Interview with Karen Stever

Karen Stever

For some people music is just music. It is simple entertainment to fill the silence while driving or commuting to work. Or it keeps you company while doing housework. It’s background noise. But for others – hopefully more – music is an art form that heals and teaches us something. Karen Stever is one such individual. Her debut album Playground Isolator was her therapeutic process to help her deal with what was happening in her life at the time and her latest record Idiot Savantis here to teach us to remember how healing music can be; while reminding us to never lose our inner child. Karen Stever took some time to talk to me about the concept of Idiot Savant, how it will be more than just an album, as it becomes a book and a mini movie as Stever creates a video for each song, how she is simply learning as she goes and encourages others to do the same and to never forget to return to the playground.

I described the concept of Idiot Savant as ambitious in my review, because you not only have one theme running through the record, and a story but you have created a whole world. In both sound and style, it feels more like a rock opera, than a standard album. How did you come up with the idea to set in the 30s, centered on the life of nine year old Ian – who if I understood the album correctly, is autistic or has ADHD?

I’ll tell you why the word ‘ambitious’ describes it really well. It is, in a lot of ways, biting off way more than I can chew. What keeps me going and why I set it in the 30s around a nine year old savant, is because it’s not just a fun story to work on but it’s an imperative message that has to come across. I realized that there is a much bigger message that needs to be told. The 30s set very bad patterns in both how we view animals and the history of our mental health specifically towards gifted and  depressed people.

Do you find that people are quick to be offended from the title Idiot Savant? Do people perceive it in a negative manner?

I have had some real knee-jerk reactions but surprisingly the people who are not offended and tend to cheer me on are the parents of kids who are on the spectrum. These are people who are frustrated and get very little sleep. They are so desperate to have somebody bring this into a much broader light that they don’t mind a title which lights up  minds much like the blue light bulb of the spectrum. I like the title to have elements of fire in it because we are talking about people who live an extraordinary life.

Does Ian reflect you, or someone close to you?

I have seen enough people on the spectrum and I think that Ian is somebody we can all relate to. Outside of that, I think the part of me that is embedded in Ian the most is that he plays music but it’s certainly not the music that he hears in his head. I have felt that way most of my life.

Personally I find the history of the treatment of mental health fascinating, and have read many books on the subject, particularly about the rather odd treatment methods like lobotomies and hydrobath and insulin shock therapies. I suppose the macabre and haunting nature of this period makes it a little more exciting, if you will, for people today, where this kind of therapy is so far removed from their lives. Is this why you chose the 1930s as the backdrop to Idiot Savant?

It is a shocking time in our history and I do believe that people who do not educate themselves in history are doomed to repeat it. It is so odd to me that we are horrified by an ice pick going through the frontal lobe but we seem perfectly OK with trusting the information that’s inside a pill to make its way to our brain via our mouth. Just the simple fact that a pill is so perfectly textured and coloured should be disturbing to us.

I never actually thought about it like that. I mean I do find it troublesome how quick people are to medicate themselves, but never found it quite as shocking as treatments such as lobotomies. But you are right, we should be as disturbed by medications as we are of previous mental health treatment.

You said crushing copper came from when you were a kid and you would throw pennies on the train tracks. I know the story is set in the ‘30s, but are there any other links to your past within the record?

I think I may have to dedicate a whole blog to covering that because my past and my experiences do weave themselves into the fabric. I can give you an example: ‘Juggernaut’ is a place in the forest that Ian can run away to. There is only his one friend who is the organ grinder and a whole bunch of animals. As a child, I spent a tremendous amount of time in the forest with my brother or by myself. I remember picking things like green peppers out of the garden and taking them into the bush. That pepper would be in a magical, protective jewel. We built a lot of forts in our home, in the barns or the trees. When we leave the routines of our daily grind, we have the opportunity to reset to that element of play.

I noticed a fair few fairy tale references within the album, is that an almost subtle message to tell people to not abandon their childhood?

It is actually not so subtle as it turns out. The whole record is geared towards Ian’s journey through hell and back to the playground. I do hope when people listen to this album that they feel inspired to go play, get on a bike or make music. Some of the record is meant to punctuate a very serious message and other parts of it are meant to encourage play.

You’re also writing a book to go with the album. Was the story originally written for a book and then you decided to turn it into an album, or was it always the plan to do both? 

It was a complete strategy from the beginning but I have been allowing myself room to deviate because I’m not living under publishing or record label umbrellas. Each song is just a moment from the chapter of the book. I am really loving this journey because the story is allowing so many offshoots and I can really take it as far as I want to go. It just all depends on how tired I am. Ha!

