Now/It's: An Interview with Stephcynie

If you've ever found yourself wandering around the site, you may have stumbled upon the site's credo (or mantra, or premise, or axiom, or whatever) which stands by the localized focus of the site. The site is made by Nashville locals, but is for anyone and everyone whose every wondered about the comings and goings of Nashville, which as of late, has been a lot. While we're quite proud of the unique "localness," there is a distinct lack of experience in the realm of non-local perspective. We've seen Nashville grow exponentially in the past decade and a half, but lack the purview of coming to Nashville during the growth. That's why we're lucky to get the chance to talk to people whose only version of Nashville is the daunting "growing" Nashville. People like Stephcynie, who came to Nashville a little over four years ago not knowing a single soul, but through her own perseverance, personality, and belief, has gone from being out of the loop to being so well ingrained within it, she's left a bounty of options. The culmination of her past four years will come in the form of her newest EP, starting with her new single "Friends."

Now/It's met with Stephcynie at The Juice Bar in the Berry Hill neighborhood of Nashville.

Stephcynie - Hi! Nice to meet you!

N/I - Nice to meet you too! How’s your day going?

Stephcynie - Great! Busy….

N/I - Busy? How so?

Stephcynie - I had a writing session this morning, and I’ve had a bunch of back and forth on the phone with emails, and I have a rehearsal after this, so I was learning music for that.

N/I - Was the rehearsal for your music?

Stephcynie - No. I’m helping out a friend.

N/I - It seems like you do a lot of helping people out.

Stephcynie - I do! I like helping people.

N/I - That’s good! That’s a good thing to like. It’s always good to be very amiable and cooperative, especially in Nashville. Or so I would assume. So how long have you been in Nashville? Did you come straight here from Houston?

Stephcynie - From New York.

N/I - From New York, okay. But you’re from Houston originally?

Stephcynie - That’s right…. I’ve been [in Nashville] for four and a half years.

N/I - So what triggered the move from New York to Nashville?

Stephcynie - Well the real answer was that I was praying, and I felt like I heard from the Lord to move here. If you don’t believe in God, then just take as my [feeling] led [laughs].

N/I - Sure. You can describe it however way you want, but in your case, you felt like God was talking to you.

Stephcynie - That’s correct.

N/I - So in New York, were doing a lot of solo work, or doing more backing?

Stephcynie - I was mostly pursuing the solo stuff, but New York style - so very hard.

N/I - Nose to the grindstone. Probably pretty chippy, I would imagine.

Stephcynie - Yes. Very much so. New York is very competitive.

N/I - Understandably so - there’s what, nearly ten million people on Manhattan Island any given moment?

Stephcynie - And however many trying to be an artist….

N/I - If you try and do the math of who all is trying to do music, that’s still a lot of people.

Stephcynie - [Laughs] Exactly! It was good. It was good training ground, I feel. It helped me grow my skin, as far as getting judged and all that. I could hear “No” probably one hundred thousand times before I feel defeated. But I came from there with a great network, a great family and group of friends. I actually got plugged into a church up there….

N/I - That’s great!

Stephcynie - And I think that’s where I kind of found my voice, at least in terms of the style of music I’d like to do. So basically my whole life, I studied classical music and jazz. And I was always singing more highs - I was a very high singer, like soprano - and then I got plugged into this church and joined the praise team there, and the music director was like “We’re going to put you on tenor.” And I was like, “Alright.”

N/I - Had you ever tried singing at a tenor level?

Stephcynie - No! I didn’t think I could sing low! And that’s where I discovered my lower register - that’s what I’m known for in Nashville. Normally, when I get hired to sing, it’s to sing lows. And even on this project, I’m using a lot more of my lower register. So that helped a lot, and then my first “real” experience touring was with that church. We used to travel around the country, and I went out of the country for the first time with them - to South Africa - it was a very good place to be [laughs].

N/I - Definitely. I did the same thing in high school - I played drums with my church choir - and it was very similar in that the my first time to Canada was with the church group. Not quite South Africa, but I still understand that world. I feel like a lot of people don’t necessarily know there is this whole world of church related touring, and when you talk about your going on tour with a church group, they might think of it as mission work….

Stephcynie - Which it can be!

