Bek-Jean Stewart entered the Australian music scene in the early 90s as songwriter and vocalist for indie-pop band, Eva Trout. Her band was signed by US label Trauma Records and toured both Australia and the United States during 1997 and 1998. During that time her song, ‘Beautiful South’ received significant radio play and the band appeared on GNW, VH1 and numerous US TV programs. Eva Trout went on to make four LPs and numerous EPs from 1993 through to 2003.
With Grant Shanahan (who played bass in Eva Trout and whose other credits include The Catherine Wheel and The Honeys) she creates and produces her own records. Her solo albums expose her inner truth without compromise. Shanahan writes of Stewart’s musical prowess:
She is a captivating front-woman, who brings the stage alive with a musical breadth that spans composing, arranging, and playing acoustic and electric guitar, drums, banjo, harmonica, keyboards, and percussion.
Shanahan has engineered and mixed all Stewart’s solo records. There is an undeniable connection between these two artists. They share a deep musical bond that speaks loudly through the work, including a shared understanding of song. With Shanahan, Stewart allows herself to be vulnerable; as a result her solo records are raw and lyrically tender, expressing impassioned heartbreak through complex stories of the human condition. At the same time she declares that, like a beginner I don’t know who I am. Bek-Jean describes songwriting as an inexplicable force:
It’s true that I am an extremely sensitive person who most of the time has no clue where I fit in to this majestic and hostile world. All I know is that the songs that come out of me are a way of communicating. They are the reason I get dressed every day, put my shoes on and walk outside. Other than that, I know nothing about anything.
Stewart has a powerful narrative style. She has been influenced by the storytelling approach of artists such as Suzanne Vega, Liz Phair, Aimee Mann and The Go-Betweens, while simultaneously having a deep affection for albums such as AC/DC’s Back in Black and Split Enz’s True Colours:
I love rock. There is something so powerful yet simple about Back in Black that transforms my body into a shocking mess of movement. Being able to move people like that is enviable.
Like many of the artists who have inspired her, Bek-Jean uses vivid, haunting melodies to tell stories of loss, love and redemption. The spirited and even jubilant style of her music starkly contrasts with the deeply-felt emotions of her lyrics. Often referred to as desolate or raw, her words nonetheless transport listeners to a place inside the song. Stewart refers to her songs as poetry set to music.
As a self-confessed recluse, Stewart often struggles with playing live, or being away from home for extended periods:
I feel like I've spent decades listening to what other people wanted me to do, and how I should do it. Now I do things the way I want to do them, not how a record company expects things to be done. I’d rather spend my time writing and making records, sitting in nature & staring at ants, than putting myself out there in this over-saturated world we live in. I have to honour what makes me peaceful.
Stewart’s dedication to her music is undeniable. Since 2007, she has produced and toured four solo albums, showcasing the depth and range of her musicianship. Her fifth album, Songs from the North, will be released in July 2019. Stewart launched her solo career with Junior Years (2007). Released internationally through Laughing Outlaw, the album was lauded by critics as ‘a superb female rejoinder to Ryan Adam's Heartbreaker’ (David Cowling, Americana UK, June 2007).
In her second solo album, Winter, Summer, Suburban Exile (2010), Stewart grapples with the complexity and dysfunction of loving someone who no longer exists, and maybe never did. These stories expose as much about her youth, including the urban streets she grew up on, as they do the anger and sadness inside all of us: the loss that always lingers, despite the light being on.
In Amos v Ann (2015) she tells her father’s story through her own words. She says of her father:
Here was a man who was full of story, but void of words. So, as a result, I would get fucking this, fucking that because that was all he was capable of. The discomposure that came out of him was palpable so I decided to give his experiences words, to make them come to life. Probably more of a cathartic undertaking for me than him I suspect.
Stewart’s fourth solo release, Records Are Written In The Bones (2017) explores fear and solicitation, the importance of the animal bond, the beauty of the natural world, living by rivers, and the transformation of one’s soul, while not hiding from the loneliness and isolation that is ever-present in her songs. Stewart is unafraid to examine difficult thoughts and feelings, from the challenge of being born into the ‘wrong’ body, to fantasies of murder, or suicide. Records Are Written in the Bones confirms Stewart’s prodigious ability to make the listener’s heart ache with emotion.
Stewart describes her forthcoming album, Songs from the North (2019) as a response to:
the push me / pull you of a fucked-up, ultimately destructive love. Sometimes, I fear that the only way I can truly love someone is to walk away, and love them from a distance.
Shanahan’s expert musicality is showcased on this record. His skill is heard on drum tracks that hark back to the ‘80s, while his innovative layering of string sounds creates a complex soundscape. Glenn Thomson, who played piano and synth sounds, writes of playing on the record:
I ended up at a light night dance party where, for a small cover charge, I was drugged and then encouraged to dive deep into Smithdom, but not before just saying no to any further offerings.
Over the course of more than a decade as a solo artist, Stewart’s turbulent yet tender songwriting has showcased the increasing maturity, courage, and complexity of her musicianship. Bek-Jean Stewart’s albums demonstrate, time and time again, her capacity for astonishing and moving songwriting.
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