GROWN-UP PUNK “I kind of took the music that made me the most excited when I was younger and turned it into something completely different,” says Stevenson.
Fuck math. All teenagers should be forced to play in punk bands.
To play punk, you don't need talent, experience, or an authority figure's stamp of approval. It teaches those weathering their formative years that it's okay to be bad at something if you're doing it for its own sake, and if you already know that, by most normative definitions of "failure," you will probably fail. It doesn't matter whether you improve over time. But that doesn't mean you won't.
The same basic philosophies could apply to, let's say, stockbroking, if the financial sector weren't so obsessed with money. Of course (if we must be practical), such experiences have more immediate applicability for the musically inclined, even if those folks aspire to trade in kinder, gentler wares. Before Laura Stevenson mastered elegant simplicity, she had a healthy appreciation for inelegant simplicity.
"What I took from that [punk and ska] was taking simple chord structures - y'know, just three or four chords - and revolving songs around them," says the 26-year-old, addressing her high-school-era playlists. "I kind of took the music that made me the most excited when I was younger and turned it into something completely different."
It didn't hurt that her first outfit was the marvelously bi-polar New York collective Bomb the Music Industry! The then-19-year-old Stevenson would likely have become brilliant even if her first band had sucked, and BTMI! would have been almost as awesome even with a different keyboard player. But Stevenson isn't just being modest when she says she gleaned an aptitude for writing and arranging for multiple instruments from Jeff Rosenstock. Legend has it that BTMI!'s big cheese knows how to play every musical instrument, ever.
"Jeff and I, I think, look at the world in a lot of the same ways," she says with a chuckle, scrambling through chores at a house her mom owns in Long Island where she currently lives with her significant other/bassist, Mike Campbell. "He's very direct in his lyric writing, and I'm more abstract, I guess, because I don't like being honest with myself."
One could argue that only cosmetic differences separate punk from Laura and the Cans' unfussy, endearing, folky pop. Still, no one has ever listened to a punk song and said, "Wow! What a pretty song!" Laura and the Cans elicit that reaction all the time, because almost all their songs are incredibly pretty. Accompaniment oscillates between minimalist and grand, but the soothing coyness of Stevenson's vocals persists, even when she's singing something ominous. As in the line "Keep away from me, I am full of terrible things," from "Beets Untitled," the piano waltz that concludes their mesmerizing and accurately titled first release, 2008's A Record (Quote Unquote Records).
If all goes according to plan, Laura and the Cans will spend 2011 hustling and bustling like crazy people. Stevenson is wrapping up her master's degree in art history, and the follow-up to A Record is slated for April. If online teaser track "The Healthy One" is typical, we can expect a little less open-mic night and a little more indie-rock dance party. As for the business side of their sophomore effort, Laura and the Cans inked a fresh deal with Don Giovanni Records sometime after bonding with the head label dude over Easy Mac and a Blink-182 documentary.
"It's compelling in its own way," says Stevenson, regarding the Blink doc. "There were a lot of fart jokes, so we liked it."