Ben Stevenson may have deep roots in Edmonton’s music scene, but that hasn’t stopped the Toronto-based artist from making waves in the world of hip hop. In fact, his humble punk rock past has proven a valuable asset for the singer, songwriter and guitarist: a year or two back, Stevenson’s raw, emotive voice, his organic approach to songwriting and his hardworking DIY ethic caught the attention of award-winning producer and Stevenson’s new collaborator Boi-1da. This year, 1da took home the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album for his work on Toronto rapper Drake’s “Take Care” – his third Grammy in all – and with 1da’s signature hard-hitting beats now solidly behind Stevenson’s classic soul sound, the future is looking good: in 1da’s words, Stevenson is “the epitome of a star.”
Stevenson has been working towards this moment since childhood. As a kid, he annoyed his teachers by drumming on desks in school and found an outlet – jamming with a group of friends – while still an elementary student. By Grade 8 – around 1995 – he’d formed a punk band, Misdemeanor, and played his first show across the street from his school at record shop Punk n’ Junk; the band went on to become a fixture in Edmonton’s punk scene. In 2001, Misdemeanor evolved into genre-bending band Our Mercury, which released three albums, briefly relocated to Montreal, came home and left behind a legacy that can still be heard in Edmonton bands today. Our Mercury broke all kinds of rules, incorporating atypical elements like a percussionist and rolling up to shows with dancehall songs blasting from the van, before finally dissolving in 2007. Soon after, Stevenson made his way to Toronto, where he put together a throwback soul band, Ben Stevenson and the Wondertones.
Much in the same way that he outgrew the genre boundaries of punk when playing with Misdemeanor, Stevenson began to feel restricted by the lines surrounding the Wondertones’ old-school soul sound. Eventually, he asked himself some tough questions – like whether or not he’d even go and see his own band – and quickly realized something had to change. “I don’t want to trash what I did, but it felt like we were becoming a cover band. It almost felt insincere,” he recalls.
Luckily, it was around that time that he first hooked up with 1da, through a Ryerson University broadcasting student who’d asked Stevenson to work together on some music. The student was also working with 1da and soon after meeting the producer, Stevenson found himself part of a team creating beats and hooks in the Scarborough, Ontario, studio where Drake got his start. (Hear some of their work on Joe Budden track “Runaway.”) Eventually, 1da expressed an interest in focusing on Stevenson’s solo work. For Stevenson, the decision was a no-brainer. “When I was doing my soul stuff, I really got this feeling that I wasn’t doing that crazy thing I wanted to hear. In that way, [working with 1da] just made sense. Okay, I’ll have some of the heaviest beat makers in the game working on these records of mine – that’ll be cool.”
“Falling Off,” released in early February, is one of about 15 tracks recorded to date. Its launch kickstarted a noteworthy buzz around Stevenson in the blogosphere, still going strong in the lead-up to Stevenson’s newest 1da-produced EP, out in April.
Much like forming Our Mercury was the solution to escaping the restrictions of punk rock, this new project – and collaborating with a new group of talented artists including producers Megaman and The Maven Boys – freed Stevenson to make music in a way he simply couldn’t before. “I feel totally unshackled from the idea that it has to be this certain aesthetic,” he says. “We’re realizing something with my music which is exhilarating and exciting for me. I have a sort of old school sound in my voice and background, but we’re doing it in a contemporary way.”
These days, things have changed for Stevenson in a few key ways. For one, he’s got a team of people working with him for the first time, allowing him to focus on being an artist rather than on the business end of things, not his strong suit to begin with. But Stevenson is still very particular about the way he’s presented, and his stubborn nature means that he’ll always hold tightly to his creative control. “I’m just this punk rock dude from Edmonton. I’m not trying to be this glitzy, glamorous, whatever bullshit. I’ll always have this say over things and if it strikes me wrong in my gut, I’ll know,” he explains.
For another, Stevenson is finally able to focus on music full-time. Giving up the day job – typically nine-hour days of painting houses bookended by an hour in traffic each way – was a recent milestone, one Stevenson is hopeful he can hold onto. “It feels like my time isn’t ill-spent now. When I worked, I used to feel some days this overwhelming sense that this wasn’t what I should be doing, almost to the level of anxiety,” he says. “I’ve had more money in life, but you have to do that. You have to go all in.”
Being on the periphery of the major leagues has proven incredibly inspiring to Stevenson, who more than anything is blown away by the work ethic of the people he’s surrounding himself with. And in many ways, he’s not finding the world of hip hop all that different from the punk scene he came up in. Both, he says, are built by the passion of wayward kids who, for whatever reason, found solace in music. “I think that’s where the real interesting music grows out of; it’s the kids who chose it because they didn’t have anywhere else. There’s differences, don’t get me wrong, but underneath, it’s really the same thing.”
By Robin Schroffel