Lab is running late again. That and the control of the experiment has been compromised because Butter-fingers next to you measured the Mercury from the bottom of the meniscus. You’re sweating through your lab coat now and can barely hold a test tube but not just because these studies could impact the world of health and besmirch your reputation as a published scientist… but, hell, you’ve got sound check in twenty minutes…
Yes. I said swagadocious. Who am I to question the verbiage of Alicia Keys? During Rice’s auspicious stint on The Voice, Mrs. Empire State of Mind herself praised Stephanie proclaiming her as a “pure artist” and, amongst other kindnesses, swagadocious.
At about two minutes into Rice’s new single “Rock Bottom”, she sneaks into a falsetto refrain, her voice essentially simulating the feeling of chills crawling up the back of your neck. This elasticity sets her apart from most gifted singers but “Rock Bottom”, while sonically seductive, speaks to Rice’s depth as a songwriter. Notably, how it has been informed by her afflictive experience growing up queer in what is the harsh end of the spectrum of the prototypical Texan Christian family.
She writes songs about love but not about the stories that are often heard about love.
We are lucky enough to have had Stephanie elaborate on the “scientific thoughts of an artistic mind”…
What was your first love… science or music?
Definitely music. I was 8 when I wrote my first song – I didn’t know what songwriting was — I just knew that I wanted to play notes on the piano and sing words at the same time. ha. I was a strange kid that watched Snow White and then wrote a 15 minute song about ‘mirror mirror on the wall.’
I didn’t fall in love with science until my sophomore year in high school when our school got a new biology teacher, and I learned about evolution for the first time. I remember being so fascinated and reading the entire textbook just out of curiosity. But in a way, science is really just about being inquisitive of the world around you. So, maybe my love for science started earlier than I think it did – when I was a kid, poking around in some ant pile.
Did you ever think you’d have to choose one or the other or was it always apparent you would be fighting to do both?
My biggest fear as a 16-year-old was that I would never have an avenue to pursue music. I wasn’t sure what ‘pursuing music’ meant exactly, but at 16 I was becoming an amateur but talented singer/songwriter, and I had this vision/dream of sharing these songs with other people. But I’d get really sad inside and think, ‘damn, how am I ever gonna do that?’ When you’re from a small, conservative town – it isn’t that you don’t have big dreams – it’s just that you sometimes don’t have a real-life example of what they could be.
But I also knew I was smart. I graduated salutatorian, never made a B, and generally enjoyed and excelled at anything I put my mind to. It never crossed my mind not to use my brain, but it also never crossed my mind that I could actually do music. I didn’t have a clear path to pursue science either – but I at least saw a Pediatrician every year or so and thought – ‘yeah maybe I can be that one day.’
You’ve described throwing off a lab coat, hopping in leather pants to sing till 2 in the morning and then waking up at 7 for school to do it all over again… Any secrets for surviving that kind of routine?
Interesting question! I’ve always been acutely aware of the finite amount of time we have. It isn’t limitless. As a young child, I had a deep understanding that I wouldn’t be young forever. So, if you couple that understanding on top of the fact that I have been surviving on my own since 18, juggling two things that I loved at once seemed to be the dream, not a task or hardship. I was finding an avenue to pursue music – I had put myself through college, graduated with a B.S. in biology, and was doing HIV research for one of the most renowned research institutions in the world. I was living a life that I never knew could exist. With my background – no one ever told me that a woman could be a scientist, and no one ever told me I could be performing on stage either.. If anything – I miss the chaos. I miss having both sides of my brain being consistently lit up! In science – you’re always learning something new – so you can’t help but to have a fragile, enthusiastic child-like wonder about life.
Often creatives must maneuver between multiple spheres, whether it is to pay the bills, get an education or just please a lover’s parents… do you feel more yourself in any particular sphere? Whether it be Science/Music/Fashion or something else?
5 years ago – I was wearing cowgirl boots with some good ole’ authentic Texas overalls – and not the fashionable kind haha. But fashion was, again, one of those things I was never really exposed to growing up. As an adult, I have a relationship with fashion that defines, influences and affects my comfortability with my identity. I’ve never been super girly or super boyish. I’m somewhere in the middle, and dressing in a certain fashion is essential to feeling ‘more like myself.’ But I feel MOST myself when I’m performing on stage, in exactly what I want to be wearing. In those moments of singing, I’m not a nerd, I’m not from a small town, I’m not a girl or a boy. I’m everything all at once. I feel empowered by the lack of confinement.
Do you find these two sides of the brain influence each other or are they wholly compartmentalized?
