11 May Musician Stephen Peter Rodgers’ New Record Gets Real
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
The summer of 2020 didn’t materialize in the way that Stephen Peter Rodgers — who’d survived vocal cord surgery and a tumultuous career change — had hoped. On the heels of recording his 2019 solo album Count it All Joy with producer Vic Steffens, the Connecticut-based musician, entrepreneur and father of two had booked a bunch of shows for summer 2020 in New England and surrounding areas. Then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit — and the cancellations came.
Stephen — also known as Steve Rodgers of indie-rock band Mighty Purple, which he played in with his brother Jon — had been through a rough few years, exiting his ownership of The Space/Ballroom bars in Hamden. But nothing prepared any gigging musician for 2020.
Yet while the pandemic shook his faith, it supercharged his work ethic. Stephen hunkered down and committed to expanding his recording and producing skills, salvaging vintage sound equipment and trying out new effects. He committed to writing one song per week, which he would workshop with his friends. When he needed a break from working in his basement studio, he built miniature homes with his family.
More than 1,000 hours later, he brings the thoughtful, and somewhat unexpected full-length album Speck on a Clover to light.
Speck on a Clover is, perhaps, the most diverse release in Stephen’s expansive catalogue, with no two songs bearing much resemblance to one another. What also struck me is the maturity and depth of the lyrics. In his 20s with Mighty Purple, Rodgers’ lyrics were brimming with philosophies entrenched in the experiences of youth. Speck, however, is grounded in raw grit and wisdom drawn from the perspective of a man with decades of life under his belt.
As such, many of the songs are calls to action, for listeners to pick themselves up, shed their fears, and embrace the here and now.
[SEE RELATED: Steve Rodgers and The Art of Rebuilding a Music Scene]
In “Real Life,” the first single off the album, Stephen pairs the sound of a plane landing with a cool pop beat and shimmery guitars as he calls on the listener to “wake up, wake up… let’s live real life again.” In “Back to the Muddy River,” a sweet, drifting soundscape gives the listener the feeling they are floating on a cloud of serenity, amid atmospheric effects mingling with strings and keys. The title track, meanwhile, comes on with an intensity that reminded me of early Nine Inch Nails, a sound that juxtaposes well with harshness of the first year of pandemic life (“I found myself alone on the shore, watching my ship go down”), which gives way to a warm, hopeful chorus (“dream again … believe again! No clouds here anymore!”).
We recently caught up with Stephen to talk about the new record, life, and more.
Rockmommy: When we spoke in June 2020, you’d been trying to salvage that summer by performing on the streets of New Haven, or social-distanced in a backyard. You wrote a really intense and dark song and video, “Invisible Forces.” But looking back now, would you say that was, perhaps, a rebirth of Stephen Peter Rodgers the artist?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: Absolutely. I had just set up a rag tag studio at home when I wrote that song and it is one of the first things I self recorded. I was actually let go by a job which I had for many years because of elements of that video. When the pandemic hit I think we were all feeling a bit hopeless and there were so many uncertainties. I was thinking about including the song on this album but it didn’t fit into the hopeful content of the rest of the album.
Rockmommy: I would agree with the assessment that the first “Real Life” harkens back to Mighty Purple. But there’s a layer of depth with the keys that’s unexpected and cool — and random guitar accent riffs. Can you tell us about it?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: I started restoring keyboards as an apprentice under a master keyboard tech named Fred DiLeone from Vintage Vibe (makers of some of the most beautiful electromechanical modern keyboards). I was lucky enough to be gifted a Fender Rhodes, which I restored. During the course of the pandemic I rescued another Rhodes, a Wurlitzer and a Yamaha CP7, all of which were barn and basement basket cases. I restored them and began writing on keys much more often.
I found an old Randal British amp in a junk pile, with some built in effects. I brought it home and plugged the Rhodes into it and the keys riff for “Real Life” just fell out. I had been diving into 80s deep tracks, and rekindled my love for 80s guitar sounds. My Roland JC 120 is the perfect amp for these sounds. I recorded the key part to a click track and a few hours later I had the song finished. I took the tracks to my friend Sam Carlson at Sans Serif Studio. It was the second song we mixed together.
