Deep in the heart of the East End, producer, songwriter, and recording artist John Allen Stephens is quietly shaping the sound of Houston’s music scene from his independently owned, home based studio Third Coast Recording Co.
On a typical day, he wakes up around nine, walks over to the next room, and begins recording sessions with some of Houston’s finest talent for the next eight hours. With six day work weeks, those grinding hours are adding up to a musical rolodex of a resume – Attxla, Camera Cult, Space Kiddettes, The Suffers, Tee Vee, Turnaways, even J. Balvin, all have Stephens’ stamp somewhere in their discographies.
When he isn’t busy working with any of the aforementioned artists, he’s toiling away at his own sophomore solo effort Return to Form, a follow-up to last year’s standout Radioclub.Lp. Last month, he launched his latest album cycle with a show at White Oak Music Hall in support of the set’s lead single “Addiction.”
“Addiction,” a colorful, soulful, post-pop cut, blends jazz, pop, R&B, and gospel influences over an immediately commanding, tightly gripped groove. Stephens’ razor sharp production fuses seamlessly with glistening piano (Zeke Listenbee), heavenly choirs (Ejay Mallard, Paul Z'Maji, Asheley Bowles, Milayah Scott), and trumpet and saxophone solos (Adam DeWalt and Leo Rayon, respectively) which round out the song’s final flight, offering the song an improvisatory approach Stephens says he fell in love with after working with local favorite The Suffers.
“I’ve always been interested in improvisational recording and kind of capturing things off the cuff and then trying to make something of them, but this was the first time to do that - not just myself, but bring in other players to really embellish on and elevate the songs,” says Stephens in a phone interview with the Houston Press.
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Though “Addiction” has an uplifting essence, the song is rooted in darker roads. In 2016, Stephens was involved in a life threatening motorcycle accident. The following year, his best friend, who he grew up playing music with, died from an overdose.
“Life is just funny because, for me, working through those losses kind of transformed my thinking. There’s been a positive shift in my life that’s happened as a result of going through so much in such a short period of time,” says Stephens.
He says that after the accident, he was prescribed medication and reached a point where he could not do without it, but after weaning off of the medication and enduring the subsequent withdrawal, he rediscovered his love for music.
“With addiction, there’s so much shame involved that you don’t communicate those things to your loved ones because you don’t want to. You just don’t want to even say it out loud to yourself, you know? So hopefully through this process of being so transparent about it, and now that I’m finally able to do that, and it’s taken me so long to be able to do that, I hope that it’s a comfort to folks that have either gone through the same thing, or who are going through the same thing right now, and hopefully something positive comes from it.”
The sentiment signals a shift in perspective toward a more collaborative approach with his art, making music for something greater than himself.
“When I was young, I wanted so badly for others to recognize my talent and my ability to contribute songwriting wise, sonically, but it was really more about me. Very me focused. And in a selfish way, the music was very cathartic for me – and that was kind of the end of it,” he says. “Now I think the message is greater than just, you know, look at this thing I can do. It’s like, how can I use this talent or this gift to pay it forward?”
Doubling down on the team player approach he took with “Addiction,” Stephens says the rest of his forthcoming album will feature an array of performances from local musicians.
“Hopefully collaborating more myself, or being open to collaboration with others to songwrite, to produce – that’s kind of something I’m really interested in and stressing with this whole project.”
While he says he’s considered relocating to a different city in the past, he doesn’t think he would do so at this point in his career.
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“I feel like I’ve invested a lot of time and energy and just real blood, sweat, and tears into building up myself as a producer in this city, as an artist in this city. There’s a love that I have for this place because it’s my home, but also I see the talent pool here,” he says.
“That’s what’s kept me here is there’s some really inspiring works being made by local artists on minimal budgets who are competing to me. I think that’s what’s kept me here to this point. I don’t know that that’s changing – if anything it’s getting better. So I would imagine I’d probably stick around.”
You can catch John Allen Stephens at Bombero Fest on Saturday, July 27 at Satellite Bar. $13 at the door. 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. All ages until 10 p.m., 18+ after. Follow him on Instagram @johnallenstephens. Stream "Addiction" below.