“Hope for a Positive Outcome”
When Bec Stevens made a trip from Hobart to Melbourne in early 2021, she didn’t think it would be much different from the other cross-Tasman jaunts she’d made over the years. While cutting her teeth in the underground indie scene around 2016 – playing solo in circles ruled by the likes of Camp Cope and Jen Buxton, supporting her low-key self-recorded debut EP ‘More Scared Than Me’ – the emo up-and-comer got used to hopping from Hobart to Sydney and Melbourne to perform.
But this trip proved especially eventful. Within a couple days of her arrival, Melbourne went into a three-month lockdown, leaving her “stuck in the city, just wandering around and sleeping on people’s couches”. With time to kill, she linked up with Jonathan ‘Jono’ Tooke, the Cry Club guitarist who’d go on to become a crucial force in shaping her debut album, ‘Big Worry’.
Before meeting Tooke, Stevens “didn’t have much confidence” as a recording artist. “I was working with people that weren’t very nice, and I didn’t feel very safe or comfy in the situations I was in,” she tells NME. “Quite often I’d record with someone and I’d end up just being like, ‘That’ll do,’ because I’d be too scared to ask for something different, or I wouldn’t know how because I’d never been in that setting before.”
Working with Tooke, though, was different. “I was able to be like, ‘I have no idea what the proper lingo is, but I know what I want this to sound like, and I’m going to communicate it to you in the weirdest way possible.’ And he was just like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ He was so receptive and open to everything throughout the whole process.”
Before she worked with Tooke, Stevens was convinced she’d never work with another musician again. But not only did Tooke play guitar on all 12 songs on ‘Big Worry’, the record features a heap of other collaborators. Cry Club’s Heather Riley and Stevens’ girlfriend Bridget Jessop (aka Eaglemont) sang harmonies, while Ceres’ Frank Morda played drums, and other guests included Max Stern of US punk staples Signals Midwest (who plays slide guitar on ‘Nightreader’), Tyler Richardson of Luca Brasi and Ben Stewart of Slowly Slowly.
The latter two sang backing vocals on the album’s emotional cornerstone, ‘James’ Song’, which is technically a cover: though never released, the gut-wrenching song was first written and recorded by Stevens’ close friend James McKenzie, who died by suicide in 2019.
“Songwriting gives me permission to talk about things that I didn’t give oxygen for a long time”
“James sent me that song after the last time I saw him,” Stevens says, her fingers dancing anxiously across the rim of her coffee cup. “I had an on-and-off [relationship] with him for years. It was kind of this ‘thing’ that never got to be – we always lived in different states and the stars never aligned, so we were always in this constant state of loving each other, but being upset and frustrated and always going on these different paths. So when he first sent that song to me, I heard it in a very different way. But then I listened to it again when I lost him – the same night I found out – and I just crashed into a heap.”
Performing ‘James’ Song’ is a cathartic act of mourning for Stevens and her band – its moment in the setlist often ends with at least one member of the group (usually the woman of the hour) in tears. It can be a raw moment, she says, but it’s one she embraces wholeheartedly.
“I’ve lost nine people to suicide over the last 10 years or so,” she says, “all in Tassie, all magnificent humans in their own right, all going through their own shit – shit I’ve gone through myself, and shit I still have friends going through – and the hardest part is that life just keeps going. Everything just keeps moving on – and it has to, I know that, but I hate when a person’s name gets removed from our day-to-day conversations. And at the crux of it, James is just a regular person, you know? And regular people don’t usually get that kind of legacy.”
Bec Stevens. Credit: Ian Laidlaw
Stevens continues to note that “when a famous person dies, it’s this whole thing”, citing Olivia Newton-John as an example (“incredible person, loved her, rest in peace”). She concedes that “obviously the whole world didn’t know James”, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t be mourned on such a mass scale, but it’s still important to realise that “[he] was incredible too”.
