by Dana Giusti
Often, young artists stop everything in their life to pursue the dream of becoming a professional musician. While this risky endeavor is highly romanticized, the truth of the matter is it takes more than passion to make it today. In order to become successful, musicians need to know how to do everything, from recording to promotion to maintaining a social media presence; even after these steps are taken, they must stand out among the endless competition.
Singer/songwriter Stephen Babcock, whose upbeat tunes and melodic grooves bring to mind a youthful Jack Johnson, wanted to pursue a career as a musician the right way. Instead of foregoing college, he shrewdly enrolled in the Bandier Program at Syracuse University; its focus on music business gave him the insider’s scoop on his chosen profession.
“[The program] taught me a lot about the industry and the different business things an artist should know. More importantly, I think Syracuse allowed me to make connections with people who are also entering the very close-knit community that is the music industry,” says Babcock.
Beyond the business side of things, Babcock says it helped make him a better musician as it gave him “the chance to hone my skills as a writer and artist, which I think helped me become the person I am today.”
Naturally, Babcock was making music long before college. A native of New Hartford, New York, he started piano lessons at three years old. After trying other instruments such as the saxophone and viola, he fell in love with performing while playing the drums in his middle school band. He quickly realized he wanted to start playing guitar; by the time he was 16, he was writing his own songs and playing acoustic shows.
“My first show was at Cafe Domenico’s in Utica,” Babcock says, “but I played most of my shows from the ages of 16-18 at the College Street Cafe in Clinton, which is sadly now closed.”
Babcock, who currently lives in New York City, frequently plays around town with a full band. His set lists include songs from his first EP, Arrivals & Departures; his debut album, Dreams, Schemes and Childhood Memories; and his newest EP, Sutherland Sessions.
“I love playing Pianos and Googie’s Lounge. They have a built-in crowd, and it always is enjoyable to see who is going to show up.”
Outside of the city, he likes playing at Justin’s in Albany, which “has a super dedicated following of people that come out each week to watch music.”
While he’s a familiar fixture all over New York, he’s taken his sound around the country as well. In January and February of this year, he toured throughout the U.S., becoming particularly fond of the southern states.
“Music seems really important to people in the south, which makes playing there a lot more fun and exciting. People there just come out and support small and unsigned acts without question. To name a few, I loved Athens, Georgia and Durham, North Carolina, but I really love all of the states south of the Mason-Dixon.”
The support Babcock felt in the south reminded him of the crowds he played to in London, England, where he spent a semester studying abroad. “Playing in England is very similar to playing in the south. People in the U.K. care about unsigned bands way more than in the States, it seems. Playing in the south and in England is very rewarding because you can see people actually care about the music.”
Babcock’s passion for music extends far beyond his own genre. While he cites singer/songwriters such as John Mayer, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Martin Sexton as influences, he is quick to list less obvious muses.
“I love prep rock and that style, like Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend. I also really love Brit-pop or British rock like The Kooks. Lately I’ve been getting into some country music; even electronic music has become a big favorite of mine. Basically, I am an acoustic singer-songwriter at heart, but my iPod wouldn’t necessarily lead you to believe that!”
Babcock channels all of these inspirations into his songwriting. After writing the music, he begins working on the lyrics, occasionally seeking to capture a particular mood. The maturation of his songs is clearly evident on his newest EP, Sutherland Sessions.
“Sometimes I have an idea lyrically that I’d like to work into the music, and sometimes I just play the songs and lyrics come to me,” he explains. “A lot of what I write about are relationships and the troubles that come with them, but I have also been writing a lot about life changes and getting older.”
“I think just in general my songs are more complex and the lyrics have more depth than when I started. As I get older, I think my songs have taken a darker turn in some ways, and a more optimistic turn in others. It really depends on the song, but I think there is a noticeable change and growth between my record [Dreams, Schemes and Childhood Memories] and the new EP.”
The change between the two albums is evident even from the difference in its artwork. Southerland Sessions uses a striking photograph, whereas Dreams… features a slightly whimsical hand-drawn illustration.
“We were going for this kind of young stylistic drawing to match the name of the record,” Babcock says. “I think the cover pops out because you don’t see a lot of hand drawn art anymore. I may or may not use animation again for a cover, but I am glad that this cover really captured the album’s child-like wonder in a way.”
When Babcock isn’t progressively writing songs, he’s applying his music business knowledge towards his ambitions. “I’d really love to tour again, play more shows around the U.S., and sign a booking agent. I’d love to be making music as a full-time career in the next year or two as well and potentially sign a record deal. My main objective would be to tour with a relatively large act and then grow from there and expand,” he stresses. “All in all, I just want to keep making great music and great records. I want to make sure that the music I make is not only enjoyable to fans, but also fun for me.”