When Steph Stewart graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007, she got the hell out of North Carolina.
She'd been born and raised in the rolling foothills of rural Catawba County, in a region celebrated for its bluegrass and old-time music. But growing up there is different from appreciating its native art from afar, she says, and she didn't want to stick around, let alone go home again.
"I grew up in a place that's really different from Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Most of North Carolina is like the place where I grew up," Stewart says. "I was just really wanting to be far away."
So she headed to Sweden. And after a summer there, she moved to Washington state, living in a small town between Seattle and Tacoma. Aside from a great uncle, she had no family nearby. The weather was depressing, too. She couldn't take the rain, and the winter was unbearably dark. She lasted a year in the Pacific Northwest.
"I felt really lonely," Stewart recalls. "It wasn't something I was built for."
Sitting around a coffee table in Stewart's humble Carrboro apartment, her bandmates offer variations on a similar story. Bassist Nick Vandenberg left the tiny West Virginia town of St. Marys for Los Angeles and Massachusetts before settling here. Guitarist Mario Arnez and fiddler Omar Ruiz-Lopez both fled the heat of southwestern Florida for a cooler climate and a more supportive scene. As the band's native North Carolinian, Stewart jokes she's an "exotic" species in Carrboro.
After meeting in this music town, the four made a record, 2013's Over the World Below, under the name Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends. While well-written and certainly hinting at Stewart's potential, it played like a loose confederation of unrelated songs, together lacking the punch needed to differentiate the act in a place crowded with folk groups. In the two years since, they've established a remarkable rapport, evidenced by the arresting new Nobody's Darlin'. It's an entrancing, rich record, worthy of the same scene that has spawned recent modern folk gems like Mandolin Orange, Hiss Golden Messenger and Mipso.
Stewart shares vocal duties with the Boyfriends now. The songs are more careful, thoughtful. "Songs & Arms" is a patient, tender meditation on the possible meanings of home, while the menacing "Riverbed" blurs into the nervy instrumental breakdown "Dark Falls." "All Over this City" depends upon a playful and nuanced metaphorical takedown of a man-about-town, cast as a cocky, strutting rooster.
Over the World Below was a collection of Stewart's preexisting songs. The band wrote parts for those tunes, yet never really felt ownership of them.
"We were plugging in parts to things that had already been written," Arnez says. "We had one song on the record that we had really finished writing the night before. We needed to get out of the old material."
In the intervening years, Stewart and the band simply got to know each other. They learned to write songs together, and the Boyfriends grew where other acts in the same sonic vein might have puttered out or grown complacent.
"We all had a deeper investment in everything," Arnez explains.
He and Stewart formed a songwriting club, intended as an open group with regular Sunday meetings. Stewart's apartment is a short walk from Weaver Street Market, Open Eye Café and the Cat's Cradle, so it's a perfect spot for a meeting of Carrboro musicians. The hope was to get people to think differently about songcraft. But executing it was its own challenge.
"It was just the two of us," Stewart admits with a laugh. "Some people showed up, but it was mostly the two of us. It lasted three meet-ups."
Still, that proved enough to get her and Arnez thinking seriously about what goes into a song and why. They now help extricate each other from writer's block with regular songwriting sessions.
"I definitely had gone through a long period of time of not writing much. Every time I have a problem, Mario knows the perfect book or article," she says.
One especially helpful piece was Pat Pattison's Writing Better Lyrics. Stewart was initially skeptical ("It sounds like Songwriting for Dummies," she jokes), but the book helped. Appropriate to Stewart's rural style and rustic voice, it was written by Gillian Welch's songwriting instructor at Berklee.
The real depth of Stewart's new material came from taking advantage of the talent right in front of her. Vandenberg, for instance, also composes film and TV scores. Arnez and Ruiz-Lopez went to music school together at Florida Gulf Coast University, where they played music that had more in common with Phish than hardscrabble country. She used them as resources in writing these songs, not as sidemen simply filling up space.
Since moving to North Carolina, Ruiz-Lopez has played stints with several Americana acts, including blue-collar roots-rocker Michael Rank and Sinful Savage Tigers. He's also a symphonic violinist who works with the Durham nonprofit Kidznotes. He spends his days at home with his son while his partner teaches. When she gets home, they pass each other in the doorway as he heads out to teach lessons, work with underserved kids through Kidznotes, or play violin, fiddle or mandolin with one of his many projects. Come Friday, he often hits the road for mini-tours.
"I've been working on not double-booking myself," Ruiz-Lopez says. "We're the weekend warriors."
Such an ethic is another key to this band's quick development: While the music may be fun to them, it's not casual. The Boyfriends went to music school, and their technicality and professional attitude have rubbed off on Stewart. And she grew up in bluegrass country and absorbed old honky-tonk sounds, so she's schooled them just the same. Nobody's Darlin' is a remarkable rendezvous for all those experiences.
"It was all in the moment," says Stewart, pleased with her record, pleased with her band and pleased to have returned to North Carolina and found her place. "It was natural for me."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Root propagation."