Stephie James was raised on show tunes, soul, and rock n’ roll in Motor City USA. With her brother, Stephie opened a coffee shop in Rochester, Michigan while she was still in high school and began performing on a near-nightly basis. That stage became the jumping-off point for many more after a chance encounter with Anita Baker. The Detroit soul legend invited the teenage singer-songwriter to accompany her on tour, an experience that would eventually lead Stephie to Nashville. The last few years have found Stephie in the role of co-writer, engineer, and supporting act but with her new EP, she steps out front with a bold vintage sound full of epic style and classic tone. Produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Langhorne Slim), These Days swells with Motown mojo, ’60s pop power, and timeless emotion.
AI- You don’t get a much more diverse musical history or climate than that city. You got blues and country and soul, punk, hip hop, good old fashioned rock n’ roll… Which one bit you first?
Oh, man… That’s tough. Probably all the Motown stuff, to be honest, was like the first uniquely Detroit thing that I grabbed onto. But growing up in the house, my mom played show tunes. It was all Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim stuff going on at home when I was a kid. And I remember being really aware of Smokey Robinson and all that stuff pretty early on– and Aretha!
Where’d you learn to play guitar? ‘Cause you’ve got this really smooth, clean style I normally associate with jazz or those great Nashville session players of the ’50s and ’60s. Did you teach yourself or did you learn from someone?
My mom taught me a few chords– you know, G, C, and D– and that was all I needed to play all the Dylan songs I wanted to learn. And then from there, just by ear.
And you were only 17 when you went out with Anita Baker? How did that come about?
She’s from Detroit as well. I was playing in a coffee shop [Dessert Oasis] that my brother and I had opened when we were younger. We would put on shows there at night. I was up on stage playin’ and she came in with some friends of hers for some cheesecake and coffee. I was playing in the background and ended up talking to her for hours past close that night and got to know her from there.
How did that invitation get extended to be able to go out and perform?
We’d kinda become friends. I was spending more time with her and then at some point, she was like, “Hey, I’m goin’ out on tour. You should come on the road.” I was kinda just riding along and then one night in Atlanta, she asked me to open– and I had no idea! It was a total surprise, which if I had known in advance, I mighta like chickened out, you know? But the production guy, he was runnin’ really late to go on stage. She’s like, “Man, I just wish I had somebody to buy me some time!” And I was oblivious! I’m like, “Yeah, right? I hear you…” One of the production guys was like, “Hey, she thinks you’re gonna go out and play a set. Are you gonna do it or not?” I was like, “Oh! I don’t have a guitar! I’m in a dirty t-shirt!” But they got me a guitar. They tied it around me with my tour laminate lanyards, and it was like, GO! That was the first one I did with her.
What was the next step? Where did you go from there?
Nashville. After a little touring around with her, I’d spent some time in Nashville. I was starting to get into the co-writing thing. I’d have little projects for a couple of weeks at a time down here. Finally, I just made the move.
I’m glad you brought up the co-writing thing. Tell me about that. What has that experience been like for you and who have you been workin’ with?
It’s crazy! It’s like such a thing down here to do. I didn’t really have any experience with that before, but the first job I had here in Nashville was working at Dan Auerbach’s privately owned studio down here. And so watching him work with other people, I was like a fly on the wall in the room credited as a second engineer, but I had no idea what I was doing as an engineer. I was just in the room trying to absorb as much as I could. He collaborates a lot with a lot of different artists. I was watching that happen and then just workin’ with different people.
The stuff that made it on the record that was co-written is that tune “West of Juarez”. I wrote that one with John Bettis who wrote “Human Nature” for Michael Jackson on the Thriller album. He wrote “Crazy For You” for Madonna, a lot of The Carpenter songs– that was his first band, The Carpenters. Him and Richard Carpenter wrote all those songs for Karen. He was like a really big mentor and a huge help to me with songwriting.
And what about the engineering end of it? Is that something that you’ve continued to embrace? You’re listed working with Auerbach of course, and Buddy Miller’s name gets brought up.
It was really cool but I did it and then at some point, I got the itch to go out and tour. One of the artists that Dan Auerbach produced is a singer named Nikki Lane. I had worked a session with her and she was like, “Whatever, Dan’s payin’ you to stay in the studio, I’ll pay you more to come out on the road with me.” And when you’re sitting in a control room for like 14 hours a day, so you don’t even know if it’s day or night anymore, it all gets really tedious. It’s cool to work on a record but when it’s just like back to back? You wrap a record and you feel great with this project under your belt– and then it’s like you just jump right into the next one. So I wanted to get out on the road and play music live.
