Q: In your press release, you mentioned how “Melanin” is not particularly conceptual and that your goal was to provide your listeners with a bit of warmth and joy. And I think you did just that. The groovy instrumentals and warm vocals give me a chill summer vibe. Walk me through your thought process as you were writing this song?
RHONA STEVENS: I wrote “Melanin” in January 2020. It was during the lull after the festive season, and before spring—when the winter is at its most tedious. When I write I generally start with as clear headed as possible. Walking into a writing season without bags of intention and expectation makes the writing process much more organic and oftentimes as a result, fruitful. I know a lot of people tend to stick to formula(s) when they’re building an idea but I don’t have any specific tool I use on the outset—this links back to my feelings towards intention and expectation vs organic creativity. Songs can formulate in the most spontaneous moments and unrelated scenarios. An idea could be stimulated by natural sounds, a phrase you hear, a rhythm which pokes through in a melody and so on. In “Melanin” ‘s case, it was a groove which had been percolating in my head—the one you hear in the verses. Without even saying anything, that groove sets up a feeling—a little bit of sass, the space in the in-between the chords has so much rhythm and suggested feeling I think. The electric which I play on “Melanin” was still fairly new when I was writing this song. The chord progressions for each section came out of a continuous jamming session—refined over a few hours. Once I’d figured out a rough idea for the verse, I started on the lyrics—settling on the theme of wishing for summertime. Although my intention with this song was to keep it pretty classic in its form, the pre-chorus section still features some non-typical phrasing and melodic lines. This was a result of the chord pattern I landed on. Too stubborn to change the guitar part, I made the lyrics work to the guitar. In “Melanin,” the melody and accompaniment harmony are really intertwined.
Q: “Melanin” doesn’t just emanate joy and happiness, but it also brings hope. Hope for everything returning to some normalcy, like catching rays on the beach without having to worry about anything, except catching a sunburn. While “Melanin” is lifting listeners’ spirits, what did it do to you as you were writing it ? How did you and your band members feel?
RHONA STEVENS: Practically all of my songs are written for the purpose of getting more in touch with myself, exploring emotions and thoughts. Frustration was the energy of which this particular song was born out of it. “Melanin” was really fun to arrange with the boys. I explained it was about yearning for summertime and written when I was feeling particularly riled. Obviously really wanting a holiday is such a light topic matter and not really a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. However, I was feeling pretty ardent towards my woes and wanted to lean into the humor in this very relatable but non-serious “issue.” The accompaniment choices of the jokey synth line for example, help to lighten its delivery. Arranging a song about looking forward to the sunshine and summertime during a lockdown provided light relief for us all as we arranged it in the studio. Steven, Ali, and Euan are all in their own ways human equivalents to sunshine, so a lot of their natural, bright energy comes through in “Melanin” ‘s arrangement and recording. The warmth and bounce in “Melanin” came quite naturally and the boys helped shape that energy!
Q: What are you expecting listeners to feel while listening to the changes in the rhythm throughout the song, specifically when you go to the lyric, “the sun on my skin, feel like a poet,” and everything slows down?
RHONA STEVENS: I like to make sure that the music and accompaniment is following the meaning of each lyric, so that includes tone, dynamic, texture, rhythm, ornamentation, etc. In “Melanin,” verse one sets up to the topic—jumping in on that 6/8 jaunty, rhythmic guitar riff, which lends itself to the idea of cooped up and tense. The pre-chorus goes to triplets over 6/8, which makes it feel like it’s gone into a half time feel without actually losing the momentum of the BPM. I think that this change in feel supports where it’s going lyrically; the pre-chorus daydreams of where you’d rather be and the triplets support this sonically, creating that lazy feel. At this particular point, creating more space rhythmically really needed to happen as the melody gets a bit weird! Without actually changing much, the triplets do a great job of creating space so the listener has a bit of time to digest. The “feel like a poet” to me is a reference to watching people passing by and taking note; both figuratively and, occasionally, literally. It’s a really great way of getting in touch with your environment I think. I think you can tell so much about someone from the way they hold themselves, walk, and talk. For the listener, I suppose this lyric is an encouragement for them to slow down, too, even if it is just to listen to the song in a more intentional way.
