The song rules

Lucas Young and the Wilderness

“A great song … releases something,” says songwriter Lucas Stephenson.

“A great song … releases something,” says songwriter Lucas Stephenson.

Photo By brad bynum

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“Songs happen in so many different ways,” says Reno singer, guitarist, and songwriter Lucas Stephenson. He says he’ll sometimes start writing lyrics by first drawing a picture and then describing it. He wrote the lyrics for his song “This Lonely Ocean,” after watching the Robert De Niro movie City by the Sea. He writes many of his lyrics using what he says is a great tool for songwriters: his cell phone. It’s the modern pocket typewriter.

Now in his early 30s, Stephenson spent his childhood in Pennsylvania and his teens and early 20s in Texas. He was the singer in punk and hardcore bands. He took up guitar in the mid ’90s and moved to Reno in 2004. He started the rock band Cool Hands with Penny Sillin and Cyril Beatty, both of whom are now in The Shames. After Cool Hands went kaput, Stephenson was playing an open mic at Davidson’s Distillery, where he met Colin Christian, founder and head engineer of local recording studio StretchWire Sound.

Stephenson became an assistant audio engineer at StretchWire, and then, when the studio became a co-op at the beginning of this year, he became a member. He says he enjoys working in the studio and everything he’s learned about the recording process, but that the studio will never be his primary focus.

“I’m more interested in being a songwriter,” he says.

His songwriting is rooted in alt-country, like Wilco, or indie folk rock, like Billy Bragg. His current project is called Lucas Young and the Wilderness. Stephenson is the sole constant member of the band, with different musicians, including studio head Christian on bass, drummer Darryl Mullikin, and guitarist Gary Dubay, coming and going. Recording with a rotating cast of studio musicians rather than an established band with defined roles gives Stephenson creative freedom and allows the songwriting to dictate sonic direction.

“It’s easy for the songwriterness to be devoured by a full band sound,” he says. Every Lucas Young and the Wilderness song has a different textures, different instrumentation, different musicians, different emotions. “This Lonely Ocean” is a piano ballad. “Misery is in Love” is a poppy, upbeat rock song. “To Kill a Butterfly” is a country song with a protest spirit.

“The chorus of ‘To Kill a Butterfly’ is based on things my grandfather would say,” says Stephenson. “He’d say, ‘What does war solve? War doesn’t solve anything.’”

For Stephenson, the songwriting dictates the direction of all his creative decisions.

“Somebody might say, it’s too long, or there are too many verses,” he says. “So I ask myself, what’s more important, shortening the song or singing these words? That’s where the folk background comes in, because I chose the words.”

He says that even the punk and hardcore bands he played in were rooted in folk music. “It’s all folk music,” he says. “It’s just played more aggressively.”

He says he’s constantly striving to improve as a songwriter. “When I was younger, I didn’t think about what I was doing. I didn’t think about arrangements or anything. It’s good to be innocent, but it’s also good to be intelligent.”

Stephenson overcame a physical limitation: He was born without a right hand. He uses a homemade sheath device to hold his guitar pick. He says this has limited his ability to play guitar leads, but it has inspired him to think more clearly about the way vocal melodies fit with chord progressions.

“I’m not a great guitar player,” he says. “But I can write a good song.”

And writing a good song is one of the music life’s best pleasures.

“A good show is a good show, and it feels great,” says Stephenson. “But writing a great song, when you’re done, it releases something … like a great weight has been lifted.”