The Rebecca Stephens Interview - August, 2010
Hard to believe that it's only been just 3 years since I became aware of the existence of Rebecca Stephens.
The mutual long-time devotion to the greatest BeachBoys-Velvet Underground hybrid band ever - The Jesus & Mary Chain - led me to an internet friendship with one Sir Andrew Von Pip (though it was actually his "Lush" page that was the very first contact - through a mutual JAMC head). Studiously becoming familiar with AVP's work - I couldn't help but notice an enthusiasm for this band called The Pipettes. On closer inspection I had to agree there was something special and intoxicating about their overall presentation. Spotting that there were coming to my home city of New York I made plans to attend the show.
Here is evidence of what that show was like:
It was all such an optimistic and innocent time, November of 2007. Who knew that a mere one year later, the world would come crashing down in global economic downturn that still hasn't recovered.
This combined with the easy access new technology in the hands of the people created an unstable environment for bands and record companies everywhere. The game had changed considerably. Musical coalitions splintered and individuals went their own way.
Which leads me to the current status of Rebecca Stephens. Back in those heady years of 2006/2007 - she performed with these Pipettes. She was the "smart" looking one. Yes, just as pretty as the other two (three pretties in a row) she bore the distinction of wearing glasses. There weren't too many glamorous female vocalists who wore them. Sure, there were folk singers, I suppose. Is that what you would call Lisa Loeb?
Becki however, looked like she enjoyed reading. That she spent time in Libraries. But there was this "punk" personna attached too. She had "Riot" attached to the front of her name. As in Riot Grrls. From my point-of-view, she seemed to have a bit of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon in her as well. Well, that's how I saw it (skewered perspective that might be).
Between the time she left The Pipettes and up until now - there were some rumblings of her making music with various collaborators.
Let's see if we can fill in some of the blanks, via this direct interview with Ms. Rebecca Stephens (formerly the artist known as Riot Becki, then Quiet Becki, now simply Becki)
As I've been intermittently internet stalking you for near 3 years now, I think it's time for a proper interview, wouldn't you think?
So -I've gotten the impression that you have something of a "performance school" upbringing. Is that safe to say? Did you have dance and theater (acting/performance) training throughout your formative years?
I began learning to dance at the age of three, taking tap and ballet lessons, which always culminated in an end of year performance of some description. As I got older I performed in dance festivals and absolutely loved the pressure that the competition element gave to your performance. Slowly our end of year shows included singing numbers, and having grown up watching musicals (Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire amongst my favourite performers), my love for singing and performing grew. At school I was always in plays/musicals/choirs and that’s really where my passion formed and grew, but I don’t think it’s the same as having a ‘performance school’ upbringing. My parents weren’t pushy, I never had to do ‘jazz hands’.
What about singing? Was there any guidance of any sort in that department?
It’s funny as I’ve always been aware of my lack of technical experience when it comes to singing, despite having been in numerous choirs. I can’t remember ever actually learning to sing. Not that it comes naturally. My voice is still developing and growing and I’m really excited when I hear it do something different, when I push it in a new direction. But, no, I’ve never had any guidance, just kind of figured it out for myself as I’ve gone along.
At what point in time were you approached about joining this band called The Pipettes?
I was entering my final year at University when Bobby asked if I fancied joining a Sixties inspired girl group called The Pipettes. It sounded like a fun concept and a project that would reignite my passion for performance, so I decided to join.
I had read where up until that point, you had never been in any kind of band before. That you didn't really play any instruments (though bashed about on the drums somewhat - but really - who hasn't done that?)
Nope. I had never been in a band and didn’t play any instruments. I could bash out a few chords on a guitar and play a 4/4 beat on a drumkit, but that was about it. When we were kids, my brothers and I used to write songs, but that was my only songwriting experience. Although, they were ruddy great songs!
The legend goes that Bobby Barry and Julia (now Indelicate) concocted this idea to make a band called The Pipettes (though in retrospect it appear that he had one idea how it should be, and she a considerably different view of it all). Who approached you first about joining the project? Could you please expand a bit on this?
To be honest I’m not sure any of us ever actually knew who had come up with which details of The Pipettes. Legend has it that Julia and Bobby were out for a drink and concocted the plan and the name, but the drunken idea actually grew and The Pipettes was born. I’d known Bobby for a good few years when he approached me. The same goes for Jon and Joe (as Seb wasn’t in the band initially), but I hadn’t met Julia or Rose before. Rehearsals were so much fun, lots of booze and hilarious banter. Slowly everyone else started to write songs and we realised we were actually in a band that was ready to do gigs. It was all quite organic really.
