STEELE INTERVIEWS: Stephie Coplan of Stephie Coplan and The Pedestrians

Stephie Coplan (vocals/piano)
John F. Herbert (bass)
Shane Considine (drums)

From: NYC


Debut EP out now

Sound: piano rock trio
Plucky, creative, dark yet upbeat
Voice reminds me a lot of Suzanne Vega

I interviewed Stephie recently.

Amy Steele (AS): You started playing classical piano at a young age. What did you like about it?

Stephie Coplan (SC): I did! I started playing when I was 8. I really loved playing Brahms, Ravel and Rachmaninoff – – to this day, they are my favorite composers. All three are incredible at expression emotion and telling a story without using lyrics. Chopin has a gorgeous piece called the Raindrop Prelude that mimics the sound of rain falling on a window pane as a constant backdrop throughout the piece – playing that piece as a little girl was the first time I ever thought about using music (as opposed to lyrics) as a way to tell stories. Rachmaninoff in particular tends to write very thunderous, emotional, brooding pieces. If anyone reading this has been to one of our live shows, they know how much I love banging on the keys, especially in the lower register. Rachmaninoff gave me a chance to do that at a very young age and I have him to thank for my 10-note hand span (although I have very large hands to begin with, like that girl from the “Seinfeld” episode with the “man hands”…what can I say, I’m blessed.)

AS: How did you transition from classical music to pop/rock?

SC: Broadway and show tunes were sort of the bridge. My mom was a theater major in college and when I started playing piano, I usually split my time practicing classical pieces that my teacher gave me with Broadway show tunes that my mom slipped on the piano stand (whoops…how did those get there?) I only listened to pop music from the 40s and 50s (the Rat Pack, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, etc.) until I was about 11 so I have an encyclopedic knowledge of music from that era. I discovered FM radio in fifth grade, which is when I heard my first Top 40 song (I think it was “Foolish Games” by Jewel) and three years later, started writing my own pop songs. I heard The Beatles for the first time when I was 14. Weird, right? It’s like I’m Amish or something.

AS: At Tufts what did you study?

SC: Philosophy. I only took two music classes, Contemporary Concert Music (John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, etc) and Psychology of Music. I played piano in the pit orchestra for a lot of our musicals, though.

AS: How did you develop a following in Boston?

SC: I hung out at a lot of local music venues like TOAD, the Lizard Lounge and the Burren and became part of a very large group of songwriters. The music scene in Cambridge/Somerville is very supportive of newcomers – it’s a unique group of people and I miss them a lot now that I live in Hoboken.

AS: How did the group get together?

SC: Craigslist. The casual encounters section. No, just kidding. It was Craigslist, though. Craigslist is very hit-or-miss but the three of us ended up becoming best friends. I don’t think any of us remember that we actually met on the Internet – it feels like we met in a much more organic way because we get along so well and love playing together. They are the two best musicians in New York City and I can’t wait until we’re touring full-time so I can be around them all the time. (Famous last words…?)

AS: What is your songwriting process like?

SC: It’s different every time, but usually I noodle around on the piano until I find a few chords that I like. I try to write the hook first, and build the rest of the song around that. Sometimes I’ll invent a character in my head and write about that person, or I’ll look up people on Facebook who make me feel very strong emotions (like my ex or my best friend or whatever) and stare at their picture until lyrics come out. I guess everyone is going to unfriend me now.

AS: What inspires you to write songs?

SC: I really like wordplay. It’s so much fun. I’m most excited to write songs when I can make clever rhymes – I wrote a pretty shitty song once called “Is Anyone on the Internet Tonight?” about online dating. It was a terrible song but I rhymed “breakfast” with “Netflix” and “vegetarian” with “aquarium” and gave my reflection a high-five in the mirror because I was so proud of myself.

AS: Let’s talk about a few of the songs.

What’s the story behind “Take Me Back to the Suburbs?”

SC: I moved from Boston to Hoboken to work at a non-profit deep in the heart of Newark. About two weeks in to the new job, I was walking to the bus after work and a police officer stopped me and interrogated me on the street. I thought he was kidding at first, but it quickly became apparent that he thought I was a drug kingpin. Go ahead, laugh. I am a little oblivious when I walk around sometimes, and apparently I had walked right by a drug deal – definitely a “wrong place wrong time” scenario. He thought I was involved and searched my bag and ran a background check on me while I stood on the sidewalk crying hysterically in pink sunglasses and a corduroy jumper. I finally convinced him that I was not a drug lord – just a nerdy white girl from the suburbs. I asked him for a ride to the train station since he made me miss my bus, but he told me that I’d have to ride in his car with the drug dealers so I walked instead. When I got home, I wrote that song.

AS: “JERK” is a great single. Bold and provocative. How did you write this one?

