Los Angeles-based artist Leslie Stevens confronts judgment on the Cosmic Country title track of her forthcoming album Sinner (out on August 23 via Thirty Tigers/The Orchard). Produced by Jonathon Wilson (Dawes, Roger Waters, Father John Misty) and anchored by Stevens' lilting voice, "Sinner" finds the singer-songwriter wrestling with the age-old dichotomy of good and evil.
"I feel like the word sinner is such a complicated word and such a complicated idea," Stevens tells Wide Open Country. "It's kind of funny to me. I see that there can be humor in it because it can be such a judgment. We're all human and none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes. I say in this song "there's bad in the best of us and there's good in the rest of us." Even the best of us make mistakes and even the worst of us do good."
Stevens says facing the guilt and shame we all feel at different points in life was cathartic.
"(The word is) just so bad -- bad in sort of a Harley-Davidson kind of way -- like, 'Oh, you sinner,'" Stevens says, laughing. "I love to write about hard things and make people a little bit uncomfortable. If we can get through that then we can realize that (the discomfort) is just a big illusion."
Hear the premiere of "Sinner" below.
Stevens, who released the 2010 album Roomful of Smoke as the lead singer of the country-rock band Leslie and the Badgers, grew up in Missouri, where she spent her childhood writing songs for the fictional radio station (WDUNB) she broadcast from her bedroom (and lovingly documented on cassette tapes). Now based in SoCal, the singer is influenced by the California country sounds of artist like The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds and more. ("There's a lot of country in Southern California and people don't think of that. They think of palm trees and pink corvettes, I think, when they hear Los Angeles," Stevens says.)
The 10-song Sinner runs the gamut from smoky barroom shufflers ("12 Feet High") to searing story songs ("Depression, Descent").
One of the album's most powerful moments is "The Tillman Song," about Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Stevens says she was inspired to write the song as a tribute to the Tillman family after watching the 2010 documentary The Tillman Story. The documentary, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, tells the story of the successful Arizona Cardinals player who gave up a lucrative NFL contract to join the U.S. Army Rangers. The true circumstances of Tillman's death in Afghanistan were kept from Tillman's family for weeks.
"I wanted to write a song about how devastating that must have been for them," Stevens says. "A patriot has a duty to protect its people from its government. I really just admire that family so much for the way they persevered. It was them against a lot of really powerful people. Any soldier that loses their life -- it's a tragedy. Just coping with the death alone is such a massive undertaking and this family went so beyond that."
Sinner is available for pre-order here.