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Parting thoughts: Angie Stevens reflects on nearly two decades of making music

By Dave Herrera | Sept. 7, 2016 | 4 p.m.

Angie Stevens is playing her last show this evening for the indeterminate future.

A little less than a month ago, Stevens informed friends and fans that she'd made the difficult decision to step away from performing indefinitely. Stevens—a highly esteemed singer-songwriter, who got her start playing open mic nights as "Lil Angie" in the early part of the last decade—has been a staple of the folk and Americana scene in Denver for years, and her music has meant so very much to so many people.

This past May, she celebrated the release of her latest album, Beautiful & True, in the company of a capacity crowd at the Soiled Dove. An exceptional record, the platter contains some of her best songwriting to date, and it seemed poised to pick up some real steam. So needless to say, word that she was moving on took many in the scene by surprise.

Turns out, the record did pique the ears of at least one prominent person in the music industry, a radio professional who offered to sign on to help push her music to a bigger audience. After nearly twenty years of making music, however, Stevens says she had reached a stage in her life where she just no longer had the drive to devote to pursuing music at that capacity.

So, after much consideration, she decided that it was time to focus more intently on her family life—which had essentially taken a back seat for the better part of her career—rather than continuing to try to make a bigger mark with her music. "It is the hardest and easiest decision I've ever had to make," she told us last month. "I gave up so many years running down a dream, and then I woke up to see I had everything I needed already."

Giving her the send off she most positively deserves, we caught up with Stevens on the eve of her last set—which is slated to kick off at 6 p.m. this evening on the rooftop of Vita (1575 Boulder Street)—and spoke to her more about her decision to move on and asked her to reflect on some of her favorite memories making music in Denver. 

The Trusted Ear: So tell me what led to you making the decision to step away indefinitely from performing.

Angie Stevens: We had that radio guy, who’s a friend of a friend, who’s worked with John Legend and Adele, and he told me [when he heard Beautiful & True] it’s the first time that it was something where he didn’t dislike one song on the whole album.

And it was super radio friendly, and they wanted to do country, and they wanted to do Americana, and they wanted to do it for six months, and all this … you don’t have to tour, but you know how it is. You can’t do a radio campaign and not tour.

Not touring? That’s not even a thing.

Yeah, that’s not even a thing, and it’s a lump of cash, and I know he doesn’t pick up everybody, and it was a huge deal, but dude, I’ve seen the carrot. The carrot has been dangled.

This isn’t your first rodeo.

Right. It’s my last, baby. It’s the last. [laughs]

What made you take stock in that and go, ‘Naw’?

You know, everything made me say, ‘Naw.’ Looking at my life that I have chosen presently—a husband, and a kid—and really wanting to feel present in my life, and the roller coaster ride of music is so beautiful, but what I was really doing was all my energy, all of everything that I was, I was giving it to my fans.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I really do give it. I give it when I sing. I mean, I’m so vested in people—you know, how they feel, and if they’re okay, and how I can help them, and charity—but the people that are closest to me kind of suffered. You can’t, because you spread yourself so thin, you can’t give it to everybody.

And it wore on me, and I was less and less of my happy self around the people who needed me the most, and it was time. You know, and it’s exhausting. My CD releases are like weddings. So it takes me months and months of planning. It takes all of this work, and every show that I do was so much work, and I decided that I wanted to put that energy elsewhere.

I can’t imagine that there was anybody who didn’t get that when you shared the news that you were planning to step away from performing.

I think, yes, the people who have been there along the way get it, but the people that are newer to me don’t get it. And I think that’s really because they’ve just kind of gotten exposed to it. You know, they’re now in this present season.

My new band, I think it was really hard for them to let go—and it is really hard. It’s really hard for all of us. But it’s harder for some of them, because they just got exposed to this family of love that follows us around and loves us unconditionally.

And honestly, that doesn’t happen in every band. It doesn’t. I’m very fortunate. I’ve surrounded myself with beautiful people. But they’re all good enough and beautiful enough, they’re going to find their own way, every single one of them.

I’m not sure that folks realize just how much goes into being being an artist and doing what you do.

There’s a business to it. The business of it takes … when I did it full time, full boar, it was 24-7. I never stopped. And even to do—you know, everybody says, ‘Well, can’t you find a middle ground?’ I’ve been doing the ‘middle ground’ for five years. You know, I’ve been trying to tiptoe that space, but I don’t do things half ass. Period. So for me, if you can’t keep continuing to grow in something, it’s time to step away.

And you know, one thing I wanted to point out was watching Ani [DiFranco at Red Rocks this past weekend], one thing I related to her—you know, and I was crying in the car with my husband—one of her lines, essentially what she’s talking about in ‘Face Up and Sing’ is ‘I’m happy that I can sing, and I’m happy that you join in, but I really want you to get out there and do it yourself.’

