[SINGER-SONGWRITER] The story of how Steve Hefter came to Portland, and recorded his first album under the new name St. Even, has all the raw material of a secular redemption testimony—except for the part where Hefter believes in anything so simple as a redemption story.
"I don't know what the hell I'm doing," he says, sipping an IPA at Morrison Hotel. "I don't feel that grown up. I'm 33. I probably should start feeling grown up. Or at least pretend I do."
Yet two years after arriving in Portland from Baltimore, Hefter has recorded a gorgeously grown-up record, Spirit Animal, that's filled with irony—the real stuff; the sensitivity to double meanings. "I haven't seen that blinding love in a long time," he sings in a lilting baritone on "Blinding Love," the album's first track. "You know the kind that makes you go blind? I haven't seen it in a long time." Over a foundation of Magnetic Fields-inflected chamber pop, Spirit Animal sparkles with precisely worded thoughts that disintegrate into uncertainty. It's the story of his life.
Hefter arrived in Oregon in 2009 on what he describes as a crest of euphoria, touring on his record Selma, attending a friend's wedding in San Francisco and driving up to Portland "on a whim." Here, he ran out of money, spending his last $400 to rent a guest room. Then he fractured his foot playing tennis—"and also walking from Dekum Street, because I didn't know the city, all the way down to Holocene to try to catch a band, in flip-flops." He had no job, and no medical insurance.
"I think part of being creative," he reflects, "is being able to tap into some slightly grandiose places, because you are assuming that people want to hear your philosophies and your musings. And I think when you step back with a broken foot and no money, you're like, 'Wow, I'm a real jackass. Nobody gives a shit, and now I'm in the middle of nowhere, not knowing anybody, with no money.'"
But he found work at a mental health service in Beaverton, then spent 10 months in a studio with Kimya Dawson producer Jake Kelly, recording his St. Even debut. Spirit Animal, though "way more disciplined and thorough" than Hefter's Baltimore home recordings (and fleshed out with lush piano, trombone and strings), remains in a lonely place, peppered with questions—especially about God.
Hefter was raised in a Messianic Jewish home, where his parents subscribed to the magazine Jews for Jesus, and he's only recently noticed how much his songwriting reflects the choruses of Pentecostal praise-and-worship music as much as those of Leonard Cohen. But St. Even's best songs—"Long Distance Calls," "Whatever It Is You Well Up With"—rejoice in the acceptance of doubt. "I'd like to celebrate simplicity," Hefter sings, "but things remain complicated/ I've waited, waited and waited/ For the power of God to be demonstrated."
So Hefter rejects the idea that Spirit Animal represents a resolution. "The songs on the record," he says, "tend to be about my father, trying to understand the powers that be in the universe, and the girls I'm no longer with. I don't think any of those three things will ever be resolved in my mind, unless I'm really crazy."
SEE IT: St. Even plays a double record release show with Leonard Mynx Friday, March 11, at the Woods. 9 pm. $6. 21+.