Every time she opens her mouth to sing, Washington, DC-based singer/songwriter Be Steadwell exudes calm and strength. As devoted to political activism as she is to music, she has a growing fanbase that looks to her for leadership and courage, not to mention a way to put into words all the ridiculous things that love can do to a human life and heart.
While her background is in the deep-rooted America genres of jazz and folk, Steadwell is very much a musician of this moment in history. She records everything at her computer, relying on a looper and sometimes a beatbox to provide layers of accompaniment and texture. And when she wants to share her music – her YouTube channel has thousands of followers – she recreates the recording process in front of the camera, using her digital tools to manipulate and multiply her live voice track all over again.
Her first album came out in 2013 and displays a feature common among self-produced indie newbies: The thing is massive. Just the list of 23 tracks on Queer Pop Mixtape, many of them over four minutes long, is enough to scare away potential listeners who might reasonably fear an inverse ratio of quantity to quality. That fear is unfounded in this case.
“Bones” is a work of devastating beauty. Through searching, poetic language and the lowest register of her voice, Steadwell seems to evoke the experience of a woman on a slave ship, who ends up as “bones in the ocean.” Besides muted multiples of her own voice, the track uses only piano.
It’s the perfect introduction to the originality of this songwriter so thoroughly steeped in the digital aspect of music, since it’s utterly opposite from our preconceptions of the word “digital.” Frankly, it’s the opposite of pop (even if Steadwell labels her own music “queer pop”): There’s no rhythm track, and she sings with a large range of dynamics. Steadwell is everything you don’t expect her to be.
Only Steadwell’s voice, multitracked in African-sounding polyrhythms, provides accompaniment for “Heart of the Pessimist.” It’s a study in contrast, as the sharp-edged backing underlies a lyric about heartbreak. Sophisticated internal almost-rhymes take advantage of repeating sounds (“You stole my heart like a high-stakes heist.”) These are not your average pop-quality lyrics. The song begins at 1:06 on this video:
There’s grim humor born of frustration in “Black Girls Who Can’t Dance,” a song about breaking the mainstream media’s stereotypes defining black woman. She lists all the (suprising to some) things they can be, like “black girls who read books / black girls who write books.” Although this tune uses beatbox and borrows rhythmic techniques from rap, it presents the material in a spacious way that shows the songwriter thinking even as she protests. The song begins at 1:30:
In all her subsequent albums, Steadwell has avoided the overwhelming song-avalanche of Queer Pop Mixtape. Two of her releases have only seven songs each, the result of writing one song per day for a week. The first Songaday (2014) includes the track “Greens.” A lot of her lyrics are about sex. This one is about gardening, but, well, yeah…it’s about sex. And it’s funny and joyous, buoyant with a soft-jazz vibe:
Pardon the sound and video quality of this next link, but it’s worth taking a look. It’s easy to imagine Steadwell always sitting alone in her room, creating songs by herself. I mean, who else does she need, really? But this fan-made video shows a different side of her music-making. In this live performance of “Greens,” the harmony she had originally pre-recorded with layers of her own voice is now sung by friends onstage with her. It’s heartening to know she has the flexibility to turn an electronic creation into a social experience:
And speaking of acoustic music-making, in 2015 Steadwell released Note – Acoustic Love Songs (2015). The track “Witch” uses acoustic guitar and a jagged, wordless vocalise as accompaniment to a song about unhealthy romantic obsession. The chorus, describing the first appearance of the lurid love interest, manages to weave into silky musical cloth just what it’s like for another being to inhabit and subdue your brain, body, and soul.
Unhappy love seems to be a lifelong theme for Steadwell. Jaded: Dark Love Songs is a 2016 exploration of that subject. With “Netflix,” she creates a hilarious, self-deprecating dirge to the world of dating and the way real experience is somehow always less glamourous than it ought to be (“Sex is elusive on a good night/ Netflix is f—ing up my sex life”).
Musically speaking, this song – and the video of its recreation – is a textbook demonstration of looper mastery. The only other person I’ve ever seen handle a looper this well live is Imogen Heap. Steadwell uses her big vocal range, her expressive dynamics, and her sense of humor to make the looper into her own private orchestration machine:
The theme continues with Steadwell’s latest album, Breakup Songs. From a lesser artist, the determined focus on relationship disappointments would have started to grate long ago. But Steadwell usually manages to find a deeper and wider meaning to the bruises on her heart.
“Climbing PoeTree – How I Taste” combines elements of R&B and Latin rap to create a daringly sexy celebration of loneliness. It can’t be easy for an artist when being single is her most powerful muse, but it sure is a boon to Steadwell’s fans.