The Walton singer-songwriter pores over the influences that shimmer through her captivating blend of Nouvelle Vague chic and charming Scouse pop.
“It’s my boyfriend’s, I nicked it,” the singer grins when asked about the copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind lying on the table. The cosy back room at Tabac, decked out with its pieces of obsolete audio equipment, is welcome shelter from a windblown January afternoon in the city centre. We’re here on Bold Street for a sit-down chat with one of 2020’s brightest prospects, AIMÉE STEVEN. With a quartet of outstanding singles out in the world and a deal with burgeoning Liverpool label Jacaranda Records, the coming year, to employ drastic understatement, looks somewhat promising for the Walton-born songwriter.
While her material sounds like the work of an old hand at this songwriting malarkey, amazingly, Steven came to music relatively late on. “I never really wanted to be a singer or anything like that,” she explains, sipping her hot chocolate. “My family played a lot of opera, I loved that as a kid. I don’t really listen to it now. And then it was Frank Sinatra; I love the Rat Pack, The Bee Gees. I don’t think I was ever gonna grow up liking modern music, because I never heard it really,” she shrugs. “Before I wanted to sing I wanted to write about music, before I realised I wanted to actually write it.” After several months reviewing gigs for venerable city-based promoters Mellowtone, Aimée began to create her own songs.
The Last Waltz, the valedictory performance by Americana pioneers and former Bob Dylan sidemen The Band released in 1978, proved to be a major spark of inspiration. Shot by Martin Scorsese, his first film in a parallel career as an outstanding music documentarian, the show – featuring a rollcall of Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Dylan – cemented its reputation as one of the greatest concert films ever captured on celluloid. “When I watched that I couldn’t believe who was in it, then I was obsessed. I dig that out and watch it with a bottle of wine.” West Coast contemporaries of The Band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, are also highlighted as influence. “Their harmonies are fantastic. If I could get to anything like that in my career it would be life goals. You don’t get that level of them anymore I don’t think and it’s sad,” Steven says of the absence of harmonies in present day guitar groups. “It takes hard work, it’s super hard to get voices that mesh together in the first place, and then to master it is difficult. But it has died off a bit; I’d love to see it come back properly. It’s such a sweet sound and I don’t think I’ve heard it recreated.”
Fittingly, among the antique listening equipment in Tabac, an album by another favourite, Led Zeppelin, rests on the gramophone (the copy of II has the band’s credit for Whole Lotta Love scribbled out and amended to bluesman Willie Dixon). Venturing further back, stone blues originators Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters are selected. “When I go in my local, Ye Cracke, I always put Howlin’ Wolf and Psychotic Reaction by the Count Five on the jukebox,” she notes. In addition to these, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention are cited, plus guitar genius Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Small Faces (“They had Itchycoo Park, maybe I’ll write one about Walton Hall Park!”). “I think all of those influences come through somewhere, even if they’re not obvious,” she replies. “Nothing’s 100 per cent original, it’s about honouring what’s gone before.”
Alongside these inspirations is something that taps directly into the city’s musical lifeblood. “My grandad was a docker and I think it’s come through to me: going for a pint and listening to music are my foundations. I think it’s a Liverpool thing as well. I love going to all the old pubs in town, where all the old people go and there’s karaoke. I absolutely love it, it’s like stepping into a different world,” she enthuses. “I’m 24 but I love going to an old boozer and drinking a pint, that’s me!”
“I was in one pub, and some woman came in selling a leg of lamb and someone bought it,” Steven states incredulously, warming to her theme. “I was like, ‘I love this place!’ I’m a pub girl; I don’t go out to clubs. I watch every Reds game in a pub,” she notes, demarcating her football allegiance in the city.
With her first batch of songs written, a fantastic bit of serendipity occurred courtesy of social media. “I got contacted by Jon Withnall,” Aimée recalls, he of six Grammy Awards, and engineering credits with Elbow, Rihanna, Gil Scott-Heron and The Coral, among others. “He’s brilliant, without him I wouldn’t be where I am. He got in touch with me ’cos he saw a short clip of me playing on Facebook. He messaged me asking for demos. At the time I’d only been writing for a few months. I had a few rough songs I’d written and sent them over and he was like, ‘Cool, do you wanna come and meet me in my studio and have a chat?’ I got the train to Ormskirk, where he was based at the time. He liked the songs, so we made a plan to get together and record some stuff, and it just went from there. It’s strange really ’cos I was apprehensive at the beginning and now I’m like, ‘Oh my God, imagine if I’d never done that and just said no!’”
