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Leslie Stevens is on top of the West Coast world. With her soulfully angelic croon, a knack for lyrical poetry and a solid new album with her band, the Badgers, she's primed for greater fame.
During a recent phone conversation, however, her thoughts are centered on her St. Louis roots, her band's May tour and her first-ever homecoming show at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. Although born in Chicago, Stevens is a self-professed St. Louis local. After moving here as a child and attending John Burroughs High ("like a Ladue girl sometimes does," she says), Stevens looks upon the Gateway City fondly. Briefly forgetting about two of the city's most notable seasons (allergy and baseball), she asks, "How's St. Louis doing?" And with that question comes a flood of nostalgic Lou love: past trips to Vintage Vinyl, writing her first song, "Old Timers," and holidays with her parents and brother, who still live here.
"Your home is always your home," she says. "It's a big part of who I am."
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But home is home, and the rest of the world is unconquered territory, and so Stevens journeyed west to attend college in Los Angeles. After a post-graduation stint in the Hollywood industry as a staffer and composer, working on films such as Red Dragon and The Cat in the Hat, she turned to band life. The all-girl punk trio Zeitgeist Auto Parts, who loved to down Jack Daniels and make out, ushered Stevens into the LA music scene. She played rhythm guitar, developed a whiskey-drinking alter ego, "Lala Damage," and started writing songs — a practice with which she fell in love. "Every artist has a bliss," she says. "For me, it's writing. I love the writing process. Performing is when I get to share that."
Stevens often faced good-natured teasing from her ZAP bandmates, who joked about her folksy in-studio warm-ups. After the group started developing alternative interests, it disbanded, leaving Stevens a woman without a country — musical act, that is. Her folk-based rehearsals and passion for sincere storytelling left her with tunes that she describes "would just kinda come out as country songs."
In 2006, she found a support outlet for said songs: Leslie and the Badgers. With an old co-worker and new friends in tow, the Badgers started playing shows around LA and gaining a following — culminating in the release of its sophomore album, Roomful of Smoke, which was produced by David Bianco.
"I was so nervous," she says of working with the man who engineered Tom Petty's Wildflowers and Bob Dylan's Together Through Life, "but he made me feel at home. He was very strong and opinionated. It really pushed me to a new level in my work. I was forced to stick to what I wanted."
Smoke makes reference to the seasonal California wildfires that ring around LA's exhausted cityscape — perhaps because the studio in which the band recorded the album was near the flames. "One day it was raining ash in the parking lot; you could see the fires on the hill in the distance," she says. "You could smell the fires in the air." Wipe away the soot, though, and the disc gleams with tracks such as "Los Angeles" (Badgers' "Welcome to the Jungle"-esque outsider ode to LA) and the acclaimed "My Tears Are Wasted on You."
With her homecoming concert this weekend, a recent gig opening for Patty Loveless and Loudon Wainwright III and two shows alongside Roky Erickson and Okkervil River set for the end of May, Stevens is understandably excited. However, she's not getting ahead of herself — like most, she found herself questioning her own talent. "I discouraged myself from writing for a really long time," she says. "I didn't think it was possible for me to be a writer." And after continuously finding success, she's still pragmatic about the future: "You get to the next level and it's like an altitude adjustment — you just keep climbing."
After a conversation filled with "between you and me's" and unanswered questions (for instance, she prefers to leave her age a mystery), one thing is apparent: Stevens is an endearingly complex person. She's careful to hold back truths while simultaneously giving everything away — nervous insecurities, feelings of unfulfilled success and sincere sentimentality. In fact, although she enjoys performing, she hopes to one day move closer to writing — and closer to home.
"I'll probably end up in Nashville," she says, "some place where there's more of a songwriting base." Because the thing about LA is, "it's not that I stayed. I just failed to leave."