During a New Year’s Eve interview with the Houston Press, it’s little surprise to hear Stephens cite a book as inspiration for the album’s narrative arc.
“Before I even had a bunch of these songs I wrote those titles down in that order. I was reading...this incredible philosophy book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” says Stephens, who named his album’s opening track “Phaedrus (An Introduction)” after a character from Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 book.
“Phaedrus, who’s kind of like this phantom, seems to be almost adversarial with [the] principle character who's on this road trip with his son on the back of his motorcycle. It was all basically a true story, but over the course of the book it's revealed that Phaedrus is really just this past version of the lead character.”
Stephens, the past and present protagonist (perhaps at points, anti-hero) of Return to Form — a stronger, more daring effort than his 2018 pop-leaning radioclub.lp, has trail blazed enough lanes in Houston’s music scene to look in the rearview mirror on his own creativity and see demonstrable growth.
“I look back on those previous versions of myself musically and know that I was nowhere near as skilled as I am now. The music I'm putting out now is so much more unique to me and so much more representative of me as an artist,” says Stephens, adding that he hopes to pay homage to lost loved ones with the record.
“This whole album is dedicated to my childhood best friend, the person who taught me how to play music, my first creative partner, and songwriting partner. His name is Josh Dickey; we grew up together,” says Stephens of the late Dickey, who overdosed in 2017. Dickey’s death would later become inspiration for Form's emotional crux “Gymnasts On The Lawn,” where Stephens croons over a meandering, solemn jazz trio, mourning the loss of a friend.
“I know we would have collaborated somehow on it if he were still here,” he says. “We're so similar in so many ways but he didn't get to make it to the other side of that.
“Being able to share that song with Josh's family when it comes out, that's something that I'm going to be really proud of.”
Stephens, too, is no stranger to addiction. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2016, an experience documented in last Fall's slick "Motorcycle," he became addicted to prescription painkillers. That trauma yielded album highlight “Addiction,” an aptly addictive ear worm that could go on forever if it weren’t for what follows.
When the somber “Withdrawal,” frozen in time with its snow-fallen guitar, follows “Addiction’s” piercing highs, it’s as if Stephens pulls the plug on his own party, ready to begin his untrodden path to recovery.
“When you're finally sobering up, there is something powerful happening and spiritual happening but you're still kind of in the shit, you know? And suffering. Suffering on a day-to-day basis,” says Stephens, noting the difficulties of communicating his addictions with his family.
“When you grow up in a little bit more of a sheltered environment, there's all this shame attached to your shortcomings. And with something like addiction, when it's something like Oxycontin, that name [is] an associated thing with something that's very strong. It's not an easy conversation to have but I think over the course of putting this music together and being able to put it to lyrics, I feel comfortable right now talking about it in a way that I would never have felt comfortable a couple of years ago.”
That sheltered environment he speaks of? Kingwood, Texas: Houston’s pre-planned forest that Stephens deems a “typical suburb where everything is self contained and you don't really get outside of that view of the world very much.” A land of cul-de-sacs where he “was just getting into trouble.”
“I can take you back before the breakdown / When they had me face down / Before the felony / Before I poured the gasoline,” sings Stephens on early album cut “Molotov,” an autobiographical high speed chase of a track about throwing a molotov in someone’s front yard. (Stephen’s exhilarating, full throttle production here shows why so many Houston-based artists flock to him at Third Coast Recording Co. for his skills behind the mixing board.)
“It totally changed the course of my whole life,” he says. Twenty years old at the time, Stephens, now 32, was charged with possession of a prohibited weapon and placed on felony probation for several years; the event ultimately served as a catalyst for him to pursue a career in music.
“There was no opportunity for me to pursue anything other than music,” he says.
“I really have some of these moments to thank for, as wild as they are, kind of me learning by experience, to kind of grow up and just get to the other side of this. But also to be doing this as a job at all, I have no idea what I would have done if I hadn't gotten in trouble, you know what I mean? I could have gone to work at some straight nine to five or whatever - it just wasn't an option. I better figure out this music thing because otherwise I'm in bad shit.”
From the way he seamlessly blends jazz, hip hop, pop, and gospel on Return to Form, it sounds like Stephens, an avid collaborator, has turned bad experiences to good. Some of Houston’s finest jazz talents boast memorable performances on the album that was poised for a 2020 release. Stephens ultimately delayed the release, citing “it did not feel right to even think about promoting what is 100 percent inspired directly by black culture, black music.
“It wouldn't have felt right for me as a white man to try and promote music during this time where there's this much more important conversation to be had, but also much more important people than me to steer that conversation,” says Stephens. “I really thought about that. How will this be received?
“I think reverence for community — like, actual community — that is hopefully one of the strengths of this record, is that it features a lot of black talent from Houston, from my community. I think over the course of making it I've made real friends and honest collaborators with people I did not know at all before. So hopefully this is representative of me personally, but also hopefully that reverence for black culture, black art in the community here creatively shines through in the music. And I hope that me being as honest as I am lyrically highlights the fact that this is not an effort to blow up off this culture, it's just an effort for me to find some peace of mind and hopefully make something beautiful and something that can be a comfort to other people.”
You can follow John Allen Stephens on Instagram and stream Return to Form on Spotify and Apple Music beginning Friday, January 8.