Q: You have a music video out for “Melanin.” Tell me about that experience of shooting your first music video.
RHONA STEVENS: There were a lot of confetti cannons (absolute nightmare to clean up afterwards). It was a fun video to do. We shot it in a studio space in Glasgow with Rory Barnes. Rory is a really great person to work with, very calm and humble. The video shoot was a great time as I got to do it with some good pals of mine. Due to the restrictions in Scotland over the last year, this was one of the only times I’ve been able to see them all. For recording, we mostly did individual sessions, so to hang out and make a video together for a day was a lot of fun!
Q: What impact are you hoping to make through your music?
RHONA STEVENS: Something I feel strongly about is the unequal representation of women in the music industry—especially within Indie music, the amount of women taking up space within it is dismal. I’m a very caring person and a fierce believer in expression—free of gender conformities—which is why I love to make music and perform. I want to see more women stepping into music roles generally assumed by men—rewriting narratives; stepping into 21st century living where there is less inherent gender bias within our industry. Indie can be a pretty intimidating genre to step into as a woman. I feel the best way which I can get involved in advocating for change is initially through my involvement as an electric-guitar-playing-front-woman! I want to use my songwriting as a platform to talk honestly about what I care about, engage with more women creators, take up space, and most importantly, have fun doing it. Songwriting and performing is so liberating, it’s where I find flow. Connection is at the heart of why I’ve chosen during a pandemic to launch this project. I want to build a following with like-minded people who love music that makes them feel good.
Q: Due to the pandemic, I’m sure a lot of your gigging slowed down or ceased. What are your expectations for your music career after the pandemic?
RHONA STEVENS: It’s extraordinarily difficult to say. I will continue making and releasing music of course. I’ve got a bunch of releases lined up over the next few months! As things with the pandemic ease, I hope to be able to get more in-person collaborations on the go. Aside from that, I’ll continue to plug away doing what I love: writing music and recording—continuing to build an audience as I go. Re-gigging, the next year or so is unchartered territory for the whole industry, so I’m really just playing it by ear! With the first two releases out in the world, it’s an exciting time for me as a solo artist. Post pandemic, I’ll be building upon the foundation I’ve been building in recent months. Starting as I mean to go on; with a lot of energy, and passion for music making.
Q: What is life like for you and the band members outside of music?
RHONA STEVENS: My life pretty much revolves around music and art—it’s a very nice world to orbit in. I work for an arts organization—I’m pretty passionate about my involvement in arts for education—especially working with arts charities. The boys who featured on my first two releases “Melanin” and “Lay It Down” are all musicians in their own right. Most of us met while we were at a music school studying Scottish Traditional music. In the years since leaving school, we’ve all ended up living and working in Glasgow, which is great craic. Euan McLaughlin, who plays electric guitar and synth in these tracks is someone I’ve collaborated a lot with over the years. We’ve gotten to really know and understand one another’s working style and he’s definitely one of the musicians I trust most working with—something I am very grateful for! We’ve actually been working hard behind the scenes to co-produce two new tracks, which I’ll be releasing during summer time. For these tracks we’ve collaborated with an amazing LA-based mixing engineer, taking that step forward in sonic quality and refinement. Keep your eyes/ears peeled!
Q: What was the music scene like before the pandemic and what is it like now?
RHONA STEVENS: The music scene in Glasgow is so saturated with incredible talent. This spans across many genres and I am lucky to many of these musicians as friends of mine. The cross pollination of music genres in Glasgow has likely had a large influence on my music-tapping into elements of folk and jazz. Scotland’s music scene is extraordinarily resilient. So many of the people who are in it, are driven by a genuine love and passion for the work. As such, I think so many will be entering back into the world of gigging with fighting spirit. It’s been wonderful seeing musicians blossoming from their respective chrysalis’ and releasing new music. Right now, there is a notable resurgence of new music being released and it’s very encouraging!
Q: What do you want your listeners to know about Rhona Stevens?
RHONA STEVENS: I’ve got loads of new music planned for release throughout 2021! As the year progresses, I’m looking forward to meeting in person to gig and perform in front of you lovely lot. If you’d like to keep up with new music from me, check out my socials and/or website—I’m most active on my Instagram!
Interviewed by Taylor Berry