It does seem like a very large undertaking! I read that you are planning to make a video for each song on the album. Will this then in turn have the album become a mini film? So one concept will be in three artistic formats: audio recording, book and film?

Each of the videos right now is designed to be a music video. Frank Gryner, Mark Miller and I have been talking about the future of Idiot Savant. We are like three big kids who are learning as we go. The more skills we accumulate and the more ideas we get, it is inspiring much bigger conversations so I will keep you up-to-date! I would love to add rock opera to your list!

I would love you to add rock opera to that list too! Is there a reason behind the order in which you have decided to make the videos?

Now I am forced to answer that question because nobody has asked that before! Haha! There are a few reasons: a) we tend to make decisions based on what we think is cool, so if we pick a song it’s because we think it would be fun to do. However b) to be perfectly honest, we still consider ourselves a bunch of hacks over here and a lot of our work is so experimental that we thought if we started with song 1 through 12, it may show too obvious of an improvement in our skills! c) some of it is just really practical like if I don’t have a prop done yet then I’ll just work on that later. Some songs are so gigantic and intimidating that in some cases, we are waiting for the opportunity to get the right software or whatever for it. ‘Virtuoso’ is a good example of that where there’s going to be a lot of animals unleashed in New York City. That video is going to require a lot more effort. 

I really enjoyed the use of the stop motion animation and puppetry you use for your videos because it reminds me of movies like Dark Crystal before CGI took over. It’s a little rough, in a pure and honest kind of way. What was the decision making behind animating your videos this way?

I really like the look of things that are crude for this particular project because I really want to punctuate the feeling of play. When I was a little girl playing with my barnyard set (which I freaking loved and still love) the animals moved in a really stiff and innocent kind of way. I hope that as we continue to learn things, that we don’t lose the silliness behind it all.

The rough animation seems to fit the story; Ian’s life isn’t perfect it’s a little rough around the edges, if it were polished and perfect with CGI, I feel it would lose the atmosphere created in the story and song.

That’s really great to hear and I’m glad you mentioned that! ‘Rough around the edges’ may be an understatement!

I actually noticed that I couldn’t find information about you touring on your website, or elsewhere for that matter. Is touring not something you do often? Do you plan on touring with Idiot Savant – which for the record, I think should be turned into a stage show.

Touring is not out of the question,  it’s just de-prioritized due to the millions of ideas that are in my head which I want to implement visually and in the book. I am allowing this whole story to dictate what I’m supposed to do next so I am listening very attentively.

You told me that Apocalyptica’s Shadowmaker was one of your favourite records of the year, perhaps you could have them do the string arrangements when you tour Idiot Savant in whichever way you decide to do it!

That would be a gigantic honour especially since the main instrument of this record for Ian is the cello. They are not only talented but they’re passionate and it isn’t often that you hear that combination in music anymore. It is also a record that I can listen to from beginning to end and that happens once in a blue moon for me.

You keep fans up to date more than probably most artists with your blog. It seems that fans get to take every step of the journey with you. Why do you think it’s important to include fans this way, and how has it helped you? 

Thank you so much for asking that. Do you ever notice that young children will draw and paint in front of their peers? The older we get, the more we hide in shame behind our work or our art. That comes directly from people caring too much about what others think of them. When a child paints something, another child will pick up a paintbrush and want to do it too. My hope is that when I tell somebody that I’ve been to a garage sale or a dollar store to pick up supplies, that they will think to themselves, “art and music doesn’t have to be expensive.” I also hope that people will see art as a lifestyle and not something that they have to wait to do because they don’t have time. It is amazing what can happen when you just dedicate a small amount of time daily to the things you are passionate about.

Most musicians provide a sneak peek into their creative process for a small price – used to help the artist make the record, etc. but you provide it all for free. Why did you decide to do it this way? Would you ever start a fan club that requires a membership fee to keep your fans up to date?

I would absolutely consider that if I really needed the extra income to keep the art going. Right now, I feel so fortunate that this community purchases the music instead of stealing it. I am very grateful for that level of honesty.

Do you have any last parting words of wisdom to share?

It was the wise words of Shakespeare who said, “If music be the food of love, play on!” In the second last song on the record called ‘Virtuoso’, it says, “Serinetta’s song, play on.” That is a song which is inside the music box that Ian was given by his friend, the organ grinder. It reminds Ian to center himself in Play. It is my hope for anyone out there who is listening, to stay in touch with your spirit of play and get yourself back to the playground. It is calling you!

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