Steph Durwin is a musical dynamo. A prolific songwriter, his melodies and lyrics echo sentiments of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in their detailed storytelling and early ’70s folk sound. His latest album HomeGrown (Spotify playlist below!) is an eloquently honest narrative detailing Steph’s personal experience with transitioning while offering encouragement and solace to individuals in the same position. As the NYC Regional Manager of Trans Trenderz, a non-profit record label that signs trans and non-binary musicians, Steph is passionate about combining music and activism to foster creativity and community.
You have a rich musical background not only as a musician but also as a producer, mixer, audio engineer, et cetera. Have you always been musical?
I’ve always been attracted to music. If I’d see a musical instrument anywhere I always wanted to touch it. I asked my parents for a drum set when I was 7 and they, smartly, bought me an acoustic guitar instead. I didn’t have the dexterity for it back then, but slowly started teaching myself. By 12 I was writing songs and by 14, I was recording them myself.
What’s it like working in the technical side of producing music, versus the more emotional process of writing your own music and lyrics?
Recording, producing, and writing… yes, they’re very different from each other. Doing all three requires a sense of compartmentalization for me because they each use different parts of the brain. With recording, one must look at the tiny details, the minutiae of the sound. Producing takes a huge step back and looks at the big picture—the song or the album as a whole. And writing, for me, feels more like a thoughtless flow. It’s thoughtful in some ways, but it feels more automatic and instinctual. Much more lizard brain for me.
Who are some of your influences as a singer/songwriter?
I was raised Catholic and our church/school was run by an incredibly talented nun, Sr. Annette. She had the most wonderful voice and she played acoustic guitar. And to this day, I think the passion and soul she put into her performances of those songs influence me. Additionally, as a teen I discovered Conor Oberst and am still inspired by his poetic writing style and the way his genre evolves based on the band with which he’s playing and writing.
What’s your writing process like? Is the content autobiographical or based off imagined scenarios?
Songwriting for me usually starts with a vocal melody (or sometimes even a melody with lyrics already attached to it). Then I sit with my acoustic guitar and figure out which chords feel best over it. The dynamics, or how loud or soft I play, often emphasize and follow the lyrical content. The two work together. Other instruments come later once I’ve had some space away from the song, and often times, adding those instruments feels like play time. Sometimes I daydream what I want to hear and then try to match that, but most times the parts come out in the moment of recording. I always make decisions based on whether or not the part contributes to the emotional content behind the lyrics. The lyrics are usually a realistic fiction type scenario, partially autobiographical with some exaggerations.
Tell us about your work with Trans Trenderz.
Sure! Trans Trenderz is a non-profit record label founded by Lucas Charlie Rose, a black trans-masc person. There are two chapters: one in Montreal and one here in NYC, which I manage. We sign trans/non-binary musicians. We do all the work a label typically does—recording, producing, mixing, music videos, distribution, promotion, et cetera. We differ from other labels in that we teach our artists these skills so that when our contracts are finished, they can take the skills with them for the rest of their careers.
Any advice for individuals who want a career in music?
Make sure your sense of self-worth isn’t tied directly to how many gigs you have or how many people listened to your song. This will give you longevity. The music industry is not for the faint-hearted. Find a community, if not in person, then online, and support each other’s work.
Any events/promos you want to plug?
Firstly, I’m releasing an album on 4/4 called HomeGrown. I started recording it a couple years ago before I started my physical transition. Throughout the album, you hear my voice change as I tell the story of deciding to transition. The album starts with my old, higher-pitched voice with my new, deeper voice harmonizing with it. In the middle of the album, they duet with each other, and then by the end of the album, my new, deep voice is singing lead. You will be able to find it on all streaming and download services. And to keep up to date with what I’m doing with my music, you can follow me on socials @stephdurwin everywhere.
Secondly, this upcoming fall, Trans Trenderz is hosting the first ever music award show to celebrate the talents of trans/non-binary people. Nominations will be open now through May 1 and pre-sale tickets are available at a discounted price now. We’re still on the look out for sponsors and donors to help fund the event, so if our message resonates with you and you have the means to help, please feel free to PayPal us or email us at email@example.com. The event is going to be a great community event and super fun!
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