Album Walkthrough: Stevie Jean dissects her debut album, The Dark

Album Walkthrough: Stevie Jean dissects her debut album, The Dark

Written over the last four years, the Melbourne-via-Northern Territory musician excels on her captivating and charming debut album.

Header image by Jett Street.

Across the last few years, Northern Territory-raised and now Melbourne-based musician Stevie Jean has blossomed into a multi-faceted favourite of Australia's next generation. While her solo work dates back to her debut single Estranged in 2018, much of her evolution has been paved through collaborations, such as her ongoing work with Gumbaynggirr rapper Tasman Keith - their 2019 record Evenings being a strong favourite - and acts like Horrorshow and Kuya James.

A lot of these collaborations painted Stevie Jean as a musician capable of adding somewhat of a refreshing touch to her high-energy collaborators, with her vocal blending together touches of indie, R&B and pop to cut through and bring relief to whatever single she was featuring on. On her breakthrough collaborative record with Tasman Keith, she - without fail - brought an edge to their work that always shined, switching from the rockier basis of her solo work and bringing versatility as she showcased those facets of other genres that make up her wide-ranging tastes.

In the last two years, however, her revert back to her solo work has brought more of that fierce and focused indie-rock charm. Take her introductory Blame Game EP back in 2019, for example, and how she's built on that introduction with the work she's delivered since: BoredStress Me OutGraduationMenace and most recently I Don't Mind bringing this intimate, yet striking approach to alt-pop to the forefront, full of the charm she brought to her collaborators but now, shines at its most personal and uninterrupted state.

It's something that's front and centre of her long-awaited debut album The Dark, worked on over the last four years and finally, arriving today. It's an 11-track encapsulation of Stevie Jean's brilliance, dissecting intimate thoughts, feelings and experiences through a wash of sounds that switch between charming and subdued right through to fierce and commanding; the many sides of Stevie Jean as a multi-faceted musician and person reflected in the core of the album's sound and stories. 

"I was always scared of the dark as a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it too," she says on the record. "Anxiety, depression, the blues, melancholy, bittersweetness, low self-esteem, rage, pity, lust, gluttony, envy. So many shattered pieces of glass emotions that can be pulled apart and made clinical to examine and explain. Personally, I’m someone who feels deeply on an extreme scale. I just call it The Dark."

The Dark is a journey throughout this - as her explanation suggests - with every rounded edge of Stevie Jean's life presented through the glitz and sheen of her indie-rock sound. By the end of it, you feel like you get a proper introduction to who Stevie Jean actually is; musically - with her work undisturbed by the guest collaborators that she's often placed alongside - and personally, thanks to the rich songwriting and lyricism that occupy much of the album's space.

It's a transformative moment a long time coming for Stevie Jean, one that feels like it's been a long time coming. Now, take a dive into The Dark below, and underneath, read through a track by track walkthrough of the album, breaking down its themes and stories one song at a time.

Send Me Home 

I wrote Send Me Home on an aeroplane on tour. I have a mind that can become a self-sustained machine so moments of stillness and silence are a precious treasure to me.

For those who are astrologically inclined, I have a Virgo Sun, Sagittarius Moon, Virgo Mercury and Libra Rising. I find these moments of stillness often on flights. For a long time, I struggled with remaining present and I really didn’t want to take antidepressants so I attacked the problem through the gut. At this point, I had quit everything that could react as a high in my body. Anything that caused sugar high or inebriation. Natural or fabricated, meaning no sugar, no fruit, no dairy, no grains, no alcohol or other drugs. I found other delicacies, alternative highs, in places and people. Alone above the Earth, I was brought to stillness and I felt everything and nothing simultaneously.

This track has vocal production from Caiti Baker. I also have been privileged to sing this live with the Settle Down Sisters a few times. This song with so many gorgeous voices behind it is one of my favourite things to sing.

Nervous

Nervous is the twin sister of Cali. I wrote them both around the same period of time. First came Cali, confusion and sadness. Next came Nervous, a warning. At this time I was dealing with my dissociation through diet. My mind was clearing and I was waking up and realizing what had been happening around me. Those wild years between 17 and 21 are like an ugly twilight period. So many new concepts and screw-ups. While I had been gone in my haze, other young people around me had treated me in strange and twisted ways. I was blind and I didn’t know better. We were all kids so I don’t blame anyone, we all had our own battles. I remembered I was strong, I remembered my purpose. I realized that I didn’t have to be peaceful or vengeful, I could be neutral. The karma was that I get to live my truth on a platform. I can always speak it, sing it, create it, express it. I am a messenger by nature.

