INTERVIEW:  Barbara Stephan: Passionate Soul-Infused R&B and an Inspiration to Aspiring Musicians

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Barbara Stephan is passionate about her music as well as spreading the gospel about the rewards, and risks, of a musical career.

Based in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, Barbara Stephan has made a name for herself for her sultry R&B voice and versatile styles as leader of the Barbara Stephan Band, as part of her current duet with singer/songwriter Peter Mack, and as a soloist.  She has performed with national artists such as Susan Tedeschi and Jon Paris.  During September 2019, she released her first CD, Motown-inspired Come on Over to Me, with her 10-piece backing band.

Among her many accolades are nominations for the Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) awards as 2020 Singer/Songwriter of the Year and, with the Barbara Stephan Band, 2020 R&B/Soul Artist of the Year.

Singing and songwriting are part of Barbara Stephan’s makeup and DNA.  While she has tried many paths in her life away from music both educationally and professionally, she has always been drawn back to her life’s blood of music willingly forgoing luxuries and making the sacrifices necessary to dedicate her life to music.

The accompanying photographs are from one of the last live performances of the Barbara Stephan Band in early March 2020 at the ACA Entertainment Original Music Showcase, before Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order took effect.  Her band is just beginning to perform again in limited public appearances.

Barbara has a lot on her mind these days about a lot of subjects—her music and influences; the headwinds aspiring musicians face as they embark on a musical career, including the discouragement they typically receive from family, educators and others; and the need for education in the business of being a musician.

Probably the most important tips Stephan would have for aspiring musicians interested in building a career would be to persevere and pursue the dream.

Barbara Stephan has found some interesting ways to use her creative talents during the current COVID-19 epidemic turmoil —including providing remote vocal lessons and spreading her wings as an aspiring fantasy author.

I had the pleasure of doing an extensive phone interview with Barbara Stephan during the height of Wisconsin’s governmental stay-at-home order.  Here are some edited highlights from our conversation.

AH:  When did you begin to sing?

Barbara Stephan:  I first discovered I could sing, or when people told me I could sing, in church when I was at a really young age.  Our family had just moved to small town of Afton in southern Wisconsin.  I started going to church when I was five.  By the time I was 7, they put me in the adult choir.  This really helped me develop my ear with singing harmonies at a very young age.

AH:  Describe your earliest influences.

BS:  My dad is a guitar player and was really into jazz.  As I got a little older, he was teaching me a lot of jazz and had me singing Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn at a really young age.  I grew up listening to classics and standards like Louis Armstrong.  I became a huge Chrystal Gale and Patsy Cline fan.  That’s what I grew up listening to.  Singing along with my dad and playing the guitar.

I took jazz piano lessons up until about 16 years old.  Then I really wanted to start playing and singing more pop and rock—stuff my friends were listening to.  I always did appreciate jazz, but I started to get into Prince, The Cure, Wham, George Michael and Michael Jackson.  I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan.

AH:  When did you start performing professionally?

BS:  I actually had my first tavern gig with my dad at age 13.  I remember we had to fight with my mother because, oh my gosh, she did not want me hanging out in bars.  Which of course I understand!  That was when I started playing keyboards and singing in my dad’s band.

I started to branch off and left my dad’s band, singing in little jazz duos and combos.  When I was in my early 20’s, I auditioned for a band called Wall of Sound in Madison.  That was so much fun!  I was also listening to bands like Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power and Aretha Franklin, which was the kind of stuff they were doing.  That really satisfied my love for singing harmonies.  I was with Wall of Sound for a few years and then I moved to the Milwaukee area.  Later in my 20’s, I auditioned for a band called Cold Sweat and the Brew City Horns.

I was always working full time jobs and rehearsing and gigging on the weekends.  And I was working as an administrator for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.  But I hated office work –sitting under fluorescent lights all day in my cubicle.  There was a lot about the job I loved, but a lot that I hated.

AH:  You have been influenced by many different styles, genres and performers from different backgrounds.  Your band feels like a “big band in a small package.”  How would you characterize your band’s music?

