In his journey to find himself Ben Stevenson has taken the long way round. Beginning as a teenager playing in punk bands in the same fertile Edmonton scene that produced artists like Mac DeMarco and Sean Nicholas Savage, Stevenson’s life has been built around, and sometimes consumed by, his passion for songwriting and his drive to craft the right medium for his creative expression.
As a punk singer he released his first record at 15, and spent his late teens and early twenties traveling around Canada in that guise, but it wasn’t until moving to Toronto that he began unpacking a different kind of sound. Following the break up of his band, and relatively alone in a new city, he found himself casting about for collaborators and caught the ear of Grammy award winning Toronto producer Boi-1da (Drake, Rihanna, Jay Z) and several others in his orbit, who invited Stevenson to write on their beats. It was a new kind of approach to making music for Stevenson, but one that aligned with the direction of his tastes, and it was creatively fruitful, as his first singles under his own name, the Megaman and Zalezy (Lil Wayne, Drake, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj) produced “Left You Behind,” and the Boi-1da produced “Falling Off,” generated international attention, and anointed Stevenson as an artist to watch in the increasingly hyped Toronto scene.
Stevenson’s debut EP, Dirty Laundry, followed in 2014 and saw him work with another Grammy-winning producer in Frank Ocean and Miguel collaborator Happy Perez. The EP attracted a similar deluge of attention as his first singles had, and was nominated for a JUNO the year of its release, but as his career appeared to be building momentum Stevenson found himself struggling to cope with the pressure.
“There was a whole thing built around it with this expectation of big record deals, and we were being flown out for meetings and put up in nice hotels and wined and dined,” Stevenson recalls. “The pressure was crazy and I was in a dark place in my life, and I wasn’t able to see things clearly at all. I kind of resigned from the situation and I think the people around me saw that, and there was a change in my relationship with the people who had been supporting me. In terms of the music that was actually being made, the resources weren’t being put into it. Ultimately there was a lot of build up but nobody wanted to pull the trigger, and I don’t blame them, I wasn’t doing my job. I don’t have any illusions about why that part of my life turned out the way it did.”
Following the release of the EP Stevenson retreated from making music, but after giving himself some distance to reflect on his experiences he began re-assessing his creative life and uncovering a new way to approach music.
“What I realized from all of this was that I needed to take the reigns of my own life,” he says. “I couldn’t rely on the idea that because someone has a name as a producer or has done this or that in the past, I can’t let that allow me to lose track of what I’m trying to do, and I have to treat the music I’m making with the adequate care and attention.”
That care is evident in spades on Stevenson’s forthcoming debut LP CaraCara. The album, which will be released on Culvert Music on September 22nd 2017, is a meticulously crafted collection of songs from an unburdened creative mind. Running the gamut from minimalist R&B, to orchestral psychedelia, to 70’s style folk and back again, while flirting with ideas as disparate as Alice Coltrane inspired spiritual jazz, Brazilian samba, or the glam strut of T Rex, the album is at once unselfconscious and stunningly ambitious.
Recorded in sessions that began at a studio near Joshua Tree National Park (“way up in the windy desert mountains. 6000 feet up or something”), and completed in a series of marathon studio sessions in Toronto, the album was produced by Stevenson and despite his new-found focus on maintaining control of his creative output, features contributions as producers, instrumentalists and co-writers from a wide network of collaborators including Daniel Caesar, BADBADNOTGOOD’s Matty Tavares, Project Pablo, Birthday Boy, Joseph Shabason of Destroyer / DIANA, and many more unsung heroes of the Toronto music scene.
“It was a different kind of experience for me,” says Stevenson. “I was trying to create an environment where everyone could be as comfortable as possible to put a piece of them into this album. I was trying to get this kind of sonic picture with each of them adding their influence to it, and just to have as much fun as possible, which worked out pretty well I’d say!”
According to Stevenson the varied and exploratory feeling the album conjures is the result not only of the influences and talents of those collaborators, but of the “physical and psychic” distance travelled towards this album over the course of his musical career. In a sense it’s an amalgamation of his experiences as he has endeavored to draw from the pieces of his past to forge his own way forward.
“There’s a blend of ideas that I’ve picked up in different contexts in the way this record was made, taking the lessons from the people I’ve worked with and applying them to making a record in the way I initially learned how to do it,” he says. “That’s kind of what I mean about finding my way. I had spent a long time making these decisions to be myopic, to limit my own creativity. And so with this I was trying to find my way out of that and to go to all the places I’d like to go with my material. I don’t know if I’ve done that with this record if I’m being honest, or if it’s even possible to get there, but I like to remind myself that it’s a path, and there is no destination.”