MORE

Stand Up Girl

Steve Henrickson would be proud of his kid sister. If he could hear the stunningly evocative singer-songwriter she's become, he'd recognize that she's somehow overcome that dark day in September 1991 when he took his own life. He'd see that she's channeled all the heartache of her 26 years into her art, making music that moves people. And more than anything, he'd know that everything Angie Stevens is, is because of him.

When she was growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, Angie's life was far from idyllic. In fact, her life reads like a Larry Clark screenplay. Her parents split when she was five, and Angie -- the youngest of four -- was a latchkey kid. To support the family, her mom held down three jobs, leaving Angie more or less to raise herself. "I had a lot more freedom than a lot of people did," Angie admits today. "I was hanging out with older people by the time I was twelve. I was learning about things that I probably shouldn't have learned about, smoking pot and drinking."

And even when her mother was around, things weren't much better. Angie's father had quickly remarried, sending her mother into a downward spiral of alcoholism. "She'd be drunk a lot," remembers Angie. "She'd come home, pass out on the couch, lights would be on, guys would be there, clothes would be strung all over. I'd have to make sure she got to bed and tell the guys to go home. It was just something where I was constantly taking care of her. The cops brought her home one time in just her nylons."

And then, when he was sixteen, Angie's brother Steve was injured in a motorcycle accident. Paralyzed in one leg, he was confined to a wheelchair. A few years later, he suffered third-degree burns on his other leg when he tried to test the bath water at a local hotel. "He sued the company and became a millionaire," Angie says. "With his money, he bought pot, guitars, and he would sit and write and sing. He was never in a band, but he was a huge music lover. He was so depressed because he was in a wheelchair that he felt like he could never do anything because of that."

He could be a big brother, though. Steve would reach out to Angie and her best friend, Gina Reynolds, inviting them over to watch movies and paying them to clean his house. But Steve's depression eventually overcame him, and he overdosed on morphine prescribed for pain connected to his paralysis. Angie vividly remembers the moment she found out he was gone.

"I came home from basketball practice," she recounts, "walked in the door and saw my mom. She was on the phone, screaming, wasted. I looked at the mirror and there was all these pictures and something written in lipstick, but I couldn't really read it. I was so frazzled; I knew something was going on. My mom grabbed me. I said, 'What's wrong? What's going on?' She hung up the phone and took me over and turned up 'Like a Rock' on the stereo and started dancing with me, with tears in her eyes. I said, 'Mom, what's wrong? Is it Dad?' She said, 'No, it's Steve.' I just collapsed, then got up and got on my bike and went to Gina's."

That chilling scene is memorialized on "Skyline Drive," one of three poignant cuts from Angie's two exceptional new discs, Stand Up Girl 1 & 2, that deal with Steve's death. Angie was just eleven when he killed himself, and she was devastated. He'd been more than just a brother; he'd been the one bright spot in a dark life filled with turmoil. The loss was profound, but it took some time for it to sink in.

"Since I had been spending so much time taking care of my mom," Angie says, "I didn't really have any time to deal with it. When I was older, it really started to hit me."

A year after Steve died, Angie and her mother packed up and moved to Fargo, North Dakota. But the change of scenery didn't cure Angie's mom, and officials there intervened, sending her to rehab for a month while Angie was placed in foster care.

"There was talk about sending me back to my dad's," Angie remembers. "I had the option of either going back to my dad's or staying and going to a foster home. I wanted to stay, because I wanted to be with my mom. Even through all the bullshit, I was very close to her, and I felt like I needed to take care of her." She also felt alienated from her father, who'd become extremely religious.

But then a friend's parents overheard Angie talking about killing herself, and she wound up hospitalized. "When you've lived a really terrible life," she notes, "and bad things keep happening to you, you start to feel like it's because of me -- it's like, 'Poor me, poor me. What's the point of living?'"

Although she was only in the hospital for seven days, the time away helped Angie put things in perspective. "When I got out, I realized there was so many other people who had gone through stuff like that," she says.

Misery loves company. Shortly after she was discharged, Angie became smitten with Mark Unverzagt, an equally troubled soul five years her senior. Several months after they started seeing each other, it became clear he had unchecked angst of his own.

"He started saying things to me like, 'One day you're going to wake up and I'm not going to be there,'" Angie recalls. "I caught him with slashes all over his wrists and told him that I couldn't handle it, that I couldn't even handle him talking about it, that if he died, I would die. I thought that would help him. Then he broke up with me. He said, 'I can't be with you.' I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'I can't tell you, but I just can't be with you.' He went out and wrecked his car that night, slashed everything inside, and a week later, he killed himself."

Angie was just fourteen. To sort through her emotions, she began looking inward.

"I was in a creative-writing class, and the teacher told me to write a story," she remembers. "So I sat down and wrote the story about the day when I found out that Mark died. And she read it in front of the whole class. She was like, 'Angie, you have something inside of you that you really need to get out.'"

Soon she was doing just that. When Angie turned sixteen, her mom got Steve's old Stratocaster out of storage and gave it to her. She wasted no time teaching herself how to play. By the time she left for college in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Angie had mastered enough songs to start performing. At school, she played out more than she studied, and after a year and a half of college, she dropped out and headed west. She'd planned to accompany her producer/boyfriend to California, but never made it that far. Like many lost souls before her, Angie found herself in Colorado.

"I think that since I've come to Denver, I've grown up a lot," Angie says. "I became a mom and could reflect on everything and not be so attached to it. And I realized that music is about that expression. Right now, I'm still in that reflective stage. Both records that I'm putting out are totally reflective of my childhood, because I'm at the point where I can write about it."

Now, nearly six years after she started performing on open stages at the Mercury Cafe, and three years after assembling a band with Evan Beatty and Damon Scott, Angie Stevens is ready for her close-up. Her material is unflinchingly candid, bolstered by a gorgeous, lilting voice that recalls Sam Phillips at her most effervescent and Leigh Nash at her most delicate. And live, her riveting performances are as gut-wrenching for the audience as they are cathartic for her.

When Angie's singing about her mom on such songs as "Judy," from Stand Up Girl 1, she moves listeners with lines like these: "With her lips numb from the bottle/Her hands stained from the pills/We watched her fall to her knees/The day her only son died/Then we picked up her pieces/We held her and we cried." On "Picture," from Stand Up Girl 2, she recounts a time when her mom was beaten bloody by an ex-boyfriend ("I can picture the blood/That dripped from the phone/As she hid in the bathroom/Scared he was still home/I can still hear the siren/As they took her away/I can still see the look/On the neighbor's face"), and the emotion she conjures is palpable.

"I feel very vulnerable," Angie confesses. "It's my soul being bared. It's me. It's everything I'm about. So every time I sing, I go through that roller-coaster ride. And I think I need to. If I'm not feeling it, then I shouldn't be playing it."

On more than one occasion, she's had teary-eyed fans approach her to share their own harrowing experiences. "That's the big picture," Angie says. "Everybody's going through shit. If I didn't sing about it, I'd just end up dwelling on it. I've had girls break down, you know, after shows and cry and tell me their stories. They feel like they can reach out to me. They're like, 'Thank God. I have never said anything to anybody, but I've been going through the same thing. And when you sang, it finally came out, and I'm dealing with it.' I think that's the whole point."

Still, some members of her family have had a tough time dealing with her music. "It was hard for Mom," Angie admits, "but it was harder for my dad, because he wasn't there. As soon as I played 'Judy' for him the first time, right afterward he got up and left."

And how does Angie think Steve would react?

"I'm doing exactly what he dreamed of doing," she concludes. "I think he is so proud."