The new stephaniesid album, Starfruit — despite its name-association with things tropical and celestial — was conceived in a dark basement. "A universe leapt out of the grayness," says front woman Stephanie Morgan.
An advance listen of the album reveals lush pop, layered vocals, rich horn parts and a certain velvety darkness (perhaps it's the snarl of baritone sax or echoes of reverb ). But even through an edge of bitterness (despite dance beats and bells, the track "Starf—ker" is not without teeth), the record is backlit by undeniable sparkle.
Of Starfruit, Morgan says on the band's website, "Only some of its characters are mortals. All sport coquettish dance moves or baskets of pineapples." And, "Track by track, a mouthwatering other-world materialized, hovering a few feet above some cheap microphones, a laptop and the pit of the stormy sea."
But Starfruit could have never come to fruition. Just last year, tired of life on the road and the drudgery of recording, promoting and touring, Morgan took time out to focus on other passions. "Being a woman and hanging out with a bunch of dudes is great," she says (the band includes Morgan’s husband/keyboardist/vocalist Chuck Lichtenberger, drummer Tim Haney, Jacob Rodriquez on saxophone and Justin Ray on trumpet). "But I needed to sew, I needed to garden, I needed to be a girl."
Part of that breather included joining a songwriter's group with local musicians Molly Kummerle, Ami Worthen and Jon Reid. They called themselves Naked Babies and gave each other assignments each week — write a song inspired by a movie, a song in a certain tempo — "it pushed me as a songwriter," says Morgan. From those assignments came the material that makes up Starfruit.
Morgan brought the songs to Lichtenberger, who added a bridge here or a chord change there, "but most of it came from Naked Babies," says Lichtenberger. He says that usually at least half of the songs on a stephaniesid album start with a riff or an idea of his. On Starfruit it was Morgan who took the reigns. (Morgan points out the she considers stephaniesid to be a collaboration. The couple's side project, The Archrivals, puts Lichtenberger squarely at the helm while Morgan takes the role of backup singer.)
Another departure: Starfruit was recorded in a home studio using lo-fi techniques gleaned from Tape Op magazine and using the equipment staphaniesid was familiar with and had on hand. Lichtenberger played his grandmother's piano. Low overhead meant lower cost, so the band could take its time. "Recording in the basement is a great way to say, 'if we want to record today, sweet,'" says Morgan. At the other end of that spectrum, Warm People, stephaniesid's 2009 release, was recorded in four days at Collapseable Studios.
"I think Warm People sounds great," says Lichtenberger, "but also the stars aligned." Both Morgan and Lichtenberger say their previous studio experiences were positive, but this time around, according to Morgan, "musically, we were able to juice more out of ourselves."
Basement or not, the end result of Starfruit doesn't sound lo-fi. Not in a Daniel Johnston or Guided by Voices or (closer to home) Floating Action way. It sounds like crisp, bright indie-pop. It sounds like stephaniesid, though both Morgan and Lichtenberger say that Floating Action mastermind Seth Kauffman has been a big inspiration. (Morgan adds that someday she'd like to record a soul album with Kauffman. You heard it here first.)
Releasing Starfruit is also a bit of a lo-fi endeavor. Instead of gearing up for a big, blow-out celebration show in a local venue, Morgan and Lichtenberger opted to launch the new record during this year's LAAFF. While the street festival setting means that stephaniesid doesn't have sole rights to the spotlight, the benefits far outweighed any drawbacks.
For starters, they haven't played a local outdoor festival since the first Downtown After Five of 2010 (though that heady performance with its upbeat crowd and refreshing mist of rain is hard to forget). Second, the Saturday dusk slot ensured that fans with kids and early bedtimes could still make the show and, being part of a popular local gathering means a built-in crowd and publicity and celebratory spirit. (Do catch stephaniesid at LAAFF — their local appearances are all too rare.)
What's next for the pop act? A Northeast and Midwest tour in support of Starfruit and a move toward non-concurrent album cycles for stephaniesid and the Archrivals. "Our eventual goal is to do one thing at a time," says Lichtenberger. "You're recording or rehearsing or playing gigs, but not trying to do all three at the same time with two different bands."
Then again, Morgan and Lichtenberger set out to play original music and that's what they've been doing, even if the dream sometimes seems to languish on a distant horizon. Morgan says one thing she's learned from Lichtenberger is, "you put everything into something, but you can't be attached to the outcome."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: CD release for Starfruit
where: On the Arts2People Electric Stage Stage at Lexington Avenue Arts & Fun Festival.
when: Saturday, Sept. 3 (7:30-8:45 p.m. Free. http://www.stephaniesid.com)