This song was similar to Cali in that the production came naturally. In the first mix, the bass was super loud. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t want to change it despite the fact that it was louder than the voice. James convinced me, he was right of course. But the bass, my gods. Myka Wallace was amazing when she recorded the drums for this. She had one of those wooden frogs with the jagged back that makes a call when you run wood over it. She also had threaded seashells. She put the frog on the snare and the seashells over the symbols and toms and she played it like that. I was pretty much in awe the whole time she recorded.

The first time I heard Ben’s guitar parts I was in my car, it was like an insulated little forest. I swear I could hear the fireflies and the wind in the pines. It was a bubble when the world was ending. We kept the original demo vocals. Me and Caiti fleshed the backing vocals out one night at Studio G. I was really lucky to have her vocal production to draw on.

I Don’t Mind

Lyrically, I Don’t Mind is just a real-life conversation with a past lover. And I’ll leave it at that.

Originally, the demo we recorded was much slower. We thought it would go in a lo-fi hip hop direction. We sped the demo up a lot and it caused the vocals to warp. Which was fine since they were only ever supposed to be a placeholder. However, it annoyed James and I so much that when we were recording drums at Park Orchards, we decided to just play it all live to click. I was in the room with Myka and we smashed the song out in two or three takes. When the guitars came back from Ben it sounded so live. As if he had been in the room with us.

The vocals came quickly. When you’re dealing with a song like I Don’t Mind it works in your favour to avoid overthinking anything. Production-wise this song was a playground. James and I are both obsessed with filthy guitars. In the bridge we, with the help of Tony Espie, sent a portion of the guitar solo into a different “room.” Meaning we basically placed it in a simulation of an entirely different space somewhere on planet earth. I’m lucky to work with people who know how to pull all kinds of hectic rabbits out of the hat.

Graduation

In high school I watched my friends graduate from fun drugs to harder substances. The irony is that some of them didn’t live to actually graduate for one reason or another. XO is a reference to one of the most influential records of my life, Trilogy by The Weeknd. There’s some speculation as to the actual definition of the term but the one that stuck with me is Ecstasy and OxyContin. When there’s darkness all around you sometimes you kinda have to revel in it before it kills you.

Rest In Peace Rhys S, Rhys W and my darling, Ruby. Some stars burn too bright to live on a mere planet.

I can’t let my obsession with Miggy’s bassline on this song go unspoken. It was a small section within the whole song. Once I heard it we automated it up and used it as the outro. It’s one of my favourite moments on the record. I had never meant to actually show anyone this song. It was just a little snippet I’d recorded when I was really low. James had the idea to turn it into a chant. I’m glad we did. It’s one of my most honest songs, conveying how I really feel about the world and life sometimes. It’s your life. Heal and destroy yourself on your own terms.

Bored

I think Bored conveys the modern femme fatale approach to life. The “I’m going to do what I want to do and you’re just going to have to deal with it” sentiment. It’s about women relinquishing the idea that they are responsible for whether or not a man feels hurt by their honesty. Women have so often bitten their tongues and put themselves second to appease a partner or family member. I believe that unadulterated honesty can be revolutionary and freeing.

This song, like most of my music, was written as a form of personal catharsis. I was quite surprised with the positive reception from my producer and publishers. It may come across as bratty or self-serving but I’m okay with that. For me, speaking my truth is the highest form of self-love because it frees me up to feel and to grow. When it came to production with this song it was a matter of taking all the parts of the song and just making them dirtier and more distorted. I also played guitar on this track. My guitar style is filthy. Perfect for a song about being bored of other people's feelings. Which, to be perfectly honest, is kind of a recurring theme for me.

Moth

Moth is a song that has had an entire life. It was born under a full moon after someone betrayed my trust. I was hiding in the field at my parent's place. The moon was so bright I could write the lyrics. The concerned party was trying to find me all around my parents 5-acre block. Half of it is forest. I could hear him calling my name. I didn’t respond.

