Abigail Stauffer and Chris Bathgate
8 p.m. July 15
The Ark ($15)
316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
It felt like I’d known Abigail Stauffer for years. She greeted me with her friendly good-to-see-you smile, and just mere minutes into our interview on the top-floor tearoom of Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor, she reached out her hand – as I walked away from the table to order our drinks – not for a handshake, but to take a nice, firm hold of my bottom. Shock came over me, even if I kind of liked it. I knew this wasn’t going to be any ordinary interview with any ordinary singer-songwriter.
While I’m away, Stauffer leaves me a message on the recorder set up on the table in front of her. “This is a secret message for Chris Ass-o-party,” she teases, having already probed my adolescent nickname out of me with her own set of questions before the ass attack. “I like your name and I’m excited to be interviewing with you.”
But this isn’t just an interview; this is an hour-long conversation, something the 22-year-old insists on early in our chat. And just as soon as we sit down to talk, drinks in hand, she recognizes a friend.
“Hi you,” Stauffer calls, that smile rehashing. “He’s gay, too,” she adds, looking at me like she’s about to hook us up.
They engage in small talk, and then she tells me, “I know a lot of people. I’m really, really friendly. So it’s funny to add-on the music thing, because everyone’s like, ‘You know a lot of people because you’re a musician.’ But it has almost nothing to do with it.”
Right. She’s a musician. We’re here to talk about music.
Stauffer released her debut album, “Alone to Dream,” this past winter, launching it with a release party at The Ark in Ann Arbor. She’ll play there again at 8 p.m. July 15, sharing the stage with fellow Michigan musician Chris Bathgate.
“Alone to Dream” was recorded similarly to Bathgate’s latest album – in the same studio with the same producer: Backseat Productions in Ann Arbor with Jim Roll. “If he had been a high-stress person or if he’d not been as amazingly fun to be around,” she says of Roll, “I probably would’ve fallen to pieces.”
And she almost did. “I didn’t like the person I turned into for a while,” Stauffer admits.
Who was she before? Where did these songs come from? Stauffer acts like she doesn’t remember, reaching across the table to look at my copy of the album. “I’m cheating,” she says, scanning the track listing and noting that the handwritten text looks off. “That R looks like an A.”
Then she finally gives me the rundown: “Alone to Dream” reflects thoughts on her relationships – with friends, with her mom, with God – over a couple of years, but some of the songs were written earlier.
“Beloved” was penned at the end of high school, to comfort a sad friend – and it was one of the first songs she wrote after her three older brothers went in on a guitar for her as a Christmas gift. “College, Love and Cheesecake,” a song open to interpretation (Stauffer says it’s about God), was written during her freshman year of college.
She also started “Take Me as I Am” early on, but took months to finish it. The song came from a single situation – a “friend” who was hurt by Stauffer’s coming out, something this “friend” thought was selfish – that mirrored many of her relationships at the time. Stauffer only came out a couple of years ago, and it happened fast – by the end of that school year she was posting about gay things on Facebook. I ask her if, currently, she likes both men and women.
“I appreciate you saying ‘currently,’ because it’s so fluid,” she says. “Maybe later I’ll only like one.”
And if she likes a man, she hopes that doesn’t change the fact that she genuinely has interest in both. “I could end up marrying a guy and people wouldn’t necessarily think of me as gay or queer or bi, and it’s a shame that identity is based upon – in other people’s mind – who I’m in a relationship with.
“When I’m with a girl, I must be really gay. And when I’m with a guy, I must be not very gay. I don’t feel like I’m less queer when I’m seeing a guy. I feel like it’s just who I am.”
Part of who she is – a big part – is where she comes from: Dexter, a quaint community that houses her childhood home, situated next to some horses and across the street from some cows. As a little girl, she played piano and cello, knowing all along she wanted to professionally pursue music. Her dad majored in music, but he never took that any further. And so Stauffer went the opposite route – she majored in linguistics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she now lives. I ask what she’ll do with that degree. “Music,” she says, laughing.
But that’s not all. Stauffer, who’s also a nanny and works as a barista at Espresso Royale, has other to-dos. She wants a garden, most of all. And that’s no surprise, given how earthy she looks – her curls from four years ago are now dreadlocks supported by a headband, and oftentimes she bikes to get around town (this interview was her third ride to downtown Ann Arbor that day). So this garden seems like something she’d already have, and if she did, she’d have asparagus.
She recalls once wanting to make asparagus, “and I was going to go to the store and buy some. And my housemates, they’re older than me and more responsible, said, ‘Oh, we have asparagus in the backyard,’ and I’m like, ‘I need a garden.’ How cool that you can want asparagus and there it is – in the backyard.”
Not everything comes so easily, Stauffer knows. She’s mostly played locally, or at gay events. “When I get to travel, it’s new – and it’s always for gay things,” she says. “The LGBT community is so, ‘Hey, you’re part of us, you must be great.'” Because she’s already been embraced within the community, she’s played the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference when Ann Arbor hosted it earlier this year.
She also opened for pop-folk performer Ingrid Michaelson, who handpicked her from a group of online competitors to perform with her at The Ark. Stauffer’s a fan, but she admits her musical scope is limited. I tell her she sounds a lot like Dar Williams, one of the more recognizable performers in the singer-songwriter genre, but she’s not familiar. “I would really like to mix up my style more,” she says. “So it’s cool to listen to people in different genres instead of people I already sound like.”
Some of her favorites are Sufjan Stevens, Corinne Bailey Rae, Feist and Regina Spektor. There’s another, but she can’t remember his name – so she breaks into song. “I feel good, I knew that I would,” she sings, coming up with the answer seconds later. “James Brown!”
She obviously sounds nothing like him, but that soulful side of her is clear in the bluesy bottom of her voice. There’s pain and hope buried deep in it, and it comes to the surface when Stauffer sings.
“When I first played the songs at a show, I didn’t realize how much I’d been compartmentalizing, and I was bringing out all these issues that weren’t resolved yet. I didn’t cry, but I was emotionally exhausted,” she recalls. “Now it tends to be more of like, ‘This is a recollection of something that was difficult and now it’s not a present issue or not as bad.'”
Stauffer’s music heals her, and she hopes it does the same for the people who listen. She likes to know she’s that person making someone’s life better. And she doesn’t just want to do that with music; she has plans to heal with her hands, too.
“I’ve always wanted to do massage therapy since second grade,” she says. “I do like touching asses, but it’s not just asses. I think it’s really cool you can help someone and improve their well-being and health by touching them. I’m a very affectionate person and therapy is great, like talking through someone’s problems, but I’d rather touch through their problems. I don’t know; that sounds a little weird.”
Weird, but somehow expected. She tells me at one point, “In my spare time I like to run, and kiss people.” “Who’s the last person you kissed?” I ask. “I’m not telling,” she says coyly.
Later, it’s clear why: “I always think about everything I’m saying and think, ‘What would my mom think?'”
And then I can’t help but think of our first few minutes together, and how I got my butt grabbed. Oops.