A decade ago this writer used to time visits to Los Angeles for the monthly “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” held on the last Wednesday of the month at Molly Malone’s. Either Leslie Stevens hadn’t emerged by then or somehow got lost in my memory. It appears that she burst on the scene shortly thereafter with 2009’s acclaimed Roomful of Smoke (Leslie and the Badgers) and followed that up with 2016’s Kenneth Pattengale-produced The Donkey and the Rose. Now with the release of Sinner, we not only have her most fully realized album to date, but she can also further stamp her claim as L.A.’s foremost Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
The Americana scene in L.A. lacks the vitality that it had in the prior two decades, but there are strong artists in the form of duos (The HawtThorns,) and singers like Alice Wallace, Jonathan McEuen, and Lasers Lasers Birmingham just to touch on a few. Stevens sets herself apart with her soft, clear voice and an aura that hearkens back to the glory days of Laurel Canyon. At times, she also evokes classic singers like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. But, her economical, insightful songwriting is a difference maker too.
”I have always written songs to help me help and to help me cry and laugh,” Stevens explains. “Many people don’t like tears- they are afraid of pain-they want to walk away….When after I play someone says, “You are the most vulnerable” I consider it the biggest compliment. Still, it means cracking my heart open like an egg at every show.” Take for example these opening lyrics from the single, “Depression Descent” and it’s abundantly clear that she’ not the least bit fluffy in a dark tune disguised by the upbeat tempo and swirling guitars – “When I stood with you/ By the Christmas tree/Oh your words were ugly/You said death was on the marquee/And you meant for yourselfYou did not mean for me/And happiness came and went”
Sinner is produced by Jonathan Wilson (Dawes, Father John Misty) and features drummer James Gadson (Paul McCartney, B.B. King), bassist Jake Blanton (The Killers), pianist Keefus Cianca (Elton John, T-Bone Burnett), organist Nate Walcott (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and guest vocals from Jenny O on “Sylvia.” Although Stevens is capable of breezy pop-country, many of these tunes like “You Don’t Have to Be So Tough,” “Teen Bride” and even the title track fall into a dreamy, contemplative, melancholy mode.
Stevens is reluctant to talk much about herself or speak proudly about her singing or writing. Heck, it’s impossible to even find a decent bio on her. She lets her lyrics and her crystalline, oft soaring voice do all the talking. That’s all she needs.