How I Met Steph Jay

Updated: Jun 15, 2018

My friend Travis told me about her. It was 2008 and we were all college kids at CSU, in Fort Collins.

The idea for the evening was to play some music together, maybe write a song, and see if we got along. Travis thought we could make a little band and play some campus shows, but I wasn’t so sure. “We’ll see,” I had told him.

So the three of us met in Travis’s dorm room, which was barely big enough for his bass amp. We crouched underneath a suspended bunk bed and got out our acoustic guitars from their cases.

“Sooooo…” I said, looking up from tuning, “What do we want to play?”

Silence. Travis made it clear with a firm shake of the head that bass guitar wouldn’t be kicking it off.

My eyes turned to Steph. She shrugged and said, “I could play one of mine?”

Trav and I nodded in approval and she grabbed her pick from the desk.

I didn’t expect much.

Don’t get me wrong. My low expectations had nothing to do with Steph. Honestly, with her long blond hair and black boots, she every bit a rock star. It’s just that most college kids have a long way to go as musicians.

I myself couldn’t play a scale. I was more of the feel-it-in-the-heart-and-hope-it-sounds-like-music, self-taught type of musician. I was 19 years old. I wasn’t even sure how much I wanted to be in a band — let alone a band with this complete stranger.

Then she started singing.

I wish I could remember the first song that she played for us that night. I think it may have been, “Africa,” a song Steph had written while traveling the world. It may also have been, “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” a song that we would later play at our first show as Wasteland Hop. Or “Annie Oakley,” a song about the fabled gunslinger who “never missed.” But I don’t honestly remember the exact song that she played first.

What I do remember is that the moment I heard her sing, my mind started racing.

My mind started racing because Steph’s voice was so strong, so beautiful, so special, that I knew I had to think of the best guitar part I had ever written in order to increase my future chances of getting to play music with her. Steph's voice is that good. I looked over in awe at Travis and he just nodded his head, as if to say, “I know, right?!"

All of a sudden, I wanted to be in a band.

After Steph’s first song concluded, it was my turn to play. Now, I do definitely remember what song I first played to Steph. I remember so well because I picked the hardest, "most impressive" one that I could think of — and promptly bungled the intro so badly that I had to stop and re-start.

Luckily, they both let me keep playing. To my surprise, when I concluded, Steph and Travis said that they liked the guitar part. “Would it be all right if I tried writing some words on top?” Steph asked.

Apparently it wasn’t obvious to her that her voice had so completely blown me away that she could write on top of any song of mine that she wanted.

“Yes,” I told her, “That would be cool.”

“Can you start from that last part you were playing?” She asked. “I was kinda hearing something.”

So, the rest is history. Our personal history at least. For me, that night was the beginning of a road that led me to playing with Steph in Wasteland Hop for the last seven years.

We started a band back then too, Travis, Steph, and me, and we called it Clever Bear Syndrome (long story). Anyway, played a couple shows on campus and we even got a drummer.

Our big show was Take Back the Night. For the event, a crowd of people marched from CSU to Fort Collins’ Old Town Square, holding candles, and uniting against sexual assault.

At the end of the march, we would be the band on the stage in the square.

It wasn’t a coincidence that we were playing this meaningful event. Steph and Travis were both heavily involved in groups advocating for women. Many of the songs Stephanie was writing at the time were about women — powerful women and women facing injustice.

So Steph was meant to be there, on that stage, singing to that crowd of people taking back the night. Her song, her voice, were meant to be heard. I was just glad I could be accompaniment.

Ultimately, we graduated and we went our separate ways. The little campus band didn’t make sense anymore. But we stayed in touch.

A year later, I got a call from Stephanie out of the blue. She was playing shows now with an acoustic bassist and a drummer. People at the shows were asking her for CDs of her music. So she set out to make some. She knew that I liked recording and was calling to see if I would be willing to help.

Again, I said, “Yes.”

I remember that we recorded in my parents’ basement and that one day we took a break and got lunch at a diner. I asked her what she was going to do with her life now that school was over.

Steph told me that she was going to be a musician.

I could not believe the gonads on this woman. The economy had just crashed. When it came to career prospects, most of our fellow graduates were oscillating somewhere between despair and indifference.

My answer to the question would have been that I was grading standardized elementary school tests and applying to be a substitute teacher.

And here she was sitting across from me and saying that she was going to go out there and make a career out her passion for music.

The craziest part of it all was that she actually convinced me that she could.

I didn’t yet believe that I could be a professional musician, but her confidence shook something awake inside of myself.

So we finished our lunch and then we finished recording her CD.

The next day, I tentatively told a friend, “Well, yeah, I’m going to be a substitute teacher for a while… but I would really like to be a music producer."

I didn’t have Steph-level confidence yet. But I did have a little hope.

Weeks later, I proudly played the mixed tracks to her and her drummer on my computer speakers. He was a really good drummer and he might as well have stabbed me through the heart when he said, “It sounds pretty good for a demo.”

A demo? But, of course, he was all right. The songs I produced for Steph did not sound like the songs one could hear on the radio. I was an amateur recordist with amateur equipment.

Steph played with those two musicians for another year or two. She started playing with an all-female band called The MurderARRRs. Another year later we, roommates by then, met some like-minded musicians who helped us form Wasteland Hop.

Seven years later, we’re still playing “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool” at nearly every show.

Somewhere, on some scratched up external hard drive in a box or a drawer in my basement, there are mp3s of those old songs of Steph’s that we recorded that summer in my parents’ basement.

It has been a while since I opened any of those folders or files, but I can still listen to those songs whenever I want. In fact, while I’ve been writing this, their melodies keep playing in my head.

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