‘Dream’ Deferred No More
It’s early afternoon as Carl Stephenson sits in a Sunset Strip restaurant, reminiscing about the heady days four years ago when he got the attention of the music industry as the co-writer of Beck’s hit single “Loser” and for his contract with Geffen Records.
He had already written “Dream,” a dazzling single that industry insiders were comparing to the early work of such classic Los Angeles pop creators as Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks.
“I wrote it one morning when the sun was shining through the window into my face,” Stephenson says of the single between sips of a strawberry soda. “I just suddenly thought about how amazing life is . . . the song, to me, was like a celebration of all that.”
But the celebration of Stephenson as one of pop’s hottest new properties proved premature. Before Geffen could release the record, Stephenson’s behavior became frightfully erratic.
“He just started to erode,” recalls Tony Berg, the A&R; executive at Geffen who brought Stephenson to the label in 1993. “The guy I signed was disappearing. . . .”
Stephenson, it was soon discovered, was suffering from mental illness. The single and accompanying album were put on the shelf for all these years while Stephenson, his family, his friends and his record company tried to deal with the illness.
Despite periods of optimism, Stephenson’s condition grew periodically worse until May of this year, when his parents and friends obtained a court order that resulted in the musician being confined to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital for about two months.
During that stay, Stephenson--whose condition was diagnosed as a treatable brain disorder--was given new medicine that has enabled him to function well enough for Geffen’s sister label, DreamWorks, to release the single.
Even without active promotion on his part, “Dreams” has been a hit on modern rock radio and in key rotation on MTV. Stephenson’s album, which was released under the group name and title “Forest for the Trees,” has sold about 30,000 copies in the U.S., and it is catching on in Japan and Europe. The momentum is so strong that DreamWorks executive Lenny Waronker expects sales to hit the 100,000 mark worldwide by the end of the year.
“It was kind of frightening because you didn’t really know what was going on,” Stephenson says matter-of-factly during the interview about the years when doctors struggled to find the right medicine and diagnosis.
“There was a point where they had me on some medicine that I was allergic to or something and I couldn’t breathe when I’d take it. . . . I was afraid I would be stuck on the medicine forever. It was a pretty long period . . . a pretty sad period.”
He pauses, then his face brightens.
“But things are better now,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have helped me, and I’m very happy.”
Thanks to its inspired mix of exotic musical textures, from bagpipes and violin to drum programs, and wistful, uplifting vocals, “Dream” is one of the year’s most captivating singles. The song, co-written with Jaspr Baj and Kevin Krakower, asserts a positiveness that is typical of Stephenson’s work--a respect for and an awe of nature and the universe.
But the most remarkable thing about it may be how well its title summarizes the human drama in the saga of Carl Stephenson.
Regardless of the album’s commercial fate, those who have supported Stephenson during his long ordeal say their personal dreams have already been answered. Stephenson has survived.
“People like us who are not part of the Hollywood scene don’t dream of their children becoming celebrities,” says Stephenson’s mother, Mary. “We’ve always known Carl had an incredible gift, and we wanted him to maximize that.
“But during this [experience] we learned to set our sights very low. Our dream didn’t have anything to do with an album or a career. . . . We didn’t want him to end up on the streets. We just prayed that he would stay alive.”
Indeed, Stephenson, 30, has benefited over the last four years from people who were drawn to him by the music and then took up his well-being as a sort of personal crusade.
Melissa Komorsky, a former A&R; executive at RCA who began managing Stephenson in 1996 and married him last July, is still amazed at the dedication of such people as Geffen Records’ Berg and DreamWorks’ Waronker, whose interest in Stephenson went far deeper than simply trying to protect their companies’ investment.
At a time in the spring when the UCLA confinement seemed the only hope for Stephenson, Waronker pledged that DreamWorks would pay for all the medical care on a non-recoupable basis, Komorsky says. Although the label declines to say what those costs total, she estimated that the figure is more than $150,000.
Karl Stephenson was born in Washington, D.C., in 1967 and lived with his parents and two younger sisters in Laurel, Md., where the youngster started showing signs of being a musical prodigy. His mother recalls his being able to carry a tune as he hummed along to the church organ at the age of 2 months.
The family moved to Olympia, Wash., in the early ‘70s and Stephenson took violin lessons. He eventually played with youth symphonies in the area before turning his allegiance during high school to another instrument: the synthesizer.
He joined a new wave band during his teens and, after high school, made a demo tape with a friend, Cliff Blodget, who also had a love of synthesizers. They envisioned a sound somewhat like the rock ‘n’ rap of the Beastie Boys.
Blodget got a job in the late ‘80s with Rap-A-Lot Records, a small Houston label best known for the rap group the Geto Boys, and Stephenson joined his friend at the label, doing various jobs in the studio.
To broaden his horizons, Stephenson moved in 1990 to Los Angeles, where he met Beck, a roots-oriented singer-songwriter with an interest in hip-hop beats. Not only did Stephenson co-write “Loser” and three other songs that appeared on Beck’s “Mellow Gold” album, he co-produced the collection.
Through Margaret Mittleman, a music publishing executive who signed both Beck and Stephenson, the studio whiz met Geffen’s Berg, who signed him to a recording contract in 1993 after hearing what was essentially the finished “Forest for the Trees” album.
Beck, who hasn’t seen Stephenson in years, declined to be interviewed, but Berg, who also discovered Beck for Geffen, recalls, “Carl had these brilliant technical skills, a mastery of the studio as an instrument unlike anyone I had met. Most of what you hear on his album, whether it’s violin or drum programming or a binaural recording while riding in a taxi, was done by Carl.
