As one of the more gifted guitarists around town, John Stevens has been lending his talents to numerous local artists for more than two decades. His resume features the likes of Carey Wolff, Sally Majestic, and Confusatron to name just three. Most recently, in perhaps his most notable gig, he’d been the touring guitarist backing Lannie Flowers, former frontman for ’80s power pop icons The Pengwins, through his resurgence in recent years.
From blues to jazz and from indie to country to jam bands, Stevens has played it all. Yet after spending the bulk of the current millennium playing and recording music for others, he’d never really applied his skills to recording his own music. That changed just last week with the release of Living Room, his very first solo album.
“This is it, my solo debut,” Stevens said. “It occurred to me that in all the years and years of playing and being in different bands — jazz, funk, reggae-rock, a pretty wide gamut of genres — what I’ve actually played most is at home alone with an acoustic guitar. Sometime over the summer I thought, ‘Man, it’d be cool to put out an album.’ ”
Originally envisioned as an acoustic instrumental EP, due to some coaxing from producer Taylor Tatsch (Maren Morris, Shadows of Jets, Cutthroat Finches), and some growing confidence as a songwriter, Stevens fleshed out some of the material to include other instrumentation as well as adding his voice. The result is a nine-song collection of tracks that marry two distinct, yet curiously complementary, sounds. The album alternates playfully between a well-hewn, soulful Americana with lush, full-band backing and beautiful, baroque instrumental acoustic interludes. Impassioned blues/country rock tracks like “The Devil’s Gone and Let Me Down” and “If I Sing” sit alongside dreamy, intricate, Tommy Emmanuel-esque fingerstyle ballads like “Duncan” and “Oliver’s Lullaby,” and both inexplicably seem to belong right where they are.
“The genesis and the concept of [the album] was to let people know what I sound like when I’m not in a power-pop outfit or playing a specific genre,” he said. “When I take my guitar off the wall and sit down on my couch, this is what comes out.”
Living Room’s origin, unfortunately, has become an all-too-familiar one for many releases this past year. It’s another example of an artist turning a terrible situation into a period of creativity. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of Flowers’ planned tour to support his 2019 album Home, and the newly reopened Moon Bar, where Stevens supplemented his income by managing and tending bar, closed as well. He suddenly found himself stuck at home with nothing but time. As he sat killing the hours playing guitar, his thoughts turned to documenting some of the songs he’d been working on. Some, like “Oliver’s Lullaby,” he’d been toying with for years. He said he hopes it faithfully describes how he sees himself as a musician.
Perhaps one surprising element of the album is in just how confident a singer Stevens is. Far from any hint of the tentative reservation that might be reasonably expected of a career instrumentalist, Stevens offers the full-voiced aplomb of a veteran singer comfortable with his voice.
“I started as a singer,” he said. “I fronted bands through high school, so it wasn’t really different for me to sing. Up until about 2002, when I got into Confusatron … I started to take more of a backseat, focusing instead on learning my instrument and learning different styles of music. I guess when I felt that I finally had a little more to say, it just came naturally.”
Though he admits he’s still a bit inexperienced with formal songwriting, Stevens said he hopes this album is the beginning of a new direction, one he intends to keep developing and taking further.
“It remains a little bit foreign to me,” he said about writing lyrics, “certainly more than I wish that it was. I don’t keep a journal or anything like I probably should. It’s definitely not a skill as fluent to me as playing guitar, which I’ve been doing literally since I was 5 years old. It is the hardest thing for me to do, but I’m learning that really the hardest thing is just to be honest, and then everything else falls into place.”