And that’s kind of where I’m leaving my band and my fans. I’ve given you the foundation of unconditional love, and I’m here, but it’s time for you to do it on your own. It’s time for you to find your own way and get out there and say what you have to say. You know, really be the change. Because we all have to take part in that, every single one of us, not just the people who listen to you.

So, tell me, how did this whole thing come about? How did this whole radio opportunity come about?

At the CD release party, our bass player had given a CD to a friend of her husband, who broke off from a big label, where he had worked for years. He has his own company now. And with that pull of the new album and wanting to do everything that we always do, we sent off the album, and we were just about to do a radio campaign, just a homegrown one.

Me and Suzanne [Lainson] were, who I’ve worked with for eight years, who I love more than anything. But we all kind of agreed that we should send it to him and see what he thinks. And that’s when it came back as like, ‘Oh my god, we love it. We want to do all these stations. We want to do everything we can to get you out there.’

He was really impressed. He’s like, ‘I turn down 80 percent of all the albums. This was the first time that everybody wanted to hear … they loved every single track.’ And that’s when he started saying all the things about ‘this is how much it’s going to cost,’ and ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ and ‘obviously, you don’t have to tour,’ but the business, if I was just a young musician, I wouldn’t care, but being here, you know, you have to tour.

You have to be able to make back your investment. You know, and I wasn’t prepared. My band was prepared to go on the road. We had a big band meeting. Everybody was in. It should have made me want to do it, because I essentially said, ‘Would you all be in?’ Every single one of them said, ‘Yes!’

Then I had a conversation with Chris K [Kresge, longtime radio veteran and Colorado Playlist host], who is another dear friend, who’s in the radio business, and he said, ‘If you’re going to put your money out there, you’ve got to … is everybody ready to tour?’ And he had this long conversation with me, and at the end of it, I almost broke down in tears, and I said, ‘Chris, what if I don’t want to get in the car?’ And he said, ‘Then, Angie, why are we having this conversation?’

I felt like I needed to, like I needed to continue it [having that conversation]. I’m tired. I’m tired of chasing this dream, and it just wasn’t on my radar anymore. I wanted to experience the things that I had experienced in the last … just little snippets of it with my son.

You know, so I really had to sit with it, and I had to have a conversation with my husband, and I cried for a week. And I came back, and I told Allie, my bass player, and I went on to tell him [the radio promotion person offering to help] like, ‘I’m not interested in doing it at this time, and I don’t want to put the money toward something else to rebuild my brand or to get a booking agent and do regional [touring] again.’ Like I don’t want to do it. It just isn’t what drives me.

And, so, in that way, it was [a] natural [decision]. It wasn’t something like I had to say to myself, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ It was, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ Honestly, I didn’t have the same drive that I’ve had along this path to really push it. As soon as the opportunity was there, I saw that we were supposed to pay a bunch of money—and I know that it all costs money, but I just didn’t want to pay it.

I just got done spending all this money on getting Beautiful & True. It was the cheapest album that I ever did, but it was still money. And I wasn’t going to play six shows a week to pay it back. So it didn’t make sense.

Was everybody surprised by your decision?

I think the band was surprised, but I couldn’t … in that authenticity that I’ve always stood by, it comes in all forms. You can’t go off and try to be something you’re not, and I’m not a touring musician at this time.

Sometimes you just have to take a step back to gain perspective, to take some time away from it to remember what inspired you to do something in the first place.

Right. I want to get up at midnight and have the urge to get up and record like I used to. You know, I want those urges again. And behind the scenes, the people closest to me know, I have terrible stage anxiety. And so I fight mad amounts of sickness with my stomach for weeks up to every show, and it’s unnerving. And then after the show, I’m just spent, because I’ve given it all.

So it must’ve been liberating to make the decision to stop performing.

You know, at first, it’s super liberating, and then, you kind of mourn. You kind of … it’s not necessarily that you mourn, like I’m never going to do it again, but you mourn the fact that that part of your journey has come to an end. So I think the moment of realizing, it was this moment of beautiful acceptance and then this mourning process of, you know, who will I be if I’m not Angie Stevens? And will I be okay with that?

And it’s not just about me singing songs. I bring all these musicians together. I push people that don’t want to play. I’m constantly pulling people on stage. To me, it’s really about bringing people together as the experience of music, and I can still do that on a different level.

But I also have to start channeling all that energy into making other people better into making me better—as a mom, as a person, really going back and saying, ‘Okay, it’s about time for me to start getting back to yoga,’ and doing the things that I really love to do.

