Laura Stevenson takes on the universe

The New York-based songwriter talks about heat death and her new album, and premieres a new single, “Dermatillomania.”

March 27, 2019
Laura Stevenson takes on the universe Photo: Rachel Brennecke  

Laura Stevenson is laying on her bed in a robe and long johns. She just had a cup of coffee and managed to get a lot of sleep the night before, which sounds like it was necessary. When she got back from SXSW and started up her car at LaGuardia, the sky opened up and a massive storm descended. “There was hail and lightning streaking across the sky,” Stevenson tells me over the phone. “It was crazy.”

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I ask her if she believes in bad omens, and she says it didn’t really cross her mind — but, it would’ve been ridiculous if she’d died on that leg of the trip, given that she’s scared of flying. Like most nervous fliers, she counts time in her mind; after the recent Boeing crashes, she was rattling off roughly 360 Mississippis. “Part of me was like, 'Ehh, I'm not gonna die. That would just be like, funny at this point.' I was pretty okay with it. I don't know why. Maybe I'm just... fine, emotionally, right now,” she says with a laugh.

“Maybe I’m over the phase where I’m thinking about death every second,” she continues. “That was my whole 20s, and now I'm making up for lost time. I wouldn't be able to sleep — I was just thinking about how I'm gonna die, and that's so terrifying. I wasted so much time worrying about it that I wasn't really” — she affects a voice that sounds like she’s rolling her eyes at herself—“‘living.' It's a bit cliché. But now I'm like, 'Fuck it, let's do this thing.'”

Today’s a new day, and Stevenson is flying high. “I feel like I could take on the world,” she says. And Stevenson’s songwriting reveals someone in a constant state of taking on the world. Dressed in folk and Americana that sometimes skews toward both her punk roots and big, bright pop, her writing can be almost unbearably intimate — often self-deprecating, consistently vulnerable. If her words don’t penetrate your heart, her voice — nimble, high-flying, and powerful — is the knife-twist between the ribs that will open it up.

There’s a moment on “Living Room, NY,” the first single on her new album, The Big Freeze, when a fast-paced swirl of reverb-drenched, finger-picked electric guitar falls out and turns gentle and quiet. “I’ll give an arm just to hear you in the dark, sayin’ ‘Living Room, New York,’” she sings, feeling like the quiet energy that might be released if everyone the world over simultaneously remembered that time they missed that person they loved — how they thought the feeling might make them burst into nothingness.

With The Big Freeze, Stevenson takes on the universe. The universe is constantly expanding, and the “Big Freeze” theory posits that, as the degree of disorder in the universe reaches its maximum value, thermodynamic free energy will decline to a point where all life stops. The universe will eventually “burn out,” and planets and stars and everything else will die, slowly becoming cold, lifeless husks.

Laura Stevenson takes on the universe Photo: Rachel Brennecke  

“The end of things is always something I think about,” Stevenson says. “I was obsessed with how the tides are gonna rise and how we're gonna run out of water — which we are. It's all shit that's happening. Then I got more metaphysical and traveled even further into space. Something about the big freeze just spoke to me. It's so lonely, infinite, beautiful, and sad, but that's the way life is.”

The album may suggest something all-consumingly vast, but The Big Freeze’s lens is turned decidedly inward as Stevenson takes on her own boundless universe. While she’s never shied away from being honest about herself, these songs feel even more personal than what’s come before, even at their most esoteric. The song structures are fluid, the lyrics are cryptic and spellbindingly expressive. A joke during recording, between her and the album’s co-producer/engineer Joe Rogers was how it’s an “unsyncable” record — weird songs, tempos all over the place, no hooks.

Their comfortability working together is one of the reasons The Big Freeze is so undaunting in its exploration of Stevenson’s inner worlds. It was recorded at her mom’s house, so there was no need to rush. The aim during recording was to conjure what she felt when writing, and they talked about each song in depth before committing them to tape. “The stakes were low, which was nice,” she explains. “We were like, 'Let's fucking feel the way that it's supposed to feel, and if for some reason I'm standing in my own way and hating myself too much, we move on.’ That was a really beautiful way to work, because I'm so critical of myself.”

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Sometimes that process was painful, too; “Value Inn” is about retreating to a cheap hotel to inflict self-harm, while “Dermatillomania” (premiering below) is a bouncy but graphic tune that namechecks a psychological condition that causes a person to pick at their skin. “I got pretty heavy with Joe before each song,” Stevenson recalls. “It was a lot, but it was also therapeutic to be talking intensely about this shit. You don't really talk about what you write about, especially right before you make a record, because nobody's asking questions yet.”

The closing track, “Perfect,” is about the summer she, her best friend, and her sister valiantly attempted to set the Guinness World Record for most rotations on a Skip-It — just steps away from where she recorded The Big Freeze. “I think about my best friend, who's got some kids now. I haven't spoken to her in 10 years,” Stevenson admits. “She was the most important figure in my life. The world was fucked up and sad, but we didn't even realize how fucked up and sad it was then. Now it's the same fucked up and sad, and we're just in it and accepting it. I don't know what was better — not knowing or knowing. I miss those parts of my life. There's grief and loss, but also hopefulness.”

She bristles at her use of the words “nostalgic” and “wistful”; there’s so much blur, Stevenson says, but it's punctuated by these small moments of extreme clarity—sometimes horrible and frightening and formative, sometimes gorgeous and warm. Both types are important to the story, but it’s the latter moments that give off the kind of heat needed to carry out the quixotic task of taking on The Big Freeze. When Stevenson softly sings on “Perfect,” “Damned near perfect we were, passing rashes and words that don’t mean a thing,” she doesn’t render the moment in hues of nostalgia — she breathes life, a little thermodynamic energy, into her own universe.

And sparking a little heat by giving life to the warmest moments of our lives can provide radical comfort on a rocky ascent, or a long drive through a wild storm. Maybe enough of it could even stave off the heat death of everything that ever existed and will ever exist. After all, nobody knows what’s going to happen to the universe. “That's scary, but also kind of beautiful in its way,” Stevenson marvels. “What happened? Why are we here? What's gonna happen? And then once you accept that, it's okay. Sort of.”

Laura Stevenson takes on the universe