Stephanie Stewart grew up with music all around her; it's coded into her DNA and into the story of her family. Her father and mother met when he played guitar and she worked as the flambe girl at the old Louis XIV in Webster Groves. The Stewart house was often filled with the AM Gold hits of the '70s — Fleetwood Mac, Carole King, James Taylor — either on the hi-fi or from her dad's guitar.
And while Stewart grew up singing, she came to the guitar later in life, picking it up in earnest about six years ago. It wasn't from her father's lack of trying, though.
"He tried to put the guitar in my hands growing up," Stewart recalls. "It didn't stick; I don't know why. I always had someone else to play for me."
Now, as she embarks on a solo career, with a just-released EP and a full-length to come later in 2019, Stewart uses her acoustic guitar to support her gentle, often autobiographical folk songs. That family influence is a dominant presence in both the music and lyrics of her EP Family Tree. Each song was inspired by a member of her family, and her father, Don, accompanies Stewart on guitar (alongside local legend Gary Hunt, a longtime neighbor of the Stewarts, on mandolin).
From the title on through the songs themselves, Stewart's Family Tree doesn't hide its source material. You'll learn more than a few things about those in her line — her role as a mother, the lessons she learned from her grandmother, a few stray memories from childhood. For Stewart, who is just settling into her identity as a songwriter, the choice to begin her career with a sort of musical photo album came from listening to her muse.
"Those songs are more personal to me," she says. "I've been writing music for about six years, seriously, trying to figure out what I want to play. The songs that came the most naturally and quickly were about family — my kids, my sisters, my parents, my grandmother.
"That's my heart; it's the most important thing to me ... family and feeling connected," she continues. "It was a scary place to start for sure, because I do feel really raw and exposed sharing those songs. But that feels good, putting myself out there in a really transparent way."
The EP, which is a digital-only release, serves as an aperitif to her still-in-development debut album and was not always intended for a wider audience. Stewart worried that the songs may be too specific to appeal to anyone outside of her circle.
"I kept coming back to these six songs, wanting documentation of those songs but not sure if anyone would care about them but me," Stewart recalls. "I wanted to invoke those feelings for anyone listening to think about their own grandmother or their own teenager growing up too fast. It's like storytelling — a good book makes you think about your own life."
While this set of songs fits in a well-defined theme, Stewart says that she did not set out to write a collection of family-specific songs. Rather, these compositions date from her earliest forays into songwriting all the way through last year.
"The easiest song to write was 'Warrior'; that song is about my sister Emily giving birth to her daughter," she says. "I had never witnessed someone laboring and giving birth. I literally left the hospital with a melody in my head and I went home and wrote the song." Upon getting home, Stewart and her other sister recorded the tune as a voice memo and sent it to Emily, an immediate gift for both mother and child.
"It was just something that kind of came through me," Stewart explains. "It just kinda happened."
Stewart struggled to compose the song that became "Young One." As a mother of two boys, she felt compelled to have both of her kids be represented on Family Tree.
"I had written 'Little Man' for my son who was seventeen. It was personal and very obviously about him and his story," she says. "I had a lot of guilt because I wanted to write another song about my other child, but it wasn't coming. I had something different to say about him. I had to be patient."
And though teenage boys are not always receptive to things like maternal affection and the public airing of emotion, Stewart's sons have taken to their mother's songs.
"They dig it. I've been really lucky with my boys in that way," she says. "Wolfie is my oldest; he gets emotional when he hears 'Little Man.' It makes him tear up a bit. "
Her younger son, Hamilton, is a musician too, and as her father did with her, Stewart uses music as a bridge between generations.
"I think he really appreciates that song that was written about him," she says. "It's a gift to be able to play music with my fourteen-year-old who sometimes won't talk to me but will sit down and play with me."