I was born into a musical family. Music ushered me into life quite literally because my dad was playing the Irish fiddle in the delivery room when I was born. I began singing in our family band The Tune Mammals at the age of 2. When my dad gave me my first guitar lesson at the age of 12, I immediately started making up my own songs. I never took to the piano, but when I picked up the guitar, I found a vehicle to express my inner voice as a songwriter.
The first song I ever wrote was called 'Hollow Dream', an angsty, heartbroken, asking the universe "why?!" kind of a song. I started keeping all my ideas, lyrics, and scribblings in notebooks from that age right up to college. I recently counted around 50 notebooks and I still keep them all.
I hadn't really started listening to Joni Mitchell at that point, but to an outsider the way I wrote could have been inspired by her. I was always drawn to open strings, open tunings, unusual harmony, and pastoral melodies. I was destined to find Joni's music. I finally started listening to her around high school aged 14 and it was the start of a lifelong love.
You could call Joni my songwriting mum. I believe that she is the queen of song-craft, and that will never change for me. The first time I ever heard 'A Case of You', I thought it was one of the greatest songs I'd ever heard. I wished I'd written it. It rips your heart out, and the way Joni sings it is simply perfection.
As my notebooks started filling up with songs inspired by Joni, and my life experiences, I was exploring worlds of songs that I hadn't known I could write before. In high school I also discovered Björk and Tori Amos, and soon went through a heavy phase of poring over all of their work. Even today I'm still obsessed with Björk, as much for her aesthetic and music, as for her open-hearted authenticity. She is ruthlessly and fearlessly committed to her unique sound.
Björk and Tori joined Joni as my songwriting moms. They were unafraid to be themselves which is huge for a teenage girl to connect with, and to know that no matter what crazy stuff is going on, these women can be a girl's anchor. I really needed these incredible females at that time of my life. I would sing along to songs with adult themes that made no sense to me, but sang them out at the top of my lungs anyway, inspired by their fearlessness!
Putting emotions into words through my writing was never easy for me. In my earliest process as a songwriter, I would sit down with an unnamed feeling and find a harmonic pattern on the guitar to express something close to it. A melody would emerge, then vowels, then lastly words would surface. The music made a tunnel to the expression of feelings that I didn't have words for yet. I could drill down into the music and let the words trickle out slowly.
I can see now that there was a need to fill a void in my identity as a young girl that was kind of struggling to develop, and so I was of course drawn to align my ears and heart with powerful women to guide me into womanhood. Every little girl has that in some way, that thing that they sing at the top of their lungs in their bedroom, or make dance routines to that gave them the strength and power that they needed to have at that time. Tori, Joni and Björk taught me that it was ok to be fearless and authentic, and showed me what it meant to be a strong woman. I really looked to them for that.
Today, I still surround myself musically by badass women who inspire me. They range from Nai Palm (Hiatus Kaiyote), Oumou Sangare, Yukimi Nagano (Little Dragon), Kimbra, Kate Bush, Nina Simone, Gillian Welch, Cyndi Lauper, Billie Holliday, Esperanza Spalding, Imogen Heap, Joanna Newsom, Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Fiona Apple, Laura Nyro, Ella Fitzgerald and last but not least Laura Mvula. Laura has become a friend and future musical collaborator that I hope to include on my next album 'Regina' - an album inspired by queens (historical and figurative), the feminist icon Queen Elizabeth I, and the Elizabethan era.
I have enjoyed exploring these feminist themes in my music. My song 'Imperfect Animals' on my last album is a parody about a desire to be the perfect woman, in relationships, career, and other aspects of life. In the video I dressed up as a 50s housewife who was under-appreciated by her husband (portrayed by a monkey).
I believe if you are really true to yourself, then nobody can sound like you. Thanks to Joni, Tori and Bjork, I learned a fearlessness in creating my art and exploring the musical landscape, thanks mums!
Becca Stevens plays the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Monday 18th July as part of Lauren Laverne's 'Wonder Women' series of summer gigs with The Globe.
'Regina' will be released in early 2017Suggest a correction