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levi6_4385Australian Musician discovered Washington-based artist Levi Stephens on the Reverb Nation artist website. Editor Greg Phillips was so impressed, he decided to catch up with Levi on Skype for a chat

Elements of the American music press have labelled Washington DC based singer, songwriter Levi Stephens a cross between John Legend and John Mayer … and they’d be partly right. Stephens possesses a similar songwriting strength, a natural instinct for soul and an expressive voice to round it out … all qualities you can hear on his 2010 released album ‘This Way’. However,  it’s not that Levi has been influenced directly by those two artists, rather it’s all three who have borrowed from the classic blues, soul and RnB artists who have gone before them.  Those influences were implanted in Stephens  from an early age. When his dad passed away, he’d left behind a great legacy … the love of music he’d instilled inside his son’s heart and soul via an incredibly eclectic record collection. “My ears were exposed to so much music,” Levi explains of his childhood. “My dad listened to so much music. My dad was a blue collar guy so he was workin’ all the time.  I guess it instilled a work ethic but also gave me the sense that this music was the music that could be the soundtrack to your day or life and I have always wanted to make music that made people feel like that.”

In fact, Stephens can pinpoint a pivotal moment in his life to a single song he heard coming out of the family sound system. “I was probably about five years old,” he recalls. “I was in the house and I was playin’, doin’ what kids do, runnin’ around the house and ‘Higher Ground’ by Stevie Wonder came on. I heard the line, ‘I’m so glad God let me try it again because my last time on earth, I lived a whole world of sin’. I remember, even at the age of five, that line really stuck out for me. I was like … what does that mean? What was he tryin’ to say there? Is he livin’ again? I remember that goin’ through my mind at five years old and trying to wrap my brain around what he just said. For me, I think that was a turning point in terms of an artist and music which reached out and grabbed your soul, even a five year old soul! Just trying to make sense of something that you’d heard which was that heavy and that good.”

levistephensguitarStephens wasn’t always going to be a performer. He had a knack for writing tunes, was trained in music production and was making a good living writing and producing for others. He had a batch of new songs though, some deeply personal and he wasn’t willing to give them over to another artist. These were tunes he needed to record for himself.  “I wasn’t going to do an artist thing but my dad passed away,” he says. “When he passed away, that made me want to  follow through with a dream I had when I was a kid, of being an artist. I didn’t necessarily want to be an artist all the time or be a producer all the time. I had these songs in my head and I wanted to make sure that If anyone was going to do these songs, as opposed to me selling them … some of these songs were very personal. Personal experience had inspired these songs so I just wanted to go in and record the album.”

The 12 track album, ‘This Way’ was released in 2010 and has been a platform for Stephens to gain a lot more work, locally, interstate and as far away as Mexico and Canada. It presents the many and varied musical shades of Stephens, perfectly encapsulating his talent as a songwriter, musician and vocalist. The songs are constructed with care and showcase Levi’s ability to create both poignancy and joy with simply the right notes choices or a perfectly layered harmony. Also evident on ‘This Way’ is Stephens’ skill as a producer and arranger. “I studied production and I studied music,” he tells me. “I studied music history. I listened to the great producers from different eras and genres.” It shows!

Four years down the track from ‘This Way’, Levi is on the verge of completing the follow up album, to be titled ‘Only What We Dream’. He is eight songs in and plans to release the new 12 track album in January 2015. It has an interesting concept behind it too.
“It is actually going back to why I decided to do music in the first place,” he explains.  “The concept is based on … and this is really corny … I bought my first HD Television about two years ago. We’d been touring. I’d had nice televisions but I never had a HD television. I was messin’ around with the wide screen and panoramic views, the different views of the screen. It was funny because you could see more with the panoramic view. Even though it doesn’t seem like it is showing you the whole screen. It feels like a smaller screen but more of a wider look. I was thinking, it is funny how we do that with life and dreams and goals. We continue to shave off edges. Say your dream was to be astronaut and somebody tells you can’t be an astronaut … you start skimming down the edges. As you get older, the scope of your dreams and your goals gets smaller and smaller. I want that panoramic view so I am going back to that.”

levistephensb&WOn stage and in the studio, Levi’s main acoustic guitar is a Taylor Custom 410 which he has owned for around 7 years. When recording, he likes the strings to be at least 2 or 3 weeks old. “I like maybe two weeks of gigs strings … because you get a little bit of grit'” he says. “They’e still bright and relatively new strings but they are not brand, brand new strings. Brand new strings squeak and do a lot of other  stuff on tape,  so I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear the warmth of the strings on the guitar.” Levi has a tried and true method of recording his acoustic guitar parts too. “My formula is … I’ll use like an STT Millenia as the pre amp,” he explains. “I’ll use either a Neumann TLM103, a big dynamic mic or a small Neumann KM184 on the fret. I’ll put the big dynamic mic right on the sound hole. I don’t necessarily need wooden floors. I have recorded in studios like that which is really cool but I like a nice padded dead room so it picks up everything, all the nuances, the fingering … everything. Give me a fire blanket in front of a wall with mics right there with a sound-proof booth and just get that sound there in the little pocket.”

As a performer who has no trouble finding work in the arts fertile city of DC, Levi is looking to break out of his comfort zone, broaden his horizons and seek the bigger picture  … the panoramic view! “For me now, the grand scheme is to continue recording, get out another album not this far after the last one was released. Do more music, do more writing for other artists … that was something I got away from the last couple of years and that was the thing that got me into music. To get overseas, do some dates overseas, that’s the biggest goal I have right now.”

Levi’s Soundcloud page

See below for the full Skype interview and Levi in concert


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