In 2012, Stephan Nance found themselves performing on an LGBT pride float in the small Oregon town of Klamath Falls.
At 25, they’d become desperate to leave their hometown of Eugene, where a painful history of trauma awaited as they’d struggled with their mental health and that of a close friend who had expressed thoughts of suicide. It had been a time of uncertainty and turmoil that had left Nance searching for something.
Not yet ready to look inward, it was in this vulnerable state that Nance began looking outward. They recall in a recent blog post, “naturally, when I met a teenager who was struggling in Klamath Falls, I leapt at the opportunity to ignore my own problems and dedicate myself to fixing theirs.”
According to Nance, though they approached this friendship with innocent intentions, hoping to mentor another individual and help them feel safe and cared for, it ultimately led to a painful falling out.
While Nance was “frustrated by their guardians’ refusal to even try understanding what this teen was going through as a young, queer person in rural Oregon,” sudden accusations that they remember as “unjust” and “scary” threatened their own well being and sent them back to Eugene feeling shattered by the events.
It spurred a dangerously dark period for Nance in which they were unable to trust anyone with what they’d experienced.
Thankfully, during what Nance matter-of-factly refers to as “what could have been the final hours,” they “found a shred of strength somewhere inside me, reached out, and got help.” With life-saving support through therapy, Nance was able to take steps toward healing by embarking on a journey of self-care and mindfulness.
However, it would still be four more years before they were able to emotionally return to their identity as an artist and creator.
It may not have happened at all, if it weren’t for one small creature Nance spotted during a quiet moment: “an incredible, bright yellow bird with an orange head and black wings.”
After racing home to look it up, Nance discovered their hopeful visitor had been a Western Tanager. This encounter spurred a yearning within Nance to find this burst of beauty and joy again.
“Birding really opened up the world for me and helped me improve my mental health,” Nance says. “When you’re working through trauma, it’s important to have a lot of tools for coping and staying grounded. It gets worse before it gets better—you have to wade into the deepest part of the muck before you can come out on the other side. But when you’re feeling really awful, everything in the self-care toolbox can look pretty dull and unappealing. Birding is a meditative, mindful experience, and it also gave me so much to be excited about and look forward to.”
The track “Overwintered” is the culmination of this period their life. Written in part back in 2012, they were able to finish the song with the hindsight and wisdom from weekly therapy sessions over four years and inspiration drawn from the beauty of birding.
It’s the second single from Nance’s just-released album Look at the Harlequins!, a six-song EP that boasts 16 bird references amongst an ernest collection of piano poetry meets theatrical pop. “Overwintered” masterfully balances the nuances of Nance’s ordeal. Collaborating to finish the track with Merlin Showalter (drums), Milo Fultz (upright bass) and Matt Greco of The Rye Room (engineering), Nance creates an instrumental journey for the listener. There are the jaunty, joyful beats of new friendship, and a disjointed, carnival-style piano mixed with strings that serve to add and relieve tension at any given moment.
It’s a tapestry of sound that is as complex as the experience itself, rife with all the joy and sadness of a life being lived fully.