N/I - Absolutely. There’s usually some crossover mission work, but other people might think of it as Pentecostal tent-revival style touring where everyone hops out of the car and starts singing in tongues. So the variety of it makes things interesting….

Stephcynie - There’s different levels of it.

N/I - Right, and for me, [the touring] grew my vested interest in music, albeit, I realized there are people far more talented than myself, and maybe I’m best suited to just talk to them, or be around them while they’re doing it. But that’s great! Speaking of the church, if you want to imbue substance or beliefs you feel strongly about, how do you go about writing or approaching a writing session without it coming across as unsolicited? Because I figure you’re bound to run into that.

Stephcynie - Of course! In general, I’m not a preachy person, and I feel like my writing is just an extension of how I talk and interact with people on a regular basis.

N/I - Very naturalistic.

Stephcynie - Right. I’m a very strong believer - I have a very strong relationship with God, I pray, I go to church - but in my everyday life, I’m just not one of those [preachy] people. When I go into writing sessions - most people I write with currently, they know who I am - there are just certain topics people won’t try and write about with me, because they know I don’t write about that. But I have yet to be put into a situation where I’m presented with a topic where I have to decide what I’m going to do with it. That hasn’t happened yet, I’m sure it will [laughs].

N/I - You would think, especially with as many people who are coming in from different places, you’re bound to run into someone who thinks something is green when you think it’s purple. So when you got to Nashville from New York, were you back at square one? Or had you fostered some relationships in town already?

Stephcynie - I didn’t know anybody when I moved here.

N/I - What was that like?

Stephcynie - Oh it was great! I loved it. I love coming to new places and not knowing anything. I kind of thrive in that environment. I had a friend in New York who had a cousin who lives in Memphis, so she said, “When you move to Nashville - my cousin’s a drummer, he lives in Memphis - I don’t know, maybe he could help you out.” So they connect us, and I think I had maybe been here for a week, and he was coming into town, and we had connected over the phone. He invited me to a studio session that Tommy Simms was in. So that was my first session [laughs].

N/I - I used to play basketball with Tommy’s son.

Stephcynie - Oh really!? It’s really funny, because when I was in New York, I listened to his album all the time, and I thought “I’m going to meet him one day.” And that was the first major introduction I made to anyone in Nashville.

N/I - That’s pretty nice. Almost serendipitous.

Stephcynie - It was awesome. So that guy’s brother is a bass player here in town, and his brother had a barbeque, and invited me, and that’s how I met the foundation of musicians that I connected with in town that helped me get to where I am now.

N/I - To further expand your circle. So once you do that, is it difficult to let people know that you want to get into what they’re doing, even having just met them? I would imagine if your first big experience is to get to sit in on a session with someone like Tommy - how long do you wait? A year? A few months?

Stephcynie - It kind of just happened. It was a flow. We’re at the barbeque, everyone asks me where I graduated college. The college I went to, a lot of people graduated from there that are really respected….

N/I - What college is that?

Stephcynie - The New School. And so, people found out I went to that school, and they were like “Oh, so you’re like a musician for real.” So I was able to get plugged in with Dynamo, and was doing some solo stuff with them, getting featured on their stuff. Then I kind of got buckled down and decided I was going to be in Nashville, and that I was going to play music - that was how I was going to pay my bills - and I went on this crazy emailing trip where I was emailing every cover band in town saying “Hey! I’m here! I sing! I’m from New York!” and I got picked up by The Downtown Band. So started doing that, and that was basically my whole first two years in town, and then through that - because so many musicians are in and out of the downtown band - I got recommended for a country gig to tour, and in the midst of all that, I ended up releasing a project on my own. It was my first full-length.

N/I - And was that in 2016?

Stephcynie - It was. Mr. Edwards. Navigating all of that is the ultimate thing. So I did that, and having all these different country influences all of a sudden, I thought maybe I’d want to do that, but that wasn’t it. I love that record, but it’s not one hundred percent into what I want to be, as an artist. It was music that I love, and it’s a record that I love, but as far as translating it on stage and stuff like that, it never felt like it fully came to life when I’d perform it live. And I’d have the same feedback - people would say the songs are great, but it just doesn’t seem like you’re fully there.