The song left infancy and entered childhood in Melbourne January 2018 at Muscle Mothership Productions where Steve Smith and I locked ourselves in his studio and did all primary production on my EP Blame Game. This song was called I Sit Alone back then. It was guitar heavy and the lyrics were far more emotional and far less savage. It never made the cut, we all knew it wasn’t done growing up. It reached adolescence when the story progressed. I made some cuts in my personal life. One of the people concerned continued to betray my trust. I love them still and wish them healing. I cut ties after a particular event and finally the song was given the harsh level of honesty it needed to grow up.

Under the production and instrumental mastery of Miggy, Benjamin Edgar, James Mangohig, Myka Wallace, Steve Smith and Myself the baby finally became an adult. It also underwent vocal production from the multi-talented Caiti Baker. That session was insanely fun. At the end of the take I sang a mean joke. We left it in. You can hear Caiti and I losing it with laughter on the outro. The bridge is a literal quote from my dearest friend Serina Pech when we were discussing the situation over coffee once. She’s one of those rare souls whose artistry spills over into every aspect of her life. Everything she says is iconic and quotable.

The title change was the final leap to adulthood. If you want me for my soul you are a true friend. If you want me as a gateway to the industry you are a Moth, chasing the limelight. These days my circle is small and real. God bless every one of them and many thanks to everyone who helped this song to grow up.

Stress Me Out

This song comes from the ritual of black coffee and cigarettes that is practised by many Cypriot, Greek and Italian people. My father is the captain of a ship and ever since I can remember he has been going away to sea for long periods of time. When he gets lonely he blasts his favourite records in the wheelhouse and each morning around 4AM he has a moment to himself before the crew wakes up. He stands on the balcony outside the wheelhouse and he has his ritual. Bitter black coffee steams and the ember of a cigarette burns as he stares out into the dark horizon. He is responsible for a crew of fifty, but at the moment he’s just paying homage to the homeland and being in the moment.

Whenever the world gets too much I, too, turn to coffee and nicotine. Fight with someone you love? Coffee and a baby cigar. Tragedy strikes? Coffee and a baby cigar. But like most things in my father's culture, it is also a celebration. Like the fast before the lamb at Easter. Like spiced death cake at a funeral. It is a balance. The caffeine reminds you that you are alive. The nicotine sends the world into slow motion.

Absolutely atrocious for health, but not bad as a stress reliever.

Cali

Cali has a story, but the production is far more interesting and much less accusatory. I wrote this while I was working on the theatre production A Smoke Social, by my friend and incredible playwright, Sandra Thibadeux. I played a Jordanian warrior in WWI so things were pretty intense. I was studying Arabic with a remote tutor in Jordan and I was deep into mythology and history. My Yia Yia (grandmother) was a Hadji, meaning she was baptized in the River Jordan.

I was also falling in love with my telecaster (which actually belongs to the label but I will cut anyone who comes for it.) I spent nights locked in my room jamming and writing. Its twin sister is Nervous. I recorded the demo and sent it to James. We both loved it. We sent away for guitar parts and Ben added so much beauty. He laid synth parts as well. Myka’s drums added another layer. When we finally sent it away to get mixed by Tony Espie we were beyond excited.

To me, it’s a perfect song. It came about by the collective genius of wizards. A term I use to describe anyone who has been in their industry a long time and has mastery over it holistically. I am truly humbled to own this song and to have had my lyrics brought to life with such magick.

Menace

Menace was originally supposed to come out on the soundtrack of a movie. It was postponed. I’ll write them a new song. I can’t say more than that for now.

We bought a line up of Kapital J, Paper Toy, Tasman Keith as well as James Mangohig and I for this song. I walked into Studio G late one evening to the beat blasting already. Kapital, James and Tas were already there. I’d spent the day moving in with my ex-girlfriend, I was so ready to do something fun and free. I sat down and wrote everything in like 10-20 minutes. We recorded. Then Tas wrote his verse. Kapital added his iconic “WE DO WHAT WE WANNA DO” chant. Kapital J, like Serina Pech, is one of those rare human beings who just says quotable shit 24/7. If I could follow the two of them around with a mic for a day I’d have enough samples to make a mixtape.