After the heady rise of the Pipettes to the level they achieved - did you see the drastic fall coming? As I point out in my preamble here, no one is pinning the blame for this on any one single individual or incident. I personally believe that economics and the changing times are far more responsible for so many bands having crashed and burned (or simply limp on in a damaged state) than anything else.
I’m sure most bands go through a change or shift between first and second record, and I wouldn’t describe the last couple of years of The Pipettes as a ‘fall’, just more of an unusual or dramatic shift than most bands go through. When you’ve been touring songs that were written almost five years before, it’s hard to keep the love and passion alive. All you want to do is move forward and write and perform songs that express where you are now. We all knew there was going to be a change to the band. I’m not sure anyone was surprised.
You toured the world with the Pipettes. Got to see many different countries and their fans. How was all that?
That was always my favourite part. We weren’t a studio band, quite the opposite, we thrived in the live arena. Without an audience, only half The Pipettes’ message was conveyed. Before the band I hadn’t really seen much of the world and I was so in awe of all the different places and cultures that we saw on the road. It was interesting to see how conservative English audiences are, especially places like London, in comparison to pretty much every other country we visited. It’s a shame really, as the UK makes some amazing music, but it’s just not supported in the same way as most of the rest of the world.
After you left that band, you dabbled somewhat with writing songs with some people. Those of us who continued to follow your musical output were pleased to hear some of this work. Is there any chance that the songs you did during this time period can still be salvaged and presented to the public?
I have taken a couple of the first songs I wrote when I left The Pipettes for Projectionists. We’ve updated them and made them ours, which is great. But, I’m very much about looking forward and seeing what we can create together rather than referencing anything that was written in the past.
I refer specially to a project you called "Electric Blue". Songs like "Getting Nowhere" showed off your voice and songwriting in a delightfully strong and retro vibe. You sing about "unguarding your heart." "If that's not falling in love" was joyously peppy and made me wanted to go to a sock hop with Ronnie Spector. "Somebody's Help" was magnificent. Great vocal interplay, an amazing hooky "ooooh oooooh" and piano tinkle. Brilliant song, actually. Even "Teenagers In Love" had an innocent charm.
Randy was the first person I wrote with after leaving the band and he has a very retro aesthetic, his band The Booze supported us a few times when we toured America. I love Power Pop (like The Nerves and Rubinoos), so it was great fun to do something punky but with a pop sensibility. Unfortunately it became clear that sadly we weren’t going to be able to continue making music together - although Randy went on to play in Joe’s band and write with Gwen - so Electric Blue will forever be those four songs suspended in animation for the rest of time.
Which brings us to the present and your current musical project called the Projectionists.
The song "I Never Wanted Anything" presents a different kind of accompaniment to your voice. Replacing the 50's-to-60's retro feel is what sounds like 1970's era prog-rock mellotron. At least in the beginning. Your voice is even more prominent (and that's a good thing). Then the drums come in - bright and charging. It's a gorgeous arrangement. Your voice has never sounded better. The cascading layers of voice on the chorus gives me the chills. Its perfect. And the lyrical sentiment. I know the feeling - "I don't want it anymore". "Please don't make me go back" and "I'm not that person anymore."
I suppose there should be a question in there . . .
Ah, thank you very much! It was the first song we wrote and completed together, based around a ridiculously lo-fi home recording I made on my Yamaha and then developed by Pete and myself and then the rest of the band. I wanted to keep things simple – especially the vocals – so that we could concentrate on arrangements and layering. It represents a rather poignant time in my life, I was writing rather a lot, and had no idea where I was going.
OK - so you and drummer Pete recorded these songs at keyboardist Christian's pro recording studio? How long did it take to complete this song? How much of it did you write? All the lyrics?
Yeah, all the songs that you’ve heard so far were demos of mine that we’ve expanded and I’m the only lyricist at the moment. I’ve absolutely loved having that personability with what I’m doing now, the words are mine, I’m involved in all the arrangements. It should have been daunting, but when Pete and I got together it just flowed. We locked ourselves away in a basement studio in Manchester for four days and came away with four complete songs. When Christian offered us studio time it didn’t take much longer to complete them. Then when Sam and Paul joined we just replaced the guitar and bass parts with the parts they had written. ‘I Never Wanted Anything’ was the first to be fully completed, and was recorded over a few months, which we began before I moved up to Manchester. Travelling from Brighton to Manchester definitely makes the creative process longer!