N/I - Well to go and put out an entire record without any sort of build up or hype, or with notoriety through other people’s projects, it can be really hard to segue into something else. You hear about all of these huge groups that break up - like Destiny’s Child - Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland also had solo careers….

Stephcynie - They did!

N/I - But no one remembers - for the most part - their solo stuff, and they had more momentum than anybody, but coming from another thing, it still didn’t pan out the way they might have liked. So to be just an individual who for maybe ninety-nine percent of the population is an unknown, it can be daunting, but also a relief to get it out.

Stephcynie - Exactly! It was like, “I did this!”

N/I - But then you basically learn from all of that. It’s out there and you understand how things work a little better. Or at least gain some sort of perspective.

Stephcynie - Right. I made a little money on it, but the good the about that record was that it was dedicated to my grandfather who had passed away, and it was crowdfunded. So for me, it was “Okay, people actually believe in me. Cool.” So I learned from that whole process of taking my time and not having to rush, and knowing it’s really important to learn anticipation and all of that, because when I finished it, I was just like “It’s done! I want to put it all out!” So I learned from that, and now this one is a whole different approach. I’m self-funded on this one, I’m just going to treat myself like a business, and business owners invest in themselves.

N/I - Well that’s kind of what you have to orient yourself towards, as an artist. Whether you’re independent or connected to a major - to truly flourish, you do need to treat everything like a business. And I’d imagine that for some people, they might not be into the idea of “This is technically also a business.” That whole artist versus business thing - is that an area of conflict for you at all?

Stephcynie - Not at all! It used to be, so I’m not going to say that it never was, but I kind of had an epiphany in a way, where I was like “What would actually happen if I were signed to a label?” And picking that apart and figuring out why label artists “get more.” Obviously, they have money and all that, but there’s more to it, the resources of marketing departments, digital media, PR, so it’s like “How can I get these things done without that kind of a budget?” In order to think like that, you do have to think like a business. When I’m writing and creating, that’s when I’m an artist. Once the writing and the creating is done, I’m a business. So that’s how I’m able to balance the two.

N/I - So you’re generally pretty good at compartmentalizing writing and something like paying bills? That’s good.

Stephcynie - I’ve always been good with money management, but I’ve really learned to make sure all that stuff’s taken care of, and then you don’t have to worry about all of that.

N/I - That’s good! So with this upcoming record, what did you find yourself revolving around? Once you put out Mr. Edwards, when did this subsequent record start materializing?

Stephcynie - I started writing for it - Mr. Edwards came out and I’d say six or seven months afterward - I had a couple of scrap ideas that came up from me being creative, and one day, I sat down and decided I was ready to do a new project. So I look at a few voice memos and find a couple things, connected with some good friends, had some co-writes. And now, I’m going a completely different direction. I met with this guy who was considering producing it, and we were writing, and it was kind of taking an Americana-esque, R&B turn. I sat down with it, and went through my Spotify playlist - I have this massive playlist that I just throw whatever I like in there, and I went through it and asked myself “What am I actually listening to right now?” The music that I was writing was not what I was listening to. It was influenced from writing with other people, and it’s Nashville, so everybody has a guitar.

N/I - Everyone can play at least three chords.

Stephcynie - So you’re in there writing guitar music, and that’s not really my thing. I don’t even play guitar, I play piano! So I was like, pause, take a break, and look for a producer that could make what I always wanted to do, which is marry instrumentation with programming, because I had never been able to find somebody that could do that. They’re either really good at programming or really good at live instruments.

N/I - Do you think that’s just because you’re good at one and you’ve specialized for so long, you’re unable to see the rest?

Stephcynie - Maybe. I think track guys are track guys, you know? Live producers are live producers, and they’re spending their time to do that. Very few people take the time to hone both, and once you get known for one thing, you’re called for that. So I was just putting feelers out and I was asking around, and one of my good friends - Kristen Rogers, amazing singer - she was like, “I have a friend! His name is Josh Niles.” So we meet up, I play him my demos, and he said “I want to do this! This is awesome!” That’s kind of how it came about.

N/I - So that’s great! Since there are six songs on the EP, is it safe to assume that there are more songs that came out of this period?

