Stephanie Dosen writes morning music in evenings. Her song Only Getting Better opens with the line “I’m just getting up.” In the song’s video she does a pretty little stretch and smiles at the new day. It’s the visual equivalent of the mood her music engenders.
The striking blonde singer, guitarist and songwriter grew up on a peacock farm in Wisconsin. They had feather harvests. Perhaps her life on the farm contributed to her laid-back, optimistic sound. There again, perhaps it was her oft-stated love of all things Olivia Newton John.
But Stephanie Dosen’s current home is a world away from her peacocks. After releasing debut Ghosts, Mice & Vagabonds in the US, she signed to London-based Bella Union and moved across the pond.
Soon after, her first internationally available album, A Lily For The Spectre, was released. As she sets about promoting it, I catch up with her ahead of a gig she’s playing at a tiny coffee shop. If she is to be believed, she does not write songs for suppers of moccachino and espresso. Rather, her audience is… ghosts.
She was writing A Lily For The Spectre while recording her first record, in what she describes as “an old abandoned dog food factory, which was legendarily haunted”. Did she have any supernatural encounters? “Doors were opening and closing, lights were going on and off, we were hearing voices, we were hearing screams,” she recalls. “We were getting locked out. We’d record everything and save it and come back the next day and the data would be gone. There was a flood, a fire – it was just ridiculous.
“Then this old man came up to the studio one day and asked, ‘y’all had any strange experiences around here?'” It turned out he’d run the place for 20 years. “He pointed at these silos and told us that when the factory was built in the ’20s, a bunch of people fell in and died in them, were buried alive. And he told us that another owner’s son was shot there.” People suggested that maybe she should sing to the ghosts. It seemed to fit: “I was staying in an old abandoned house that I was really not supposed to be in so it was a really freaky, creepy… magical, sad time.”
Her experiences at that time fed through to her writing on A Lily For The Spectre – the title alone being something of a giveaway. “This new record is maybe about a woman singing to her lover who’s maybe passed away,” she explains. “Her voice is what brings him closer.”
When she began to record A Lily For The Spectre, her surroundings were scarcely less evocative. “Half the record was recorded up in the mountains in Kentucky,” she remembers. “They cut the mountain up and then people live inside of it. We did drums, vocals and guitar there.” These recordings were then sent to ex-Cocteau Twin and Bella Union head honcho Simon Raymonde, who added bass and piano, and on to her strings arranger Fiona.
“I think everyone sits in their houses alone sometimes, hating themselves. Don’t they?”– Stephanie Dosen
When she heard the resulting record, she was surprised. “All of a sudden I heard – and I don’t even know if this is true – but when I put on This Joy I heard a little bit of Cocteau Twins kinda going on and I was really excited. It changed what I did quite a bit.”
Yet the lyrics, of course, are decidedly her own. “I try not to be esoteric when I’m writing but I can’t help it. I’m really weird about my lyrics. There are little things that I know about that are in there, like, inner things.”
How’s she taking to being one of the Bella Union family? “I think everyone’s really supportive. Everyone likes each other’s stuff. When I got signed, Simon sent me everybody’s CD and I started listening to them all and liked them.”
She got to support Midlake on tour too. “They’re my favourite band. I begged for the tour and I’m sat front row for every single show. Love ’em, love ’em.” And she played to her first sizeable audience at SXSW this year. “It’s complete madness, there’s a million gazillion people there,” she says.
“I try not to be esoteric when I’m writing but I can’t help it. I’m really weird about my lyrics…”– Stephanie Dosen
As well as Wisconsin, she’s also lived in Missouri and Nashville, but this is the first time she’s lived outside of the United States. What’s she making of life in London compared to back home? “The States are so big and a lot of the people doing music are just little indie artists. I guess it’s really hard to promote your own record there unless you have a tonne of money. So I think a lot of people hope to come over here because it’s just a smaller place.”
She’s not been in the UK long, but she likes what she sees. “People have really intense taste over here and they’re not afraid to say what they like and what they don’t,” she enthuses. “There are so many singer songwriters in the United States. Round every single corner there’s a million billion of them. So if you can pop out of that, usually you’re doing okay, I think. A London audience is more prepared to sit down and listen maybe than an American audience. I’ve had a bottle thrown at me on stage in the States. One time there was a football game going on (on the TV) behind me and they turned it off and announced me.”
Critical reaction to her new record here has been positive, but Stephanie doesn’t know the details of her critical notices. “I don’t look at them. I think it’s fascinating and if they were all wonderful then yeah, of course I’d want to read them.” She’s worried that she’d spend the week after reading a review wondering if she really had three legs, or whatever it was that was said. She can’t help but take on board what she sees, what she feels and what’s around her. “I haven’t had any bad press yet but I’m sure it’s coming. Everybody gets bad press, right? Some people write these things like you’re not a person, like you’re not in a house by yourself alone, hating yourself.”
Surely Stephanie Dosen doesn’t spend time sitting at home alone, hating herself? “I think everyone sits in their houses alone sometimes, hating themselves. Don’t they?”