BS:  Definitely a soulful R&B-ish horn band kind of approach is the style I like the best.  Some of my songs lean more into specific genres than others.  Overall, I really love the style of music from old school Motown R&B horn section bands or a little bit older.  And then I try to infuse the music with a little bit of pop and a little bit of modern-day soul.

AH:  You also sing frequently in a duo with Peter Mack.  Contrast the style between your band work and your duo work.

BS: It’s different but it’s similar.  Peter mostly plays acoustic guitar.  We both have a penchant for blues-soul-R&B type music.  But we also do classic rock.  Most of the feedback we get from people who know us as a duo and then know my music is that we take all of the covers that we do, and we fashion them around a more soulful R&B style.  For instance, we’ll do Led Zeppelin, we’ll do an Ozzy Osborne song, we’ll do ZZ Top, Alice Merton, and DJ Aloopa, and more current stuff.  All of it lends itself to this soulful R&B approach.

What I love so much about my duo with Peter Mack and what I don’t necessarily experience with larger bands is that the arrangements are so free flowing.  Every week it’s something different and the solo sections can extend that forever.  This is the most artistically freeing place we both can be because it is just the two of us.  We have the freedom to do whatever we want – we can do every kind of style and genre.

AH:  You have been nominated this year for two WAMI awards, as Singer/Songwriter of the Year and your band as R&B/Soul Artist of the Year.

BS: I am very excited about that!  To be recognized by my peers on a local level is really exciting.  I’ve never been on the WAMI radar before.  It’s nice to see my name listed with all of these other Milwaukee and Wisconsin artists that I admire so much.

 AH:  What kind of challenges have you faced in your music career?

BS:  As I was coming up through the ranks as a teenager and in my early college days, people told me I would never make a living as a musician.  There was no support for me at all in what was a dream that seemed to be completely unachievable.  Back at that time, looking around, there was no one making a living as a musician.  So I floundered around from office job to office job and college to college.  I tried this degree and that degree, and I was so unhappy and languishing in this belief system that there was no way for me to make a living as a musician.  Knowing what I know now, that was completely untrue.  There are many avenues and many ways to make a living as a musician.

I did spend years living in studio apartments, paying pretty low rent and driving a cheap economical car in order to do what I wanted to do.  Marriage and children, and a big house and fancy cars and all of that stuff were not a part of my dream at that time.  Part of my dream was waking up whenever I wanted and performing when I wanted to perform and teaching other people to realize their musical goals.

AH:  What advice would you give to an aspiring young musician?

BS:  My overarching message to anyone thinking of a career in music is to do it if you absolutely have to do music.  If there is really nothing else that speaks to you, then do it.  A music career will challenge you at every level of your being.  If you are pursuing music because it’s what you must do, then make a commitment of potentially living in one room with few possessions.

My husband and I recently did a presentation about making a living as a musician for Career Day at Brookfield Central High School.  I have quite a few high school students in my studio.  We had a really long list of potential careers as a musician or ways to be involved in music, including being a teacher or being a hobbyist musician or a salon or a professional musician.  We have friends who are in a symphony orchestra who went that route.  If you want to practice violin for 8 hours a day, that’s amazing.  Go that route.  Or do you want to be Lady Gaga famous?  Set your goals.

The question I always ask high school students is about the climate they see currently.  What feedback are they getting from guidance counselors and educators and parents about what seems to be an unachievable dream.  I would say that 90% of them were being discouraged at every level from going into music.

But then there was one girl who raised her hand who said she was from a family of professional musicians who had a completely different angle and were very supportive of her.

It’s important to seek advice from people in the music industry.  What kids don’t understand, especially when they are being discouraged, is that being around people who have already made a living as a musician are the kind of people who are going to be able to tell you all of the different ways you can achieve a music career.  They will also give you encouragement and advice on how to succeed.

