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Author: Shauna Keddy
09/30/2010 | SF Weekly | www.thedelimagazine.com | Live Show Review
"Oh no this living ain't for the faint of heart, oh no this living is just a dying art" sings Adam H. Stephens in his new song "With Vengeance Come". Stephens's solo album We Live on Cliffs (Saddle Creek Records) hits stores September 28th.

The nine tracks on the album range from the hushed beauty of the aforementioned song, to the catchy get-up-and dance ("Praises in Your Name"), to a song Stephens calls a "punk-jam" ("Second Mind"). Fans of his band Two Gallants will notice quite a shift from the bare-bone guitar, drums and voice combination that comprises the band's brilliant songs. Stephens explores more musical complexity on this release, and coupled with his characteristically raw lyrics, the songs have something for everyone. The scratchy and powerful voice he employs for his songs with Tyson Vogel in Two Gallants is now replaced by a smoother, but every bit as effective, vocal pitch. Although it may seem he has stepped out of the character that he created for his tales of crime, loss and love in Two Gallants, Stephens does not feel that his current work is a different medium of expression for him. "My songwriting style was particular for the time. I'd like to think I've grown up and changed. Even if those lyrics were personal, as I am still growing my songwriting reflects that."

In his current band, Stephens is accompanied again by a hard-hitting drummer (Omar Cuellar), as well as a keyboardist (Matt Montgomery). On backing vocals, bass and cello is Jen Grady, who has played with Two Gallants in the past. They are a tight band, and it is interesting to see Stephens play with different musicians; as he and Vogel have played together for years and known each other since childhood. "It has been quite a change. Tyson is the only person I have played multiple shows with and toured with until now. We have our own thing that works well with us; we have the logistics worked out from playing constantly and travelling constantly. For better or for worse, we became like a machine: we would know what was going on without speaking. Now I make most of the decisions, so it is very different in terms of reliability."

Tyson Vogel's solo project, the Devotionals, just released their first album this July. Stephens has seen Vogel tinkering with the songs for the past few years, "He is one of those people who are always playing with something. He picks up something if you leave him alone for a moment whether it's an accordion or a guitar and starts messing around. We tried a couple of the songs for Two Gallants, but realized it didn't suit that band as much." Even though the decision to branch into solo careers was not something the two of them planned, the years playing together so far brought Stephens to a point where he feels more confident as a lead singer. When Stephens first began as musician, he explains: "I didn't feel very comfortable alone with a guitar, and Tyson is someone to lean on, and provided more volume behind me. My fear was unlocked and dissolved after performing together. I am extremely indebted to him. Tyson and I will definitely play again."

Stephens does not think of his career in terms of his level of fame, and recalls that Two Gallants' progression in the music world was a gradual process. In regards to his feelings on when Two Gallants first began reaching widespread attention, he explains: "We didn't really notice, it just felt like each show was bigger then the next. There was never a huge jump, and we never really thought about it. I take it a day at a time. We never had a goal or pinnacle, a point where we would feel like we achieved what we set out to do. We were both on same page, we just both wanted to keep going."

A main reason Stephens' music sounds so different in this project, is the heavy input of his producer, Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, The Shins, White Stripes). The recordings of Two Gallants were produced by Alex Newport, which Stephens greatly enjoyed, but it was more "his opinions and suggestions, while we made the final decision.

"This was essentially first time I have ever worked with a producer. It is totally different, he was much more involved. We would debate aspects of each song. It was a whole new experience."

It was certainly a beneficial process to Stephens, who admits to not liking the recording process: "I doubt what's good, and what's going right. I get into a space where I am not able to have objective view. It becomes overwhelming, and so that is why it's great to have other people around."

Although it is easy to love Stephens' new music if you have followed his work over the years, his songs have an added dynamic with the gorgeous back-up singing by Jen Grady. Her cello playing can be found on the work of many Bay Area musicians, such as Emily Jane White, but on We Live on Cliffs, Grady plays bass as well. "I met her when we played with her band Wax Fire. Tyson and I played with them a few times, and then I ran into her when she moved down here from Olympia, Washington. I wanted her to sing with me because I really love her voice. Then she showed up with her cello, so the first shows we did that together. I needed a bass player, so she said she could play that as well. It is a lot of fun."

He did not always want to be a musician though, and sees the drawback of such a mobile lifestyle: "You kind of have to make plans with long term vision when you're a musician, so everything revolves around that relationships, living situations and projects. You can start projects at home when you are in sedentary place but after that it is hard to have much consistency and it can get frustrating."

That being said, Stephens is quite happy with his way of life: "I feel very fortunate. I always think about this one sticker I saw on someone's guitar case that said 'real musicians have day jobs', and I really don't think of it as mutually exclusive. Although it doesn't have to be your sole profession, I am fortunate enough to be able to survive on it, and focus on it."

Although Stephens has lived his whole life in San Francisco, he especially loves playing shows in North and South Dakota and especially Fargo: "The people really warm, they are always really receptive crowds. It is really memorable."

He remains quite attached to his home city though: "I have a homebody attitude about San Francisco. I love the East Bay, but I don't really get out there much. The New Parish is great, and I really enjoyed playing there. The Paramount is amazing."

That being said, Stephens feels that opportunities for music performances in the city may have changed for the worse: "I have a jaded view on it, but I could just be out of the loop I haven't played much here in a while. When Tyson and I started, there were house shows every weekend. Our first twenty shows were in houses and on street corners outside of BART. Those kinds of shows seem to be gone and they were a lot of fun. It makes me feel like an old man to say this. The music scene used to be much easier to find with little events and lots of free things. Every street block has neighbors now that don't want to have to deal with that. This was only seven or eight years ago, so I know it will come back. There are new places to play, and it's always changing. The Knockout, on Mission St., seems great."

One thing that hasn't changed is Stephens' loyalty to Saddle Creek Records, the label on which Two Gallants have recorded following their first two releases on Alive Records: "They are good very hands off and they let the artist do whatever they want, which is so unusual. They put out great records without spreading themselves out too thin. They have a good work ethic."

Although Stephens doesn't know if he could pull it off, one song he has always wanted to cover is the traditional song "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies". "It's too beautiful though," he lamented. The song, "There's More Pretty Girls Than One" by Woody Guthrie is another song Stephens would like to cover one day. "Right after my high school girlfriend had broken up with me, I listened to that song over and over. It's not a misogynistic thing; it's just a simple a break up song to express that even if a pretty girl broke your heart, there are more girls out there."

One mode of musical expression you will likely not see Stephens doing in the near future, is political songs, "I think of it as a case by case thing they are tasteful ways it is done, and there are people who do it in awful ways. During the 1960s, the anti-draft, anti-government, and anti-segregation songs were quite heavy-handed, but they did cause people to believe and get behind the cause. I do think that music doesn't need to be the medium to get a message across. You are preaching to choir for most part. There are some people of course who hit the nail on the head, like Bob Dylan, who changed minds. Often though it can be sappy and over the top. Unless something new to say, I believe more in writing editorials and organizing protests."

The record release party for We Live on Cliffs is on October 2nd, at the Independent in San Francisco. For videos, songs, news and more, go to: http://www.adamhaworthstephens.com/
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We Live on Cliffs

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