With Jon on the other side of the studio glass, My Name, a wonderfully unhurried slice of guitar pop led by Steven’s ear balm vocals, provided a superb introduction last April. With her foundation guitar chords recalling Lou Reed’s rhythmic style, the sighing resignation of All The Way (“What’s the point in giving my all/When you turn away?”) possessing the languid melodicism reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s poppier moments followed soon after. Her next single, the excellent, enigmatically monikered B.I.E.K, arrived a few months later. “That track was written about one of my grandparents. It means a lot to me that song. I hope people will take that and apply it to people in their lives, ’cos everyone feels that way about someone.”
Better Off Dead, released in December, was the first fruits of a deal inked with Jacaranda Records, making Steven labelmates with alt.rock mavens SPILT and dreampop specialists Shards. A change in rehearsal rooms saw Aimée and her group move into the basement performance space of the legendary watering hole to piece arrangements together. An energised cover of rock’n’roll standard Shakin’ All Over, recorded for BBC Radio Merseyside just before Christmas, drew a line under 2019.
Heading into the new decade, Steven and her team already have the next batch of singles to serve up. Hell Is A Teenage Girl is due for release on the Friday before International Women’s Day (8th March); a harmony-laden gem, the cut takes its title from a piece of dialogue in cult 2009 horror flick Jennifer’s Body. “That was such a good line, it is hell being a teenage girl. Some of it was like hell!” she laughs. “Hopefully the video will reflect that. I love that line, though, I always thought it would make a great title for a song.”
On the subject of visuals, the French New Wave era is major source of ideas, both sartorially and on screen. “I was big into that style: Jane Birkin, Marianne Faithfull in Girl On A Motorcycle. I’ve always really been into it fashion-wise, as well as culture-wise; I still am, really. Serge Gainsbourg is an inspiration for me, that whole aesthetic he created is amazing. When you listen to his music you realise, ‘Wow, that’s where that came from’,” Aimée says of the chanteur’s heavily sampled catalogue. The Nouvelle Vague era is especially evident in the video for My Name, which features Steven looking as though she’s stepped out of one of the era’s films, backed with footage of rapidly motoring around Paris like a sped-up version of Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, Breathless.
Cranking up the energy level, the tremolo-assisted garage rock stomper Darling is due to appear on May Day. “Darling is about liking someone and not knowing if they like you back and also being just a massive flirt, which I think people can relate to.” Aimée explains. “It’s not heavy, but it has more of a kick than some of the other tunes I have. We wanted to make it feel like vintage garage rock. It seems to get the crowd going live.”
With the next set of singles prepped and ready to be released into the wild, gigs are set to increase in frequency as 2020 progresses. Miraculously, given her assured stage presence and confidence in front of the camera, Steven’s first ever show was a mere eight months ago at Sound City. “Loads of my mates showed up, I think they were hoping there’d be some good blackmail material if it went wrong!” she laughs, recalling the well-attended afternoon slot.
Treading the boards and opposite the recording console alongside Aimée are guitarist James, drummer Martin and recently arrived bassist Robyn. “We’ve just started rehearsing together and it’s sounding incredible. We’re not a conventional band, but despite being fronted by myself, in my head we’re still a band. They play my music which I’m forever grateful for, ’cos they don’t have to do it. They’re all individually amazing. I wanted to give them that freedom and not be overbearing.”
With Steven supplying the blueprints, the group have gelled quickly to build on her work. “I want them to chip in their own parts and enjoy what they’re playing, ’cos it was what they had written, not me saying ‘Play this, play that’. It’s getting more like that which is how I wanted it to be. I didn’t want it to be a dictatorship of me going, ‘No, no, no, I don’t like that, this is what you’re doing’. I wanted it to be like we were all involved in what we were doing individually. It seems to flow much better ’cos people have come up with the parts themselves. They’re great musicians, so it always fits together, which is cool.”
With all the pieces in place, all that’s required now is to set the plan in action. “We’re hoping to play out of town quite a bit this year,” Aimée says as the interview wraps up. “Last year was about trying to establish ourselves in the city, we didn’t oversaturate ourselves. We wanna leave people wanting more. And I hope people want more, ’cos they’re gonna get it either way!” Judging by the activity logged so far, potential audiences will be more than receptive for what comes next.
Hell Is A Teenage Girl is available via Jacaranda Records in March. Darling is available via Jacaranda Records in May.