It might take you more work and effort than you ever thought you were capable of.  For any person who is going through entrepreneurship or going to be self-employed, this is probably going to take you a lot more time and a lot more effort than you could ever imagine.  But it’s going to challenge you in ways that will enrich you so much as a human being.

AH:  How are you maintaining your sanity in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing restrictions?

BS:  This has been quite a test for my husband, Mark Antoniewicz, and me.  We are working together professionally, and we just got married in November 2019.  While we are at the same time going from these extremes of being incredibly fearful.  You know, we have our days where we are totally despondent and fearful about what’s happening and we have our days where we are very hopeful.  In the meantime, I always wanted to do an online video-vocal series of lessons because I have so much to say about my own journey of being a singer.

I completed two videos that I sent to all my students to keep us connected and to give them a daily means of practicing all aspects of having a really healthy vocal technique.  I’ve always wanted to do online videos but felt I didn’t have the time.  Now I have nothing but time, so the online video vocal series is really exciting.

AH: In addition to your voice coaching, what other projects are you involved in?

BS: I am actually writing a book.  I am in the middle of the second draft.  It’s kind of a strange story.  The inspiration happened from a song that I wrote called “Willow.”  As a child, I was really attached to a beloved willow tree in our backyard.  As an adult, when that tree died, I couldn’t believe the grief I experienced.  I was completely unprepared for the emotional upheaval.  So I wrote this song and for some reason out of this song I began to have this vision involving the Baba Yaga and all of her wisdom.

The Baba Yaga is the old crone who lives in the woods who eats children.  She is the quintessential witch out of Russian folklore who lives in a hut with chicken legs for stilts.  She runs around in the forest in this chicken leg house and is a very scary intimidating character.  I started to have these visions and this story line began to come along of the Baba Yaga who appears to be monstrous, but who is here to tell the story that she has completely been misunderstood as have all of the monstrous characters in all of the stories.

Her message is that it is actually because of the monsters, and not in spite of the monsters, that humans evolved.  The Baba Yaga and other monsters like her are actually here for human evolution.  While it’s been their job to scare us, to make us hide under our beds and in our closets, this occurred to make us more aware of the fear within us so that we can eventually transcend the fear.  Without that fear, humans would not have the tools to evolve.

AH:  You have also been involved in promoting original music and musical talent.

BS:  Yes.  Matt’s role is as business owner and president of ACA and North Coast Management.  My role is to support him and his vision, which is to provide as much work and performance opportunities as possible for musicians. Because of the incredible quality and integrity of the people he has been able to surround himself with, I couldn’t help but want to be involved.  It feels really good to provide a sound structural foundation and provide every level of support as possible for musicians coming up through the ranks who want to pursue a music career.

AH: Will you try to reflect our current experiences during the COVID-19 crisis into any of your songs?

BS: I am working on a song about what I would really like to do right now, which is to get in the car and take a road trip to the mountains.  If I could hide away in the mountains until this is all over, that would make me really happy.  I would love to sequester myself in a mountain cabin somewhere and do a lot of self-reflection.  This poses a lot of questions like what would I do if my music career went away?  If everything we knew and loved and valued was stripped away from us, which has happened to countless millions of people throughout human history, how would I cope?  What would I do, who and what am I really, and what really does have value to me?

AH: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

BS: I would like to be doing what I am doing now, but on a larger scale, such as regional tours with my original band.  I would like to build more of an online presence.  I also want to write more music, including more show and television music.  Maybe another full album’s worth so that I have a show with all my best music.  I have a 2 hour show now, which is exciting, but I would like to write more music for it.

I don’t aspire to have a big touring gig—I have two step-kids now, I’m married and kinda rooted to where I am, which is wonderful and beautiful and amazing.  I wouldn’t mind going out for a few weeks at a time to smaller theaters—more intimate venues, regionally and then in different areas of the country.  My shows lend themselves very well to those places.

To find out more about Barbara Stephan, visit her website, barbarastephanmusic.com.  Barbara’s upcoming performances with her band as well as her duo work with Peter Mack are on her website, as well as at ACAEntertainment.com.

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