Steph Stewart’s first musical memories begin early in life, at 3 years old. She fondly recalls singing Doc Watson’s “Mountain Dew” in front of a group of her parents’ friends. Her songwriting began when she was in the fifth grade. The monumental occasion took place on a playground and was in support of a band, called “The Roasting Marshmallows.” She culled a song titled “Debris” that came in the vain of The Cranberries.
“It was all about the aftermath of war, of which I luckily knew nothing about,” Stewart tells.”Nevertheless, I wanted to tap into something more serious.”
At 15 she first picked up the guitar and taught herself chords along the way. She purchased songbooks, from which she learned enough music to performa t an open-mic in Hickory, NC, every Wednesday night.
“[It was] about a 30 to 40 minute drive from our house,” she recalls. “I wanted to play guitar so that I could have more freedom in playing the music I wanted to write. I wasn’t really interested in doing Sublime covers like the dudes at my high school wanted to play. So I learned how to play what I wanted without having to depend on them to back me up.”
Since those days at Bunker Hill High School in Claremont, NC, Stewart’s musical prowess has expanded exponentially—even going back in time and tipping its hat to old-fashioned gospel music. Her grandfather’s record player always spun the sounds of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Today her repertoire includes the rich sounds of the Appalachian, too.
“Sarah Ogan Gunning, Aunt Molly Jackson, Roscoe Holcolmb and Clarence Ashley, among others, have been my teachers in the great tradition of Appalachian music,” Stewart tells. “There is conviction in their voice; the kind that can only come when someone truly lives the song they sing. There is rawness and clarity and the purest sense of honesty. There isn’t a front. No one is putting on a character or performing a show. They are the songs they sing, and I think I’ve taken this notion with me as when approaching the songs on our new record.”
In 2011 she first met current bandmate and fiddle player Omar Ruiz-Lopez, who knew Florida resident Mario Arnez. Eventually, Ruiz-Lopez was able to coax Arnez up to North Carolina in summer 2012, and the three began playing together almost immediately. Bass player Nick Vandenberg was added to the lineup that fall when they met him at a Mandolin Orange show.
In 2013 Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends released their first record, “Over the World Below.” The 10-track album was recorded and produced by Nick Vandenberg at Dapper Napper Studios in Chapel Hill, NC. On the album, Stewart’s transition from heavy subject matter to a more intimate, personal lyrical style shines through. Her twangy vocals recall the sounds of Patsy Cline and overlay the soothing sounds of traditional North Carolina folk music.
“I [was] writing a lot more about personal experiences: unrequited love, finding home, love, [and] things that happened to me more directly,” Stewart divulges.
They followed up their 2013 debut with “Nobody’s Darlin’” on May, 30 2015. “[It] is less personal,” Stewart says of her songwriting. “I allowed myself to be inspired, but I didn’t use my own life as the sole catalyst for inspiration. It was also more of a collaboration between me and the guys. Two of the songs were co-writes, and everyone contributed to the songs from an earlier stage in the process. I’ve learned more about writing in groups, particularly after hosting a short-lived songwriting salon based on the Pat Pattison (songwriting professor at Berkley, former teacher of Gillian Welch—whom I admire greatly) book Writing Better Lyrics, which has, in turn, helped me better gauge what parts of a song to leave out and feeling the moment a song is done. Through this process, songwriting has become more of an exercise and technique to be honed and sharpened.”
The album was inspired by a visit to Asheville while touring, wherein Stewart and her cohorts saw a woman busking the streets. Her name was Abby Roach, but she was more commonly referred to as “Spoon Lady.” Her barebones style can clearly be heard throughout the recordings’ 10 tracks.
The album sticks to Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends’ roots, and ushers in a back-porch feel. They recorded most of the songs live between Fidelitorium in Kernersville (Mitch Easter’s studio) and Arbor Ridge Studios in Chapel Hill. As well, they enlisted the help of Chessa Rich and Skylar Gudasz, whose a capella work and voices Stewart admired.
The album was co-produced by Chapel-Hill legend Jeff Crawford. “Jeff’s really nice to work with,” Stewart informs. “He’s very laid back and easy going, so you don’t actually feel like you’ve been working hard in a studio all day until you break and realize it’s dark outside and probably about time to eat dinner.”
Merle Haggard’s engineer, Joe Corey, mastered “Nobody’s Darlin’.” “He has worked with the likes of Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Kris Kristopherson, and got his start at Ocean Way Recording,” Stewart says. “For a personal touch the mixing was done by the band’s own Nicholas Vandenberg (www.nick-vandenberg.com). Working at the Fidelitorium is total magic There are so many great groups who have come through there, and it’s such a nice vibe.”
The band is currently touring in support of the LP. This Saturday, June 6, she and her band will bring their brand of country to Bourgie Nights (127 Princess St.). Folks can get their hands on it through Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends’ website (www.stephstewart.net) or iTunes. Looking toward the future the band intends to keep touring, recording and celebrating their love of music.
Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends
Saturday, June 6, 9 p.m.
Bourgie Nights, 127 Princess St.