Over The World Below may be the first full-length album from Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends, but the journey behind its Appalachian-tinged Americana is as engaging as the music itself. A native of tiny Catawba, N.C., Stewart tried out life in Sweden and Seattle after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill only to feel the pull of her home state. Returning to the Triangle, she emerged with a renewed sense of purpose and a passion for the roots music of her youth that had never truly left.
In the fall of 2009, Stewart began playing acoustic sets with original Squirrel Nut Zippers bassist Don Raleigh and accomplished instrumentalist Tim Stambaugh. Dubbed “The Boyfriends” during a live interview with a Carrboro radio station, the pair’s collective experience proved crucial to Stewart’s formative years as a performer. “They really got me on my feet,” Stewart says. “They wanted me to go out and do my own thing.”
Raleigh and Stambaugh’s encouragement led her to current Boyfriends, guitarist Mario Arnez, fiddle and mandolin player Omar Ruiz-Lopez, and bassist Nick Vandenberg. Together with these classically trained musicians, Stewart has toured the Southeast and, with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, is pleased to share their compositions in peak audio form.
“It’s been really exciting,” Arnez says. “We’ve been playing the songs for a while and fleshing out the arrangements. Our goal is to push Steph’s songs to their idealized versions and by playing them live we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. It’s been fun getting in the studio and nailing it all down.”
Produced by Vandenberg and recorded in his Chapel Hill based Dapper Napper Studios, the title Over The World Below comes from the song “In Between,” in which the narrator equates an unhealthy relationship with feeling both tired of the world that she’s in and literally looking upon it from above. Similar soul-searching characters populate the album, among them a restless mother, manual laborers, and those seeking a simpler life.
With the Boyfriends’ clean instrumentation setting the scene, Stewart’s distinct voice conveys these stories with considerable grace. At once youthful and wise, her timbre recalls the genre’s legendary sirens while maintaining a confidently modern sound.
As the man behind the knobs, Vandenberg played a special role in bringing the album together. Having joined the band after the songs were already written, he came into what he calls a “relatively fully formed group” whose unity helped make his dual parts easier. “I didn’t have a problem producing because I had an outsider perspective on everything anyway,” Vandenberg says. “It was kind of nice, actually, because I knew what I could add as a band member and what could be improved as far as recording goes.”
Consistent with Over The World Below’s DIY spirit is the album’s cover art, a photograph of an old quilt that Stewart’s great-grandmother made. On the heirloom are images of significant things in Stewart’s life, some of which relate to songs on Over The World Below and others that allude to more personal details. Alongside images from nature that feature prominently in her lyrics is the old checkerboard that Stewart used to play with her grandfather, the same man who introduced her to the musical greats and in turn helped inspire her present path, one that’s garnered some notable attention as of late.
In May, Reverbnation selected the quartet to play the Carrboro Block Party at Cat’s Cradle, headlined by Lost in the Trees. Around the same time, they were nominated for Best Americana Performer at July’s Carolina Music Awards and continue to receive praise for the Stewart-penned “Wake Me Carolina,” a recent finalist in Our State magazine’s songwriting contest. Yet while the accolades are a pleasant bonus, it’s the quartet’s dedication to one another that keeps them going. As Ruiz-Lopez notes, “It isn’t about yourself. It’s about finding the space to fill within the song. There’s a song, the artist, the group, and then yourself, in that order. If you put yourself above any of it, it won’t work as well as it could.”
For Stewart and her Boyfriends, it’s a formula that’s worked wonders and one that will only grow richer with time.
Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends are:
Steph Stewart (Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Claw-hammer Banjo)
Mario Arnez (Lead Guitar, Mandolin, Backing Vocals)
Omar Ruiz-Lopez (Fiddle, Mandolin, Backing Vocals)
Nick Vandenberg (Upright Bass, Backing Vocals)