JM Stevens is a longtime singer, songwriter, and studio owner based in Austin, Texas, whose first solo album will be released in November. He has a new DittyTV Debut video this week on The Curve, so tune in Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 10 p.m. CDT to get a look at “Anyway.” DittyTV Senior Editor Tim W. Jackson caught up with Stevens to discuss the video, the album, and his life in music in this 5 Questions segment.
1) I know you’re a kid of the ’80s and have influences from The Cure to Metallica, Prince to Dead Kennedys. But your music appeals to me, as a fellow kid of the ‘80s, in that sweet spot of pop-rock represented by guys like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, John Cafferty, Tom Petty, Don Henley, and others. What can you tell us about your musical influences and how that comes out in your upcoming album?
At least for me, I feel a lot of what you hear as a kid might bury deep inside your subconscious and come out without you even realizing it. I call a lot that you mentioned wagon rock, as it’s stuff I would hear in my mom’s station wagon riding around as a kid. I’ve always had a soft spot for a good pop song, and I’m always trying to find the perfect melody. I’ll probably die trying. When I’m in what I call my own private hell of the recording process, I’ll get obsessed with a particular song or album and listen over and over. I was listening to Southern Nights by Allen Toussaint a bunch during this, which got me stoked on putting horns on a couple songs. Plus his production choices are so killer and ahead of their time sonically. I’m sure I ripped off a few things with the utmost respect intended. I also was on a Gerry Rafferty “Right Down the Line” kick and Elton John’s “Baby’s Got Blue Eyes.” That song always creeped me out in all the right ways. So yeah, I was into metal and punk and stuff growing up but also a sucker for a good power ballad.
2) Speaking of your solo debut, Invisible Lines releases November 8, and your video for the song “Anyway” appears on Ditty TV this week. So what can you tell us about the video for “Anyway” and some general thoughts about making the album?
That was one of the first songs I wrote for this album. We recorded it at the end of a long-ass day, and I’m pretty sure everybody wanted to murder me, so we only got two takes of it and then everybody wanted to quit. The gist of the track was recorded live, with pedal steel, keys, and harmony vocals being overdubbed after. It came out like I’d imagined for the most part, but up to that point the only recording was a crappy iPhone demo. To me that’s one of my favorite things about this process is watching the evolution of a song unfold and hopefully getting it to that place where you want it to go.
My general vibe for this album was to move quickly and not get bogged down with overthinking and over tinkering with things. Could have been a direct reaction to other projects I was working on in the studio where there’s tons of takes and comping and all the modern things we can do to make things perfect. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I make recordings all kinds of ways, but so many of my heroes did things differently and I wanted to try and capture as much live raw energy as I could. As much as anything it was a lesson in learning to let go and trust myself and not overthink things. I did a lot more prep on this album before we started recording than I think I ever have on anything prior, so when we came in to record we were going for the final takes without the intention of going back and redoing stuff.
As for the video, I sent the song to this fellow Kurt Gardella, who had done a video for my band Moonlight Towers way back, and had also done a video for my song “Fire in the Wind” that came out earlier this year. He does stuff with old Super 8 film, and I really like how that looks and I dig his ideas. I don’t know, when things are too crisp and clear and modern it scares me a little, leaves nothing to the imagination for me, so maybe that’s why I gravitate to that look. He had some old footage he’d shot in New Jersey long ago riding around in a neighborhood that is now sacrificed to the gods of development, and I liked how it fit with the song and mood. I looked at it as more of a visual accompaniment than an MTV-style video, if that makes sense.
3) You played with Moonlight Towers for some 15 years but also operate a studio and tour with other acts. Can you give us a roundup of your musical career outside of being a solo artist?
I started out on piano when I was around 8 or so, but then I heard “Hurts So Good” by John Cougar and decided I wanted to switch to guitar so I could learn that song. Probably a dumb move and I wish I would have stuck with piano lessons looking back, but oh well. I got into tinkering with 4-track cassette recorders and such in my early teens and would record my band Aces High, and would record other friends’ bands, too, mostly in the barn at the house where I grew up. We’d play school dances, pasture parties, you know, regular small-town stuff.
Moved to Austin when I was 20, was in a couple of bands over the next few years. I got a small settlement from my train wreck (Editor’s note: See question below for more on that) almost 10 years after the fact and pretty much blew all of it on recording gear, so that’s how I got my first studio going in Austin. It was a garage place that was fixed up pretty cool. To me, recording and playing are one and the same as I’ve always done them together. I’d had a few bad experiences going to other studios so I figured I’d just immerse myself in it as I felt I knew what I wanted to hear.
Moonlight Towers formed from me not leaving my bedroom for a year alone with an 8-track recorder. I’d recorded around 20 songs, playing all the instruments half-assed, and got the band going from that. We made several albums over the next chunk of years, and at one point opened for The Hold Steady at Emos here in Austin, which led to me touring with Craig Finn’s solo band for a while. I’ve also filled in for my older brother, Rogers, in Blind Melon as he couldn’t make some of the dates, went to Japan, South America, and Canada with them. I record and produce a lot of bands here in Austin at my place. I’m just always hustling to get by I guess. Headed to the UK to tour this month, first time solo, so I’m pretty stoked and nervous about that.
4) You have the unfortunate distinction of being in a vehicle hit by a train as a teen. I guess the flip side of that is you have the fortunate distinction of surviving it. But didn’t you really pick up the guitar thereafter as kind of an activity to pass the time during recovery? And did that set you on the road to being a professional musician?
I was in the hospital for a good stretch and mangled about as bad as a human can get without being a dead one. Right before the accident I had just gotten a 1978 Marshall JMP 50-watt amp. Saved up forever for it even though at the time it was only like $250. I had that Marshall 1/2 stack and my Epiphone hollowbody in my hospital room and Zeppelin posters on the walls. I still have both the amp and guitar. I did try to play some, but honestly I was in too much pain and too medicated to be effective. I guess I found them inspiring and comforting to have around.
As time went on and I started healing up I got more serious about playing and writing songs as I couldn’t really do any of the sporty activities I was into anymore like skateboarding and tennis. I guess in some ways it did set me on that road, because as cliche as it sounds I got a front row view to the other side and what I’d consider first-hand knowledge of how fleeting our time here is, so I’ve always tried to make the most of it. I’m convinced I got several screws knocked loose from the head injuries, but who knows really. I did start doing EMDR trauma therapy this year and it’s helped me a lot as far as recognizing how this has affected me all these years later and helped with not having an acid-type flashback every time I cross a train track and hear the whistle.
5) Moving on to something more light-hearted and fun: As an Austin-based musician, who are your top three (we know one is too hard) Austin-affiliated musicians?
Man that’s a tough one, it’s just too vast and varied. Depends on the day I guess and what bands I’ve been out to see as I always think whoever I’m watching is the greatest, but because he’s been on my mind this week as I’ve been learning a few of his songs, I’m gonna say the late Daniel Johnston is one. Lyrically it’s just so damn pure that it’s painful and makes me rethink my approach to writing. I’ll have to put my friend George Reiff in there who we sadly lost a couple of years ago. Best bass player I’ve ever worked with and played on so many records and with so many people, and my main squeeze Caro Somes, who makes really cool recordings, writes amazing songs, and sang beautiful harmonies on my album.