“I think Carl’s influence on Beck was probably more profound than Beck’s influence on Carl because Beck was ostensibly a folk singer with a lot of history. Carl introduced him to the wedding of beats and content, and created something I don’t think existed prior to ‘Loser.’ ”
About his musical approach, Stephenson says, “I guess making a record is like painting. I like to do abstract painting where I don’t know what I’m painting until it eventually begins making sense to me. It’s the same with a record.”
The “Forest” album was ready to be released four years ago, but Stephenson began wanting to make changes in it. “As the weeks rolled by, the mixes got stranger and stranger,” Berg says. “Eventually, I realized that he was starting to take songs off the record and disavow them.” In fact, he didn’t want that version of the record to come out at all.
“At some point, it was clear that I had to stop worrying about his album and start dealing with his [condition]. To the credit of [Geffen Records Chairman and Chief Executive] Eddie Rosenblatt, he never put pressure on us to realize the album, knowing it might upset the delicate balance in Carl’s life.”
Stephenson’s parents were also alarmed.
“We began getting phone calls from Carl around the time of ‘Loser,’ and he was expressing all these fears,” Mary Stephenson says. “He would pick up on all kinds of things that you or I would never even notice, and he’d make them his reality. With ‘Loser,’ for instance, I think he was scared to death that Beck was going to get killed by somebody because of the line in the song. [“I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”]”
Stephenson’s behavior was becoming so troubling that his mother flew to Los Angeles from the family’s new home in Yakima, Wash., in June 1994.
“I could see that these worries and fears that he had expressed to us over the phone were not based in reality,” she recalls.
To her further surprise, Stephenson was blaming the music for his problems. When she, Berg and her son went to the beach after listening to a tape of the album, Stephenson started to throw tapes and equipment into the ocean. “He was blaming his music and the songs for his illness,” his mother says.
She took Stephenson home with her so that she and her husband could keep closer tabs on him. Unfortunately, the problems didn’t go away. She began talking to her son about hospitalization, but he resisted. Finally, his parents felt they had no choice.
One incident that caused great concern was when Stephenson wandered off on Christmas Eve, 1994. “We live in the woods and there are cliffs and everything, and it was dark so we didn’t know if he would make it back. It was just awful,” she says. Soon after, Stephenson wandered off again; this time, he was returned home by someone who found him huddled in a doorway.
Stephenson was in and out of hospitals repeatedly in 1995 because he continued to resist diagnosis and medication. But things had stabilized enough by early 1996 for him to return to Los Angeles, where Berg finally thought it was time to release the long overdue album.
Because of all the false starts at Geffen, Berg thought Stephenson might benefit from a new environment, so he went to Waronker, who was just starting DreamWorks.
“I fell in love with it . . . absolutely,” says Waronker of Stephenson’s music. “I remember being overwhelmed by the time the chorus in ‘Dream’ came in. . . . It was like I was hit by this wave and suddenly swimming in the music. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. . . . Not just that song but the rest of the album too.”
In some ways, Stephenson was a flash of deja vu for Waronker, who as a record producer and then president of Warner Bros. Records had established a reputation in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a champion of such interesting and original talents as Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks. That reputation gave Warner Bros. a stamp of quality that served as a magnet over the years for other artists, including R.E.M.
“I felt Carl was brilliant . . . the way he worked with song forms. . . . It reminded me of the best of Brian Wilson, and there was something in his eyes that told me he’d pull through . . . that he’d beat this thing,” Waronker says. “I believed in him.”
It was a tough year, however, because Stephenson still didn’t want the record out.
“It was crushing what happened to Carl,” Komorsky says of the illness. “When I first met him [in 1991], there was no sign of any problem. In fact, when someone started talking at dinner about five years later about all these outrageous things Carl was doing, I stood up in the middle of the restaurant and said, ‘How dare you spread such vicious lies and rumors about someone you don’t even know?’ ”
Komorsky hadn’t seen Stephenson in years, but she was so shaken by the comments that she phoned him the next day. She sensed he needed support. She started hanging out with him, making sure that he was eating and trying to clean up his messy Silver Lake apartment.
Finally, Waronker and Berg--on the advice of doctors and with the support of Stephenson’s parents, who felt the release of the album would have a positive effect on his condition--told him that they were going to put out the album regardless of his feelings.
But Waronker and the others were still so nervous about releasing the record they delayed it for six months, until Stephenson had gone through the UCLA program--where he was under the care of Dr. Charles Raison, director of emergency psychiatry--and shown dramatic improvement.
There’s a sweet, childlike quality about Stephenson as he sits in the Sunset Strip restaurant, sipping his soda and awaiting his turkey sandwich. It’s a gentleness that his mother and others say was always present. Rather than alter Stephenson’s personality, the medication that he takes has simply enabled him to recapture it.
Stephenson has just finished a photo shoot in front of some trees he had spotted during a walk along Sunset and he’s in a good mood. Even now, he expresses some resentment over the fact that DreamWorks put out the original version of the album rather than incorporate some of the remixes he had made over the years. Yet he fully “endorses” the album.
Stephenson--who legally changed the spelling of his first name from Karl to Carl last year because the K reminded him of the Ku Klux Klan--has also been working on the music for his next Forest for the Trees album.
He talks about the excitement of hearing his music on the radio and says he also has written some bluegrass-type children’s songs for another project. Berg says Stephenson’s music has regained its ambition and inventiveness.
About his progress, Stephenson says, “I really feel blessed and lucky. We’ve just been able to buy a house, and I’ve started writing some new songs. . . . But I’ve always believed in happy endings. Even as a kid, my favorite books always had happy endings.”
One reason Stephenson and those around him want to tell his story is that they hope that it will raise awareness about mental illness.
“There are so many people who need help. Just look at the homeless in this country,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine everyone just going about their business and not trying to help people who need help. I was lucky. . . . I had people who cared.”