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Photo of
Photo By Alexandra Mastersoln
Ted Stevens

Sharing with Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens likes to share. That's not always easy for an only child or so the cliché goes but he insists music should be a shared experience. His point is that when he plays a show, he doesn't want to play to people as much he hopes to interact with them, with music as the basis for the interaction.

"The work that I make is about sharing with people," said Stevens, a Louisville-based songwriter whose album Waiting came out earlier this year, first as an independent and then on SonaBLAST! Records. "That's what we enjoy when we play, is building up that dialogue with an audience and sharing the music.

Ted Stevens

Photo By Alexandra Masterson

Ted Stevens Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens

Photo By Alexandra Masterson

Ted Stevens Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens

Photo By Alexandra Masterson

Ted Stevens Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens

Photo By Alexandra Masterson

Ted Stevens Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens

Photo By Alexandra Masterson

Ted Stevens Ted Stevens

Ted Stevens

Photo By Alexandra Masterson

Ted Stevens Ted Stevens

"The thing that attracted me to pop and rock music as kid was the sense that these songs could be about me or people I know or things that were going on. You could have a terrible day and turn on a song and it's saying everything you want to say about [your bad day]."

And like many of us, Stevens found solace, even friendship, in music at an early age.

"As an only child, I think I felt it was someone I could talk to, only it was records," he said. "I think I wanted to share and to communicate. To varying degrees we all kind of go through the same stuff. Maybe we don't know it all the time. A good song can kind of show you those threads, show you those ties.

To do that, he said, is to play your songs in front of other people, and in the process to "give yourself away and see what you get back.

"I'm not talking about applause," Stevens said. "I'm talking about something you may not see right away."

And so it is when Stevens starts talking about music. This is a guy whose passion for his craft is evident around the clock he truly seems to eat, drink and sleep music. His formal training came at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drum in Glasgow, Scotland. (The institution has since been renamed the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. "Makes me sound like I should have a sash and a hat," Stevens said.)

Of course, getting picked up by SonaBLAST!, which lists Ben Sollee and Peter Searcy in its stable of talent, is evidence that Stevens is sharing something good. Check out his videos for "Sally's Alright" and "You Got Away," and what you'll see is a young musician who is brimming with desire and energy.

Hey, music is supposed to be fun. That isn't lost on Stevens or his bandmates.

"Playing with Ted has been a lot of fun," said Kirk Kiefer, Stevens' bassist. The two met via overlapping musical projects at Downtown Recording Studio, and he agreed to play some shows backing Ted, more or less as a hired gun.

"When I initially signed on, I'd never met him and figured I'd just be playing what was on the recordings he had already cut," Kiefer said. "But once we discovered our shared love for Springsteen, Wings and 'Seinfeld,' we became friends and things became more collaborative."

Stevens and his new band, including Kiefer and drummer Tony Gantt, have been playing plenty of shows around town and are hoping to start booking more out of town. Stevens also got the chance to open for Webb Wilder in the fall, which fits his plan to be seen and heard by as many new eyes and ears as possible. A new album is in the works, and Stevens wants to keep gaining momentum.

THE SCOTTISH INFLUENCE

Stevens went to school for a specific reason. OK, a couple of reasons obviously, he wanted a degree, and indeed, he earned a Bachelor of Arts Honors in Contemporary Performance Practice. "It's in a drawer somewhere," he said.

"I really went over there to learn how to consciously make art," he explained. "When you start writing [songs] you sort of do it unconsciously; you start throwing stuff out there and hope something sticks. Every four songs you get a good song; every five shows you have a good show. I wanted to expand my toolbox. ... I wanted to really explore what I was doing as an artist and understand it, do it consciously."

And it was also while studying in Glasgow that he wrote and recorded the tracks for Waiting. He estimates that 90 percent of the album was done there in his home studio, with the final touches being added at Downtown upon his return.

He said his experience in Glasgow was positive in large part because the curriculum wasn't centered on grades, but rather focused on creation.

"You didn't get your grades until months after you were done with whatever piece of performance you were creating," he said, "and you really didn't care. What I learned is the attempt is the most important part. To have the courage to make that attempt."

Stevens said that even if an attempt to create something fails, it should be considered a "glorious failure."

"That's what was important," he said. "To understand what I had been experimenting with in high school and trying to make sense of it. Just because I have a degree doesn't mean I know anything, but I have the ability to reflect on it."

And so it was with this newfound perspective that he made his triumphant return to Louisville. Well, sort of.

"I wouldn't say triumphant so much as terrified," Stevens said, only halfway joking. "My plan was, really for the first time in life to focus 100 percent on music to finish up Waiting, put a band together and learn what it really means to be a working musician."

Come to think of it, that does sound fairly terrifying. But so far, so good. After spending years writing songs and also learning about recording at Downtown Recording he still performed primarily as a solo act. So, after four years away, he knew putting together a band quickly wouldn't be as easy as it might sound.

"I had been e-mailing tracks back and forth, getting input and opinions, collaborating" with his contacts at Downtown, which is part of why the record was so nearly complete when he graduated. However, "I had been a solo musician for years, that's pretty much all I did."

Apparently, this is when fate stepped in, and he met Kiefer. While Kiefer figured he would simply be a hired sideman, the two clicked and began working together.

"I don't think I ever told him he was in the band," Stevens said. "I just kept calling him. We developed a really nice working relationship and friendship."

So much so that Stevens helped Kiefer in recording and releasing his solo album Sailing Stones earlier this year.

