“The pressure’s pushing down, but we know how to stand / The world’s a burning coal that we’re holding in our hands.”
“3:20 A.M.,” the opening track on Scott Stevenson’s sophomore record, begins with one of the mellow, contemplative acoustic guitar melodies that have become his trademark. Over time, though, an ambient feedback starts to filter in–a bubbling up of the quiet discord that flows under much of the album. Titled …In the Near Future, it was inspired in part by the singer/songwriter’s run-ins with the grit of day-to-day life in the City of Brotherly Love.
“I was living in a crumbling row house in South Philadelphia and witnessing a lot of tense situations,” says Stevenson. “That found its way into the lyrics, including an explosive argument between two bikers in a bar at last call that inspired ‘3:20 A.M.’”
He was out that night to see a friend’s show–after the music, the crowd thinned out, but Stevenson was still there finishing a beer. That’s when things got uncomfortable.
“A couple guys in motorcycle vests at the end of the bar began shouting at each other. It started to get increasingly personal, and it came out that the two were involved romantically,” he says. “The atmosphere got pretty awkward as the patrons tried to ignore the dirty laundry being loudly aired. Witnessing it got me thinking about what the beginning of this relationship may have been like, and I tried to capture that in the lyrics to ‘3:20 A.M.’”
Stories like that accumulated throughout the writing process, which started in the spring of 2018, just after the release of his debut self-titled record. They ended up giving …In the Near Future a sense of nostalgia and world-weariness nestled in the clear, calming pop tunes Stevenson excels at.
“Time wasn’t a lyrical theme that developed consciously, but I was meeting and interacting with a lot of characters who were sharing stories of their sometimes-tumultuous lives and at times making my own life tumultuous,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to tell their stories so much as channel their feelings to write something in first-person I could sing believably–though the line between fact and fiction became somewhat blurry.”
Stevenson also wound up blurring the line between different styles in his recording arsenal. His debut record was a stripped-down acoustic project inspired by Bon Iver, but though he was still performing those solo arrangements in his live shows, he was also producing ambient electronic sounds and beats. That other mode of creation played a large role in the making of …In the Near Future.
“During the pre-production stage, I focused on developing drum samples and midi patches that sounded unique and fit the atmosphere of the chords and lyrics,” Stevenson says. “I tried to use as few musical parts as possible to make the arrangements work. This became a personal rule as I was making the album that I broke more than once.”
That set him on the path to a stunningly polished, dialed-in sound that nonetheless has a lot of open air to breathe. It’s especially stark on “Demerol,” which gets by with just acoustic strumming, pounding bass, and a few filtered drum hits, but the new approach comes through clearest on songs like “Everyone I’ve Known” and “Gotta Come Down.” He’d released those before in the course of other projects, but never with so much attention to detail in the instrumentation.
By June of 2019, he had a complete track list, and he was ready to start recording with frequent collaborator and fellow Philadelphian Jack Hubbell. He’d already assembled the backing tracks himself on an old laptop, so that only left the vocals–until the two got into post-production mode.
“All the songs changed significantly during the mixing sessions, and we spent four months cutting up the tracks and reassembling them,” says Stevenson. “I heard the new Vagabon album and Suuns’ Felt for the first time during the mixing process, which made me feel like we were on the right track.”
From the first ideas to the final mixes, a string of surprises shaped the album’s ultimate form; “3:20 A.M.” was the sum of two different song fragments Stevenson wrote months apart in two different keys. Completely by chance, they fit together. The process also dredged up old ideas and gave them new life in Stevenson’s mad scientist methodology.
“I came up with the ‘Near Future’ riff during the fall of 2016 and forgot about it until i was working on the album,” says Stevenson. “I wrote the melody and lyrics by singing multiple takes of non-lyrical mumbles, cutting and pasting the best phrases into a usable structure, and matching random lines from my notebook to them. This took several days of focused work, but turned into something that never would have existed if I had written with just a guitar and a notebook.”
After the album release, Stevenson returned to his hometown of Sarasota, Florida for a short series of shows. He was pleasantly surprised by the difference in atmosphere from his past experiences there, and it also gave him the chance to turn the songs on their heads one more time.
“It’s a small town on the gulf coast, and it doesn’t have many venues that book original music, though there are a lot of great artists in the area. In the past, I’d had trouble getting bookings or a decent turnout,” he says. “People were a lot more receptive to my songs this time around, and stripping down the new songs to perform really gave them a new dimension for me.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic crawls on and the state of Pennsylvania faces a shutdown of nonessential business, the near future is full of uncertainty. For Scott Stevenson, at least one thing still holds true: there are more songs, as always, on the way.
“They’re still in the beginning stages, but i’m collaborating with Jack Hubbell on them and I’m looking forward to seeing what they turn into. I’ll have a lot of time to record while this coronavirus thing ravages the gig economy.”