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Spotlight on staff and faculty musicians: Meet singer Carrie Stephens

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A woman sings into a microphone as a man in the background plays guitar.
Photo by Joshua Guenther
Carrie Stephens
Development Specialist, Steve Hicks School of Social Work
11 years at UT

Carrie Stephens wasn’t planning on living in Austin. She had every intention of moving to New Orleans after a stint in Nevada with AmeriCorps. But on the way to the Big Easy, she and her partner Tristan Birdzell stopped in Austin to visit Birdzell’s aunt. Soon, plans changed. Austin, as is its wont, had lured her in.

“She let us stay in her house right next to campus indefinitely and finally convinced us to settle in Austin,” she says. “And after that it was only a matter of time before my development experience brought me to UT.”

It’s really no surprise that Stephens — a self-described ham who always enjoyed being in the spotlight and has had a lifelong love affair with music — landed in Austin, a city long crackling with youthful energy and filled with opportunities for those with a desire to pursue creative and artistic impulses. Early on, she spent some time acting in the local theater scene.

“I enjoyed the chance to try on other lives and personalities,” she says. “Plus, acting didn’t require knowing how to sight-read or learn an instrument, so I focused on that for a while. Eventually I realized it wasn’t my passion anymore. Now I’m focused solely on music as my creative outlet.”

Stephens says she never sat down and focused long enough to learn an instrument but was lucky enough to meet musician Adam Donovan when the two performed together in the band Donkey Island. When that band broke up, Stephens and Donovan  found their musical tastes aligned, and they now perform what she describes as “gothic 1930s dark swing” under the moniker Cara Van Thorn.

“We didn’t start out with that name. We were struggling to come up with something that we felt embodied our music, and a friend suggested Caravan, also a combination of our names,” she says. But they soon discovered that name had already been widely used. “So at a recent listening party, a new idea came up – expand on the original name, but with a flair that better conveys our genre. Cara Van Thorn was the ultimate favorite.”

The two started with a simple goal of creating music they like. Stephens says they rarely start a song with a specific genre in mind.

“Usually what comes out in the end has a gothic tinge, in the form of dark themes, often with a swing or jazz feel,” she says. “It’s been described as appropriate for a cabaret or burlesque performance, which is how we came up with our own genre: neo-gothic barrelhouse.”

Making music is almost like having another full-time job, Stephens says.

“Music is 30% making music, 70% trying to get people to listen to it,” she says. “There’s a lot of thought and planning and organization that goes into it, so it’s easy to get brain-fried after working all day, then playing, creating, marketing and so on every night.”

Stephens says the Steve Hicks School has a glee club that sporadically performs for events such as retirements. But she says it’s a rarity to have her performing career intersect with others she knows at UT.

“I remember once going to see a show, and an acquaintance from another department was in it. It boggled my mind that I didn’t know we both ran in theater circles,” she says. “When you only interact with people on a professional level, it’s easy to forget they have so many other layers, and sometimes those layers align with yours. I wonder how many missed friendships there are at UT because in a place this big, it’s hard to find others with the same interests outside of work.”