Views From The Studio: Tiffany Stevenson Tracks Background Singing Journey And Beyond
Since the age of 13, Tiffany Stevenson knew a career in music was a God-given declaration. From singing in church choirs to providing background vocals for gospel greats like Kierra Sheard and The Clark Sisters, Stevenson's path throughout the music industry was essentially ordained.
With her roots firmly cemented in the church and a strong faith-based mentality, Stevenson took a leap of faith that led the native New Yorker to pack her things and move to Los Angeles to further her career. While on tour in Europe in 2018, the vocalist said she recruited a few people to scout apartments in the City of Angels. By the time she returned, the keys were waiting for her to begin living in her new abode. The experiences from the Big Apple translated into a go-getter attitude that afforded Stevenson the opportunity to tour with Jessie J, perform onstage with Stevie Wonder before moving to L.A., and sing background on a few of Tyler, the Creator’s tracks for his Igor album.
For VIBE's Views From The Studio, Stevenson dissects her time in the studio with Tyler, her first audition, and walking by faith and not by sight.
VIBE: Who are some artists that have inspired you throughout your career?
Tiffany Stevenson: Faith Evans, for sure. I tell people all the time Faith is like my Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé but I feel like Faith doesn’t get the credit that she deserves. You can’t really talk about R&B without mentioning Faith Evans. Her sound, her pen, she’s just somebody that I’ve always looked up to and aspired to be like because I feel like she’s kind of underrated but she’s such a legend. Erica Campbell is somebody else that I look up to. I call her superwoman because she’s a mom, a wife, a first lady, a radio host, an artist and then she’s Erica, and she finds time to do all of these amazing things. I don’t know how she does it and I look at her like it’s crazy. I would say those two for sure.
What purpose does gospel music serve to you as a singer?
It’s about the message. The message, the soul behind it, the feeling you get when you hear certain words. There are a bunch of memes out right now that says gospel music hits different when you’re going through something and I don’t want to say everybody writes or sings songs about being down and out, but it makes you think and it makes you extremely grateful. You are who you are, it may not be where you want to be, but it’s not where you should be. I don’t feel like we’re worthy enough to be so blessed by God and it’s so crazy how He still affords us grace and mercy even after all the crappy stuff that we do. When you hear songs that remind you of that it feels good.
In your Instagram bio, you wrote “Psalm 37:4.” What significance does that passage hold?
It says that “If you delight yourself in the Lord, He’ll give you the desires of your heart.” There's another scripture that says, “Acknowledge him in all your ways He’ll direct your path.” I feel like if you put God first, make him the head of your life—I know a lot of people say that, sometimes people don’t even know what that means—but if you put God first I feel like things line up for you so easy. It’s easy to worry about stuff that doesn’t add up and that’s where faith comes in, but I feel like if you allow him to take control of your life completely, you don’t have to worry about your next move or how things are going to work out. You just put your faith and your trust in him and let him do what you need him to do, what you asked him to do. I like to delight myself in God because I want the desires of my heart and I want my dreams to come true. I want to be in his will, ultimately. I don’t mean to sound super churchy but that’s what it is.
What goes into being a background singer?
Interestingly enough somebody yesterday asked me the three tips on how does a singer book more jobs or something like that and I just said you have to be professional. Ultimately people have to like you to hire you and that doesn’t necessarily mean personality, but I feel like you learn your music, you show up on time, you treat everybody with respect, you look and sound the part and you just have to be ready because these calls come out of nowhere sometimes. Some people have to go through audition processes. I’ve been blessed enough to not have to go through that but when somebody calls you, be ready, have your passport. That’s definitely important. I remember getting a call, I was so mad I couldn’t do it but I got a call to go to Japan with Janet Jackson and they were like, “Do you have your passport?” I’m like, “My bag is at the door.” They ended up finding somebody else who was already in Japan, but situations like that you just never know. I always tell people to be ready and enjoy what you do. When you love what you do and show up it makes work not feel like work. But to answer your question, I just feel like I learn the music, I try to blend well with whoever is next to me and just have fun.