Rockmommy: Was it intimidating or difficult to hunker down and teach yourself how to do so many things that other producers have done for you in the past?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: I am a bit of a luddite and for years have been a pen to paper kind of guy. I recorded only voice memos on my phone for years. My brother Jonny patiently guided me through the process over the phone, [and] a few other sound engineer friends were also very supportive in helping me to learn. I started with GarageBand and after recording a couple dozen test songs on that software I “graduated” to Logic Pro X. In my past, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the best producers in Connecticut including Vic Steffens and Scott Amore. They imparted so much to me over the years. Many of the basic stuff I already knew, this was the first time I actually pushed buttons. There’s no turning back now … I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. I’m a young but determined Jedi haha!
Rockmommy: The song “Speck on a Clover” is dichotomous in nature — at parts there’s this sort of Nine Inch Nails intensity and then there’s this sense of release when you sing “no clouds here anymore,” atop this driving bass rhythm. How does that song capture the span of conflicting emotions and freedom you’ve described in moving to a new place with your music?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: I pulled a dusty neglected Yamaha CP 70 Stage piano out of a barn, it weighs 350 lbs or maybe more. I huffed it into my van and back to the studio. I was so excited about it. I used to have one which was gifted to me years ago by Toad’s Place but my brother now has that one with him in Oregon. It’s the same piano we wrote the songs “Brother” and “Try” on Black River Falls (1995).
The minute I finished tuning the piano I sat down and the opening riff for “Speck” just fell out… similar to how I wrote “Real Life.” The first version of the drums were much more rudimentary. I borrowed a vintage 80s drum machine from my keyboard tech friend Fred, the machine apparently belonged to Moby at one time.
Programming drums became a side hobby of mine during the pandemic. I still have a dream to change the world, I’ve had a ton of let downs and disappointments, however I keep getting back up and into the fight. This song came out of nowhere and Jonny Rodgers brought it to a new level, filmmaker Jay Miles hit it out of the park with the video. I went through some lifestyle changes after the first filming segment in NYC. The video speaks for itself.
Rockmommy: It’s so interesting how experimental this is. Whereas Count it All Joy was warm and consistent, this new record encompasses a range of soundscapes. Did you really spend 1,000 hours on this?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: I spent at least 1,000 hours on this. Some of these songs are the second and third versions, I played nearly every instrument on the album (except drums, fiddle and some synth parts). Sometimes I’d spend an entire night sussing out a vocal melody … record it and then come back the next day, scrap it and start all over again.
Rockmommy: Follow up question — how your mental headspace was different with recording Speck on a Clover vs. Count it All Joy?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: Half of the songs that are on Count it All Joy were written when I still owned The Space/Ballroom. I’d been playing those songs a couple of years with a band. The other half of the songs on Count It All Joy were written on guitar and recorded into voice memos. Count It All Joy was recorded in two days at Horizon Studio and mixed in five to six more days. These records are completely different approaches for me. I feel like I’m finally discovering my voice and sound. Additionally I wrote some of the songs on Count It All Joy during the time when The Spaces were changing hands and that process did not go as planned to say the very least.
I was in a pit of depression after The Spaces came to their ends for me. The songs on Count It All Joy were written from a bleeding heart. The songs on the new album were written after my heart had a chance to heal somewhat from the wounds of the loss of The Spaces.
Rockmommy: I love “No Matter What Comes Our Way,” that there “ain’t no light in the bottom of the bottle,” or “light in earthly things.” There’s a sagacious and loving wisdom in this one. Can you tell me about it?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: Owning a bar for 8 years, which was a whole other life for me, was an amazing experience but also very challenging, to my faith, to my family life and to my body and mind. As a bartender for years in my own place, I met countless people who were running from their problems, only making it worse by dousing those problems in booze. I’m a lover of life and it became a real dilemma for me to serve alcohol to people. I had to pay the bills at the venues and at home but at what expense? It hurt my heart to see so many people hurting themselves and suffering the disease of alcoholism. I also had my own battles with that. I’m thankful daily for my sobriety.
Rockmommy: You’re a dad who homeschools kids with your wife. How did the last two years influence that parenting journey?
Stephen Peter Rodgers: The only thing that really changed was that the kids couldn’t have their friends over. I teach the practical stuff to the kids and my wife teaches the book work stuff. While everyone was distancing, our family got closer than ever before. We were all thankful every day that we no longer owned venues during the pandemic. It sounds cheesy but everything really does happen for a reason. As hard as some days were, the pandemic was actually a bit of a blessing for our family and my heart began to heal from wounds from the prior years.
Rockmommy: Do you ever see yourself owning a nightclub again? (Kidding — kind of!).
Stephen Peter Rodgers: ABSOLUTELY NOT !!!
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.