So, what is it that you love to do, outside of music?

I love to read. I’m an avid reader. I read constantly. I love to hang out with my husband. He’s my best friend. We do everything together. I love to be a mom. I love wine. I love to cook—all the things that I literally never thought I would domesticate into being [laughs].

When I wrote the piece about you playing your last shows, I inferred from a closer listen to ‘Someday I know’ that you perhaps knew this was coming when you recorded the album. Did you know?

God, when you said that, I broke down. Subliminally, I knew. I think I knew that I wanted that, but I was so scared of it. You know, as any upcoming musician is scared of going on the road for the first time, I’m on the other end, scared to have this life and what that means.

But you know, I wrote that song before I even married Dane. And what’s crazy—and I don’t really care if people know this—but I had a miscarriage this last year. I went through hell and high water. And it was just understanding the normal experience of people who are trying to have babies …

There’s a lot in that song, you know, when I talk about the little girl, that could’ve been my girl. So I was crying for months after I wrote that song. Just because it was my own experience. I didn’t even know that was going to happen. There was a lot of foreshadowing in that song. And here we are.

You know, music has been my way of healing from severely traumatic experiences, and I’ve grown up. I still use it as my outlet, but I have to find other ways. I have to find other ways of living than just inside my songs. So I’ve had this realization that this can’t go from one thing that I focus on to another. It’s really got to go to being in peace with what I’ve cultivated as a life.

Yeah, so, on Thursday morning, you start your new life.

Thankfully, I leave for Mexico two days later. [laughs] You know what’s cool: Since making the decision—you know, it doesn’t just happen overnight—I’ve been turning down shows. Instead of just turning them down, though, I’m still active. I’m trying to help people find other musicians to play with. If you can’t have me, I’ll find somebody else. I want to be still involved in the scene—I mean, I don’t want to be a booking agent—but I will always help people connect to the right people.

So let’s talk about your favorite moments as a performer. You’ve been doing this a long time. What have been some of the highlights, the times when you look back on this part of your career, what are the moments that resonate the most with you?

I would say some of my favorite moments were touring just because we played everything from hip-hop clubs to punk rock clubs to … we played at race track in Wyoming, in Rawlings. The experiences were probably … I mean, those are some memories I will savor forever.

Road life. I think every musician needs to do it. I think it’s really important to develop your character as a human, and especially as a musician, because if you can’t hold your own in a punk rock club or a hip-hop club … you really learn how to find all different kinds of people and to get out of your little realm.

And I’d say that, coupled with my charity work at Children’s Hospital—Children’s Hospital and Team 25 [aka The Shjon Podein Children's Foundation] changed my life. That was when I started doing charity work with Jake Schroeder. He showed me a different path and a different reason to do this, and it changed everything. That’s why I started teaching.

Playing at Children’s Hospital and getting connected to kids and then finding out that they passed away and their parents get up at your CD release and sing a song. Those are moments that you’ll never forget. You know? Ever.

I can’t imagine that there’s anything more real than that.

The thing is, you first do it because you’re like, ‘I’m happy to help.’ You know, before you’re going into it, before you know what you’re getting into, and then, by the end of it, it’s not like, ‘How did I help them?’ It’s, ‘I’m a better person because of them.’ You change within the first couple of moments.

There was a time at the Children’s Hospital, where this little girl had a full shaved head. She was probably five years old. She just had brain surgery for cancer, and Carlos gave her a shaker to use during one of our songs. And after she gets done, she wanted to hug, and I went to hug her, and she said, ‘Please take me home.’ And I died. I walked away and had to cry. You have to be strong.

But it’s moments like that. You look and all the parents are crying. I mean, you experience it on a human level, where you just got to experience a part of their life by playing a song. There’s nothing more powerful. Everytime I’d go to a Team 25, I’d come home and hug my kid and cry. And he’d just be like, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ I mean, it’s just…

And the experiences of the band, you know, getting to know so many musicians. And never, in this whole career, have I decided to step on other people to get to where I wanted to be. I’m always about, ‘Here, I’ll help you. What do you need?’

And having that mentality never steered me wrong. It kept me in a way where I had all these beautiful friends and a huge community. Denver has such an amazing community. It’s just … so many brilliant people are in Denver playing music.

When you first started as Lil Angie playing the open mics, did you ever envision that nearly 20 years later this is what it would be?

Heh. You remember that? [laughs] Not at all. Twenty years ago, I was playing the Mercury Cafe, almost a shaved head, trying to open for Wendy Woo, playing the Paramount Cafe and the Hard Rock, and I was just starstruck by Denver. I mean, I came from Brainerd, Minnesota. That’s where I moved from. And again, I never would have thought that I’d have a career in it. I just thought I needed to do it to heal.