That’s good advice especially with your example with Janet Jackson. Japan is huge and Janet Jackson is even bigger. Were you able to circle back with her team?
No, it was a one-time thing. I was grateful to even be considered to do something like that especially with a legend like Janet Jackson. But it showed me that people like me enough to think of me, to call me, but then people think that I’m that good to where I can sing for somebody like her. I know those kinds of calls will come back around. I’m not worried but that was really dope.
Do you remember your first audition?
My first audition was with John Legend. I was so young. I used to audition all the time but John Legend was my first audition, and I remember auditioning for Jazmine Sullivan. After the audition, I had a show of my own and I had to leave that audition and go to the venue. Jazmine was sitting in my soundcheck. I was so nervous at the audition because you look up to these people and you listen to these people on the radio so for them to say sing a song for me it just adds a whole bunch of nerves. I was super nervous, but when I got to where I had to sing, I’m singing like it’s just me in my house in the living room or shower and Jazmine was sitting in on my soundcheck. When I finished she was so mad at me, like, “Why didn’t you sing like that earlier?” I’m like, “Because you are you!” (Laughs) I didn’t get called to actually work with them in that capacity but down the line, I was still able to work with John Legend. I just recently did the iHeartRadio Awards with him. When the movie Selma came out, I did all of his New York promo stuff so it eventually worked out. I didn’t tour with him, but we did get to work together and now me and Jazmine are cool.
Throughout those processes, how do you get over the nerves? Is it the more you do the less nervous you become?
Well, I would say that over the years I’ve definitely come into my own. I’ve come into who I’m supposed to be if that makes sense. I’m not as nervous anymore. I’m kind of ridiculous with things as it pertains to just doing stuff and not thinking about it. My friends call me crazy because I used to be super shy and now it’s just like it is what it is. This is what I’m doing and that’s it. But I haven’t had to audition for anything since then, so I’m not sure if I can answer that. I don’t get nervous now. If it’s my own show, trying to win over an audience especially somewhere where no one knows who you are, that’s nerve-wracking but you do what you do and if they like it they like it, and if they don’t they don’t. But it is what it is.
Another major moment is Kanye West’s Sunday Service. Walk me through the process of how you became a part of the ensemble and performing at Coachella?
This was right around the time I had just finished the last show of the tour I was on. This was around New Year’s and I had a short break. I got a call from one of my friends asking me if I could show up to a rehearsal. I didn’t know what or who it was for, I just showed up and that’s when I found out it was for Kanye. We didn’t know what it was, how long it was going to go on but it eventually turned into something super dope and beautiful. I’ve been rocking with him. Coachella was amazing. It was my first time at Coachella and we had 50,000 people there. It was kind of crazy to be on a hill singing about Jesus and dancing and having fun. It’s kind of crazy.
What were the rehearsals like? Was it just as energetic and therapeutic as the actual showcase?
We have fun. Like I said if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. Most of the people I knew there, some people I had just met because I’m new to L.A. but rehearsals are just as dope as us actually having to sing in front of people.
You also worked with Tyler, the Creator on his Igor album. Can you describe the process behind “I Think?”
I think that’s the one with Solange on it. He was just playing some records and he felt like he had ideas, he could hear them but he couldn’t sing them obviously. He’s not a singer (Laughs) so he just asked us to do whatever he heard in his head. That one was pretty easy. We sang on top of what Solange did. My friend Amanda [Brown], she did some ad-libs toward the end of the song.
Also “Igor’s Theme?”
That was actually my favorite one and not because I’m on it. He told us that Lil Uzi Vert was the one that wrote that hook: “Ridin’ ‘round town, they gon’ feel this one.” We were singing on top of that and I was being silly and I did something in the booth. He was like, “Do that! You have to do that!” I ended up doing something super-churchy on the song and he actually kept it. I have a solo part towards the end of that song so that was pretty cool.
