In the years since the release of her critically acclaimed third album, Perfect Animal, Stevens has undertaken a journey that began with a study of Queen Elizabeth I. This expanded into tributes to various queens from history, literature, folklore, and her own imagination, to songs inspired by the regal and divine, and finally to Regina as a voice, like a trusted friend or an alter ego.
“I’ve found that by removing my plots from the storylines I’ve accessed more of my artistry than in my writing before,” says Stevens. “Even though my writing for ‘Regina’ was inspired by other characters, I told their stories by means of relating to them on a personal level, which made them my stories too. Writing with Regina as my muse has allowed my art free rein to dance in new and unexpected directions.”
As for her muse for the album, Stevens explains, “‘Regina’ has become an alter ego, or an imaginary friend. Like a dream, she exists separate from me but is reliant upon my consciousness to exist. I carry her with me in everything now. So I guess you could say that neither ends; in Becca, there is always Regina, and in Regina, there is always Becca.”
Stevens’ style has always evaded categorization, and with ‘Regina’, even more so. One hears pop, rock, R&B and funk side-by-side with traditional Appalachian and British folk, classical, world music, and jazz. Intricate instrumentation and rhythms seamlessly intertwine with vocals and melodies that draw you in and stay with you. When asked how so many different influences worked their way into her music Stevens laughed, “Story of my life. I grew up in a house filled with opera and banjo tunes, majored in classical guitar in high school, studied composition in college in a jazz school, and in New York City I am surrounded by every musical sound you could possibly imagine. I love and am inspired by good music, no matter the genre or where it came from.”
‘Regina’, her first release on GroundUP Music, also marks the first time Stevens has recorded solely under her own name, instead of as the Becca Stevens Band. “I’ve been inspired for a few years now to make a record as ‘Becca Stevens’ as opposed to ‘Becca Stevens Band,’” Stevens explains. “It’s by no means a departure from my bandmates, as they are still all featured and essential parts of this album and will be the ones touring the music with me, but more so inspired by a desire to open the floodgates of artistic collaboration. There are so many artists I’ve come across lately who inspire me and whom I have the desire to write for and collaborate with. Bringing this energy of collaboration into my writing and record making process has given my music more direction, and clarity of artistic vision and self-expression. I feel like a painter finally painting her muse after a lifetime of painting landscapes and self-portraits.”
Produced by Troy Miller, Regina features creative and performance collaborations with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, Jacob Collier, Laura Mvula, and the legendary David Crosby. The album was recorded in several phases – in London with Miller, a second London session with Collier (a co-producer on the album along with Stevens and League), and alternating sessions with Miller and League in Brooklyn. During the Brooklyn sessions, Stevens reunited with her trusted band members; Liam Robinson, Chris Tordini, and Jordan Perlson. Additional collaborations included Alan Hampton, Jo Lawry, and string arrangements by Nathan Schram with Hamilton Berry, and the award-winning Attacca Quartet.
The album opens with “Venus,” a triumphant anthem that uses imagery of Venus rising from dark waters. Stevens is joined on the track by layers of Mvula’s powerful vocals. Over a sinister bass line and an intricate yet thumping beat, “Queen Mab” is Stevens’ reinterpretation of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The music perfectly encapsulates Mab, a devious little fairy who visits people in their dreams to fill their heads with lies.
Co-written with K Nita and Don Miggs, the title track “Regina” is the story of a girl who has lost her way, and calls out “Regina won’t you come back home.” With another vocal assist from Mvula, “Well Loved” was inspired by the writings of Sei Shōnagon, who although having royal blood, was a gentlewoman living in the Empress’ court in Japan during the late 900’s. “I found Sei’s writings to be so charming and current,” says Stevens. “They seemed something I could have written in my diary only a few years ago.” Stevens was introduced to The Pillow Book by her friend and collaborator Aya Nishina when they were commissioned to perform new music together at the Jazz Gallery, the same nonprofit organization that commissioned the first version of Regina.
An 80’s-inspired track propelled by handclaps and a siren-like keyboard, “Mercury” features lyrics pulled from Freddie Mercury lyrics and interviews. “I knew I wanted to include a song for Freddie Mercury on this project because of the ‘Queen’ connection,” says Stevens. “I was watching Queen videos and reading about Freddie Mercury to find a direction for the lyric and stumbled upon on all these amazing quotes of things he’d said in interviews. I started jotting down all my favorite quotes, and as I scanned over what I’d chosen it already started to read like song lyrics. I moved a few things around, repeated others, and assembled them in a way that suited a melody that started to emerge.”
A co-write with Crosby, “The Muse” is a haunting, gorgeous song about being open to visits from the Muse whenever she might arrive. “David emailed me this lyric, along with a few others to set to music. I chose this one,” explains Stevens. “The lyric really speaks to me. The Muse, queen of the arts, is always with us. Sometimes the trials of life distract us and we think she’s off with someone else. But if you know ‘how to listen to your calling,’ and if you ‘go faithfully each day and open up your head someway, somehow’ you’ll find that she’s always there waiting for you. This lyric also spoke to me because it is an homage to Regina herself.”
Stevie Wonder’s “As” is the lone cover on Regina, and it closes the album. It’s a collaboration with Collier, whom Stevens says feels like “a sibling from several past lives.” Their version is a stripped down take that still holds onto the original’s sweetness. “I arranged this for a friend’s wedding a few years ago” says Stevens. “It’s the ultimate unconditional-love-song, and to me embodies goddess-like mother earth energy and the infinite love of a mother looking at her child.”
Stevens’ 2015 album ‘Perfect Animal’ was released to wide critical acclaim. NPR’s All Things Considered said Stevens “looks for detours and wild ear-stretching sounds that make you want to listen again,” and the New York Times said she “has a wizardly proficiency on an array of stringed instruments, and her singing is luxurious: pliable and hale but often foreshadowing a sob.”
Since the release of ‘Perfect Animal’, Stevens has toured the world, most recently joining Crosby on the road for his Lighthouse tour (Stevens also co-writes and sings on the album of the same name). Live performances of the songs from Regina have met with ecstatic enthusiasm and rave reviews, demonstrating a staggering spectrum of musical ideas, emotional scope, and poetic magic. So is this the mature Becca Stevens style that she will repeat on her next CD? “No way.” says Becca. “Stay tuned for more surprises.”