Stephcynie - There are more than six demos. But I was on a budget. Originally, we were going to do five, but then Josh heard one of my other songs, and I thought “I cannot afford to make another,” [Laughs], but he wanted to work it out anyway. He worked it out, and it was great. I’m happy we’re doing six.

N/I - So do you see a thru-line or anything apparent in the record?

Stephcynie - I do. The record is basically about a relationship cycle. So the theme is basically going on your date, kind of knowing it’s not a thing, but you stick it out, and then you know it really isn’t working, then…. It’s kind of like two cycles, now that I think of it. When you’re in a single place, you realize you have a chemistry with one of your good friends - things like that happen all the time - so then you and your friend are like “Let’s go!” and then it’s actually apparent that you shouldn’t have done that, and then there’s the actual moment of knowing it’s over. Then the final song is a redemptive place of knowing you’re okay. So that’s kind of what it’s about. It’s a story.

N/I - Do you find yourself drawn more to story oriented songs rather than broad sweeping scope?

Stephcynie - Oh yeah. I’m a big storyteller.I enjoy those other types of songs sometimes, like if you want to dance, or whatever, but I find that it’s very hard for me to write like that. I’ve had to write like that when I get involved with producers who pitch for commercials.

N/I - Like sync licensing?

Stephcynie - Yes. And that’s just a whole different world. I’ve done that, but it’s not as me, it’s as “I want a placement so I can get $20,000.” [laughs]

N/I - A friend of mine works in that world, and it’s very interesting. They want someone who sounds like someone else, but the client isn’t willing to pay for, because their budget is “only” $20,000, so make something similar to that and we’ll pick the one we like. Is that something you were aware of?

Stephcynie - I knew about syncs, but I thought it was actual music that got picked up. I didn’t realize there are people sitting in rooms to specifically pitch to Toyota. I didn’t know that was a thing. So it’s a new thing that I’ve come to learn about. But I would rather my songs get synced.

N/I - Was that something you became more aware of once you moved to Nashville?

Stephcynie - I had no idea that that’s what happens in sync licensing until I moved here.

N/I - And do you think the storytelling aspect is something that’s connected more with your writing? That’s not necessarily a Nashville thing?

Stephcynie - No, that’s always been there. I’ll always tell a story. Even when I do live shows, I have a hard time putting together a set, because if this song comes before that, then it has to tie in.

N/I - So it extends all the way to the live set, too?

Stephcynie - Yes! Even when I put covers in, it has to fit the mold of the live show.

N/I - I think there’s something to be said for a congruence of a live set or an album. Consistency is always good.
Stephcynie - I think so!

N/I - Now you did a song with CAMM on this upcoming EP, right? I’ve interviewed him, and have gotten to know him. How did you two get connected?

Stephcynie - Oh good! So his really good friends are my really good friends. We never met, even when he did the song, it wasn’t until three months later.

N/I - Isn’t it weird how that works out sometimes?

Stephcynie - Yeah! I was like “I need a rapper!” But I have a hard time with rappers, because I don’t want explicit lyrics on my stuff, and I know CAMM is a believer and all that stuff, and he’ll cuss a little bit, but not a ton. So I reached out to my friend Josh Blaylock, and I was like “Can you hook me up with CAMM?” and he was like “Of course! I can’t believe you haven’t met him yet!” So I just organized it, I wasn’t even in the studio, but I sent him the song and was like “Do you thing on the verse.” He went in for two hours and did it, I heard it and I thought it was amazing. And we just texted for three months until we could finally meet up, because I was like “We have to meet up! I can’t release this music having never met him.” So we met for coffee like an hour, and haven’t seen each other since. We’re so busy.

N/I - Well it’s good to be busy.

Stephcynie - But he’s the best. And so is Josh.

N/I - They’re both great guys. So what’s next on the horizon?

Stephcynie - I have the EP release show, trying to book some shows out of town, too. Hit some of the markets we feel are receptive to the vibey R&B thing, so obviously a Nashville show, something in Atlanta, Chicago, I’ve got to go back to New York, to Houston, since that’s where I’m from. Right now, those are the main ones. I have to make sure I can book the shows with live musicians. I can’t necessarily do tracks.

N/I - I figure that can be tough to jump from live musicians to a track.

Stephcynie - Right. I’m just trying to figure out all the different ways I can make all of this work [laughs].