And lastly, “Gone Gone/Thank You.”
That was another song that he heard what he wanted in his head and he just needed us to do it. That song reminded me of Stevie Wonder, the chord changes in it. I like that one, too. That was basically it. He wanted us to sing whatever he heard in his head. He really shocked me though because I didn’t know…when you hear Tyler, the Creator, I remember he had that show on Adult Swim and I used to be like, “What is wrong with him? He’s crazy,” until I actually met him and I was like, “Oh, he’s like a freaking genius.” He’s my best friend in my head. It was really dope working with him. He plays, he produces, he writes and he knows his music. I was really shocked. That was a dope experience.
I feel like that was the consensus for some music lovers who weren’t familiar with his previous work. Personally for me, like how you said you were shocked while listening to this album, I was also like this wasn’t something that I expected.
It definitely shocked me.
How did you come onboard?
I got a call from one of my friends. He just asked if I was available for a session and I said, “Yeah, why not? It’s money so let’s get it.” When we pulled up I was like, “Oh Tyler, cool!” I didn’t know what exactly he was doing but it was as simple as a phone call.
What power does music possess to you and what do you think it possesses to others?
I feel like overall when people say music is a universal language, it’s absolutely true. I’ve been in countries where they don’t speak the same language as I do but the music appeals to them the same way. I’ve seen people cry. It’s a feeling that they can’t explain. Honestly, I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t doing music. I think about that all the time. I don’t want to say it saved my life because I wasn’t in danger or at the brink of doing something else but I don’t know if I could describe it. It’s afforded me opportunities that I probably wouldn’t get doing anything else. I’m on my second passport. I got to meet some of the world’s biggest stars. I get to call some of those people friends. Music has definitely changed my life.
Your songs “Waiting 4 U” and “You’re The One,” particularly “Waiting 4 You,” gave me late ‘90s early 2000s vibes. Walk me through the process of working on that melody?
B. Slade who produced it along with two other producers, he wrote the song and we’ve been working with each other for a while. I’ve always known him but we started working with each other back in 2016. I released “You're The One” in 2016 and he wrote that one, too. He released that years ago. He gave me that song and it was my first single being introduced as Tréi Stella. That’s my artist name; my favorite beer, and my favorite number. But the “Waiting 4 U” sample came from Guy and Teddy Riley. I think the song is called “Piece Of My Love.” That’s where he got the idea from. I love that song.
Do the ‘90s or 2000s captivate you when you’re in the booth trying to catch a certain aura?
Definitely. I don’t want to say that’s when music meant something, but the music that we hear today... Well first of all everybody sounds the same in my opinion, and everybody is on this catch a vibe wave. But I’m used to honest singing, soul singing, R&B with a little bit of church in it and I miss that. I want to make ‘90s R&B popular again with a flare, with a little twist. There’s no song from the ‘90s that you play now and don’t feel like you’re back in the ‘90s, the song never gets old. That’s for Mary J. Blige, SWV, Faith Evans, 702, Aaliyah, Missy Elliott. Back then music felt good, not that music today doesn’t feel good but I miss the old sound.
Given that you also write songs, can you describe your writing process? Where do you pull inspiration from to make fans and listeners feel a certain emotion?
I think about when I hear music what it makes me feel like. What do the sounds put me in a mind of? I wrote this song back in 2013. I released it on my birthday and it’s called “Old Thing.” When I heard it, it reminded me of an old Biggie song. I just started thinking about, “Man, I miss when music felt good. I miss the old sound of R&B,” like you were just talking about. That’s how the title came about. “I just want that old thing back.” I just started thinking about how we get into situations where it starts off good then things get rocky and then you guys aren’t together anymore but then you sit around and think about “I miss that, I want that old thing back.” That’s how that song came about but I usually just let the music tell the story for me and then think of what’s going on with me personally that may help somebody else or I don’t have to feel like I’m alone. Because every girl goes through a breakup or somebody cheating on them. All these little things I think I’m in this world alone dealing with. I try to think about me but I think about other people and I try to write from an honest point.
