Five or six years ago, Leslie Stevens was poised to be an L.A. breakout artist in a world L.A. hadn’t had many breakout artists, country music. Leslie & the Badgers had released the glowing album “Roomful of Smoke,” she did full-band and solo tours and her stock as a collaborator skyrocketed. In 2012, Stevens recorded two albums with two producers, Jonathan Wilson and Kenneth Pattengale. And then … Poof!
After three-plus years out of the limelight (although by no means musically inactive), Stevens re-emerged earlier this year, playing a solo show here and there, as well as showcasing a new trio Dear Lemon Trees, with Kathleen Grace and Jamie Drake. Naturally, inquiring minds wanted to know: Where had Leslie Stevens been?
“I told them I’d been at a monastery on Mt. Baldy, and that one of the monks and I had a relationship, and now I have a child,” Stevens says in her Midwestern lilt, garnished with an impish smile. “A very peaceful child.”
Well, part of that is true. She is indeed a mom to 3-year-old Caroline, and she did do some traveling. But she’s typically coy about a lot of the details — in fact, getting Leslie Stevens to say two consecutive sentences about Leslie Stevens is like trying to drive a gravel road without spilling your coffee.
But another birth this week — the long-awaited release of the Pattengale-produced album “The Donkey and the Rose” — has cast the spotlight back on Stevens and reminded many in the close-knit Americana community why she is the sweetheart of L.A.’s rodeo.
“I’ve been playing with or watching her for 10 years,” says original Badger Ben Reddell, “and she still gives me goosebumps.”
“I’ve been evangelizing her for years,” says Philip Krohnengold, the multi-instrumentalist/composer/in-demand side man who’s played keys for her.
Says Pattengale, one-half of the acclaimed folk duo the Milk Carton Kids: “It’s not really for us, as contemporaries, to decide who is important, because history will be the judge. That said, I put her at the top.
“Besides her remarkable sense of melody and that exceptional voice, she really is fucking deadly with a pen. She’s narrative-obsessed and word-obsessed, and it gives her such a powerful point of view as a writer.”
Even on the concise (nine songs, 29 minutes) “The Donkey and the Rose,” that quality shines, whether on the evocative hymn “Picture in a Frame,” the leave-no-dry-eye-in-the-house “Can I Sleep in Your Room” or the ticklish “Everybody Drinks and Drives in Heaven.” The album, which features Paul Cartwright on fiddle and mandolin, Eric Heywood on pedal steel and electric guitar, Evan Vidar on keys and drums, Christian Castillo on bass and Pattengale on guitar and vocals — was recorded back in May of 2012 following a stretch during which the Milk Carton Kids brought Stevens along as the opening act.
“I basically conned her into making a record,” Pattengale jokes about the three-day recording session. “She has this tenuous style that’s like you’re floating down the highway and you’re trying capture something in a jar. Part of her magic is her innate instinct. And my style is to not spend too much time trying to ‘craft’ things, but that doesn’t always satisfy the ego of an artist. Sometimes, though, it makes for the most magical recordings. … It seems to have resulted in a pretty special thing this time, even if it wasn’t by masterful design.”
For her part, Stevens remembers most of the album’s songs as being written “under a tree in Mt. Washington” but says there was no particular trigger for the creative burst. In fact, she is always writing.
I guess, if you write a thousand songs, chances are nine of them aren’t gonna suck.
“There’s never a time there’s not a song in my head,” Stevens says. “You sit down and start playing, and they come. Or you’re out hiking or walking around the reservoir and they come. It’s like the Kurt Vonnegut quote, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’
“If you could see how many hours I spend writing songs and the percentage crap that comes out it … I guess, if you write a thousand songs, chances are nine of them aren’t gonna suck.”
Stevens’ work ethic — when she is not writing songs or playing on other peoples’ records, she is teaching songwriting at a local college and participating in songwriter circles — is the first thing Pattengale noticed about her. “I remember going to see her at the Airliner in 2009 because the Badgers song ‘Old Timers’ spoke to me — I thought, ‘Wow, people my age can write songs like this.’ It had truth and authenticity,” he says. “Anyway, during the show while another band was playing, she was sitting in a corner with pen and paper. She was writing songs during a show. That made such an impression.
“Like very few other songwriters,” he adds, name-checking Tom Brosseau, “from the very beginning she seemed like a fully formed, fully realized artist.”
Mention these kinds of platitudes to Stevens, though, and she is at a loss for words. “Awwwwww,” she says, recalibrating. “You know, every person who’s ever talked to me about my career asks me, ‘What’s wrong with you, why don’t you act more proud of yourself?’ Or, ‘Why don’t you act like the baller you are?’ … I don’t know … Is it that they want you to be like that, or is it for themselves?”
She lets that notion dangle.
As for the future, there is still the Jonathan Wilson-produced album, titled “Tough.” Plans are being hatched to formally release it. And Dear Lemon Trees will be recording music soon as well.
But for longtime Stevens’ devotees, “The Donkey and Rose” — and the chance to see her play it live, as she did Wednesday night at the Bootleg Theater — is a gift.
||| Stream: “Depression Descent,” from the Jonathan Wilson-produced album “Tough”
||| Live: Leslie Stevens performs Nov. 3 at Honky Tonk Hacienda 3 at El Cid.