It was never a business. It was never career-based. It was never I’m going to be this good to get to this level to get to this label. You know, it was never that for me. It was just go out, play your open mics, sing what you need to say, and at the end of the day, you’re still going to go home. You’re still going to work your job. I mean, I never connected the two. I didn’t even know it was something you could do.

When you look back—and you’ll probably have more time to reflect on this down the road—but have you ever considered how much of an impact that you’ve made?

You’re going to make me cry.

I mean, you may not be standing on the stage at Red Rocks today [playing your farewell] to a sold out crowd, but you’ve probably moved at least that many people since you’ve been doing this. Have you ever considered that?

[pauses] I’m trying to pull it together here…

Your music is embedded in people’s lives. Your music has been important to so many people in this community.

That’s the hardest part for me to let go of. I don’t know the amount. I just played a little show at Teller’s, and there were two complete strangers balling to ‘Judy.’ My mom was there and made me play the song. Whether it’s two or nine thousand, that’s the hardest part for me is letting go of letting them know there’s hope. If I can just help them see that there’s hope. I don’t know if I know of my impact, and I don’t know if I’d be the same person if I did.

My mission was always just to always take in the underdog and to always love every single person. And that’s been since I was a little girl. So what you see as Angie Stevens is really just a magnified version of who I am in my regular life.

My sister lives in my house. My best friend lives in my basement. I live in a situation where it’s come weak and weary. I want to foster kids. It’s who I am. It’s my place on this earth. Music was just one channel of that, and that’s really hard to let go of, because I love it so much.

And, I mean, I will say, I understand through my bandmates, who are so affected and really will say that this project is so unique in what it is. I think the uniqueness really comes from that humility of not looking for that big picture of ‘making it,’ but more looking for that picture of making a difference. 

Well, and what is ‘making it,’ you know? It’s not about selling all these albums. In ten or fifteen years, you just sold a bunch of records. Really, 'making it' is when your music continues to move people, even if you’re not playing it anymore. It’s never going to stop being important to people. It’s about how your music was received.

It’s important to keep that in mind, as musicians, going forward. We’re in a society that gives you the bullet points of what it means to be a musician. I think it’s really important to keep that mentality that music is music, and it has it’s validity. It’s supposed to be all these different things. It’s supposed to breathe and change lives.

The more listeners you have that can be aware of that, the more successful people can be. I have more successes, but I’m also a very non-materialistic person. So for me, after every show, those connections are very validating. Everything about this is very validating. At the end of the day, I’m not looking for the big cookie. I’m not looking to be famous.

I was teaching at CU Denver this last summer, and I was like, ‘Where do you think I want to be?’ I just had that opportunity come up, and I was sitting with my class. I said, ‘Who do you think I want to be? Do you think I want to be the musician on stage, or do I want to be somebody in the audience who you thank?’

And they said, ‘Well, you want to be the musician on stage,” and I said, ‘No, I want to be out there, crying my eyes out when you look out and take your award.’ That, to me, is the most powerful form of influence is helping someone.

So, let’s talk a little bit more about your music. Of the songs that you’ve written, which are the ones that stand out to you? I know which ones stand out to the audience, but which are the ones that you’ve written that really strike a chord with you?

Well, for sure, ‘Someday I Know,’ ‘Skyline Drive,’ ‘Words,’ and ‘Don’t Wait for me.’

And why do they still strike a chord?

I think they still strike a chord because they are stories and experiences I’m still sort of working out. And whether that be musically, whether that pushes me to have that subtlety and yet still really remember my brother, I think in all those songs, I can still really channel the messages and find my way back to the song.

When you walk away from this—even if it’s just for the time being—what are your biggest takeaways from this experience. The things that you’ll look back and go, ‘Man, that was amazing’?

I think just the human connection, whether it be on stage or with the audience. Having that connection to my audience and the tears that we’ve cried together. The beautiful connections on stage with all the different musicians. And really just building a community around honesty and being really vulnerable.

Was it hard for you to get into that space and tap into such visceral emotions and summoning the courage to play those songs because you knew it was going to take you someplace else?

Absolutely. And every single time I play it’s hard. That’s why I have terrible anxiety about playing, because I know how much I have to evoke to get to that place again. But there’s also a release in that, and it’s almost like we all let it go together and we all reach that place together.

And then you can kind of look back and be really proud that you finally let go of that pain and called it what it was, and that’s a memory. It’s not something you have to hang on to. It’ something that you’ve been through, and it makes you stronger, ultimately.

It had to be cathartic to be able to mine that territory and get it out of your system?

Absolutely. I mean, it saved me. My music saved me.