Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Heather Stewart - What It Is

Sometimes you’ve just got to step out of your comfort zone and go for it. For rising artist, Heather Stewart, that concept is what has defined her life since she did just that. At one time a producer on the E! Network’s “Talk Soup,” Stewart found herself a natural working behind the scenes. Yet, when she found herself drawn into the show’s playful sketches, stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight, if but for a moment, the artist found herself thinking, “This is what I need to be doing.”

And that’s what she did, leaving a plush job for the hard streets in pursuit of her dream of acting and music. She eventually landed a gig performing with the Inda Eaton Band, gaining tons of experience as a backup vocalist and having the opportunity to open for acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, Leann Rimes, and Blues Traveler. She also worked on writing her own material, writing and starring in her own one-woman cabaret act, as well as recording her debut album, Life of the Party, in 2008. Making herself a triple threat, she continued to act and splits her time between her acting gigs and music.

Stewart’s sophomore album, What It Is, was written after the death of her father and reflects those painful and conflicting emotions throughout. “Music to me serves such a dual purpose, emotional catharsis and escape,” she says. “I wanted these songs to capture the rush and multitude of what I was experiencing, from ‘Life is so f*cking short so I better make my mark,’ to ‘What the hell is this all about,’ to ‘Oh yeah, love!’”

And while the lyrical content is strong, it’s Stewart’s voice that gets top billing here. She possesses a vocal tone that is strong and clear, resonant in its delivery while colored with a sultry sexiness as well. She sings with poise and precision and every note seems specifically chosen for the moment, conjuring just the right amount of emotion out of a line as she croons lazily through the title track or rocks out on “Another Perfect You.”

Stewart’s ensemble of players isn’t too shabby either. Featuring a stable of players whose credits boast session work with artists the caliber of k.d. lang, Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, and John Mayer, Stewart’s compositions find themselves in more than capable hands. Further enhancements come by virtue of Greg Critchley’s inspired production, choosing to record the record in a “live off the floor” mode, capturing the energy and emotion in a setting as close to live as you can get.

And when all of those elements are put together, the results are truly enjoyable. Stewart and company navigate an Americana-flavored set of tracks colored with elements of rock, blues, country, and more. Tracks like the high-energy and rocking “Underneath” recall work by Brandi Carlile while the open air country flair of “Tell Me Who” hints at Bonnie Raitt’s influences. “Black and Blue” appropriately brings some bluesy notes and a boozy vocal delivery that shines like a Lucinda Williams B-side.

But while Stewart’s influences do make themselves known, she’s clearly her own person and is about crafting her own art. On “I Lied,” she lets a smooth, guitar lead and plodding drum line move her sensuous vocals around, bringing to mind a stripped-down Bond movie them while “What It Is” is a lazy river ride of warm country fills and heartfelt vocals. “We’ll Learn” is an upbeat roots rocker and “Had It All” tones it down, the painful lyric confronting the frailty of life alongside a contrasting acoustic backdrop.

Heather Stewart’s latest is, quite simply, a great album. All the components are in place; great vocals, killer musicianship, and quality songwriting. Americana music fans of artists like Bonnie Raitt, Brandi Carlile, and Lucinda Williams will find plenty to enjoy here as will fans of what is simply great music. Let’s just say if you’re wondering What It Is, is good.

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