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Conversations with Carrie Stephens

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carrie Stephens.

Hi Carrie, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
Every since I was a child, I knew I wanted to be a performer, and specifically a singer. I grew up on pop songs and musicals, and there may even be a VHS still floating around of me performing the peanut butter and jelly song in the style of Paula Abdul (with my younger brother on backup vocals). Since I was also a bit of a ham, I ended up focusing on theatre for most of my life, and even studied it through college, though I was involved in multiple choirs during this time as well. It wasn’t until moving to Austin that I considered being in a band, after a friend of my partner’s asked me to be a frontwoman for a new project he was working on. I had never had the time or the patience to learn an instrument, so that was the first chance I got to just focus on being a vocalist and not have to worry about how I would perform my music live. While that band didn’t last long, it connected me with Adam Donovan, another Austin transplant with similar musical tastes (i.e. we like almost everything), and together we formed Cara Van Thorn. Over the past nine years, we’ve slowly found our sound and our brand and have grown so much learning to create music through electronic platforms. My work in Cara Van Thorn became so much more meaningful and fun, I eventually quit theatre and acting altogether to prioritize it (probably a couple of years too late as it had become more and more of a time-consuming slog, instead of a joyful hobby).

I’ve also been a huge fan of hard rock and metal, ever since middle school when I first discovered a local station that introduced me to bands like Metallica, Ozzy Osborne, Queensryche, etc. Then in college, I found female-fronted metal bands like Otep and Kittie, which led to listening to bands like Epica and Within Temptation. So when I saw a post looking for a female singer for a symphonic metal band, I knew exactly what they were talking about. However, this was around the time we all realized the pandemic would last more than just a few months, so I watched this singer-finding saga from the sidelines until I felt I could commit to a new music project and reached out.

Now I juggle time between both bands, as well as a full-time job, and while it’s hard work, and takes a lot of energy, it’s totally worth it. I feel like I’m a bit of a late bloomer, finally realizing my dreams at almost 40, but I think we put too much onus on these types of careers only being for the ‘young’. I’m so much wiser and more focused than I was 15-20 years ago; I don’t think I could have done this successfully back then, or been capable of the kind of self-awareness that’s really necessary for the networking and skill-building this type of industry requires. I’m still a procrastinator at heart, but I’m a lot better now about setting realistic goals and boundaries for myself, and that’s how I know when real progress is being made in both bands.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Never learning to play an instrument was probably my biggest hurdle/mistake in music. I just got very lucky to find other musicians to collaborate with. But even then, Austin is a tough place to be a musician; there’s so much competition, and especially post-covid, not enough venues. Cara Van Thorn has a unique sound (nu-swing meets 90’s pop alternative) that it can both help and hinder, so we’re constantly looking for inventive ways to play, whether that’s playing live band burlesque or focusing on Christmas tunes over the holidays. Early on, we also suffered from a lack of a clear brand or direction, and then once we did find clarity, covid hit about 7 months later. Seventh Legend’s challenge has mostly been that Austin no longer has a big metal scene, and symphonic metal in particular has more of a following in Europe than in the US.

I also think that the internet has been a blessing and a curse for independent artists. Anyone can create, distribute, and market their music now, thanks to technological advancements and social media platforms. Listeners are no longer beholden to radio gatekeepers and major record labels to find new music. But ANYONE can create, distribute, and market their music now; having access to everything ever made can make it harder for artists and fans to find each other, and as we’re seeing, the gatekeepers haven’t disappeared, just changed their tactics. Being an indie musician also means being a music marketer and talent rep, and when you also have to work full-time to support the art, it can be draining.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
While I do have a full-time job that’s not in the creative space, being a musician is really where my passion lies. I’ve always been a singer/songwriter, and the last decade has given me ample opportunity to find my voice in that space and explore what that means to me.

I know I’ve said I don’t play an instrument, but that’s not entirely true. Anyone can sing, but to BE a singer requires work and practice, and you should always be honing that skill, just like with any instrument. Especially now, being in two very different bands, I’m constantly having to mind my voice – knowing my strengths and limitations, building setlists around the vocal chord stress of each song, altering how I sing if I’m underhydrated or have allergies or I’m just tired, so I don’t hurt myself and don’t allow my performance to suffer. None of this is innate but rather learned with time and experience (and a desire to constantly be better). I think this is where my theatre training has come in handy; I can look at each gig as a role I have to play, so it’s less about me and what I want, and more about what will serve the show as a whole. Actors don’t yell all their lines, they don’t hit the extremes of each emotion at all times, and singing requires the same level of nuance and attention to detail. I think this is what sets me apart from most singers. In both Cara Van Thorn and Seventh Legend, I’m always thinking about what my role is and how I’m going to best fulfill it with each gig. That’s another reason I’m glad I’m really getting into this at a slightly older age; younger me was too flaky and self-centered to focus on what was best for the band and the show, not just what I thought was best for me.

Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
As an introvert, networking has always been difficult for me. People are very draining! Social interactions require recovery afterward, and the less energy I have, the more awkward I become. Music is definitely a field that caters better to extroverts, so it’s taken me a long time to find what works. In addition to the points below, it’s also important to know your own limits and set clear boundaries for yourself to protect your time and energy. The goal isn’t just to network as much as possible, but as meaningfully as possible.

– Know your own value. Don’t debase yourself for others, but also recognize their value.

– Always be ready to learn. Even if you’re an expert, there are usually different perspectives to consider.

– Find ways to give, not just take. Networking isn’t just about what you want; how can you also help others get what they want?

– (This one is from my fundraising career) Avoid ‘thasking’. If you thank someone for their time or energy, don’t use that space to also ask them to do something for you.

– Follow up. I’m guilty of not always following my own advice on this one, but it is important. If you go see a show and you really liked the band and want to work with them in the future, DM them on social media that liked their show. If you’re at a networking event and someone gives you their card, email them after to say it was nice to meet them. Those personal touches will be remembered down the road. Don’t just show up and hope someone noticed.

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Image Credits
Patrick Rusk, Christopher de la Rosa, Seven Pillars Photography, Steve Rogers, S Miller Photography

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