I am equally left and right brained and constantly see life through two different lenses. I can shut one side off and turn the other on so-to-speak when need be, but I think I get the best product song-wise when I engage both. I just have to be careful to not let one side come in to play too early or be too dominating. For example, when I’m first writing a song, I let the artistic side of my brain dominate – and while the scientific side is GREAT for editing and rewriting, I have to be careful and not let that side jump in too soon and be judgmental of the first, not yet fully formed idea. That side can be quite critical and not so friendly to my inner, extremely sensitive artist. If I could sum up who I am as a musician, lyricist, songwriter in one phrase, it would be: artistic thoughts of a scientific mind.
The art for “Rock Bottom” is very deliberate and engaging. Can you describe how that came about and how it reflects the song?
Thank you! I came up with the concept based on a specific memory – and I really just wanted to reflect a moment in time visually of when I was sitting in an empty room, alone, had nowhere to go, and was on an air mattress. The air mattress I quickly noticed had a hole in it, and as I began sinking to the floor, I felt like I was sinking to my ‘rock bottom.’ I remember looking around and being like ‘yeah this might be it.’ I put the old, gutted TV and old, unplugged phone in the shot to further symbolize being broken. Here are two pieces that are designed for a specific purpose, and yet are completely unusable. I wanted to dress up in the photo though, wearing a suit, as a reminder that though things around me were not falling into place, I myself could remain intact.
You’ve described the ethos of “Rock Bottom” as the realization that time doesn’t always heal. Do you find this to be the case for a specific kind of painful issue? Now that you’ve realized that, are you quicker to accept and surrender to that or do you think rock bottom has its own stubborn schedule?
Everyone says time heals – but I had this image of someone physically falling. And if you’re falling, time doesn’t stop the effect of gravity- you’ll just keep falling further. No matter how much time passes, some things never leave you. They persist in our memory, throughout the years, and they become memories drenched in permanence. The memory of being alone, going to sleep on on a deflated air mattress persists in my mind. It’s funny that you ask if ‘Rock Bottom’ has its own stubbornness, because I myself am extremely stubborn. I think that’s why it took me so long to admit that I had hit rock bottom and that time wasn’t going to heal what had been broken. I heard once that there’s no such thing as ‘a long time ago’ just memories that mean more than others. That really stuck with me. Not every memory is redefining, sharply painful, and in those situations, time can definitely serve as a cushion. For others – no amount of time will make that memory mean less.
The song “Pages” is an answer to the lack of support from those close to you when being honest with them about yourself. If you’d like, could you explain a little more about the empowering anthem?
I can only write the story that is my own. In my case – people have not shown me love, for the way that I love, and were doing it in the name of love. Love is the most written about subject in songs, and it’s often this celebrated, beautiful thing. For me – it’s something that I was in trouble for. I just wanted to share a narrative on some ‘love stories’ that aren’t told as often. My history with love has a lot of darkness to it – but I found that there’s an invincibility to expression. And the more honest I became with myself, the more I was able to write my own pages. That’s where the empowerment comes from – living authentically in the face of rejection and criticism.
What was the most influential take away from your experience on The Voice? And do you ever play back the praise Alicia Keys gave you if you are having a rough day??!!
Haha! If I’m ever having a bad day I remind myself that one, Alicia Keys called me her female Prince, two, a pure artist, and most importantly, swaggadocious. I mean come on!! – AK called me swaggadocious! My biggest take away from The Voice is that the biggest gift you can give someone is the gift of belief. Alicia time and time again showed her belief in me – and it cut out any room for excuse. If this person, who I look up to in so many ways, believes in me, then I have no reason to not believe in myself. I try to remind myself of that – not just for me – but to show my belief and support for other artists, peers, and friends that inspire me. I’m sure we all doubt ourselves, and stopping to tell a friend ‘hey, you’re doing a good job’ can really go a long way.
What has been your favorite song during the quarantine and if you could ask the artist who wrote it one thing, what would it be?
‘Older’ by Sasha Sloan. Not only is it one of the most sincere songs I’ve heard, it’s maddeningly perfect. It’s the type of song that makes me as a person feel at the deepest level, and inspires me as an artist to write better. If I could ask her one thing …. Hmmmm … I mean if I’m being completely honest, I’d just want to ask her if she’d ever be down to throw back a couple glasses of wine, get sad together, and write a sad song with me. Haha, no seriously. (But, really)
CONNECT WITH STEPHANIE RICE
photos / Jennica Mae
story / Chris Hess