The first time I saw you perform, it was with Ro James in New York City I think in 2012 or 2013. That’s when I realized you went to Saint Michael Academy, too. I was the year below your year.
Since you recall that Ro James concert, can you share your experience then? That was six years ago and now you’re more established in music. Can you share from that point what can you recall from the stage and now witnessing that Ro James is also a widely known artist too?
That was actually cool. It was just us on stage. It wasn’t a regular set up where a singer has two or three background singers and a full band. It literally was just me and Ro and we just had fun. He allowed me to be myself. He gave me room to sing at any point in the song I felt like it. That felt really good because I’ve worked with a lot of artists who have been slightly insecure or intimidated by who they get to sing background for them. I’ve been fired from situations just because an artist was insecure. And here it is, I’m not trying to take any shine away from you but I’m doing my job and some people can’t handle when you sing to them or they feel like you’re prettier. You didn’t have to go beyond limits and measures to look a certain way so some people get a little intimidated. Shout out to Ro for allowing me to be myself and sharing his platform when he didn’t have to. That’s so dope you remember that, too.
That memory always stuck with me because Ro James was one of my first interviews when I started at VIBE as an intern. It was my chance to prove to my editors I could write. (Laughs) What has been your fondest memory within your career thus far?
I have so many. I sang background for Stevie Wonder at Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party. That was iconic. I don’t know if this is my fondest memory but I remember being in high school and having to leave school a little early because I had soundcheck at Madison Square Garden down the street for a big show. That was pretty dope. It’s more to the story but when I said this may not be the fondest, I sang at the Garden in Uggs. What I wanted to wear didn’t fit. It was a little too big so I was waiting for somebody from wardrobe to give me a safety pin. After soundcheck, I thought I had time to go back to the dressing room. All the lights went out and the show started. I was on stage with Uggs on and I had to hold up my clothes. (Laughs) I still sang at the Garden.
Also, my very first tour was with Jessie J. We were out for three weeks. It was my first time in London, Paris, we went everywhere.
Who were you performing for at MSG?
They had a show called a Night of Gospel. At the time I was singing with The Clark Sisters. I used to travel with Karen when I was 15, 16. That particular show I sang with The Clark Sisters.
What was it like singing with Stevie Wonder?
It was pretty iconic. He was super sweet and I was shocked. Me and the other two singers were like “Whoa!” We sang with a lot of people that night but Stevie Wonder, c’mon. It was really dope.
Do you have a dream artist that you want to work with next?
I really want to work with Drake. I think Drake is a super creative, he’s lyrically talented and I like to hear his ideas when it comes to melodies. Eric Bellinger, he’s one of my favorite writers and probably DJ Camper. He’s taking over music right now. He produced a lot of music for H.E.R. and I was actually in the studio with him last night. He let me hear some of his album he’s putting out this year. He’s really dope.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m preparing to release the next single off my EP along with the visuals as I did for “Waiting 4 You” and then actually put the entire EP out. I’ll finally have a whole body of music out. I’m really excited about that because I feel like it’s long overdue. I feel like I’m taking a long time but I don’t want to just put music out because I have music. I want it to be right. I’m working on the next single and pushing the EP and trying to do more shows in different places. Not just New York or L.A. I feel like I’ve only been doing a lot of shows in New York, L.A., Atlanta. I want to branch out into different cities and start to build my fanbase. I’m just working on the Tréi Stella brand as a whole.
Is there a timeline for the EP?
Right now we’re looking at August, early September. I don’t know how it’s going to happen but I’m not going to worry about how it’s going to happen because I feel like it’s going to happen.