Six years ago, Stephen Chopek was singing songs in the New York City subways.
He treated it like a full-time job – heading out in the morning, picking a spot, and sticking to it. He and his guitar worked seven hour days. He’d pack up, head home, and do it again the next day.
It's clear when Stephen tells the story that it doesn't strike him as unusual. He was a professional drummer learning to play guitar and sing – what better way to hone your skills? He refers to his time playing underground as casually as he talks about practicing drums for eight hours a day, or studying with drummer Billy Martin of Medeski Martin & Wood. Stephen is a perennial student, as disciplined as he is curious.
Long before those subway sets, Stephen's apprenticeship with legendary jazz percussionist Leon Parker led to touring and recording with guitarist Charlie Hunter from 2000 to 2002, which opened the door to a world tour with John Mayer and the recording of Any Given Thursday. He’s kept the beat for Marc Broussard, Jesse Malin, The Alternate Routes, The Pimps of Joytime, Todd Carey, The Everymen, and many others.
Not surprisingly, his stories tend to be about what was learned from every experience; each tour, each artist, each session, is like a prerequisite to the next. With Charlie Hunter, he learned how to live on the road. In The Alternate Routes, he found his voice as a singer. ("Everyone in the band was encouraged to join in on backing vocals," he says. "That got me interested in singing on my own.") But it was playing with Jesse Malin where he gained confidence on a new instrument.
"Working with Jesse changed the way I viewed the guitar,” he remembers. “Watching him warm up backstage, I would recognize the chords he was playing. It was like cracking the code on songwriting. Charlie Hunter’s instrument has eight strings, which allows him to play guitar and bass at the same time. I could relate to the music he was making, but not to the instrument he was playing. John Mayer wasn’t too different – his skills were beyond my grasp at the time. Jesse made the guitar more accessible."
As he explored guitar, his listening habits began to change. “I started to hear music from a non-drummer's perspective, spending time listening to songs with no drums - lots of Billy Bragg and Nick Drake,” Stephen says. “I became interested in beautiful songs for what they were, not just for the parts they were made of.”
In the rotation with longtime favorites like The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., The Clash, Guided by Voices, and The Pixies, he added contemporary songwriters Jesse Harris, M. Ward, Pete Yorn, Josh Rouse, and Chris Whitley. He also began to trace the roots of rock ‘n’ roll back to Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. "I realized these artists are the foundations of music that really moves me,” he says. “The energy felt through bands like The Sex Pistols and The Ramones was set in motion generations earlier.”
Stephen's own songwriting was also taking shape: lyrical ideas jotted down in a journal, chord progressions recorded on a cassette tape, melodies saved in the back of his mind. He started attending open mics, fleshing out ideas for songs from those musical bits and pieces - he became a student of being-a-solo-artist. His album, See Through, was recorded and released in the spring of 2012 – just Stephen and an electric guitar – and in the summer of 2013, a twist of fate brought him on his first solo tour.
It began with an Atlanta show he’d booked for The Everymen that the band couldn’t keep. He decided to play it solo, booked a few shows booked there and back, and what was a one-off solo gig turned into a 10-city run. He returned home for engagements in New York and New Jersey and set his sights on a fall tour: 35 shows in 40 days.
As one year ended with thousands of miles logged, another was ready to begin - in the course of a frenetic 2014, Stephen found himself all over the country, touring heavily, and following his heart from Jersey City to Memphis. In the spare moments are where his new project came to life: a series of EPs and a culminating album, Things Moving On Their Own Together. Creating this music was a lesson in patience, but the wait paid off in a fuller, more realized sound.
Stephen's songwriting process isn't far removed from his work as a visual artist: it’s rooted in being able to see the worth in a single element, discovering its future value when juxtaposed with something else. He gathers ideas, words, and phrases and puts them to music the way he saves images and clippings to later form them into a work of art, the whole of which is greater than the sum of its parts.
In sequencing this series of releases, Stephen focused on the fit of sonic puzzle pieces rather than lyrical themes – and yet, they bubble up. Where he shies away from the traditional first-person narrative, he dives deep into the pop form. A deceptively simple guitar line grabs your attention (“Systematic Collapse”), a chorus floats into your consciousness and follows you (“Staying”).
Fittingly, these releases (Things Moving, On Their Own and Things Moving On Their Own Together) from the perennial student seem to demand that we also become students. "What I find interesting is inviting the listeners to draw their own conclusions,“ he says. “I could explain what some of my songs mean, but others might be more of a challenge to describe. I do my best to keep the creative channels open and surrender to the process, allowing the song to suggest where it wants to go. Similar to my visual art, only after a composition comes together do I know what it's about.”
Those things are coming together beginning in March of 2015.