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By Jenny Block
To see musician Be Steadwell perform is to be immersed in magic. The power of her voice, the heart of her lyrics, and the intensity and depth of her music have become known for transporting, transforming and transfixing audiences in the most profound ways.
Steadwell’s work is equal parts beauty and pain, equal parts joy and longing. And there is something undeniably sexy about the way it breaks your heart and fills you with promise at the same time. To see Be Steadwell perform is to find your faith — in everything — all over again.
A Washington, D.C. native, Steadwell is a singer/songwriter of a genre all her own.
“I describe my music as ‘queer pop,’ or pop and soul with affirming queer content,” she tells OutSmart. “I love getting inspiration for many genres. But I love pop the most because it’s accessible; it’s fun; silly; and it’s all about love.”
She earned an MFA in film from Howard University in 2014, and, in 2016, Steadwell was selected to be a Strathmore Artist in Residence, and the DC Commission on the Arts awarded her an artist fellowship.
2017 was a big year for Steadwell. She sang behind Maxwell and Janelle Monae with The Big Lovely Band at the Women’s March on Washington. The Astraea Global Arts Fund awarded her a grant to produce her next album, which she is currently recording in D.C.
“I’m working with other queer artists and having an amazing time putting it together,” Steadwell says. “The album is called Queer Love Songs.” And, she is currently touring her music and screening her film Vow of Silence internationally. Big year to be sure.
I spoke with Steadwell in advance of her performance at the Montrose Center on December 17.
Jenny Block: What was your upbringing and family like?
Be Steadwell: My family is so beautiful and loving. I’m the youngest of four, probably also the shyest. I was usually out in the yard, the woods, or swimming in an ocean somewhere daydreaming.
Did you study music?
I went to a school called The Field School. I didn’t study music theory. But I joined the school jazz band as a vocalist when I was 14. I was deeply awkward and uncomfortable singing in front of people. But I love music and singing so much that I did my best with the tiny, shaky voice I had.
Have you been musically inclined ever since you were a little girl?
I think I always had an ear. I listened to all kinds of music at home. Nina, Joni, Sarah Vaughan, James Taylor, Etta James, Michael Jackson, Sweet Honey. I always sang to myself and harmonized with songs. But I really never committed to music until I was in my 20s.
What inspires you when it comes to writing music?
I’m inspired mostly by love. The good, the bad, the sexy, the yucky. But life in general. I’ve written songs about my ancestors, about the “president,” about Netflix. Anything that moves me is worthy of a song.
Your music is so incredibly powerful and — it seems — intensely personal, at least at times. Does making music help you to wrangle life and all of its pains and joys and surprises? Is it ever painful to revisit those times when you are performing music that speaks to a period of your life you are no longer in?
My music is extremely personal and sincere. Sometimes I sing about a beautiful experience I have in love. Sometimes I sing about devastating heartbreak. But no matter how painful the experience, writing the music and sharing it is always cathartic. I often cry on stage. But it always feels better afterwards. Also, what’s exciting about art, is that you can write a piece about an experience and understand it even more deeply once some time has passed. I love that about writing music.
Can you explain your process a little in terms of how you use and record your own voice? Do you use the same process whether you are recording or performing? Is the process something that some audience members have difficulty understanding/accepting?
When I record my voice for an album, I sit alone in my room and get super cozy. More recently, I’ve started recording in a studio. But my favorite way to record is at home, alone. It allows me the time and comfort to try new things, explore different ways to interpret the melody and the story. I also produce my own music, usually using beats and electronic instruments.
When I play live, I use a loop pedal and occasionally a guitar. The loop pedal allows me to record my voice live, add layers and essentially compose the song using my voice. It’s kind of like a one-person a capella experience. Some audience members have no idea what I’m doing. They think I’m playing a track and singing on top. But for the most part, I think most folks understand what I do.
What do your fans say about your music and what it does to/for them?
I receive a lot of loving notes and thanks from folks who’ve listened to my music. My favorites [include], “I played your music for a girl I like and now we’re together.” [It’s] so, so cute. I’m so happy to facilitate a little love! And, “I listened to your music and it helped me come out.” [I’m] so, so grateful that folks even reach out to say these things. And I’m so glad my music has helped them in any way.
In light of the hideous political climate in which we currently reside, in what ways do you believe music can help us?
Music will get better when times get worse. Art gets better when we suffer. We need it. I believe music is the spark of any resistance, any movement. Spirituals, work songs, songs from the civil rights movement. Music will help us remember we are human; how beautiful we are; and how we can come together to resist. My music is mostly love songs. But I believe it is political. Acknowledging my love as a black, queer woman is about claiming my humanity.
Other than music, what do you devote your time to?
I love long runs. It keeps me so happy and calm when times get stressful. I love cooking. I love any day I can have some homies over and make them a meal. I’m also a filmmaker, and I’m excited to direct my first feature film in 2018.
If you could share some words of healing or advice or love or something, with the world, what would they be?
No matter what kind of heartbreak you are experiencing, someone knows exactly what you’re going through. Find your people. They love you, and they’re waiting for you. There might be someone who needs you just as much as you need them. I have felt deeply hopeless most days the past two years. It’s a hard time for so many of us. But now is the time to build our families, to grow stronger together. Cheesy, but it’s true. You can’t trudge through this garbage world by yourself.
What: Be Steadwell
When: 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 17
Where: The Montrose Center, 401 Branard St., Room 111
Tickets and more info: Eventbrite.com/e/be-steadwell-live-in-houston-tickets-40841854085