SC: Thanks! It’s a true story – I was seeing a really hot guy who played a lot of mind games with me. He told me that he cared about me, but wouldn’t take me on a single date. He wouldn’t even buy me a cup of coffee. He just invited me to his fancy apartment to watch TV and hook up. It’s a story that’s all too common, unfortunately. I stayed in that “relationship” (if you can even call it that) for way too long but at least I learned an important lesson about dignity and self-respect. “JERK!” was originally a slow, bluesy striptease-y type song but ended up turning into a hate sex anthem when we went to the studio to record it.

AS: What influenced “Make You Mine?”

SC: Oh boy. That’s the most personal song on the EP, by far. It’s about a guy I was in love with for a very long time, someone I truly thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I found out that he cheated on me with two different people – he even flew 3000 miles to cheat on me with a girl in Portland, Oregon once (hence the Portland reference in the second verse). We broke up for about a year and saw other people while I sorted out my feelings. I wrote “Make You Mine” when I decided to take him back – it’s a song about finding the strength and resilience to forgive someone who has cheated on you and let them back into your heart. Predictably, he cheated on me again with someone else right after I took him back, so we broke up again. I haven’t talked to him in over a year, and don’t plan to ever again. Every time I play that song live, I am reminded that you can’t make someone love you, no matter how hard you try.

AS: What has happened since the video for Jerk went viral and caught the attention of many critics?

SC: “Viral” is a relative term! I guess it went viral on some level – I know a ton of people posted it and re-posted it on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. We’ve been making a lot of new fans, which has been great. I love connecting with people from all over the country on Facebook. I love hearing that they can relate to the song. It makes me feel like I’ve done my job as a songwriter. The popularity of the video has caught the attention of a few internet and college stations around the country, which has been really exciting and surreal.

AS: Tell me what happened with Paul Driscoll and WFNX.

SC: The night we posted the video, a fan saw it on Facebook, tracked me down, and suggested that I send it to Paul at FNX. He said that Paul had a reputation for getting behind new music and that based on his taste, he would probably really like “JERK!” I sent Paul a message and told him that we had just put up a new single that a lot of people seemed to like, and that it would be awesome if he listened to it. I didn’t expect to hear back because getting radio play is typically much more complicated than just sending your song to a station. I was shocked when he wrote back in 15 minutes and said that he had listened to it three times in a row and wanted an MP3 immediately. I screamed like a wild animal, called Shane (since he is from Boston too and loves FNX as much as I do) and spazzed out like a pro.

AS: How are things different live than what people hear recorded?

SC: It’s not very different! We play more solos live, but other than that, I think we sound pretty close to the recordings. There was very little “studio magic” used on us – we just did a bunch of takes until we got everything right.

AS: What do you think makes a good song?

SC: GREAT question. I could talk about this for days. I think a good song makes you think, or makes you feel. I am personally always a fan of songs that tell very vivid stories or breathe life into characters – that’s why I’m such a huge fan of Fountains of Wayne, who are experts at that. If I can’t tell what a song is about, I get bored. I know some songwriters like to leave their songs open to interpretation but…I don’t know, I sort of think that’s bullshit. For me personally, anyway. I think if it’s not clear what you’re trying to say, then you haven’t said it very well. The songs that hit me the hardest are the ones that can get me to relate to them in very specific and meaningful ways – Taylor Swift, Amber Rubarth, and Alanis Morissette are particularly excellent songwriters in that regard, I think.

AS: What are the biggest challenges for musicians today?

SC: THERE ARE SO MANY. Where to begin? I think the biggest one is making a living. With the advent of digital piracy, CD sales are no longer a viable means of collecting income – CDs have really become more like a business card than anything else. It’s an honor every time someone buys one of our albums because I know it’s not just a five-dollar purchase – it’s a statement. They’re saying that they believe in us, and it means the world to me every time someone gives us their hard-earned money for something that they could just stream online for free. On the other hand, while the Internet has destroyed the music business in a lot of ways, it has also made it possible for artists like us to make hundreds of new fans and effortlessly keep in touch with them. Before e-mail lists, musicians had to send out postcards to their fans every time they had a gig coming up. The bigger their fan base got, the more expensive their postage became. At least we don’t have to worry about that anymore.

AS: As a woman do you run into unique challenges?

Actually, being a woman has given me a large advantage, I think. Alternative radio is heavily male-dominated so being a woman is an automatic easy way to stand out. That being said, I think because I’m a woman playing music in a historically male genre, people expect me to have a feminist “girl power” agenda, but I don’t. I’m not Alanis or Fiona or Tori. I’m not bruised or battered and I don’t really have anything to prove. I’m just honest, and I hope that people can, for the most part, separate my sexuality from my music when they listen to it.

AS: Your debut EP comes out soon and you’re going on tour. What goals do you have now?

SC: Yes, we’ll be hitting Hoboken on January 26, DC on February 4, and releasing our EP in Boston on February 18. Our goals for 2012 are to hopefully hear “JERK!” on more stations and be touring full-time by the end of the year. Wish us luck…

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