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First Play: Ben Stevenson, Cara Cara

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Del Cowie

There's a restless quality to Cara Cara, the debut album from Toronto singer-songwriter Ben Stevenson. When you consider the long and winding musical path he's taken to releasing it, however, there's no other conceivable way for this record to be. Cara Cara encroaches on many genres of music, but could be categorized as experimental, yet accessible pop — though Stevenson's musical journey began in Edmonton punk bands.

Moving to Toronto, he immersed himself in a different musical environment, linking with famed Drake producer Boi-1da, cultivating his intense stage presence and releasing the 2014 EP Dirty Laundry (featuring the noteworthy single "Left You Behind"), working with producer Happy Perez, a Frank Ocean and Miguel collaborator.

But Stevenson retreated from the rapid momentum his career was gathering because of the intense pressure he was feeling, and turned away from making music. On Cara Cara, however, he has reconnected with a cadre of noted Canadian musicians including Matty Tavares of BadBadNotGood, Daniel Caesar, Joseph Shabason of Destroyer/Diana and allie collaborator Birthday Boy in sessions held in either Joshua Tree National Park or Toronto.

“What I realized from all of this was that I needed to take the reins of my own life,” Stevenson said in a press release. “I couldn’t rely on the idea that because someone has a name as a producer or has done this or that in the past, I can’t let that allow me to lose track of what I’m trying to do, and I have to treat the music I’m making with the adequate care and attention.”

That attention to detail Stevenson alludes to isn't mere lip service. If anything connects the sonically disparate songs on Cara Cara it's their lived-in, worked-over, revised and reworked feel.

It's the reason why unlikely bedfellows such as the atmospheric, xylophone-deckled, neo-soul-indebted opener "No Better Way," the folk and country-tinged "Yellow Bird" and the low-end futuristic fusion of "Endless" nestle so intuitively beside each other.

“There’s a blend of ideas that I’ve picked up in different contexts in the way this record was made, taking the lessons from the people I’ve worked with and applying them to making a record in the way I initially learned how to do it,” Stevenson said. “That’s kind of what I mean about finding my way. I had spent a long time making these decisions to be myopic, to limit my own creativity. And so with this I was trying to find my way out of that and to go to all the places I’d like to go with my material. I don’t know if I’ve done that with this record if I’m being honest, or if it’s even possible to get there, but I like to remind myself that it’s a path, and there is no destination.”