"Lovers Game" sounds near jazzy. Vocally you stretch out a bit more. Almost Rose Dougall-like. Has your former bandmate there (who's own music is amazing) been any kind of influence on you?
I love what Rose does, she has this vocal and melodic ease that is so clearly ‘Rose’ and very different from my own style, which definitely isn’t as effortless as hers. It’s vocally different as it’s the first song we wrote as Projectionists and I enjoyed how much we played with the vocal for that, although the initial melody was written from my sickbed around a guitar loop Pete had written.
"Someday" continues with the clean, upfront, unaffected approach to your vocals. In this time of popular female vocal bands that rely heavily on reverberated vocals (Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose & The Outs) you appear to be steering clear of this trend. Is this by deliberate design?
It’s funny you should say that as my favourite trick with my vocals was to always double track and layer with reverb. I did this with all my own demos. However, when we re-recorded the songs with the full band double tracking sounded too weak and all the reverbs sounded false. It comes down to how confident I felt with my vocal performances. It took a while, but as time went on we’ve gradually stripped layers off and revealed the vocals a bit more, kept them as bare as possible. Although I still love a bit of reverb. Christian and I have discussed building our own reverbs, which would be fun.
Are you familiar with those bands I just mentioned?
Unfortunately not, I will have to check them out.
Could you describe what feminism means to you? How you perceive its concept?
There are so many different types of feminism and feminism encompasses so many things. My feminism is fairly liberal (although some radical themes slip in there sometimes!) it’s entirely hard to explain. I believe that society should look at all things with an even eye and not through a judgmental one. Many people discuss how men are the root of women’s problems and negative treatment, yet women constantly undermine one another and can be each other’s own worst enemies. The older I’ve got, I’ve understood how important it is to look at situations and regard them individually rather than push them to one side or categorise them too generally. For example, I find the constant use of sex to sell anything and everything exceptionally frustrating. Artists such as Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga effectively sell themselves on sort porn or erotic fantasies, it’s almost become a competition to see who can be the most hardcore. I find it so derogatory and debasing, people have become so used to seeing women running around in their underwear that it has become normalised and I find that sad. It’s still sexual exploitation, even if a woman is fronting it. There just doesn’t appear to be the political edge like Madonna in the eighties, when feminism was beginning to implode, women were gaining their independence and sexual independence. Madonna was not only a product of that, but helped empower women to gain independence and confidence. Nowadays it has the opposite effect, with more and more young girls choosing a ‘glamour’ lifestyle than wanting to achieve in business or science etc. It’s easier to get ahead in life by using your body than your head, that’s the message being sent to young women. However, it is important to note that it’s about understanding cultural and social changes rather than denying a woman’s decision or rite to express herself in the way in which she has. And I’m also pleased to see that the word ‘feminism’ is beginning to lose its’ negative connotations and more women are standing up and proud to say they are feminist.
So you did your first live show recently. Sharing with a bill with a band called "I Blame Coco" - which apparently is fronted by Sting's daughter. How was it sharing a bill with her? Was she all "I'm Sting's daughter - back off - I get the better dressing room" - or was she cool (or did you have little to no contact at all?)
Ha ha, we were first on so I didn’t have any contact with her at all. Although she came to the pub afterwards and was apparently lovely, unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to speak to her. It was a really great bill, all female fronted bands as Natalie Findlay supported too. She’s great and one to watch out for. I have to say I Blame Coco weren’t what I was expecting at all, although Coco does sound unbelievably like her Dad, which was bizarre. They were really interesting. It’s a shame I couldn’t see anything from where I was stood!
How do you feel the show went?
The show was great. We were on first, so had no idea what to expect, but we got to play in front of around 100 people who were all really responsive. I was so nervous before we went on, but by the second song it felt so good to be back on stage singing my own music and watching people nod their heads with enjoyment. I’d forgotten what that feeling was like.
Vocally I’m so much stronger than I was three years ago. I feel so much more confident in myself and my abilities. I just need to feel confident in letting go of the mic-stand when I’m on stage. But, hey we’ve only done one gig!
What's next for The Projectionists?
We are currently in talks with a label to release our EP, which will hopefully come out this year and also involve a small tour. But, we’re really just concentrating on writing and recording songs for an album, which we would love to release next year. Oh and we’re playing with Florrie and Seebauer Jenny on September 16th at Kraak Gallery, Manchester.
Listen to The Projectionists wonderful music here: