from deep in the western North Carolina mountains.
BY FRED MILLS
The BLURT staff put our heads (and ears) together and we
have our latest pick for our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept Secret”: it’s Asheville,
NC, combo stephaniesid, whose distinctive sound – swirly-but-edgy pop, with
elements of noirish jazz, dancey Björk-meets-Feist stylings and throbbing rock
– has been steadily pushing the band to the forefront of the regional indie
music scene. Fronted by extroverted vocalist Stephanie Morgan, they’ve issued
three records to date, including 2007’s well-received Grus Americanus. Morgan and her bandmate (and husband) Chuck
Lichtenberger have also spearheaded the annual POPAsheville music fest, which
increasingly is helping to put Asheville
on the music industry’s national radar.
The band plans to issue a new album, Warm People, on the Nine Mile label in May and will be touring up
and down the east coast (and even out to Texas) leading up to and following the
release. If the BLURT magic 8-ball can be trusted, all signs point to “yes”
that 2009 will be the year the already-impressive buzz on stephaniesÄd will
spread far and wide beyond the confines of their home base.
Tune in to BLURT radio if you want to hear an MP3 by the band
– just click on the music player image on the right hand side of our homepage and
scroll down for the song. Meanwhile, check out the band’s MySpace page for more
song samples, tour dates, details on getting their previous releases, etc. And
congratulations to stephaniesÄd, ‘cause they’re one of the good ‘uns; trust us.
The members: Morgan, vox & keys; Lichtenberger, keys & vox; Zach
Alberto, drums; Matthew Richmond, vibraphone and percussion; Jon Reid,
trombone, trumpet, melodica, vox; Michael Libramento, guitar.
We talked to Morgan about the group, about Asheville, and about the origins of that, er,
slightly enigmatic band name.
BLURT: Tell us a little about your musical
roots, how stephaniesÄd came together and how things have evolved thus far.
I grew up on A.M. radio and old 8-track tapes of the Bee Gees and the Beatles.
I played on my grandparents’ organ a lot and made up songs. I got a big
crush on British pop music – 4AD bands and some clubby stuff – in the ‘80s
because I really like to dance. I never really intended to make music
myself, except that when I came to Asheville
to work at a wilderness camp, there was no music [except] guitars or whatever
you could play around a campfire, so I picked up a guitar and started writing
more songs. They sounded too folky to me, and I wanted to learn more ways
to play music, so I learned 30 jazz standards for one of my first gigs, with a
band that needed a singer. I emulated the voices of all the greats, and
eventually found my own voice and relationship with the audience.
2001, I really wanted to start a pop/rock band. I assembled a group of
great jazz players and I threw these pop arrangements at them… our one show
was kind of disastrous. I was mostly intimidated by all of them and didn’t
know how to be their band leader – so I waited for awhile before trying the
band thing again! Then I met Chuck
Lichtenberger, who was playing with Asheville
theatrical rock band the Goodies and with R&B singer Kat Williams; he’s a
classically trained pianist with a lot of jazz experience, and was also into
Metallica and Van Halen, and he’d previously been in bands called “Stormy
Pony” and “Dank.” So our backgrounds were really
different, but he was able to really get where I was trying to go with the music,
and suggested much more interesting chords for the songs. [That’s when] we
really started creating what I already heard in my head.
played duo shows for a little while, started dating, and hosted events like
“Naked Music,” a showcase of pared-down musical acts. Then Chuck’s former
bandmate from the Goodies, Vic Stafford, who was also playing with Blueground Undergrass
and some other bands, joined us for awhile. He has become a sort of fifth
Beatle, producing and/or mixing on three of our albums.
would be a long exposition if I were
to name all the players that have been involved in stephaniesÄd! Suffice to say
that Chuck and I have met and fallen for many musicians over the years,
including vibraphonist Matthew Richmond, who plays with a lot of classical
projects and is the best vibes player I have ever heard, horn players, a prodigy
of a guitar player named Michael Libramento, and singers. We usually play
with a core including a drummer, some kind of bass, and keyboards – which are
presently our basses – and are partial to having some version of an expanded
“dream team” join us when we’re close to home… There’s a very warm
feeling to the band and its extended family. I think we’ve counted close
to 30 people over the entire history. Their influences and experiences
are all over the place, and they all play in other bands, too: Chuck and Matthew have a project called Spies
Among Us, and Chuck has a crazy rhythm-oriented soul-pop band called The
Archrivals for his own songs. Lucky for me, each also has a secret yen for the
music i like to make.
A lot of musicians are always thinking in
terms of “When can we move to NYC…?” or something similar, yet you
seem to have put down your roots pretty firmly, both with the band and by
staking an additional personal cause with your annual POPAsheville festival,
which has steadily grown and begun attracting national attention. How do you
fit in with or view the Asheville
music scene in general?
always felt simultaneously very at home and very displaced in Asheville. This city is riddled with
talent of all kinds… that is clear. But it’s mostly centered in the
roots arena – bluegrass, alt-country, Celtic.
Music that’s interested in preserving tradition or celebrating a certain
time in history. So it took awhile for our pop/rock to find our fans
here. Once we did, we realized how amazing they are. stephaniesÄd
truly has the most supportive fans we could ask for.
The city has grown tremendously, and Chuck and I started POPAsheville a few
years ago, which has spotlighted the indie pop/rock scene in Asheville and the region. We did that
as a way to provide a great show for out-of-town bands we owed shows to, and as
a sort of “ali-ali-income-free” for indie pop/rock bands in the
region. We wanted to build a scene for
ourselves, and a beacon for Asheville.
It seems to be working out! [There are
also several] local bands we’re great friends with, and play with a lot, or
them with us: Jar-e, Ménage, RubySlippers, and Jen & The Juice.
They’re not really pop/rock bands per se,
but we like to mix it up. It’s a small town; we’re all family.
And we love living in Asheville!
I always think of moving, and I travel quite a bit. I know that our band
may have had more traditional success by now if we had moved, and that still
could happen. But at the end of the day, coming home to these mountains,
and living in this city that so strongly nurtures authenticity and community,
is a blessing that just can’t be taken lightly.
When I’ve seen stephaniesÄd perform, I’ve
been struck by how very, very dynamic and physical the band is – does this come
naturally for you?
performed the same way when I was 3 years old, at my mother’s insurance
office. I lost it for awhile, though – you know, awkward teen
years. I thought I was supposed to be something other than myself.
is crazy to watch on stage. His face is priceless. Everyone is
really bringing it. I don’t think anyone’s putting that on, and we
wouldn’t play with them if they weren’t bringing all that they are to the
stage. It’s a great show when it feels like we’ve made a connection.
Biggest thrills to date? Disappointments?
Bonnaroo  was thrilling – really an amazing
time! It’s very well-run, and we saw some of the greatest bands.
Sigur Ros played, and since the bands all hang out backstage together, I got my
picture taken with Jonsi, the singer… I look like the dorkiest teenager in
the picture, because i was so starstruck! Michael saw Kanye West and Metallica
from rafters backstage, Krum hung out with the drummer from Battles, and Jar-e,
who was playing horns and singing with us, talked comedian Zach Galifianakis’
ear off in the hospitality tent. We had two really, really great shows
there, and we all had our own rockstar weekends. Which was sublimely fun
for us, because I don’t really see us that way in general; we’re relatively
chill on tour, and there are some cities where we play to 20 people. But
at Bonnaroo, we got free shoes from Converse, at the same time M.I.A. was
getting her free shoes.
Disappointments? Well, there are some. It’s disappointing sometimes to be
reminded that a lot of people don’t have their own internal compasses, and need
a sort of permission to invest heart or reputation on a certain band. That
permission might come from top 40 radio or from their friends, but regardless,
as our fanbase has grown, we’ve certainly seen how crowd begets crowd: “A
lot of people went to that show; that band must be a good band; I will go see
that band.” It happens with the media and with labels and all over the
biz. So I particularly love when a venue or a fan sticks his or her neck
out – and I can think of many right now… they certainly exist – and holds the
torch proudly, before or regardless of anyone else. I’ll now take this
opportunity to thank our longtime fans, who were there at the very beginning,
and anyone who has opened themselves up to us without knowing how many hits we
have on our MySpace page.
What can you tell us about Warm People?
if all goes as planned, we’ll release it on May 19. I am
so happy with this record. It is just as its title suggests: warm, and
also orchestral in places, and kind of tells the story of the power of the
connection between people. There are some songs that we’ve been playing
live for awhile but that hadn’t been recorded, and also some totally new
songs. A year or so ago I started playing a synth at live shows, and
there’s a lot of weepy synth sound on there, as well as vibraphone, gritty
guitar, horns, voices and harmony. It’s got a ton of energy, and still
stays warm and fuzzy. And we’re planning to press an awesome vinyl
version as well.
Non-standard band names such as !!!,
stellastarr*, stephaniesÄd, etc.: Savvy marketing and a means to stand out in a
crowd, or utterly pretentious and potentially problematic during Google
searches? Discuss. I’m sure you get asked about the origin of the name often….
Absolutely problematic re: Google and iTunes searches – o,
why must we conform to the digital age?!?! Pretentious? Sure. Probably. But it’s no secret that we
all think our bands are important and deserving of distinction.
Regardless, in spite of these issues, the name stephaniesÄd, spelled as such, came
about for mostly practical reasons. It
was actually the original spelling I had in mind, minus the symbol over the
“i”: the “id” allusion is of course to the Freudian/Jungian
seat of all impulses and desires, which I frame as mine or anyone else’s
“guts” or proverbial “little light” – I have a master’s
degree in mental health.
But back at the naming, I thought people wouldn’t know how to
pronounce “stephaniesid”, so I got practical and divided the name
into “Stephanie’s Id”, which when typed into a keyboard – dang
technology – was easily mistyped “Stephanie’s ID”, which upon further
deliveries into various hands came to be pronounced “Stephanie’s Eye-Dee”,
which prompted at least two reviewers and a multitude of fans to comment on the
band’s flippant name and how it almost kept them from listening at all! And
whenever we arrived for load-in at a club, the witty bartender would ask for my
I remembered a spelling book in elementary school that made use of symbols –
“sound spellings” – to help kids pronounce words. And I was
endeavoring to keep capital letters out of the picture. So for our last
album, the name morphed to the humbler “stephanie’s Äd” and for this
one it became the simpler, “stephaniesÄd”.
By the way, I’d recommend trying all of the above in the Google search!