After an initial spin, there is no doubt as to why singer/songwriter Stephanie Fagan has named her latest album Heart Thief. Lyrical content aside, it’s what Fagan will do to new listeners; her crystalline voice flows with honeyed sweetness and wintry melancholy. The music on Heart Thief effortlessly slides between genres, from folk to acoustic pop to Americana but it is the haunting ache in her singing that stitches these diverse threads together. From the rootsy balladry of “Beautiful Man” to the atmospheric Beth Orton-ish moodiness of “Prodigal” to the old-school country twang of “Sweethearted,” Fagan easily robs listeners of their pulse.
Q: As a musician, where did it all begin for you? In other words, what artists started the fire within your heart to become one yourself?
A: The first music I ever remember listening was a lot of '60s and '70s singer/songwriters like Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, John Denver, and Gordon Lightfoot. They all had fairly simple instrumentation and really charming well-crafted lyrics. Those were probably my first loves. They still are.
Q: How old you were when you made the decision to become a musician? Was it something that you treated seriously back then? Or did you feel it was simply a hobby?
A: Musician? Who said I was a musician? I play guitar about as poorly as a person can and still be tolerated by an audience, and I only learned to play the little I do out of pure necessity. I’ve written songs and sang my whole life but it wasn’t until college I learned to play on a $20 used, no-name guitar with nylon strings because I was sick of the hassle of trying to get up with “real” musicians and having creative differences. I knew the way I wanted to sing it, and I just needed something playing along, nothing fancy. So I learned a few chords and that’s about the size of it. I still don’t play bar chords and my musician friends rag on me all the time about it but honestly it's just not something that’s super important to me. So far I’ve been able to get by with the few chords I know, and if one day I hit a creative wall with it and it starts to hinder my songwriting, I’ll learn more.
Q: How did you get signed to the independent record label Yonder Music?
I would say dumb luck but looking back it seems more like fate. I wasn’t really looking for a record deal. I was living in Florence, South Carolina working an office job at 21 and had gotten burned out and fired from that so I just gone to work for a local coffee shop. I was meandering, depressed, and writing the best songs of my life. One day this guy with shaggy blonde hair, Ken Jones, comes into the shop, and we have this long conversation about city planning of all things. Two weeks later, he calls me at the coffee shop and asks if I want to come to his house and do work some computer work for him. I know nothing about computers but he didn’t strike me as an axe murderer, and I needed extra money, so I said sure. I went to his house, met his super cool wife, Missy Davis Jones, and it wasn’t long before I was doing odd jobs for her. I hit it off with both of them on a friend level, and through that they heard my music. As it happens they had just moved there from L.A. and were both working in and around the music and music merchandise business. The next thing I knew they had opened a really top-notch recording studio and founded a record label, Yonder, with me as the flagship. It’s been three years in the making but it still feels like a bit of a whirlwind.
Q: How prolific are you in terms of songwriting? Is it a meticulous process for you or do the lyrics flow naturally?
A: That really all depends. It comes and goes like a tide. Some weeks I’ll write five songs, which is a really good week for me, and sometimes I couldn’t write a song if my life depended on it. I’d say in my whole life I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 200 full songs. When I am inspired writing, a first draft is a breeze. But editing can be painstaking. I am a lyrics snob so I try to look at my work as objectively as possible and think “would I be critical of this if it weren’t mine?” Inspiration is the easy part in a way but it’s a very small part of the process. It’s divine, fleeting, and uncontrollable like a spark. Editing is like tinder. A spark isn’t a fire without tinder but there’s no need for tinder without the spark. The worst writers to me are the ones that can’t edit and are immensely proud of every piece of garbage they create. Editing is 99% of writing.
Q: How long did it take to you record Heart Thief? Did you write the songs specifically for the record or have they been around for a while?
A: It took about 2 months to record Heart Thief spread out over the course of a year or so. We didn’t mean for it to take so long but during that time the studio relocated, and the Army shipped my husband and by extension me to Germany, plus we had to work around the schedule of the 20 some odd local musicians who so graciously lent their talents to the process. The songs were written maybe a year before the record as a project was conceived but they were all written within the same two-month span of time.
Q: Did you finance the record yourself? What advice would you give to other independent acts out there?
A: I didn’t finance the record luckily. Even though Yonder is a small indie label they have been really great about everything in that regard. We worked at Southern Harmony the studio owned by Ken and Missy and I even lived with them for like three months during the final recording and mixing process, which is completely unheard of. I would say to other acts that you should examine honestly and carefully what you want and what you’re willing to do. If you just want to gig around, maintain complete creative control of your art and keep all the profits for yourself; you need to be on your own. Scrounge up the money and D.I.Y. it. That’s what I did for my first record. For most musicians, that’s what I would recommend. That said, it’s hard to get your foot in the door (with radio, etc.) that way. If you want to take it to the next level and really pursue it as a career, a label is a necessity. Be careful about record contracts and don’t be afraid to ask for what you think is reasonable; be sure to read the fine print and get a decent lawyer familiar with the music business to advise you. Yonder is amazing; they are really respectful of my rights as an artist and willing to work with me but I know musicians that have worked as basically slave labor for years under well-known labels for no pay because they got giddy at the sight of a record contract and signed their lives and their songs away. Be savvy.
Q: What's the most personal track for you on Heart Thief and why?
A: That a tough one because they are all really personal, but if I had to pick just one I’d say “Two Strangers.” Even now, years later, it makes me uncomfortable to sing. It’s a song about a non-relationship relationship. I was in this nontraditional long distance thing that was basically just phone conversations and e-mail. I’m sure to most people something like that wouldn’t mean anything but at the time it meant a lot to me. When it ended I grieved for what it never was, and I struggled to define it. That song is embarrassingly honest.
- Stacey Zering, No Depression