When were you out with Nikki?
It was kind of a while ago now. Like 2015, ’16. In there.
You were openin’ the show and playin’ in the band as well?
Yeah. On the shows where I could be first of three, I would open the show solo because I couldn’t travel with a band. I wasn’t making enough money out there to bring four guys with me. So it was solo acoustic and then I played in her band. I played rhythm guitar and sang all the harmonies. At some point, as people would get fired, I would take on other jobs too. Like, “Okay, now I’m the merch kid! Now I’m the tour manager!” Kinda how it goes though… You just roll with it!All of those experiences, from going out and witnessing the tour at that level with Anita Baker, with being in the studio and witnessing all of that, from the co-writing and then being able to assume all those jobs that go into every single facet of touring and performing, you seem uniquely suited now to step out and do something on your own. So the obvious question I’m sure that everybody asks is why did it take so long to get a dedicated Stephie James project? Why now?
It’s been a back burner thing for me for forever. I’ve had these songs and I’ve been kickin’ ’em around and then the band came together gradually and the songs evolved as the band came together. But it was like, when I was out on the road with somebody else or working in the studio, your time to spend on your own stuff is so little. Steve Earle was actually the one, at some point, he was like, “Hey, the stuff you’re doin’ with Nikki and with other people as a sideman, that’s great. Do that as long as you have to, I get it. But as soon as you can, you need to work on your own stuff because it’s worth it.” That for me was like, “Okay, if he’s telling me to do it, like maybe it’s worth takin’ a look at it.” So I stopped touring and stayed in town, which I hadn’t really done previously– stayed in Nashville, staying home and writing and rehearsing with the band and doing all that.
When were these songs written and recorded?
You guys had actually intended to release These Days before all of the madness with COVID-19. What was the original plan?
March, I think, was like the very original release date. And then it just kept getting bumped back and bumped back. We had a whole year of touring strategically planned around it. Like, “Cool, this single comes out, and then we have this festival on the books and we’ll play all these cities.” It was all kind of charted out for us–and one by one, everything just got canceled and shut down inevitably. But we decided to put it out anyway, ’cause it was like I said, you were already like, “Hey man, why’d it takes so long to put it out?”That’s kinda where I was at. I was like, “We’ve been procrastinating. Let’s just put it out. Maybe people need some good noise right now! There’s craziness going on, just put out some music anyway and keep moving forward. I’ll write more songs. We’ll record more.”
That’s been a predominant philosophy with a lot of the artists that I’ve spoken to, like, “I’m tired of hangin’ onto it, and people need the music.” Tell me what you’ve been doing during the pandemic. How have you been staying busy? Are you writing? Have you been doing more recording?
Yeah, absolutely. Mattman [Matt Menold], the guitar player on this project and everything I do, we’ve spent a lot more time actually working on songs than ever before. Just sitting down, hashing things out, and writing, recording demo stuff. Even just like at the house, coming up with stuff that’s cool– but before, it’s never really been like that. Everything’s always been so fast-paced before that we weren’t really able to sit down and look at things the way we are now. So it’s kinda cool. It’s also crazy. Like not being able to tour, we’re all a little stir-crazy, I think.
I get that a lot too.
Right? Yeah, it’s nuts if you think about it! And now, we’re like, “What’s it gonna be like when we actually do go back out on tour?” It’s probably gonna feel super weird!
That’s a question that I’ve asked a lot of people. Because the way I’m looking at it, everyone is stuck at home, unable to mount a full-on tour with a band. I see the singer-songwriter bein’ able to get out and take advantage of smaller rooms that can socially distance properly and do those shows. But then once– and we hope this is going to be much sooner, rather than later– things open back up, there’s going to be this huge flood and rush of artists trying to get out there and into all these rooms. And unfortunately, some of the rooms are no longer gonna be there. Is that a concern that has been discussed among your camp?
It is, yeah. Everybody’s gonna want to go out all at the same time. It’s gonna be like a mad rush to tour. I know people are trying to book. I talked to friends that own venues and they’re like, “Yeah, people are hitting me up for the very end of 2021. And we can’t really even look at the books that far out!” But everybody’s already, I think, trying to get dibs on dates. It’s gonna be crazy, but we’re also prepared to do whatever we can as a duo, even though full band is really preferred for me and this music. It’s what we do, but we’ve also been getting a pretty tight duo set together and the songs work in that setting. Like you said, smaller rooms. Opportunities like that might open up sooner than the big rooms or like support on a bigger tour with a full band. Something like that might not be realistic super soon.