But it still wasn’t easy for Stevens to release ‘James’ Song’. As it neared its release as a single at the start of February, she “got really stressed” and “was crying nearly every day, just having panic attacks because there was this immense amount of pressure on me to say a lot of really important things, and say them all perfectly”.
It’s a tough spot to be in, having the spotlight blaring so brightly on you, crowds staring you down for answers to questions nearly nobody has the power to fully unpack. “I’ve chosen to do this,” she says, “and I’m the person with the platform, but I don’t have all the magic things to say. I just want to share my friend’s song. I want him to be remembered.”
Ultimately, Stevens wants McKenzie to be remembered as “a friggin’ regular dingus” who “loved footy and cricket and having beers at the pub”, but was also “one of the most spectacular humans you’d ever meet”. She beams, her eyes drifting to nowhere as memories flood her mind: “Every time I saw him, the whole fucking room just lit up. That’s not a feeling that many people give me. And it wasn’t even in a romantic way – he’s just the kind of person who gives this energy to the space he’s in. And that’s what I want ‘James’ Song’ to [highlight]. I don’t want it to just be, ‘Oh yeah, James was really depressed and killed himself.’ There’s so much more to him than his struggle.”
“That’s the main feeling I’m trying to evoke: everything you feel, and might continue to feel, is OK – but you’ve always got to try to find that little bit that keeps you there”
‘Big Worry’ is cathartic in many more ways. As a whole, Stevens views songwriting as a form of therapy – “it’s far more affordable,” she quips – and she’s described her music as “trauma dumping with a backing track”. She put her “whole self” into the record, she assures us, condensing 29 years of hard lessons learned, loves gained and lost, and a whirlwind of formative experiences both positive and negative. In its simplest form, the record is a chronicle of a time Stevens spent “coming to terms with a lot of things and making peace with some of the [darkest] experiences I’ve had”.
Putting her rawest feelings into song, she continues, “gives me permission to talk about things that I didn’t give oxygen for a long time. I’m able to think about something that happened and go, ‘OK, let’s give this its moment. You’ve just gone through something heavy, and you’ve taken it in your stride – give it this space and let it exist.’ Because you know, you go through so much shit in your life – most people do – and you just carry it around on your shoulders. And you always will, but I’m so lucky [because] I get to be like, ‘OK, that was shit, but now I get to play a show and scream about it.’”
Stevens points to ‘You And Me’, the penultimate track on ‘Big Worry’, as an especially notable example of this. “It’s about an abortion,” she says. “It was one of the darkest times in my life, but that song about it means so much to me. I love that song. I never play it – I don’t play solo that often anymore, and it doesn’t fit as a band song – but it’s not really for anyone else. It’s just for me.”
Ending the record is ‘Gold Star’, a song Stevens has taken to calling “the wake at the pub where everyone gets pissed” after the funeral of the other 11 songs, laying to rest all the baggage she’d accumulated over her early adulthood. On the track, she reflects on a past of suicidal ideation, concluding that she’s ultimately glad to have stuck it out. A sliver of optimism to balance out the record’s otherwise dour themes, it’s the clearest display of Stevens’ modus operandi for ‘Big Worry’: to revel in her melancholy and untangle her various crises, while still looking forward to brighter days ahead.
It’s why topically heavy songs like ‘A Stranger’ and ‘Thank God You’re Here’ are so energetic, as Stevens explains in closing. “Jono is very pragmatic – he’d be working on guitar parts and he’d be like, ‘Let’s make it sound real emo!’ And he’d come up with something that would sound amazing, but I’d be like, ‘It’s too sad.’ And he’d be like, ‘Bec, this song is miserable, what do you mean!?’ And I’d be like, ‘It needs hope.’ The songs can be sad, but there still needs to be that hope in the end, because that’s the whole point – things were bad for me, but I’m still here. That’s the main feeling I’m trying to evoke: everything you feel, and might continue to feel, is OK – but you’ve always got to try to find that little bit that keeps you there.”
Bec Stevens’ ‘Big Worry’ is out now via Damaged Records
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