Anyways, fast forward about 9 months and an apocalypse and the world has changed. Tas has gone in a different direction so understandably decided to pull his verse. I’d linked up with Draftday, a dope band who loaned me four of their players to back me at festivals. We had Menace sounding super tight and explosive live. They came in and played live takes at Studio G. We placed these over the original beat, a little production and some backing vocals and Menace reached final form. We kept the original vocals, something about them was irreplicable. Kapital beefed up his vocals too.

I love this song. It’s the best soundtrack to skateboard to.

The Dark

I wrote The Dark a few years ago on a ukulele in a campsite called Robyn Falls. The person who was with me had run home for a family emergency and I was probably at my highest point of mental dissociation. While it was still light I wrote this song. Like Graduation, it was never supposed to come out. It was an expression of hopelessness. When it got dark I meditated next to the water. In the Northern Territory bodies of water are very dangerous because of crocodiles. I’m scared of the dark and of dark or deep water. I sat there without any light until my friend came back. I wanted something to come out of the water and get me. I wanted something to happen. That night the energy was off so we left to go driving. We saw many Curlews that night. They are a nocturnal bird with long legs and childlike eyes, and a connection to death. Their call sounds like a baby or a woman crying. They flew from the car.

Because this song was written on ukulele it lends itself well to a rock sound and we actually got the guitar parts back from Ben Edgar early on. We didn’t touch the song until James took the stems and made a beat out of it. It began to sound darker. I finally recorded the last vocals to it. Serina Pech and James Mangohig were both in the room and they encouraged me to keep these vocals. I wanted to ditch them because they sounded so major and the song is so minor. We kept them and now we have this weird dissonant psychotic track. I love it alot.

When a song is sounding too clean, which is pretty much every minute because me and James are obsessed with filth, we say “fuck it up.” This term basically just means, go in and make it disturbing and dark and distorted. We gave the stems to Liam Budalasia with these exact instructions. “Liam, please fuck this track up for us.” He ran the stems through some hectic analogue gear. I really love this song. There are no other songs like it on the record and that’s largely thanks to Liam.

Lethal Love

Like Moth, Lethal Love is a song that has had an entire life. It was born in the home of my mentor Netanela Mizrahi. She is the woman responsible for much of my musical and artistic education, a divine presence in my life since I was 7. I was house-sitting for her (she has domesticated bunnies) while she was on a worldwide fellowship. Alone with my telecaster, I wrote the riff. The lyrics that followed were a hopeful ballad to bring balance to a relationship that was too clingy. This was 2018 or 19.

Benjamin Edgar sent the guitar parts through a few years later when we began production and the song was set to be a classic rock track. Then I went through a really hectic period of time during the quarantine and an equally hectic breakup. I re-wrote the choruses and the verses and hence the song was in adolescence. It reached adulthood over a cup of coffee at my parent's house. Being Cypriot, I have delved into the many cultures that have influenced my people. The war with Turkey is still fresh as they occupy much of the island. I am privileged to have relationships with Turkish people in Australia where we have the ability to be friends, regardless of the political trauma.

They have an ancient practice of reading coffee grounds, which I am not versed in but I do hold much respect for. In my cup that morning, I saw lightning bolts in the grounds. I wrote the bridge as a kind of protection spell. To say I am powerful with this lightning and my culture. I invoked the Mati which is the evil eye, a protective symbol used by many cultures throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, my own included. I then added “I wish you inner peace, keep the fuck away from me” as a chant that repeats until the very end of the song.

To send out a vibration into the universe that I am finished interacting with this person. When you send evil to another person, they sense it and send it back. Thus the relationship remains active in an unhealthy way. But once you send love to someone who thinks ill of you, there is no feedback loop to sustain them. Love is the highest currency and thus the most radical force.

My favourite moment in the production of this song was outside Studio G in my car. It was nighttime and I had found a voice memo I’d taken a week prior. I’d been in my car listening to a bounce of the track so loud that the speakers maxxed out and created a delay effect. James and I sat in the car with the radio turned on full and then replicated it in the studio. It falls at the very end of the last chorus of the song. We ended up leaving the soundbite of my explanation in the song too as an outro.

Follow Stevie Jean: FACEBOOK / INSTAGRAM

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