By Andrea Poteet
Abigail Stauffer is having a hard time concentrating on this interview.
It’s not her fault. As she’s strolling down an Ann Arbor street and talking to me on her cell phone, there’s a lot contending for her attention. There’s a street band providing background music, there are friends she runs into on the street, (“Oh my God! I’d love to talk to you, but I can’t!” she calls to one) and there’s the ever-present thought somewhere in the back of her mind that maybe she shouldn’t be telling me all of this.
“It’s more a matter of, ‘Will I regret this later?'” the singer-songwriter explains. “Like, ‘Oh, I didn’t want you to put that!’ In the last Between The Lines interview I had (in 2011) I was like, ‘Oh, my mom’s gonna read that! OK, no filter for a second.'”
For Stauffer, the lack of a filter isn’t a bad thing. The 24-year-old, who releases her second album “No Contradictions” on May 30, takes the same open-book approach to her confessional songwriting, with lyrics about love, relationships and spirituality.
“It’s just letting people in on exactly how I was feeling at the moment or am feeling,” Stauffer says. “There’s really deeply emotional things I tend to write about. Sometimes it’s a struggle. I use my songwriting a lot to kind of process my own difficulties and let someone in on what kind of weakness I might have.”
One weakness lately seems to be how she’s viewed. After lending her voice to Detroit nonprofit Rap for Food’s video “We Are Never Ever Eating Bad Together,” a take on the Taylor Swift song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” to promote the organization’s sustainable food message, Stauffer has been pegged as sort of a dreadlocked vegan poster girl. That image, though, couldn’t be further from the truth. Healthy eating is great, she says, but she’s no one’s food role model.
“I’m always going to eat cheesecake and cookies and sugar,” she says. “Even if someone said that was the absolute worst thing I could do for my body. You should make that the title of your article!”
She said she wasn’t afraid to cover a Taylor Swift song. She enjoys Swift’s songwriting. But she was worried that the song and video would come off as cheesy or second-rate, concerns she said subsided when she saw the finished video for the first time.
“I didn’t want my name and face on something that turned out to be mediocre,” Stauffer says. “And it didn’t. The video quality was amazing; the whole arrangement of everything was really high quality. So it makes me look like a professional, which I’d prefer. I don’t want to look really amateur.”
Stauffer, who will hit the stage at The Ark with Nervous but Excited’s Kate Peterson the same day her record is released (two days later, on June 1, she’ll perform at Ferndale Pride), seeks to correct misconceptions about herself and her music with “No Contradictions,” which features elements of electronica and even rap under the guidance of Houston-based producer Christopher Norman.
“That’s why I titled it ‘No Contradictions,'” she says. “These genres might seem like, ‘Oh, you’re playing banjo on one song and you’re rapping on the next one,’ but they really do, to me, feel like they tie together.”
While recording, Stauffer said she used the new musical direction she found with Norman (who became her “gay boyfriend” during the long-distance recording sessions) to explore new lyrical paths. Where “Sleep to Dream” heavily explored the relationship Stauffer, then newly out as a bisexual, had with religion, “No Contradictions” delves more into the human experience.
“I am a spiritual person however I label that spirituality,” she says. “And there can be a tendency for some spiritual communities and queer communities to clash with each other. I find that to be a place to be like, ‘It’s not a contradiction to be one and the other.’ Whether it’s about spirituality and people who are gay, or whether it’s about some other aspect of my identity or my music, it all unites in the fact that I’m just being me. It’s all me. It doesn’t contradict.”
Growing up in a musical family in Dexter, Stauffer said she always sang and wrote music, to varying degrees of success. As a child, she idolized Amy Grant and said she wanted to be famous, like most kids do, even though she didn’t quite know what that entailed. As she grew, so did her songwriting, until she was trading in small local venues for larger ones, with the ultimate goal of supporting herself with her music.
And though she’s developed something of a following, beyond just the Ann Arbor locals who stop her on the street, she remains leery of what large-scale fame could mean.
“I don’t want to be tabloid material,” she says. “I want to be able to just share my music and my thoughts with people – and I feel like in some sense I’ve already done that. In some sense I’ve already made it, although it’s not financially sustainable quite yet.”
Until it is, Stauffer works part-time jobs. She nannied for a while, and now works as a massage therapist and at a local shop called The Grateful Dread, where she creates dreadlocks like the honey-colored ones that are pulled back from her face.
She’s passionate about each of her side jobs, she said, because, they help keep her afloat while she focuses on her growing music career. And above all, they allow her to meet, befriend and share parts of herself with other people.
And as she politely ducks into corners to avoid street noise and asks almost as many questions of me as I do of her, it’s easy to see that this people-loving thing, this open-book thing, it’s not an act. It’s just her. No contradictions.
Abigail Stauffer & Kate Peterson
8 p.m. May 30
316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor