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Vulnerable Yet Strong, August Lee Stevens Envisions ‘Better Places’

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A young Black woman pictured from above, laying in a field of grass and surrounded by flowers, photographed with a wide-angle lens.
August Lee Stevens’ new EP, ‘Better Places,’ drops April 5. ‘A lot of the songs that I write are usually me processing different things I’ve gone through, different emotions that I’ve gone through,’ she says. (Janett Perez)

When you listen to the song “Better Places” by August Lee Stevens, be ready. Light a candle, take a deep breath and maybe even grab a seat on the floor, and prepare to connect with the spirits of those no longer here in physical form.

During the six-minute, meditative track, Stevens uses her powerful voice and moving lyrics to create an ode to a fallen schooolmate and their family. Complete with a truly electrifying guitar solo by Jesús Rico, the song inspires a silent prayer; you’ll reflect on people you’ve lost as well.

Across the four songs on Stevens’ debut EP Better Places, the multitalented 24-year-old musician from Hercules shows off her pen game as well as her musicianship. Recorded in collaboration with Women’s Audio Mission during a residency last year, Better Places drops April 5. She’ll perform songs from the project on March 21 at the New Parish in Oakland, as Stevens will open for well-known singer and songwriter Mara Hruby.

Singer and musician August Lee Stevens lays in a field of grass next to her full-sized keyboard.
August Lee Stevens. (Janett Perez)

It marks Stevens’ first time at the New Parish as a main performer instead of a backup singer. “This is the first time I’m doing my own material, with my own band,” she says. “I’m really excited. It’s been my dream for a while.”

Stevens is a classically trained pianist who picked up singing during her senior year of high school and mastered the guitar during the pandemic. She began molding her creative talents just around the corner from the New Parish at Oakland School of The Arts, where she attended both middle and high school.

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When asked what audience members should expect during the upcoming show, she replies immediately: “Lots of healing and lots of vulnerability.” It’s one thing she and Mara Hruby have in common, she says. “I gravitate towards her because of her gentleness and vulnerability, and that’s something she’s picked up in my music.”

In addition to moments where people might be moved to tears, Stevens leaves room for lighthearted jokes as well. “When I’m on stage,” Stevens tells me, “I can’t stop rambling between songs when there’s no music, and I’ll often say some bad puns.” Her band members might get mad at her for it, she says with a laugh, but she doesn’t mind — it’s how she lets her guard down. Sometimes, she’ll even make herself the butt of the joke.

But her music is far from comical.

Stevens wrote Better Places over the span of a few years. Its single, “In My Head,” is built around a simple, soulful arrangement that starts slow and builds, allowing Stevens to show off her tonal range and long vocal riffs.

Over keys, a smooth drum pattern, a jazzy xylophone and a strong-sounding horn, Stevens sings: “I wish you could see all the beauty that’s left to be found, and what this could be / But we’re fighting with every doubt, so don’t let it be all in my head.” (Stevens says the track was initially inspired by her dog Clyde, a Rhodesian Ridgeback who comes to her shows. “I want him to be famous,” Stevens says.)

The EP’s first track, “Sweet Thing,” is slow with church-like keys and a breathtaking horn. “Keep Trying,” the EP’s most uptempo song, has the vibe of a movie — it could easily soundtrack a transitional montage where the protagonist gets their life together and becomes who they’re born to be.

The final track, “Better Places,” is clearly the star of the show. Starting slow, it builds epically, filled with emotion and grief as Stevens sings, “’Cause if we’re moving on, we can’t be weighed down anymore / And we tried another way to find it, only breaking down what was left with our open hands and empty pockets, searching for what we know is there.”

Her big vocals continue through the song’s hook of “Better places, better places, better places, we’re going to reach for those better places.” Although made in honor of a fallen former schoolmate, the song is an uplifting example of how beauty can be birthed out of tragedy.

She credits Women’s Audio Mission, specifically studio manager and engineer Arielle Flinkman, for providing an environment where she, other women and gender-expansive people can feel comfortable to create. She also worked with Spain-based producer Jake Lloyd to create the project.

Stevens, who’s played shows in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Sacramento, and was recently featured in NPR’s Tiny Desk submission roundup, is clear: this project is an opportunity to showcase who she is as an artist.

“A lot of the songs that I write are usually me processing different things I’ve gone through, different emotions that I’ve gone through,” reflects Stevens. “I feel like I have trouble speaking in person, and so sometimes it gives me the chance to go back and reflect about it — to know what I wanted to say, or to know what I was actually feeling,” says Stevens.

A poet and prose writer on top of being a musician, Stevens says it’s never too late to express yourself.

“There’s power in speaking your truth when you deem it a good time, when it feels comfortable and safe for you,” says Stevens. “That’s the main message that I hope people get from the music, that knowing it’s not too late to talk about what’s going on. You should talk about it at some point, you should express it at some point. And,” adds Stevens, emphasizing the power of personal choice, “you should determine when and how you do that.”

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August Lee Stevens performs at the New Parish in Oakland on Thursday, March 21, at 9 p.m. Details here.

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