Kiefer called the cross collaboration "a good way for the two of us to see each other's abilities from a different angle.

"While Ted is still the 'captain of the ship' so to speak, everyone's able to throw out suggestions and mold the arrangements. Having been in bands where I had to just sit in the back and play what I was told, I can say it's much more exciting to have an active hand in the process."

And Stevens welcomes the collaboration. He said Kiefer has become "a very important figure in the group because he's so driven and motivated."

The two worked with countless drummers (a la Spinal Tap) before getting Gantt to come on board. Stevens added that Gantt "is just absolutely fantastic." In fact, despite the long search, Stevens said Gantt was worth the wait. In fact, they knew almost immediately in Gantt's audition they'd found their guy.

"Kirk and I were trying not to have giant grins," he said.

"They're very supportive," he continued, "and they bring lot of ideas to the table."

He noted that he gets the same kind of support from SonaBLAST! as well. "It's kind of nice to have people to collaborate with," Stevens said. "That's what I've always liked to do musically and artistically put a lot of ideas into a single pool and filter it through a lot of heads. It's good to have lot of bigger ideas."

"I think the end result tends to be better as well," Kiefer said. "Ted and I both have very similar sensibilities, so it's not as if we're at cross-purposes when deciding the direction a tune should take. I know with me personally, having an outside ear is essential because it's easy to get too close to your own material, so I imagine I'm able to be that ear for Ted's songs too.

"Plus I have some dirt on him, which allows me to get my way if we disagree."

THE REST OF THE STORY

What happens now obviously has yet to be written, but Stevens is at least working on an outline.

For starters, having SonaBLAST! on board can only help matters. And that was another chance encounter, kind of like how he and Kiefer began working together.

"Just by chance, Jaxon [Swain, of SonaBLAST!] came down to Downtown Recording and I put a record in his hand," Stevens said. "I sat in with a band two or three years ago when I was here on vacation, and that's when I met Gill [Holland, SonaBLAST!'s founder]. At that point I was still living overseas. Gill was really excited by 'Into the Black' and he wanted to work with us."

The first benefit was the label got Stevens booked into the NuLu Festival on September 22. "That was a great night," Stevens said. "We had a blast except I broke my guitar. I have a Gretsch hollow body. I got too into [the show], and I kind of came down at the end of a jump and shoved the input jack right up into [the body of the guitar]. You feel like you've broken your child's arm."

Stevens isn't necessarily keen on doing more videos, even though he recognizes its importance as a promotional tool.

"Obviously, the Internet at this point is everyone's television and their radio," he said. Video is a very powerful medium, otherwise nobody would do it. Videos have kind of replaced album art; videos are how you project what marketing execs would call your image."

His first video ("Sally's Alright") was filmed to look like the band was performing on a 1960s variety show. The second ("You Got Away") follows Stevens and Kiefer on a fruitless journey to find a girl who took off without warning. The videos were shot and produced by ThoughtFly Studios, which is run by local filmmakers Matt Niehoff and Brian Cunningham.

"The first one ["Sally] was made in a day," Stevens said. "We knew what we wanted to do; I spent most of my adolescence at Walden Theater, and they just gave us the space for the day."

"Got Away" features Kiefer driving a 1967 Mustang convertible all over creation, taking Stevens from place to place to find his girlfriend. The car was on loan from a local guy named Dave Powers from the Derby City Mustang Club, and it took a long time to find it.

"If you're going to put a car in the video, you've got to find the right car," Stevens said.

However, it was made abundantly clear that the car must come back unscratched. It didn't help that Kiefer has a long history of totaling vehicles even though it's never been his fault. Careless motorists just seem to like to run into him.

"He's got terrible luck with cars," Stevens said. "People [at the shoot] kept coming up to him and saying, 'Don't crash this car.' It was terrifying."

The car did come back unscathed, fortunately.

Regardless of whether more videos get shot (the smart money says they will), Stevens said the future looks exciting because of the collaborative nature of the band now, and the fact that the new album will be recorded to tape rather than digitally. Take that, ProTools.

"I'm really excited about the next record," Stevens said. "First of all, this is the first record I'm going to cut with my band, so that's going to be different. We've decided we're never going to touch a computer. All to tape, all outboard gear, mixed and mastered outboard, and we're going to try to cut it as live as possible."

Why? "Because it sounds better," Kiefer said.

Stevens had a slightly different take: "Since coming back, I've worked hard at trying to become a little bit more primitive. All the songs on Waiting were written as productions, so there was no band, and I had no rules.

"Now we're going to create something with a band that is a bit more visceral and aesthetic. That's the journey as a band that we're about to embark upon: Trying to find the purest part of recording."

He said he wants it to be recorded "old style, just guys in the clubhouse trying to serve the song in the best way possible."

This is further evidence of Stevens' interesting sense of ambition.

"It's nice to be playing with someone who has ambition," Kiefer said. "I've played with a lot of bands over the years and many seem content to play the usual places, maybe do a "Live Lunch." There's nothing wrong with that, but I know I'd love to play in front of some new people and play some bigger venues, and Ted's one of the few folks I've met who not only shares that desire, but is willing to put in the effort to make it happen."

"I just want to keep getting out there meeting new audiences, playing new places, trying to see what else the songs on Waiting can do," Stevens said. "I think the important thing when writing a song is that you don't understand it fully so that you really don't start to understand what it's about 'til you're on stage. They're on a record, there's a permanent version, but they never stop growing."

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