“I’m not a preacher’s daughter... but I kind of am,” smiles Stephanie Stephenson, the child of a music pastor in Fort Collins. “It was my main influence. We all grew up singing and harmonizing together in church,” Stephanie says of her family. She and her four siblings were weaned on gospel feel and sound and she admittedly prefers it, saying, “If I could listen to anything it would be a gospel choir.” So it stands to reason that between her soulful childhood environment and a genetic predisposition to music, Stephanie was definitely born to sing, and to sing well. “My first solo was in front of the whole church. I was four years old and it felt natural,” she says.
Her dream of becoming a singer developed at an early age. “I didn’t really know what that meant,” she laughs at her young naiveté. “I didn’t understand that you have to be fully committed to it, or how much work is involved, or the lifestyle that goes along with it. The music industry is really scary. There are millions of people who want to do it, to be a star. I didn’t even know what my true desires were as a vocalist. I thought I wanted to be a star but as I grew up I discovered that I just wanted to sing great music with great musicians.” In 1999, at the tender age of 19, Stephanie hit the road for the Mecca of fame for hopefuls—Los Angeles. She traversed this path three times, each time only lasting between six and eight months before bolting back home for reevaluation. In L.A., she followed the flight plan of most young artists, musicians and actors, a holding pattern while waiting to be discovered in the big city—taking odd jobs, everything from office work to restaurants. But Stephanie eventually landed some really great gigs. “I didn’t know what I hoped to accomplish there. I moved out there thinking this is where I should be to become a star and each time I moved there I had more contacts and more opportunity.” After her first move back to the Front Range, Stephanie joined a group of seasoned, older jazz musicians in Fort Collins called Cadillac Jazz. Together they formed Big Black Cadillac, a nine-piece funk band. “We did a lot of large events and weddings in ski towns,” she says of her three-year stint with them. She learned much from the elder musicians, expanding her repertoire and experience before she decided to give L.A. another try in 2003. Back on the West Coast again she had to reel herself in a bit, “I was having too much fun—the focus was more on fun than it was on my career. I didn’t accomplish much that time so I moved back home to refocus. It worked out well though because of all the contacts I had made that time and I was gaining ground underneath me,” she recalls. “I had more of a focus on doing backup vocals because the contacts in that are incredible. I started writing and recording more. I went to Hawaii and made a couple of music videos of my original songs through a family friend cinematographer who lived there. I then put them in my drawer,” she laughs about not shopping them. But her talent was well noted and when she received a phone call from the ABC show The One, for which she had already worked as a backup vocalist, she jumped back to L.A. “I was working with top-notch musicians like Madonna’s guitarist, all the musicians in the band played with countless numbers of big names. I walked in like, ‘Hi, I’m from Colorado! I sing!’” she says, again giggling at her smiling naive attitude, which must have been refreshing to those West Coast pros. Stephanie picked up a lot of other backup vocalist gigs doing both studio and live. But that glamour life of the city started to wear on her. “I left each time because I hated L.A., it ate me alive. I really wasn’t prepared and Colorado was home. For me, L.A. was so materialistic, cold, a fake place—it’s hard to meet a genuine person. Everyone was in some kind of industry where who you know made a difference. I knew I was done with L.A. and I knew I was not interested in pursuing being a front and center stage star. It’s exhausting trying to please those people,” she summarized. Having enough of the City of Angels, Stephanie made the decision that she was meant to live somewhere in the mountains of her home state. “One of my best friends from my childhood in Ft. Collins, Melinda Zummach, got married in Crested Butte and as maid of honor I said, I’m gonna live there some day, so when I was over everything in L.A. I decided to move to Crested Butte in 2006,” she said. “I was hoping to meet some local musicians to play some money-making gigs or explore writing music together... just doing what I love in the setting that I love. I love singing, writing and being creative but being seen and being a star went completely down on the priority list. I worked for Crested Butte Mountain Resort as an administrative assistant in their real estate development. Music-wise I met a couple different guitar players, Steven Marcus, Tyler Lucas and Tyler Hansen, and we played gigs at Trackers and the Princess, and some weddings here and there with Tyler Hansen.” Just as Stephanie was grooving into her Buttian lifestyle, she found her priorities switching up again. Less than a year in town she met Jay Stephenson on a group camping trip up Cement Creek. That was 2007 and they were married a mere six months later in January ‘08. She started selling her artwork at Paragon; her chosen medium was wood with scenes and music lyrics burned into picture frames, then painted with bright acrylic colors. She also creates handmade greeting cards from funky cut-up scraps of paper formed into mountain scenes. Although she resigned from the Paragon this fall to take care of her 21-month old rambunctious little son, Shiloh, her work is still currently at Milky Way and she shows at various events like the Crested Butte People’s Fair. And another of her creations is on the way—a new addition to the family of two Chihuahuas, a large wolfhound, a malamute and a little boy—Jay and Stephanie are expecting a baby girl the end of April. “I am the crazy dog lady you see walking around with my stroller and four dogs,” she chortles about her entourage. Despite the seemingly busy schedule of a wife-mother-artist-musician, Stephanie makes sure she enjoys the glorious outdoor activities living in paradise has to offer. “I grew up with a skiing family but I was terrified of it. Now that I’ve moved here I love it. It’s part of my life. My husband and I love backpacking and I hike all the time.” Shiloh is on his way to becoming the future generation of Crested Butte extreme skiers. At under two years old he’s already fearlessly pointing his skis straight down the bunny slopes. “My husband is the biggest passion in my life. I’m a lucky girl,” she coos with the voice of an angel. In honor of their fifth year anniversary, Stephanie has written a song for Jay, and the date of its first performance at the Crested Butte Songwriters Festival this Friday, January 18, just happens to coincide with the date of their wedding. She’s been invited to participate in the prestigious Singer-Songwriter Festival, along with her writing partner, local favorite Tyler Hansen. Stephanie’s speaking voice is sweet and joyful, filled with the exuberance of a young woman who has manifested all of her desires. “There’s something about how all these experiences I’ve had and this whole journey has brought me to the best place I ever could have landed, Crested Butte. I knew I was home. It fulfilled all of my dreams—the love of my life, my family and my music.”