Guitar Girl'd: Interview with Steph Macpherson on the Release of 'Bells & Whistles'
There’s good luck. There’s hard work. And then there’s Steph Macpherson, a case study in both — and in being in the right place at the right time.
This Canadian singer/songwriter has just released her debut album, Bells & Whistles, and has been touring the West Coast in support.
Her story goes like this. In 2009 she released an EP and toured with folk musician Zachary Lucky on an ambitious itinerary of 30 dates in 30 days. A moment later, she was selected through an online “talent search” to play Lilith Fair 2010, opening for huge acts like Sarah McLachlan, Colbie Caillat, Erykah Badu and Sheryl Crow. Then she was asked to participate in Vancouver’s Peak Performance Project, where she competed for $100,500 in grant funding.
OK, she didn’t win that one, but she met a few folks who helped set her on the right path.
Now with the release of Bells & Whistles, Macpherson steps it up with some artfully written songs, catchy hooks and sweet guitars-based arrangements, punctuated with dulcet vocals. Nice.
But don’t listen to me! Check it out for yourself at stephmacpherson.com and read more to see what she has to say for herself.
GUITAR WORLD: It seems like you’ve been in the right place at the right time.
Yes. I definitely feel like that has been a huge factor in my successes so far. I’m very, very lucky.
It’s not all luck though, right? You’re very talented. You’ve gotta put it out there, right?
Thank you. Yes, definitely!
So tell me about your new album.
We recorded it here in Victoria, BC, where I’m living at the moment. I recorded it with my friend Jason Cook, who also drums on it, and we used Joby Baker’s studio for some of the drum and bass tracking. We did that part live off the floor, and that was really cool. I feel like it helped to give the songs a good natural flow at their core. When I went to track on top of the drums and bass, it didn’t feel like I was locked to a rigid click track because it had that fluidity in place already.
I’ve been talking to a lot more people who are opting for live recording in the studio to get that energy going.
Yeah, it feels nice.
Who else is playing on the album with you?
In addition to Jason on drums, Mike Edel is playing guitar and Shaun Huberts is playing bass. I played some piano and acoustic guitar and a little bit of mandolin and banjo. And I tried to play the glockenspiel. It was surprisingly difficult for me to get all the rhythms right, like, right on the click.
I played glockenspiel in high school myself, but I never recorded glockenspiel! What song is that on?
It’s on “Bells & Whistles,” the title track. It sounds like a little monkey tinker toy.
You’ve mentioned you were finally able to get the sounds and tones you always wanted to attain on this album. Can you expand on that thought?
Yes. On my last EP, I sort of had this handful of songs. We just went in and recorded them. I remember we did the vocals in one day, eight hours straight. It was during a heatwave in Victoria and there was no A/C. I came from that knowing what I wanted to do for the next one!
These songs on the new album, Bells & Whistles, I played with different players, and we played around with the tones, a little less clean Fender-y tones. I wanted it to be a little darker. I do think there’s a melancholy in my songwriting, and I didn’t want to just polish that right off when we went into the studio.
I can hear that. I like how you have a nice variety of guitar tones in there. There are some really pure acoustics and then some other things thrown into the mix. You caught the music bug pretty early on. Can you talk about your background and share some of your influences?
I started singing when I was just a toddler. And then as soon as my parents introduced me to Disney, I just wouldn’t shut up. I must’ve sung “Part Of Your World” from The Little Mermaid every day, 20 times a day, for most of my childhood. They put me in lessons when I was about 5, voice and piano lessons.
Did they have to yell at you to practice?
With singing not so much, but with piano, a little bit. I still think they put me in voice lessons because they knew I loved it right away. But also because at least I would have to learn more songs if I was going to keep singing.
So what about guitar; when did you pick that up?
I picked that up in junior high school. I don’t know, I think I was just kind of drawn to it. No one put one in my hand and said do this. I just wanted to.
Did you play in bands in high school?
I never joined any bands, necessarily. A good friend of mine, Carla Bird, and I listened to a lot of music together, and she and I started playing and singing harmonies together. We did our first show at a Mexican restaurant with a little practice amp and ten of our best friends. I was in, I think, 11th grade.
The first song I wrote was in ninth grade. It was awful. It was overly honest and emotional. I actually think I was listening to Green Day back then. When I started really songwriting, I listened to people like Sarah Harmer and Kathleen Edwards and obviously the classics, people like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. And I love Jeff Tweedy and Wilco; they’re one of my favorite bands.
Are you experimental in the gear side of things? Or are you pretty traditional? Tell me a little bit about your gear setup and what you’re using.
I am still learning about gear. I’m pretty traditional right now, but I also just got a beautiful electric guitar. I’ve been mostly playing acoustic and using that as a songwriting tool and dabbling on other acoustic instruments. But I just got a Harmony Rocket electric guitar from the late ‘50s. I bought it off somebody on Craigslist, and I am so in love with it. Now I’m ready to just make it sound crazy.
Is that the guitar that you used on the recording? Did you use any other gear?
I borrowed a vintage Gibson J-45 from a friend to play the acoustics on the album. That was really cool. Now I have a new J-45 of my own. Actually we used a lot of Gibson on the recording. We used a Gibson ES-335 too. For my amp, I am borrowing a Fender Blues Junior.
Did you do anything different with your playing style on this recording than you did previously?
I think there’s a lot more dynamic in my guitar playing on this new one. I did mostly just strumming on the first EP. This time I had more little picking parts and really mapped out the songs more. There were no guitar solos on the last album, and on this one, there is one right in the middle of “Bent & Unkind.” Actually Ted Gowans played on that song, and on another one called “This One.” It’s confusing titling a song “This One!”
Speaking of songs on the album, are any in particular that are your favorites to play live?
Well, the song “Bells & Whistles,” I love to sing. I wrote it about being very frustrated about a particular point in my career. So it never really loses that meaning when I’m playing it. Actually, none of them really do because they grow and change with you. That one especially, and “The Verdict.” That one’s a little bit more angsty and grungy.
‘Cause why not? You gotta be angsty and grungy sometimes.
We are complex creatures.
Yes we are! I was wondering if you had some advice for other aspiring artists. Any thoughts you’d like to share?
I think practicing whatever you’ve chosen as your instrument is definitely very important. I know we sometimes hate sitting down and doing that, but it helps when you want to go to it and use it in the way that is fulfilling to you. I think, in terms of pursuing music, you definitely have to have the product (and I hate to use the word “product”), have the songs, or the ability, and then just work like crazy to put it out there. Look online for competitions and opportunities, talk to people who are doing what you want to be doing in your neighborhood. Even reach out to them online. You’d be surprised how many people actually get back to you when you express an interest.
It is amazing how many people actually get back to you, especially if you’re sincere. You’ve done some touring now, too. How has that gone?
It’s difficult, but it’s so rewarding. You can have a string of “bad shows” where you don’t have the turnout you wanted or something goes wrong technically, but you’re able to go from place to place and play music and talk to people who care and are so supportive. Touring reminds you of just how incredibly supportive people are, and how much they love music and how much it affects them. It’s a great way to connect with people.
Find out more about Steph Macpherson and hear her music at stephmacpherson.com.
Photos: Brian Van Wyk
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.