Leslie Stevens insists that she is not the best with words. She said that she sometimes has trouble expressing what she wants to say.
However, her newest album “Sinner” released on Aug. 23 says otherwise.
With colorful lyrics and comforting vocals, “Sinner” establishes the country singer as a skilled lyricist and adept storyteller with a personality just as bright as her heart is full of love.
The album begins with “Storybook,” which hints at the album’s recurring theme.
“I really wanted the record to tell a story,” said Stevens. The story behind “Storybook,” for example, is Stevens learning that love is the most important thing in the world, which the lyrics “Love is real and everything else is an illusion” demonstrate.
“I feel like that’s something that I’m still learning every day because I forget it every morning when I wake up,” she said.
“Storybook” also suggests that Stevens isn’t too concerned with following the conventions of the country genre, as the song takes on a more folkish than country feel, with soft guitar and piano riffs.
Stevens describes her sound as “country from the heartland,” and she draws inspiration from singers such as Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. She also worked with musician and producer Jonathan Wilson, who helped Stevens find and structure her album’s sound.
“I am greatly indebted to Jonathan Wilson for making the record sound the way it sounds,” she said. “He really felt that he could contribute to what I’d given him and that we could work together and collaborate together.”
“Sinner” exhibits Stevens and Wilson’s excellent teamwork and demonstrates the way they manage to make each song sound distinct while also successfully stringing them together to create a cohesive album.
For example, “12 Feet High,” one of the album’s singles, has a rock feel to it as it starts out, but it eventually transitions to the universal folkish sound that the rest of the album has.
“You Don’t Have to Be So Tough,” a lyrical standout on the record, tells the story of a love affair Stevens had with someone who she said was in a bad place and struggled with being vulnerable.
“I kind of felt like I would be left behind,” Stevens said. “I just felt like they didn’t want to be introspective, and they just wanted to not talk about anything.”
She writes, “You don’t have to be so tough now / Don’t you think I’d understand? You don’t have to be so certain now / That you’re the only one with a plan” to anyone who struggles with being vulnerable and opening up.
“Teen Bride” is another standout on the record, with old-timey beats that make it especially distinct from the other songs. It tells the story of a teenage pregnancy that results in a shotgun wedding where the baby ends up not surviving in the end.
Stevens plays with the word “Missouri” in the lyric, “Teen bride, and inside / A baby that wouldn’t survive / To see Missouri.” “Missouri” refers to the state Stevens grew up in, but it can also sound like “misery,” perhaps suggesting that had the baby in this story survived, its life would probably not have been the happiest.
The title track, “Sinner” is both a joke and a comment on the weight the word “sinner” can hold, says Stevens. She says that the word “sinner” is often used to call someone out for doing something risky or scandalous, when often times whatever it is that the person did was not actually a huge deal.
Stevens also describes the deeper meaning the word can hold, saying that she tends to stay away from calling people sinners because she believes that shaming and guilt-tripping people doesn’t help anyone.
“At the same time, there is a real morality to being a person and being a human and trying to figure out how best you want to live,” she said. “But to call yourself a sinner is a judgment of yourself.”
Stevens herself has struggled with feelings of judgment and shame. She describes a particular decision she made in her life that she said many people view as a sin.
“I have had an abortion,” she said. “And as a person who has had an abortion and knows how difficult it is to make that decision and knows how horrible and guilty it can make you feel, I also think it’s really important to have that choice because it’s really important to maintain that right for humans.”
Stevens said that she has never told a journalist that she has had an abortion before now and believes this might have to do with the shame and guilt that women who have abortions are supposed to feel.
“There are certain things people are called ‘sinner’ for that don’t really make sense to me,” she said. “Those aren’t the thoughts I necessarily had when I titled it that, but they’re sort of along those lines.”
“Sylvie,” named after poet and best friend of Stevens is one of the strongest tracks on the album that best exhibits Stevens powerful vocals and creative imagination.
“It’s about the depth of love that’s there for her,” Stevens said about “Sylvie.” This deep love Stevens has for Sylvie is immediately apparent upon hearing the way Stevens sings Sylvie’s name at the beginning of the song.
As the song gains intensity, so does Stevens’ voice, as she uses vivid imagery to express the feelings of love for Sylvie that words cannot.
“The end of it is about those boundless feelings of love that you can’t express,” said Stevens.
She finishes the song singing, “And now, I am here overlooking the ocean / I am lying on the bed, watching the sunset / I am standing on the cliff, I am floating in the water / All the flowers of the field, hold the universe revealed / And the moon over the hill.”
By the end of the album, Stevens has effortlessly gained the trust and admiration of listeners, leaving them wanting more stories and even more of Stevens.
Stevens is unsure as to what she wants of listeners. She thinks a message is woven into the album, but she doesn’t know exactly what that message is.
“I wish that takeaway was love, but I don’t know that it is,” she said.
Though the main message of “Sinner” may be unclear, the fact that Stevens has a giant heart and a brilliant mind is not, and if listeners aren’t able to tell that Stevens wears her heart on her sleeve by the end of the album, the closing lyrics might be a giveaway: “And love, I wish you love / You will always have mine / You will always have mine.”
Leslie Stevens will perform at the Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana on Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. in support of Robbie Fulks.