonrock: Do you prefer songwriting or the performance of songs?
LS: I’m a writer at heart and I really enjoy the process of trying to figure out the very complicated puzzle that is expressing what I want to say. I would be happy in a prison cell as long as I had a pencil and some paper! I really love writing but I’ve come to be really fond of sharing my work through performance.
Rushonrock: Do you embrace a collaborative approach to writing?
LS: I consider myself country but I probably lean towards the folk and Americana side of things. Where country artists are increasingly collaborative in their songwriting approach I think people involved in the folk music and Americana scene still tend to write their own material. And that’s fine.
Rushonrock: When did you start writing songs?
LS: When I was really little I had a radio station with my cousins. I was really small back then. I started writing and I always loved writing songs – at that age I just assumed it was something that everybody loved. I had no idea that it was something I loved and most people couldn’t care less! As a kid I kinda convinced myself that I couldn’t do it as a career because if everyone loved writing songs as much as me there’d be no chance of me getting a break. And I come from a family that’s very supportive now but when I was younger they weren’t supportive of me becoming an artist. That held me back for a while.
Rushonrock: So what happened next?
LS: I never stopped singing but I did a degree in literature and worked for about five years in different industries before it dawned on me that this was actually what I really wanted to be doing. I’d grown up in Baltimore and St Louis and I’d always listened to country music. My grandparents were cowboys and cowgirls and I thought it was quite quaint before I took it more seriously and started writing songs. My friends and I used to love listening to Patsy Cline, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell – as well as the usual hip hop and rap that teenagers get into – and it was the folk and Americana that I was really drawn towards.
Rushonrock: During the tour with Israel you heard the terrible news of Neal Casal’s death as a result of suicide – how did that affect your shows?
LS: We heard the news in Glasgow and talked about it at the Newcastle show, where we dedicated a song to him. My pedal steel player John knew him well and we were all in a state of shock. We started to talk about a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink where the author claims suicide can be contagious: somebody can give up and that has a knock-on effect, causing someone else to give up. It’s tough being an artist but there is a greater awareness around these issues. I have a friend in Los Angeles who suffers from serious bouts of depression and I’m always telling him to ask for help and to reach out.
Sinner is out now
Main image by Julia Brokaw